Interview with James Reilly

James Reilly is IPI’s founder and director, known and admired in the field of preservation for his extensive knowledge of image preservation, environmental management, and sustainable preservation practices. He is a respected researcher, teacher, consultant, author and international man of mystery.

James ReillyName:  
James Reilly
Quick Overview:
I have been at RIT full time since 1980. Prior to the formation of IPI in 1985, I was Director of the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) Photographic Preservation Laboratory. Way back in the day, I worked as graphic arts technician in several different offset lithography print shops.

Where were you born?
In Easton, Pennsylvania, which is on the Delaware River, bordering New Jersey.

What was your professional training?
I have a Bachelor and a Master’s degree in English Literature, plus what I learned on the job working in print shops.

What was your very first job?
I worked a summer job in high school at Industrial Engraving Company, where I prepared line copy and photographs for reproduction in printed journals.

What would your dream job be?
Without a doubt, directing the Image Permanence Institute. I work with great people, go to wonderful places and have the freedom to be creative.

How did your partnership with IPI begin?
In 1978, a Professor of Photography at RIT named Elliot Rubenstein met me and learned of my interest in 19th century photography and in the infant field of photograph preservation. He recommended me to Dr. Russell Kraus, the then-new Director of the School of Photographic Arts and Sciences at RIT. Dr. Kraus offered me a part-time job researching the causes of deterioration of albumen prints (salary $1500 / year!). After two years I was able to become full time thanks to grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

In 1985 IPI was formed through a partnership of RIT and the Society for Imaging Science and Technology, with funding of $400,000 provided by the imaging industry. This funding was largely due to the efforts of Kodak Executive Allie C. Peed, Jr. and Dr. Thomas Iten, Director of the photography school at RIT, who will always have my gratitude for naming me as IPI’s first (and so far, only) Director.

Why does the preservation of museum and library collections matter to you?
Because I have always loved photography since my father built a darkroom in our house when I was about 10 years old. Though I was never very good at picture-taking, photography had it all for me—it was fun, full of mysterious technical challenges, and a gateway to history. It led me to the broader field of preservation, which opened the door to the whole world of beautiful things and people who care about them. Like most folks who choose preservation and conservation as a career, I like being around cultural heritage and I like to feel that my work is making a difference in its continued survival.

What is your favorite work of art or your favorite artist?
I still love photographs above all, but lately I have developed a passion for prints and drawings. My idea of a great time? Spending the day at the print room of the British Museum or the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, two things I have been lucky enough to do in the last year or so.

What other hobbies or significant interests do you have?
I am an audiophile (or pretend to be) and I have a collection of 5,000 LP records. As an ancillary, I am an insatiable visitor to antique shops and garage sales.

What book or books would you like to have with you if you were marooned on a desert island?
All the good, uplifting ones I never read because when I’m on airplanes I tend to read paperbacks bought at the airport.

What is your most treasured possession?
I don’t have one ‘most treasured’ possession, but the love of my wife and family is the thing that matters most to me in my life. I also kind of like my 1980’s Cartier watch.

What is your greatest indulgence?
The unsurprising ones like good chocolate, fine wine, and an occasional cigar—take your pick.

What is the most surprising thing to you about IPI?
That a guy who never had a job for more than a year and a half at a time could spend thirty successful years with great people, enjoying almost every minute of it, and feel like he genuinely made a difference.