We now return to Preservation Week!
Nothing is more evocative of a particular time, place, or person as a photograph. Yet, given their chemical composition, photographs can be rather delicate items and they need special consideration for their long-term preservation. All photographs are comprised of three basic layers: the bottom support (paper, glass, leather, etc.), a top binder (gelatin, albumen, etc.) and a sandwiched layer between containing the fixed image in suspension (this can be made of silver, platinum, organic dyes, etc.).
There are many different kinds of photographs and photo-mechanical processes used in the last 175 years to produce photo-static images. Ironically, this is one instance where new is not necessarily better — chromogenic photographs popularized by 1960 are among the least stable of photographic processes, due to the migration of organic dyes, rather than salts, to make them. For more information on the various kinds of photos go to the Graphics Atlas from the Image Permanence Institute.
Many of the most important things you can do to aid in the preservation of your personal photographs can be done at low, or even no, cost.
- Photographs are very sensitive to temperature and humidity fluctuations.
They are best stored out of basements or attics and away from pipes and windows. It is critical to keep photographs away from all water sources, including humid air. This is another reason not to frame important photographs directly against glass. High levels of moisture may cause the top level binder to get tacky, causing photographs to adhere to the glass frame.
- Photographs are enormously ultra-violet light sensitive.
Exposure to ultra-violet light expedites the degradation of photographs. As much as you may wish to hang an image of a loved member of your family, if the image is particularly important to you, you may wish to scan the original and hang the copy to enjoy. This will allow you to have a "convenience" copy available without harming the original image. This is particularly important if you no longer have the original negative from which to create another image.
- Photographs are easily affected and damaged by air pollutants and surface dirt.
Particles, even small ones, can easily scratch the surface of photographs, damaging the emulsion adhered to the support. Additionally, beyond darkening or staining the image, pollutants may also affect the chemical composition of an image, leading to discoloration or pigment migration. The easiest way to limit damage caused by pollutants and dirt is to keep photographs appropriately covered.
- Photographs, more than many other paper based archival materials, are easily damaged by handling.
This is one instance where we strongly recommend wearing cotton gloves to handle photographs and limit their handling to the edges of the item, only. Fingerprints can cause real chemical damage to the image, causing dyes to fade and deteriorate.
- Keep albums and scrapbooks together, whenever possible.
Generally speaking, don't disassemble albums, they are important as objects and provide a great deal of contextual information. One exception may be for failed adhesive on magnetic albums, however. If you find yourself in this situation, you will need to rehouse the photographs. The photographs will still have residual failed adhesive on the back, do not attempt to remove it, the chances of damaging the photo is too great. In the case where photographs are stuck in magnetic albums, it is recommended to leave them alone or consult a conservator. Again, the chance of damaging the images is too high to attempt their removal without professional consultation.
Now that you know a little more about the things you can do to protect your photographs, you can them focus on how to store your photographs. We recommend storing items of like size will avoid warping and breakage. The next step is to invest in some good quality enclosures for the photographs and boxes for protection. While archival supply companies sell a variety of photograph enclosures, most are made out of paper or an inert plastic like Mylar©. Each has its own merits and detractions and your choice may be made by the type of photographs in your collections, the size of your collection, and your budget. See archival supply companies like Gaylord Brothers, Hollinger-Metal Edge, and University Products, or ask us, for more information.
Lastly, one of the most important things you can do to care for your personal photographs is take the time to identify and label the people, places, and dates associated with the images. When labeling photographs, avoid using ink pens, which can migrate and fade. Instead, use a soft pencil on the back of the photograph or even better, on the outside of a paper wrapper.
- American Institute for Conservation — Caring for Your Treasures
- Family Archives — How to Preserve Your Photos
- George Eastman House — Photographic Processes video
- Image Permanence Institute
- Library of Congress — Care of Photographs
- National Park Service Museum Management Program. "Conserve O Grams"
- NEDCC Leaflets and Preservation of Photographs Bibliography