“We’re rare as hen’s teeth,” says Peter Mustardo, referring to himself and his fellow photo conservators. Mustardo, a proselytizer for the often-overlooked field, founded The Better Image in 1991 with Nora Kennedy, the Sherman Fairchild Conservator in Charge of Photograph Conservation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The company now has three offices: one in Milford, NJ; one in New York City; and a recently opened office in Berkeley, CA. “We’ve been involved in the field since the late ‘70s,” he says, “but there are not a lot of other people doing what we do.”
A native of the photo-centric city of Rochester, N.Y., Mustardo got into the field, he says, “long ago, through a door no longer open.” He had returned from a tour of Europe with a degree in French and stopped at the George Eastman House looking for a caretaking position. Fortuitously, Grant Romer answered the door. There weren’t any caretaking positions, but there was a box of French material, including daguerreotypes and related ephemera that needed to be translated. Mustardo stepped up, and when Romer eventually became the photo conservator at the Eastman House, Mustardo became his assistant.
After stints at New York City’s Municipal Archives and the National Archives in Washington, D.C., Mustardo opened a private practice, which eventually led to him and Nora Kennedy founding The Better Image. “At the beginning, we took everything that came our way, including family photos, which are priceless in one way and worthless in another,” he says, adding, “Our strength lies in communicating with our clients about expectations, and we work with everything from multi-million-dollar single prints to a photo that’s been in somebody’s wallet for 25 years.”
The company received a lot of material that was damaged in Hurricane Sandy; three years later, they’re just finishing with it. “We had a lot of interesting projects and discussions about what brackish salty water does in combination with silver-gelatin emulsion,” he says.
There are only three graduate programs in photo conservation in the country – the University of Delaware Art Conservation Program, NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts’ Conservation Center, and SUNY Buffalo – and Mustardo makes a point of hiring and nurturing those students. “We’ve had a lovely run of third-year interns,” he says, who have gone on to such places as the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Museum of Modern Art. The position entails expertise in studio art, chemistry, and scientific analysis, among other subjects, and The Better Image is a good boot camp for interns, because they see everything from daguerreotypes to contemporary processes.
Mustardo and his staff often learn by conducting what they call autopsies, taking a rejected print donated by an artist or a work beyond repair given by an insurance company and cutting it into quarters or sixteenths to practice polishing scratches or repairing gouges. Making the jump to a live piece of art, he says, is another matter. “Conservation interventions are a high-wire act,” he says. “After 30 years our hearts are still in our throats when we touch the surface of a fine art print. It’s not for the faint of heart.