Inside the Collection

Faded glory or historically charming?

Woman dressed in one piece, love sleeve swimming costume on beach with two tall tents
Photo by Bruno Benini, scan by Nitsa Yioupros © Estate of Bruno Benini

The assigned value and significance of objects is in a state of perpetual flux. Evolving digital technologies (like the potential to create high resolution scans from original negative and positive formats and distribute these over the web) contributes to, engages with and draws attention to this constant process of change.

Recently, the Powerhouse Museum acquired the fashion photography archive of Bruno Benini, an Italian-born Melbourne-based Australian fashion photographer (b. Italy 1925, migrated to Australia 1935, died Melbourne 2001). As Benini worked mainly for newsprint, the bulk of the images in the archive are black and white (prints, contacts sheets, proofs prints, negative film, etc). There are also substantial numbers of colour photographs (transparencies and prints, and colour pages from newspapers and magazines which show these images in print). Among these are numerous large format (4×5 inch) colour negatives including the 1960s image above of Janice Wakely modelling a Cole of California swimsuit which I’ve blogged about previously on Photo of the Day. In this digital version of the image, the transparency has been captured in its entirety as an authentic original object, providing evidence of its condition and format.

This work, like many other colour transparencies, has faded over time, as the dyes and emulsions used on photographic film wasn’t always stable. At what point might these images irretrievably decline in value and loose their significance?

Storing negatives and transparencies at low temperature, with no light and in a low humidity environment can slow the deterioration process sufficiently to ensure many years of future visual reference and viewing pleasure, but the deterioration process can only be decelerated, it is non-reversible. Although today’s computer editing software can manually colour correct fading digitally, by adding and reinstating missing colours or reducing the amount of the remaining colours (as we see in the colour corrected and digitally enhanced image of Benini colour transparency below), when is a digital reproduction most meaningful? In it’s authentic state above, or when enhanced as seen below?

Woman dressed in one piece, love sleeve swimming costume on beach with two tall tents
Colour transparency, colour corrected and digitally enhanced. © Estate of Bruno Benini

In 2007, the team that was developing the Fashion from Fleece: 200 Years of Wool in Fashion exhibition, visited the basement stores to view Australian Wool Board images in the Henry Talbot fashion photography archive. From a curatorial and collection perspective, we were initially disappointed and concerned that the selected images had, on close inspection, faded. However, somewhat to my relief and surprise, I discovered during this inspection that photographers and creative directors don’t necessarily view this deterioration with trepidation or as something detrimental. They see it as something that happens over time, and that it can be viewed as visually arresting and historically charming. When viewing the faded Talbot transparencies, the Creative Director Chris Dent, had no qualm or compunction about planning to use the images in his design layout. He felt the fading was something he could work with to communicate a fresh ‘historical’ perspective … graphically. In this context, fading was seen to provide a sense of history.

I was interested to see this view expressed again earlier this year when we were developing the Creating the look: Benini and fashion photography exhibition. In an interview with photographer Juli Balla (whose work features as one of four contemporary case studies in the exhibition), she too expressed a view that the faded glory of colour transparencies provided her with inspiration and a special hook, or tool, for revisiting and ‘re-visualising’ the 1960s look in her photographs for Grazia Italia’s Bridget Bardot Story (2010).

One of my favourite pictures of Benini’s is this one with the cute little tents on the beach. I love the colours. Recently I did an assignment for ‘Grazia’ magazine, Italy. It was about Brigitte Bardot and it was styled as if Brigitte Bardot would have worn it in the 60s. I used a colour treatment on the pictures which really looks quite like this image of Bruno’s. It’s not something he [Benini] did on purpose. It is just a technique which happens to the transparencies over time, but it is so beautiful. It suits this [Bardot] story to a ‘T’.

Interview with Juli Balla, June 2010

Woman styled in a 1960s look sitting on seat against stone wall in white bikini with handbag
Juli Balla for Bridget Bardot Story, Grazia Italia, 2010. Fashion: Dolce Gabbana; Model: Millicent; Hair: Michael Brennan; Makeup: Rae Morris; Styling: Tamara Gianoglio. © Juli Balla
1960's styled woman leaning against potted cactus in a sun room
Juli Balla for Bridget Bardot Story, Grazia Italia, 2010. Fashion: Dolce Gabbana; Model: Millicent; Hair: Michael Brennan; Makeup: Rae Morris; Styling: Tamara Gianoglio. © Juli Balla

When she was creating these photographs for the Bridget Bardot Story, Balla wasn’t familiar with Benini’s tent image, but she had obviously seen and been inspired by similar images. When asked to comment on Benini’s work for the Creating the look exhibition video, she was naturally drawn to this particular image in the context of her own work.

I now also recall an earlier experience that I had with faded images when the Museum was developing the Henry Talbot fashion photography archive and collection. Looking to acquire Talbot’s image of the model Penny Pardey with the scooter, rather than acquiring the vintage print, we chose a more recent Cibachrome print, as the vintage print had faded so much that it was considered un-useful and useable.

Woman wearing bright red 1960's dress leaning against a white vespa scooter in front of a tall double wooden doors
Photo by Henry Talbot, 1967. © Estate of Henry Talbot

The vintage print showed Pierre Cardin’s vibrant hot pink mini-dress (seen beautifully on the original, then un-faded, colour transparency) as pale orange because the print had been over exposed to light. In hindsight, should we also have acquired the faded print for its historical appeal and significance? Maybe not. There’s probably a limit to how long photographic image fading can remain historically significant, interesting or appealing.

Please feel free to comment and share your expertise and experience of working with, or being inspired, by faded colour transparencies. Also please feel free to post and comment about different approaches to digitally scanning original negatives and transparencies eg retaining the borders, keeping the fading, leave all evidence of damage – or enhancing original materials. I’m sure readers would like to hear your views on these topics, and see examples – for example where you too were inspired by the faded charm of historical colour transparencies. If you would like to see more Benini and Balla images, please visit the Creating the look: Benini and fashion photography exhibition (August 2010 – April 2011).

Anne-Marie Van de Ven, Curator

Denis Nikitenko, Michael Wirth & Kataline Trudel, Applicability Of White-Balancing Algorithms to Restoring Faded Colour Slides: An Empirical Evaluation, JOURNAL OF MULTIMEDIA, VOL. 3, NO. 5, DECEMBER 2008 (Accessed 2 December 2010)

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