We all have old photos that we treasure. As a daughter and niece of professional photographers, I have more than my share. Research on the internet recently yielded valuable suggestions for conserving my old family photos. Some of the tips will be easy to follow, while others will require some time, trouble, and expense.
Photographs are composite objects made of several layers of different materials. Various substances have been used in their production over the years, a typical photograph consists of a support material (cardboard or heavy paper backing), a binder (commonly albumen or collodion which binds the image to the backing), and the image material (silver, color dyes, or pigment particles, usually suspended in the binder layer).
Poor environmental conditions, rough or inappropriate handling and poor storage can all contribute to the deterioration of your old photos.
All photographic materials are sensitive to high, low, and fluctuating relative humidity, which is a measure of how saturated the air is with moisture. High relative humidity causes the binder to become soft and sticky, making it vulnerable to damage and image deterioration. Low relative humidity causes the binder to shrink and crack and the secondary support to curl.
High temperature will speed the rate of deterioration, especially in high humidity situations.
Photo images are destroyed by light. Keep your historic treasures safe in a storage solution that protects them from light. Adverse environments can also cause paper to yellow and become brittle, especially if the paper is acidic.
Good housekeeping in the area where you store your photographs is essential. Paper fibers, albumen, and gelatin binders provide an attractive food source for insects and rodents.
The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works believes poor handling causes most of the damage to photographs. If you must handle them, hold photographs, whether transparencies, prints or negatives, only by the edge. You should never touch the surface. Natural secretions, even from clean fingers, can cause damage over time. Professionals use white cotton gloves when they handle photos to provide a barrier between skin oils and the image.
Use a sheet of stiff paper or a card to support and move fragile photographs. Avoid using adhesives or fasteners such as rubber cement, pressure-sensitive tape, paper clips, or rubber bands that may cause chemical or physical damage.
When sorting or viewing your photographs, be wary of having food and drink nearby, as accidental spills can cause irreversible damage.
Most old photos can be stored in archival-quality plastic sleeves. An alternate solution is to keep your photos loose in a archival-quality plastic or acid-free cardboard box, adding slips of acid-free paper between the photos to keep them from sticking to one another. If you prefer to put your photos in a scrapbook, use acid-free paper and acid-free photo corners.
Plastic sleeves and boxes protect photographs from fingerprints and provide physical support. The plastic should be made from inert and chemically stable materials such as polyester, polyethylene, polypropylene, spun-bonded polyolefins, or polystyrene. These may be used safely with many photographic materials in many situations. Plastic is not suitable for hand-colored prints, prints with surface damage, glass or metal-based photographs, or for film-based negatives and transparencies from the 1950s.
You should avoid plastics that contain fillers, coatings, or UV absorbers and also avoid the use of polyester, polyethylene, and polypropylene with a hazy film on the surface. The hazy surface indicates that the plastic is coated or heavily plasticized. Since photographs can adhere to smooth surfaces in high humidity, use of plastic should be avoided if prolonged storage at relative humidity above 80% is likely.
The acid in regular paper will damage your photos over time. Use only acid-free paper next to your prints. If you currently store your photos in regular paper envelopes, the emulsion (image) side should face away from any seams to minimize damage. Adhesives used in manufacturing the envelopes can cause staining and fading of the silver image.
The storage of photographs in albums helps organize groups of images while protecting them from physical and environmental damage. Ideally, your archival-quality albums should be stored in archival-quality boxes.
Never use the self-adhesive or magnetic photo albums. Those “sticky page” albums have acidic pages, a pressure sensitive adhesive layer and polyvinyl overlays that will chemically interact with your photos. The adhesive will eat away at the back of the photos and eventually destroy them.
The Library of Congress web site warns that some storage options labeled “archival” or “acid-free” may contain lignin, dyes, sizing agents, coatings, plasticizers, or other harmful additives. Never use boxes or sleeves made from unprocessed wood pulp paper, glassine, or polyvinyl chloride (PVC) to house or store photographs. Products made from colored paper often contain dyes or inks that are unstable and will adversely affect photographs..
Be sure to purchase your archival materials from a reputable supplier. Archival-quality products can be found in many photo supply or scrapbooking supply stores. They can also be ordered online from companies such as Light Impressions (http://www.lightimpressionsdirect.com/) or ArchivalUSA (http://www.archivalusa.com/). Both companies offer various sizes and quantities of sleeves and boxes, which means you could start small by protecting your oldest or most fragile photos first.
Writing on pictures is very damaging. Ink can bleed through and destroy the image or transfer to adjacent prints. It is best not to mark the back of your old photo permanently in any way. If you must make a temporary identification, write gently with only a very soft pencil. It is much better to write information on a storage sleeve or album page.
Cleaning & Repair
Brush soiled photographs carefully with a clean, very soft brush, proceeding from the center of the photograph outward toward the edges. Take care to not scratch the surface. Do not attempt to clean photographs with water or solvent-based cleaners such as window cleaner or film cleaner. Improper cleaning of photographic materials can cause serious and often irreversible damage, such as permanent staining, abrasion, alteration, or loss of binder and image.
Do not attempt to repair a torn photograph with adhesive tape. Consult a photographic materials conservator to perform repairs. An internet search should help you locate one in your area. The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, referenced in the source notes below, maintains a list of conservators.
Permanent display of your treasured photographs is not recommended as most photographic materials are vulnerable to deterioration caused by light. The best policy is to have a copy made for display and store your original in a safe, dark environment. Damage caused by light is cumulative and depends on the intensity, length of exposure, and the wavelength of the radiation. Sunlight and standard fluorescent light are both extremely harmful to photographs.
If you do plan to display your cherished original photos, use a mat to keep the photo from coming in direct contact with the glass of the frame. The mat will allow for air circulation and keep the photo from sticking to the glass. Again, use acid-free products for backing and matting the photographs.
Although checking the chemistry of plastics and hunting for acid-free paper will require extra effort, the life expectancy of your photographs depends on making that effort. Taking proper care of your old photos now means they will be available to future generations of your own family and also to historians.
A final thought—the Society of Rocky Mountain Archivists web site states, “Even benign neglect is better for your photographs than the wrong treatment.”
Note Please do not rely solely on this article for methods of conserving your photos. The tips included were gathered from the sources named below. The author claims no expertise in this area.
- The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, “Caring For Your Photographs,” http://aic.stanford.edu/library/online/brochures/photos.html (accessed June 5, 2008).
- Robinson, Colin, “Care and conservation of old photographs,” http://colinrobinson.com/care.html (accessed June 5, 2008).
- Conservation Register, “Care and conservation of photographic materials,” http://www.conservationregister.com/carephotographs.asp (accessed June 5, 2008).
- The Library of Congress, “Care, Handling and Storage of Photographs,” http://www.loc.gov/preserv/care/photolea.html (accessed June 5, 2008).
- Society of Rocky Mountain Archivists, “Caring for Photographs,” by Sharon Partridge for the Colorado Preservation Alliance, http://www.srmarchivists.org/preservation/publications/photographs.htm (accessed June 5, 2008).
- Suite101.com, “Caring for Old Photos,” http://genealogy.suite101.com/article.cfm/oldphotos (accessed June 5, 2008).