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“5,000 Negatives”

Safeguarding the Wulz sisters’ legacy at FAF

Interview by Linda Falcone



Portrait of Wanda Wulz at the mirror (c. 1950), photo by Marion Wulz  © Archivi Alinari, Florence



Like many women artists of centuries past, the Wulz sisters, Wanda (1903-1984) and Marion (1905-1993), followed in their grandfather and fathers’ footsteps (photographers Giuseppe and Carlo Wulz, respectively). Both girls showed precocious talent behind the camera lens, at a time when photography was still largely considered a craft, not an art form in its own right. Often represented as twins, Wanda and Marion were Carlo’s models from the cradle onwards. When his photo-ready babies grew into intriguing young women, Wanda and Marion became two of Carlo’s Three Graces. To say the sisters were photogenic is an understatement. In their household, photography was a game, a constant switching of costumes and scenes, and they had several ‘life-changing’ opportunities to stand behind the camera rather than in front of it. 


Wanda is celebrated as a top exponent of futurist photography, for her experimental flair and daring overlays [like the ultra-famous Cat and I]. Marion, who has become a centre of attention only recently, was interested in photo reportage, capturing historic WWII liberation scenes from the window of the Wulzs’ flat, in the manner of Elizabeth Browning and Casa Guidi Windows. Although Marion produced photography rather than poetry, her historical images were poetic, in their own way. When the sisters took over the family’s successful photography studio in Trieste in 1928, they continued the family’s portraiture business, adding to an exceptional archive that features top figures of their day, from celebrity athletes and entertainers, to nobility and top exponents of fashion and culture. 


October 2023 marked the start of a new collaborative project called ‘5,000 Negatives’, aimed at safeguarding the sisters’ legacy, through the creation of an inventory and the restoration, digitalisation and improved archive accessibility of the Wulz Photographic Studio Archive of Trieste, a treasure trove of negatives, prints and archival documentation acquired by Fondazione Alinari per la Fotografia (FAF) in 1986. This project, developed by FAF, is made possible thanks to a grant from Fondazione CR Firenze and Calliope Arts Foundation.



Trieste: Yugoslavian tank with some partisans in Via Dante (2 May 1945), photo by Marion Wulz © Archivi Alinari, Florence



In a recent interview, FAF Director Claudia Baroncini shares the project’s raison d’être. “Photographic archives need to be digitised, in order to preserve captured images, which are extremely fragile. We need to remember that images can actually disappear. They can vanish! Our ambition is to preserve them forever. On another level, digitalisation is important because it allows for accessibility. Let’s face it, negatives are not immediately understandable. They are not readable the way prints are. So on the one hand, digitalisation allows us to faithfully reproduce an object – in this case ‘a negative’ – using technology. But enjoyment is also a critical factor when it comes to preserving culture. Therefore, during the digitalisation process, we transform the negative into its positive image – otherwise, all you would see of the collection are ‘little black stamps’. Cultural preservation is not just about preserving an object, it involves making that object available to the public – and not just to a circle of specialists. This transferral respects and reflects the negatives’ original use. Historically, the purpose of a negative was to be printed in the positive. Analysis and sharing of the positives we acquire is phase two of this project.”

 

Coincidently, an all-woman team is involved in this multi-faceted endeavour and Restoration Conversations had the opportunity to talk with two of its players, in addition to Dr Baroncini. For several months, Pamela Ferrari, head of digital acquisitions at the Florence-based company Centrica, set up ‘shop’ at Art Defender, a vast, high-security art vault in Calenzano, where a plethora of Florence museums and institutions, including FAF, hold their most precious in-storage works.  Ferrari describes her work in lay terms, “We created a photographic set up on site, fitted with a 100-megapixel camera to acquire 5,200 Wulz negatives, through retro-illumination using a lit panel.”

 

Right. The reasoning behind the project and the basics of its execution sounded simple enough so far.  We were ready to speak with photography restorer Eugenia Di Rocco, and zero in on what she and the ‘5,000 negatives’ team have learned about the Wulz’s process.

 

We know the Wulz sisters – particularly Wanda – frequently manipulated negatives to achieve ‘futuristic effects’ like movement, or used overlay with very successful results. Were the Wulzs pioneers as far as image editing is concerned? 



Wanda and Marion Wulz pictured with a friend while leafing through a book (c. 1920), photo by Carlo Wulz © Archivi Alinari, Florence


Eugenia di Rocco: The Wulz sisters worked largely with portraiture and heavily modified their photographs in the post-production phase. They were not the only photographers to do so, of course. For the whole of the 1900’s, prior to the advent of digital equipment, dry-plate negatives were altered by adding varnishes, temperas and graphite. The Wulzs would add or subtract elements to and from their images, applying cut-out silhouettes in black or red paper to areas they wanted to cover. They would also ‘make up’ their sitters, so to speak, with a preparatory varnish, using either a greasy coloured impasto or a transparent solution. They would improve people’s skin, in tone and smoothness, by using these colouring agents, which addressed the negatives’ colour contrasts. Another option was for them to use a yellow, red or orange filter, on the negatives’ glass side. The sisters often marked up their negatives with a soft pencil – to cancel out wrinkles, improve a person’s profile, or eliminate puffy cheeks, baggy eyes or a double chin. Today, we use Photoshop digitally, but they did their work in the dark room. All of this intervention aimed to improve the ‘positive’ and make their clients happy.

 

Could you describe what the negatives look like and tell us more about the kinds of materials the Wulz sisters used?


EDR: In this restoration, we had to be very careful. To the non-expert eye, the patina on the Wulzs’ negatives could be confused with a dirt layer. Again, through analysis, we learned how they developed a masking system for purposes of contrast, on the glass support side. Most of the collection’s objects are dry-plate negatives, which differ from an earlier technique, namely the collodion wet-plate process. With dry-plate negatives image is created using gelatine and silver salts on glass. Dry-plate negatives are larger than film negatives, which came later. They are typically postcard size, and the Wulz sisters used three sizes [9 x 12 cm, 10 x 15 cm and 13 x 18]. These plates were industrially produced and sold in standard dimensions. The technique’s heyday was from 1880 to 1950, but it continued to be used until the 1970’s. Despite being heavy, inconvenient and fragile, photographers were slow to give up the dry-plate technique because of the high quality images it rendered.

 

Can you tell us about the restoration process? How do the Wulzs’ materials affect your work today?

EDR: I restored the collection’s broken negatives by reassembling their glass plates, worked on those that were bent – to correct image distortion – and revisited negatives that had been poorly restored in the past. Fortunately, the Wulz Archive is in good condition, so most of my work involved cleaning. Because of their patinas, it was mostly a ‘dry clean’ using soft brushes, controlled air jets and microfiber cloth. All the products we use, including the paper in which the dry plates are packed and stored, have to be verified as being compatible with photographic materials. I have a degree in Mathematics and Physical Sciences, but my training is mostly chemical. Photographic restoration is largely a question of chemistry.

 

Why did you decide to become a photography conservator?

EDR: I have always been interested in photographic manipulation of the negative and in the manual skills involved. Despite its inherent science, this is a very emotional job, and I find it very exciting, independent of the importance attributed to a certain photographer. Pictures are a window onto the past, and whoever found themselves behind a camera lens was actually ‘there’, living that moment. That person’s presence can be felt, along with the image they are recording. I am very happy when I work. Of course, there are times when fear or doubt edges its way into my mind, but I have a team to turn to – from those in the dark room with me, to the experts working to acquire the image digitally, and even the scholars and administrators at Fondazione Alinari per la Fotografia. Photographs are dear to people. They encapsulate our affections and our history. They bear witness to our experiences, and all those factors are what make this project pure joy.


This article was originally published in Restorations Conversations magazine

Winter 2023, Issue 4

 


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