Photographs have filtered into every aspect of our lives. There can be few people today who have not posed for a family snap shot or reminisced over holiday photos from years ago. The use of photography spans the recording of important moments in history to the more commonplace tasks of insurance and identification records. So important have they become that it is difficult to conceive of a passport without one.
To ensure that these photographs are around for future generations to enjoy it is very important that they are correctly cared for. This need not be a costly and involved process - a few simple steps can dramatically increase the life of your photographs many-fold.
Photographs deteriorate due to two main factors - their own inherent instability and the environment in which they are stored. Inherent instability is generally the result of the method used to produce the image - e.g. colour transparency, colour print, or black and white print. Environmental factors causing deterioration have many sources - including packaging, framing materials, pollutants, light, humidity, temperature, and handling. Each of these factors reacts with the chemical and physical structure of the photograph resulting in numerous forms of damage.
Labeling your photographs
Labeling and cataloguing your photographs is very important - a collection without provenance provides little pleasure for anyone. Try to get your grandparents and relatives to write down who is in your family snaps and write down those wonderful vistas you shoot while travelling - you'll regret it if you don't! However, where possible label the album page rather than the photo! Do not label your photographs directly, but if unavoidable, write in graphite or chinagraph pencil using light pressure on the back. Never use pen, as the ink can bleed and cause stains.
Many museums store their collections in controlled atmospheres of very low temperature and low relative humidity. This is not easy to achieve in a normal household, but there are ways of prolonging the life of your precious photographs at home.
Find a place in your home that maintains a stable, cool, dry, clean environment. Do not choose rooms or cupboards that have external walls as these are less stable and can have condensation problems. Centrally located, well-insulated rooms with good ventilation are the best. If possible keep the temperature below 20°C and the relative humidity between 35-55%.
Albums, frames and enclosures
Albums and enclosures are very good for preventing handling damage as you can look at your photographs without actually touching them. Good quality frames provide some protection if you want to hang some photographs around your home. A better option would be to use copies for display and keep your originals in good storage.
The best photographic albums will have passed what is known as the Photographic Activity Test (P.A.T), meaning that they are manufactured from materials safe for photographic storage and display. Photographic albums should not contain sulfur or acidic materials, and it is best that they are not coloured as the dyes can migrate into your photographs. Plastic enclosures should be polyester, polyethylene or polypropylene, not polyvinyl acetate (PVC) - the manufacturer should be able to tell you what type of plastic it is.
Photographs should be spaced away from frame glazing to prevent the photograph sticking permanently to the glass or acrylic. Acrylic glazing will protect your photographs from ultra-violet light more than glass, but glass is better than having nothing at all. Ask your framer to use non-buffered acid-free cotton rag board to mount your photographs. Photo-corners are the best method of attaching your photographs in their frames or albums (unless you are using a slip-in album). Never use so called "magnetic" or self-adhesive albums as the adhesive yellows, becomes brittle and will stain and degrade your photographs.
Preserving your conventional photographs digitally?
Digital copies of your photographs can be useful to pass around the family or to put in frames around the house so that you can put your originals away safely reducing their risk of damage. And once you have that digital file you can make as many copies as you like!
Some manufacturers of digital technology advocate using it as a means of "preserving" old photos - that is, they advocate replacing your originals. While it is true that you can copy the image to a certain resolution using digital technology, the tangible qualities of the photograph as a piece of technological and social history are not copied. We recommend keeping your original photographs as well as making a digital copy.
This content was first published in first published in the Now&Then Issue 21 August 2006