How to Care for Your Photographs
Photographs are wonderful, mysterious things. Yet we have become so accustomed to them that we take them for granted. 1999 marked the 160th anniversary of the public introduction of photography. Prior to 1839 you could not see what distant places truly looked like, or see yourself as you appeared when you were younger. Most people didn't know what the President of the United States really looked like, or the King or Queen of England. Oh sure there were pictures, artists drawings and paintings, but they were all interpretations -- even the most faithful representations were influenced by the style, medium and mind of the artist. Along came the invention of photography, and all that changed overnight.
With every picture you take, you are freezing a moment in time; capturing a view that can never be exactly the same again. You may have a closet full of such frozen moments, or just a few rolls from your last vacation. If you want to be able to enjoy those moments far into the future, you need to take some care in the handling and storage of those images. If you have family photos handed down from earlier generations, you have a responsibility to future generations to pass them on in as good condition as possible.
When taking care of older photographs it helps to know something of the process by which they were made, but it not essential. If you would like to learn more about Identifying and Dating Old Photographs there is considerable information available. In practice, all photos need to be protected from the same dangers. Light is enemy number one. Chemical degradation is another problem, and much less easy to deal with. And of course you must protect them from physical damage, be it the curiosity of children or the fury of storm, flood or fire.
Of course you have to expose photos to light to view them, and what good are they if they are never seen? But you should be careful to store them in light-proof boxes. Pictures you hang on your walls should be thought of as disposable -- don't hang the original if it is a family heirloom -- make a copy and hang that. Avoid placing pictures where they will be in direct sun.
Another source of chemical degradation is the paper (or on mounted pictures, the cardboard the print is mounted on) used in making prints. If the paper is too acidic, it may fall apart with time, disintegrating slowly from within. There are sprays available that can be used on the back of photos to slow this process.
Photos can also pick up deleterious chemicals from their environment, the air around them, other pictures, or the material they are stored in. To ensure long life, store your pictures in safe materials designed for archival storage. Never use those so-called magnetic photo album pages that are sticky -- that sticky surface is made of chemicals that will destroy your pictures.
Other factors than can affect the chemical degradation of photographs are temperature and humidity. Like most chemical processes, those that damage your pictures are accelerated by heat and humidity. Excessively low heat or humidity can also be damaging however. All materials expand and contract with temperature changes, which can lead to cracking of the image surface. Rapid changes in temperature and humidity can be very destructive. Very low humidity can also cause curling. Store your photos in an area where the temperature is steady and avoid extremes such as would be found in an attic or basement. Again, proper storage materials will help ameliorate the effects of fluctuating temperature and humidity.
There are less severe forms of physical destruction that you can protect against. Bent corners, folds and smudges from greasy fingers can all damage your pictures. Children will scribble on the backs if given the chance. Store your pictures securely, in safe materials. Don't just stuff them in a drawer. There are chemically inert plastic sleeves available for picture albums that allow the pictures to be viewed without removing them from their page.
Read Conservation of Photographs (Kodak Publications, No F-40) for more information on preserving old photographs. Another excellent source, though now out of print and sometimes hard to find even in used condition, is Collection, Use, and Care of Historical Photographs.
Copyright (c) 2001 by Andrew J. Morris.
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