PRESERVING OLD PHOTOGRAPHS
Digital cameras and scanners were not available when our ancestors were creating visual records of their lives and times. For them, photography was a process of taking pictures with film cameras, and having the film processed and prints created from negatives. Even earlier, photography involved the transfer of images onto chemically-treated metal plates or sheets of glass. These processes produced images that were state-of-the-art for the day, but have not held up well over time. Old photographs may fade, lose color, and generally succumb to exposure to the elements.
Although preserving these precious heirlooms has become a priority for many family historians, they may lack the necessary skills and tools to do so. A little commmon sense and some thoughtful preparation will help preserve old photos for future generations to enjoy. Consider the following information when preparing to display, frame, or store photographic prints and negatives.
- Direct sunlight will damage photographic prints, framed or not, regardless of age. Very old prints on metal and glass can even be damaged by light from electrical sources. Take care when displaying old photos.
- Never try to clean an old photographic print. Remove dust with a clean, soft cloth, and use no liquids whatsoever. If the photo is cracked or torn, any attempt to tape or glue it back together will only cause more damage. Should the photo require cleaning or restoration, take it to a professional.
- Wear cotton gloves when handling old prints and negatives. Oil and dirt from your fingers will damage the surface of photos, and cause them to age more rapidly.
- Remove old photographs from their original containers. These paper or cardboard wrappers, frames, and tissue overlays may contain acid, which will cause old photographic prints to deteriorate over time.
- Store all loose photographs in acid-free, lignin-free paper envelopes or non-PVC vinyl album sleeves. Do the same for negatives, and label the container so that they can be recognized easily. Always store old photographs flat, as they may become brittle over time. Keep containers of photos and negatives in a dark, dry, temperature-regulated area.
- Don't write on the backs of photos with ball-point pens or felt tip markers. The ink is highly acidic and may bleed into the paper, ruining the print on the other side. If you bear down too hard with the pen, you may see the writing bulging through the paper. Instead, use a soft-lead pencil (#2B) to make notes on photos, and don't bear down too hard when you write.
- When having old photographs professionally framed, specify that they be mounted with acid-free, archival quality boards and mats.
For further information on preservation of photographic prints and negatives, please refer to these web sites:
American Museum of Photography - Historical background of photographic processes
Ancestry.com - "The Destructive Power of the Newspaper" (PDF file)
Archival Products - Newsletter archive containing photo preservation information
Conservation Online - Resources for Conservation
Glow Imagery - "How to Preserve Old Photos Without Losing Your Mind"
Kodak Technical Data - "Storage and Care of Photographic Materials, Before and After Processing"
Library of Congress - "Care, Handling, and Storage of Photographs"
Practical Archivist - Organize photos, preserve heirlooms, share stories
Preservation Technologies - Archiving products and services; makers of "Archival Mist"
Identification of photograph types - learn how to tell the difference between the various photographic processes and their impact on dating an unknown photograph
PhotoTree - a site dedicated to research, dating, and preservation of 19th century photographs.
© 2015 Joe Defazio, Uncle Joe's Genealogy