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Copyright 1995 by Andrew J. Morris, All Rights Reserved

Most serious family genealogists include a collection of vintage photographs of their family as part of their genealogical collection. These are treasured heirlooms that we cherish and protect, with the intent of passing them on to future generations, that they might see, and feel as we do, the reality of their heritage. But many of these unique and irreplaceable images will not survive into the future, for lack of proper preservation. Nor do all genealogists make as full use of photos as they could, to document and illustrate their family history. This short guide will offer a brief glimpse into the nature of photographs, and their use in genealogical settings. We also have a brief History of Photography for those who want to learn more about the nature and evolution of old photos.

Photos as Artifacts

Photographs have a dual identity, first as objects or artifacts, and secondly as images. For antique photographs, the material object is a unique and irreplaceable item that needs careful handling and preservation to ensure its future existence. The image it contains, on the other hand, may be reproduced indefinitely, with no loss or diminution of the original. The best way to preserve the object is to hide it away in some dark, climate controlled space, since light, humidity and atmospheric pollutants are some of the greatest dangers to its survival. Images, by contrast, are best preserved by their widespread distribution, as the more copies there are the less likely they will all fall prey to the kinds of accidents that destroy pictures.

For genealogists wishing to preserve a family photo collection, then, the best thing to do is first copy as many of the images as possible, distribute those copies as widely as possible, then store the originals safely away. If you want your collection to last far into the future, never put those photos on display! Instead, have faithful copies made, and display the copies.

The first threat to old photographs is light. The miracle of photography is based on the reaction of certain chemicals, such as silver chloride, to light. When a focused image falls on the film in a camera, the light causes the bright parts of the image to react chemically, which after further chemical treatment results in dark areas on the film, hence a negative image. To make a photographic print, light is again used: more light gets through the lightest areas of the negative, causing the most chemical reaction in the print, and thus the darkest areas of the image.

The negative or print undergoes further chemical treatment to halt the reaction to light, so that the image is 'permanently' fixed. The compounds that make up the image are subject to various chemical changes over time, that may lighten the image, or cause blotching or changes in color or texture. In severe cases, the image may be lost entirely. As with many chemical reactions, the process will speed up when the chemicals are exposed to energy in the form of heat or light. These compounds will also react with other chemicals they come in contact with, such as air pollutants or water in the form of humidity. The substrate the image rests on, often paper, also undergoes chemical change over time, and may even disintegrate under adverse conditions.

If you have unlimited funds, the best storage method is to place each photo in an acid-free envelope made for archival storage. Then place the envelopes in a sturdy archival box, either of acid free cardboard or enameled metal. Store the boxed photos in a room that is safe from fire or flood, with a relative humidity of from 40% to 50%, and cool temperature, with little fluctuation in those values.

As a practical matter, we are rarely able to create the perfect climate controlled environment that would best preserve our photos. But there are some simple and effective steps we can take to prolong the life of these cherished objects. Modern plastic, for all its faults, has some properties that help us protect our photographs. Food storage bags made of polyurethane, particularly those that form an air-tight seal, will protect pictures from outside contaminants. Humidity should be neither extremely high nor low, since each condition can have adverse effects. If it is possible to store your photos in an environment with about 40% or 50% relative humidity, that is ideal. Remember that before you seal them in plastic bags! If you live in a humid environment, look for a room where air-conditioning or heating has caused the humidity to drop. Or if you live in an arid area, try using a humidifier to bring the humidity up to that 50% mark. Let your photos adjust to that moderate humidity for a few days, then seal them in the baggies.

Use a separate bag for each photo if possible--the photos themselves give off chemicals that can be harmful, particularly if they have not been properly treated to begin with. The one drawback to the plastic bag approach is that these chemicals will get trapped in with the photo, but if each photo is in a separate bag, at least a particularly polluted one will not affect the others.

Place the bagged photos in sturdy boxes to prevent physical damage, and store them in as cool an environment as you have available. The temperature should be as constant as possible, as the contraction and expansion of fluctuating temperatures may cause pictures to crack or peal, since the substrate will not expand at the same rate as the chemical layer containing the image.

Photos as Records

Your collection of photos provide you with information about the past that is available from no other source. Each snapshot is a frozen moment, a tiny slice of life captured on film. Each formal portrait captures a tiny bit of the subjects soul, just as the pre- civilized tribesman believed.

When it comes to genealogy, the formal portraits may be great to illustrate a family history, but it is the casual snapshot that gives us the most information. It's a pity for us that Kodak's invention didn't come earlier. And the most surprising fact is, it is often not the subject of the photograph that is of interest in those informal snapshots, but the background!

Look closely at your pictures. That somewhat fuzzy picture of a jumping dog may have a chicken-coop in the background ... (I didn't know grandpa raised chickens ...) Is that a beer uncle Billy is drinking in the prohibition-era photo of a Christmas party? And what presents are there under the tree? Pictures, particularly the informal ones, tell a lot about the family's lifestyle. Sometimes they provide us with facts, but more often they provide ambiance, the feelings of the time and place.

Very few of us are lucky enough to have snapshot-type photos from before the turn of the century. Kodak brought photography to the masses in the late 1880's, but it took time for the idea to catch on. Some folks are lucky enough to have a photographer among their ancestors; there were tens of thousands of amateur and professional photographers in the USA alone in the latter half of the 1800's. Not all of them took informal pictures around the old homestead, but many did, and those images are priceless when we have them in our family collections. They are very near worthless when they appear without identification of any sort in the junk-dealer's jumble box.

So it behooves us to identify and caption our collections, however arduous that process may seem. Never write anything on the face of a photograph! For paper or card mounted photos, if they are sturdy enough that you can write on them without damaging the image, put information on the back in pencil. The ink in pens, especially modern ball-point pens, just add more chemicals to that mix of volatiles from which we need to protect our photos. If it is not possible to write safely directly on the back of the photo, or if you have more information than will fit in the space available, consider making a photocopy. Modern photocopy machines do a credible job of reproducing photos, at least to the extent that you can identify which photocopy comes from which photograph. Then you have an entire page on which to write your description. The photo is exposed to bright light for a moment when making photocopies, but the benefit of having a properly identified photo far outweigh the minuscule amount of detriment it may cause.

Consider using photographs to document and illustrate the information you discover in your genealogical research. When you find the places your ancestors lived, try to get photographs of those places. Be creative. If you can not go and take pictures yourself, let your friends and relatives know that you are interested in the area, and perhaps they will take some photos when in that area. Or contact someone who lives in the area, through the local chamber of commerce, library, or via Internet. They may be willing to take some pictures at a reasonable fee, or know someone else who will do so.

As mentioned earlier, photographic images have the wonderful property of being capable of being propagated, without any deleterious effect on the original. Remind your relatives of this fact! Get copies of any old photos, (and a good selection of modern ones), that they may have. They don't have to give up the originals, you can copy the images quite easily. Have a professional make copies for the best results, or learn to take copy photos yourself, using a good camera with a close-up lens.

The Evocative Image

If those family photos evoke responses in those of us who were born long after they were taken, imagine how much more powerful they can be to those who lived them. Nothing is more likely to jog an elderly relative's memory than a photo from his or her past.

Keep a good collection of copies of your best old photos, for use as memory-joggers and gifts to relatives who help you further your research. Discuss the subjects of the pictures, in person if possible or by phone if necessary. If you can, record your conversations--oral history adds yet another dimension to your documentation. Much of what we have said regarding photos might also apply to sound recordings--make duplicates to help ensure their preservation!

Digital Imaging

It is a simple rule that whenever a picture is duplicated, the copy can never be as good as the original. 'Good' here means that the information, the shades of light and dark, can never be perfectly replicated, there is always some loss of detail in the copy. Sometimes the copy may look more pleasing to the eye, it often has better contrast and may be printed better, but it will not have all the information that is inherent in the original. The better the copy, the less information is lost. Sometimes this loss is so slight as to be insignificant. Since most prints are made from negatives, it follows that the negative will have more detail--more gradations of tone from the lightest to the darkest parts--than any copy made from that negative. Thus, whenever possible, negatives should be preserved and used to make prints, since the results will be better than when a print is made from another print.

Modern technology presents us with a method of imaging that defies this principal of loss with every copy. In digital imagery, the picture is encoded as a series of numeric values, with each value representing some aspect of a tiny spot in the picture. Since these digital images are usually made by scanning--or 'digitizing'--a printed image, they can never be as good as that printed image, that is they can never have as much information in them. But once digitized, the image is just a series of numbers, and those numbers can be copied by others without any further loss of data. The copies can be copied, and copies of that copy copied again, all without loss, so long as the data is transmitted (copied) without error. This is the future of images.

Digital images may also be transformed, manipulated, and combined in various ways that make them a versatile and convenient format for preserving images. Storage can be in various computer formats, but the most stable and long-term form currently available is CD- ROM. The stored image can be viewed on a computer terminal, or printed out. If the CD-ROM turns out to as stable a medium as it is currently believed to be, the images encoded on them today will continue to be available, with absolutely no degradation, a hundred years from now. I have seen hundred-year-old photographs that are in excellent condition, but they can not be as clear and sharp and detailed as they were when first produced (though the degradation may be so slight as to be imperceptible). Many more have obviously faded with time. Such a fate will not befall images stored digitally. And, if those digital images are propagated widely enough, copies lost to fire or accident can be replaced with exact copies from another source.

There are now cameras available that produce digital images directly from the source--there is no film or intermediate stage involved. To date, these digital cameras fall far short of the resolution we expect from film, but as the technology continues to develop we can expect them to improve, and gradually replace the older method. Scanners are available at very reasonable cost that will do a fairly decent job of copying photographs. They provide an inexpensive means of distributing copies of images to others in your family who have computers, or if you have an inkjet printer, or laser printer, you can provide black and white print-outs of images to family members. These fall far short of the quality of photographically produced copies, but are much better than photocopies. Much less expensive to produce than photographs, they can be widely distributed and may serve to jog some memories, or create enough interest in your project to enlist some help.

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© 2003 by Andrew J. Morris -- www.ajmorris.com -- All Rights Reserved