Jean-Louis Bigourdan of the Image Permanence Institute

Jean-Louis Bigourdan of the Image Permanence Institute (IPI)
Jean-Louis Bigourdan of the Image Permanence Institute (IPI)

Like a newly donated film, there is much more to Jean-Louis Bigourdan than initially meets the eye.  On the surface, Jean-Louis lives a pastoral life –he lives on a farm complete with sheep and horses.  However, after interviewing him and hearing about his work at the Image Permanence Institute (IPI) in New York, it became clear that Jean-Louis also has a mind for science and art.  Jean Louis’ official title is research scientist, but his job requires a bit more clarification.  He explained,

My primary job is to conduct applied research focusing on providing new preservation strategies for cultural materials, mostly information-recording media such as films, microfilms, photographs, magnetic tapes… This includes identifying a problem, designing a research project to address the problem, developing a proposal and applying for funding, conducting the research, and disseminating findings by providing preservation strategies to museums, archives, and libraries.

Since I started at IPI I was fortunate enough to be able to go from one project to the next, and often dealt with several at the same time. What I do is a mix between conducting experiments, field surveys, data analysis, and providing education. For a number of years, I have also provided guidance to interns who come to IPI through the AMIA and Selznick School of Film Preservation; these internships are designed to provide insights into preservation research; I personally learn a lot from the interns and hope they learn a lot during their stay. All of them have contributed in various ways to the work we do at IPI.

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Jean-Louis has a background in chemistry and photography and has also studied the conservation of photographic materials.  His interest in film preservation began when he took a weeklong workshop on film preservation from Anne Cartier-Bresson.  He feels this broad and varied background has been quite beneficial in his current work, noting that,

I didn’t realize it at first, but in fact, the different parts fit well together to support my current activity. Chemistry, team work in the corporate world, studies in photography, museums and archives experience, studies in conservation and preservation of photographic materials, and the last twenty years or so working at IPI help a great deal to do what I do.

Because of Jean Louis’ extensive work with film, I was particularly interested in his thoughts on the end of film production.  Jean Louis feels that the end of film production makes film preservation all that more vital.  He explained,

[The end of film production] doesn’t mean that film preservation is dead, on the contrary. Film-based collections are numerous, and most importantly are irreplaceable. Today, preserving original film materials is even more critical for a couple of reasons. First, there is so much knowledge recorded on photographic film that reformatting most of it is daunting at least, and most likely an impossible task. Second, in many situations, viewing the original materials will still be the only way to appreciate the material. So, in both situations it is, and will be, an important task to make sure that these original objects survive as long as possible. To contrast that idea, I would say that most have no problem with the strategy, which consists in reformatting magnetic media as a preservation strategy. The old idea of preserving/restoring film using film media will have to be entirely abandoned at some point. People watch movies today in so many formats and venues. But many film collections will still be around if kept properly.

Jean Louis also emphasized the importance of film preservation in the specific context of his work and the work of the IPI.  When asked if he felt that his job might change with the end of film production, Jean Louis responded,

Not really, because as I said above, it is even more important today to do the best we can to preserve film materials, and movies in particular, in their original formats. Regarding film preservation today, my role, and IPI’s role is to make sure that what we have learned during twenty years of research is used, i.e., applied in the field in one form or another. In other words, I don’t think that we have to spend more money on research per se, but rather make a special effort to communicate and develop new tools. That is the idea behind the project I am working on right now. IPI receives funding from NEH to develop a web-based tool for film preservation: www.filmcare.org will be an educational but also a film preservation management tool.

After hearing about Jean Louis’ fascinating work at the Image Permanence Institute and his confidence in the necessity of the continuation of innovative work in film preservation, it would be difficult not to want to get involved.  It is fitting, then, to end with Jean Louis’ excellent advice for aspiring film archivists:

As I say often, preserving film is not only about film. Film archivists are responsible for many other materials, i.e., posters, publications, letters, scripts, stills, DVD, tapes… so the more you learn about other media and how to care for them, the better film archivists you will be.

~Colleen Martin