Film photographer and conservator Lydia Lutz's archival work, Found Archives: Life in USSR Ukraine is both highly technical and deeply personal. The project, which has now turned into a massive archival work for Lydia and changed her perspective of photography, started when she bought a mystery box of negatives from a online.
In this interview Lydia tells us more about the special project and what cultural heritage preservation means in times of conflict.
Hi, Lydia. Please tell us about Found Archives: Life in USSR Ukraine?
In January 2023, I purchased a mystery box of negatives online from a man in Ukraine and was surprised to find an unknown family’s vast photographic collection inside. As I watched the family grow and age with each envelope of negatives scanned, I became invested in uncovering more of their story.
From family portraits to political marches, this archive has a wide range of truly magnificent images. Found Archives: Life in USSR Ukraine was recently exhibited in the 2023 Photo|Frome Festival of Photography and has caught the attention of other photographic societies, international exhibitions, and PhD programmes.
The photographs in this series are only a handful of over three hundred scanned, out of an estimated four thousand negatives in the collection. It is a massive archival project that I will most likely be spending the next few years working on!
My archival process derives from countless hours of training and working as a conservator of photographic materials and photographic archive research specialist. It includes specialized methods for identifying film-bases, targeted treatments for certain bases and degradation types, cleaning, rehousing, storage, digitizing, cataloguing, and documentation.
Some highlights of the archival work for this project include translating each hand-written envelope of negatives, going through notebooks of film types, their developing processes, and notes, translating any information that can be found in the backgrounds of images, and looking at the camera and darkroom equipment the family had.
How has current situations in Ukraine affected the way you approached this project? Likewise, being exposed to another family’s history through photos, has the project also affected you or the way you view photography in any way?
As soon as I received the box of negatives and started going through them, I realized that the historic and intrinsic value of this collection was too great to just be a personal digitization project. In times of conflict, there is always a scramble to preserve and protect cultural heritage, and I felt called to care for, catalogue, store, and increase access to this collection to the best of my ability as a conservator.
Several of the images evoked strong reactions due to their recognizable locations and recent news coverage. Notably photographed is Sviatohirsk, a 17th-century monastery settlement, later secularized, that the unknown family often frequented. In 2022, the historic monastery sheltered hundreds of local civilians during the Battle of Sviatohirsk and narrowly escaped Russian air strikes, aimed at destroying Ukraine’s culturally significant heritage sites.
With each envelope of negatives scanned, I watched the family grow and age, and I became invested in uncovering more of their story. I had a feeling of endless curiosity similar to my experience with digitizing my family’s archive. While working on several extensive archives as a photographic conservator, including personal projects, I frequently ask myself: Who are our personal archives valuable to? When do our archives become essential historical and cultural artefacts?
This project has greatly affected me and the way I view photography. I have been investigating the idea/hope that if someday our work was ever found, someone else would care about and take care of our photographs, memories, and archives in a meaningful way.
It has made me better at caring for my photographic work, notating everything with dates, names, locations, etc. so that it is more organized and has the potential to be better understood by others. Working on this project has also validated the path I chose in conservation and heritage sector work a million times over, and contributes to my drive and dedication to preserving cultural heritage. I hope to one day reunite this collection with the unknown family.
Photographic archives are powerful instruments for shaping collective memory, cultural identity, social thought, and experience. Because of the photograph’s power to evoke, they are not a passive collection of dusty old photos organized in drawers but active agents of social change.
Through this collection, I am interested in demonstrating how an individual family created a witness and contributed to the history of life in USSR Ukraine.
How did your interest in conservation start and what keeps you interested in it?
In 2019 I inherited several boxes of antique camera equipment and loose negatives from a relative. Similar to the Ukrainian collection I’m working on, it turned out to be thousands of family photos! Over the next couple of years, I read a lot about archival care and storage and spent my free time scanning, organizing, and re-housing most of the negatives.
When I moved to the UK, I was initially in a curatorial programme where I focused my research on Soviet photographic archives and archives as contemporary art. My research led me to change to a Heritage Management programme where I, for the first time in my education, chose to move away from an arts-practice-based method to more intense academic/technical work and research.
At this point, I had no idea that I could do what I loved, taking care of photographic collections, as an actual job until our placement coordinator said she found a perfect internship for me that was heritage and photography related. My internship with the Singer Glass Plate Negative Collection is where I learned about the conservation field and it opened my future to incredible opportunities!
Aside from my proclivity towards detailed, tactile technical work, I think my endless curiosity and drive to uncover hidden stories and information will forever satisfy. Each photograph is packed with information and I find it exciting to investigate by using cars and clothing styles to estimate the year (if unknown), identifying objects in the background like cameras and darkroom equipment, and translating signs.
What's the hardest part of archival work for you?
I think the hardest part about archival work for me is time! I wish I could dedicate 100 percent of my time to conservation and archival work. As a person in their mid-20s just breaking into the heritage sector, I have to piece together multiple arts, creative, and heritage jobs to get by and often have to prioritize paid roles even if they’re not exactly in my area of expertise.
When I feel down or anxious about this, I have been working on being more compassionate and patient towards myself and quelling the negative thoughts that say I should be further along and am running out of time etc. I try to regularly remind myself of the situation: that I am just starting this journey, I am doing so in a new country which is understandably challenging at times, and that I’ve got plenty of time to grow, experiment, and learn.
I’ve taken a brief pause on taking this project further to focus on work, but I find myself constantly thinking that I wish I was at home scanning more negatives! I’m hoping to soon find grant opportunities to fund any future conservation work which will enable me to dedicate more time to the project. Until then, I am happy to showcase the 300 images I’ve scanned so far in different types of exhibitions and articles to increase access to this incredible historic record!
Aside from the photo of Sviatohirsk, were there any other photos that made an impact or impression on you?
The photographs of political marches were a stand out while I was scanning. After finding a group of these images, I paused to look closer at the symbolism on signs and posters, translated any banners, and identified the figures in portraits. The photo of two boys standing in front of a decorated/covered military vehicle I found to be one of the most dynamic images in the entire collection.
I imagine being deeply invested in this project could lead you to become attached to the anonymous family in a certain way, and you mentioned hoping to reunite the collection with the unknown family. Did you think of looking for any existing members or relatives while doing the archival work?
I received the Ukrainian collection in a very similar manner to my family’s collection: in a cardboard box and a complete mystery as to what’s inside. Except a majority of the Ukrainian collection is organized in hand-notated envelopes and my family’s was mostly loose negatives in a box! Both collections are about 3,000-4,000 negatives with additional materials such as newspaper clippings, letters, and notebooks. This created an instant connection and sparked my curiosity!
With my family’s archive, I learned so much about my relatives and uncovered many captivating stories about their origins, lives, and relationships that I would otherwise have never known. This made me excited to get to work on the next project and see what I could uncover. Laying the collection out and searching for any identifying information was my first step.
I have found occasional first names and locations but unfortunately, not enough information to help me identify the family yet. As previously mentioned, one of my main goals for this collection is increasing access to it in hopes that the family will find it. I know how important my family’s archive is to me, and if it was ever lost, I would hope there was someone out there who would take an interest, care for it, and keep it safe until it could be returned.
Being immersed in the conservation field yourself, do you think there's enough interest in conserving old photographs, or is it something that you wish more people interested in film photography would also take an interest in?
Many incredible conservators work on photographs, a majority come from book and paper conservation backgrounds! To specialize specifically in photographic materials is a bit more niche, but I think it is an essential role/department that is not always present in galleries, museums, archives, and other heritage organizations.
My wish is that there would be more support and substantial funding for students seeking conservation careers, as further education is not financially accessible to most. This can halt the path of passionate future conservators from developing their skills in the formal education settings that are required by most jobs. Life-long learning and development opportunities should be accessible to all, especially to those whose paths contribute to the preservation of cultural heritage.
Conservation, and the heritage sector in general, is a competitive but rewarding field. It requires a lot of in-depth technical training from specialists including lab work and rigorous health and safety measures.
I would highly recommend it to those who are dedicated to museology, history, and cultural heritage studies who enjoy tactile work and who have an interest in working in the heritage sector. I think being an analogue photographer gives me a unique perspective in this field and contributes to my quality of care and understanding of the history of photography.
We'd like to thank Lydia for sharing her work and insights with us! To view more of her work, follow her on Instagram.