by Rich Kiley
Photos by A. Sue Weisler
While working at Gleason Works in Rochester, N.Y., in 1973, James Reilly would take lunch breaks at the nearby George Eastman Museum—holder of the world’s leading collection of photographic and cinematographic treasures.
Little did he know that years later he would form an institute that would serve as a preservation expert to the world.
Reilly, founder and director of RIT’s Image Permanence Institute (IPI)— recognized globally as one of the finest and best-equipped independent centers for testing imaging materials and for conducting preservation research— is retiring.
Over the past nearly four decades, he has become renowned and admired for his extensive knowledge of image preservation, environmental management and sustainable preservation practices.
Reilly recalled IPI’s humble beginning as the RIT Photographic Preservation Laboratory.
“In the late 1970s, there became this growing need to learn how to better care for older photographic materials,” said Reilly, a native of Easton, Pa.
Upon learning of Reilly’s strong interest in 19th-century photography and photograph preservation, Russell Kraus—then the director of RIT’s School of Photographic Arts and Sciences—offered him a part-time job researching the causes of deterioration of albumen prints. Two years later, research grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities enabled him to become full time.
IPI formed in 1985 through RIT’s partnership with the Society for Imaging Science and Technology. Reilly was named its founding director.
Over the years, IPI’s research has shifted from focusing on best practices for preserving imaging materials to virtually anything found in a museum, library or archives. And it has evolved into a leader in the development and dissemination of sustainable practices for preservation of images and cultural property.
“Much of our work has become devoted to giving institutions the technology and the tools they need to optimize their storage environments,” he said.
Those institutions have grown to more than a thousand, including the Library of Congress, the British Library, Ivy League universities and the Norwegian Armed Forces.
“Research is a collaborative enterprise,” said Reilly, who has grown IPI’s staff to 16. “My success is due to the quality of people who have worked with me.”
His honors have included a Technical Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Silver Light Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Association of Moving Image Archivists.
This year, the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works presented him with its President’s Award.
“IPI enjoys a worldwide reputation and this is largely credited to Jim and the team he has built over the years,” said Lorraine Justice, dean of CIAS. “IPI has been not only a great resource for the film industry but other organizations and companies needing to preserve images and collections. We hope to continue building his legacy in the future.”