Interview with Jean-Louis Bigourdan

IPI research scientist Jean-Louis Bigourdan (also known as Johnny-Lou and John Wee) has been a fixture at IPI since 1994. Professionally, he is known as an international expert on film preservation and practical strategies for managing film collections. He has studied the effect of enclosures and microenvironments on the stability of cellulose acetate photographic film, the effect of cycling environmental conditions on library and archives materials, and the preservation of magnetic tape collections.  Fascinated by almost everyone and everything, Jean-Louis is a natural storyteller who can entertain an audience with a detailed reenactment of a funny situation, a heartwarming memory of his family, or a primer on international politics.

Jean-Louis BigourdanName:
Jean-Louis Bigourdan

Current Title:
Research Scientist at IPI.

Where were you born?
I grew up in a small resort town in the Pyrenees Mountains in France called Bagneres de Luchon, but I was born 40 miles from there in Saint-Gaudens, where the closest hospital was.

What was your professional training?
I started by studying chemistry, worked in industry, studied photography, worked in museums in Germany, and finally studied conservation of photographic materials in Paris prior to coming to IPI.

What was your very first job?
If you are talking about when I got my first real paycheck, it was a summer job in a local bank. Earlier than that my first jobs were more like earning my keep at my grand-mother's farm and cleaning horse stalls at a stable in my home town.

What would your dream job be?
It has changed many times…right now working as a vet for large animals sounds great.

How did your partnership with IPI begin?
I met Jim Reilly when I was studying photo conservation in Paris. He taught a workshop there in 1991, and I have to say he came across like a very interesting person with a wide scope of knowledge; IPI’s work was already very unique in the world of media preservation at that time. In 1992, I came for a 3-month internship, and Jim asked me if I would be interested in a longer stay. I took the opportunity the year after and here I am almost 20 years later.

Why does the preservation of museum and library collections matter to you?
I was interested in photographs first. Early on, I remember re-organizing again and again the family photographs into one photo album, asking my dad who were these people, and when the pictures had been taken, then writing the information under each picture with my shaky hand-writing. These images were, and still are important to me. Later my grandmother gave me a camera for my first communion (a Kodak Instamatic 124 that I still have). So, instantly I became the family reporter. I still have all those square color pictures, which are now partly faded. From there I became an amateur photographer, led a photo club in high school, and my interest in photography never stopped growing for many years. In the early 1980s, I quit my job as a chemist to enter the National School of Photography in Arles, France: a new school with many new opportunities. It is there that I first glimpsed the wide range of photographic historic processes and was introduced to the challenges involved in preserving them. During a workshop taught by Anne Cartier-Bresson I got the bug and my interest in preservation grew from there. IPI of course made things even worse so to speak, since that’s what we do.

What is your favorite work of art or your favorite artist?
Cinema, the 7eme art, as we said in France, is my favorite. If I have to pick a few favorites, Amarcord (Fellini), Out of the Past (Tourneur), Lonely are the Brave (D. Miller), or more recently Fish Tank (A. Arnold), and earlier Les Enfants du Paradis/Children of Paradise (M. Carne) these films come immediately to my mind...

What other hobbies or significant interests do you have?
Maybe my favorite hobby is to be outside. Skiing, hiking, and climbing have always been in my list of things I love to do. However, I don’t have much time for that now. A little five-month old border collie changed that a few years ago. Now, I have a farm, raise sheep, train my dogs to herd, compete in dog trials, and more recently I rescued three horses with special needs (two are blind).

What book (or books) would you take with you to a desert island?
I would take the entire collection of Tony Hillerman. They are thrillers set in New Mexico on and around the Navajo reservation.

What is your most treasured possession?
My father's wedding ring.

What is your greatest indulgence?
Breakfast in bed every morning.

What was the most surprising thing to you about IPI?
It is like the universe is expanding!