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How to Preserve Your Photographs

How to Preserve Your Photographs

Photographs are some of the most treasured family heirlooms.  Family collections often contain a wealth of images capturing everyday life, significant events, and special memories.  In the history of photography, many different types of materials have been used to create photographs, and family collections often represent a fascinating variety of black and white color processes.  Most black and white photographs are composed of silver particles suspended in a protective gelatin binder or emulsion, which is coated on a paper support.  Color photographs employ dyes to produce the image.  Many formats are found in family collections, from small snapshots to large, mounted portraits.

Because photographs are made from a variety of sensitive materials, they are easily damaged and may not survive to pass on to future generations if improperly stored, displayed, and handled.  Photographs are best preserved by handling them with care, providing a good storage environment and by using good quality enclosures.

However, even though we presently live in a digital age, and we may not as often have prints made as in the past, it is important to properly care for your photographs and negatives to ensure proper preservation.  Taking care of your photographs is very similar to taking care of a work of art.  I hope that you find this information helpful to preserve your special photographs to share with future generations for years to come.


General Care and Handling of Photographs

Taking care when handling any collection item is one of the more effective, cost-efficient, and easily achieved preservation measures.  Take proper care when handling photographic materials by:

  • Having clean hands and wearing 100% cotton gloves;
  • Keeping the photographs in a clear area;
  • Keeping food and drink away;
  • Not marking photographs, even on the back side;
  • Avoiding paper clips or other fasteners to mark or organize prints; and
  • Not using rubber bands, self-adhesive tape, and/or glue on photographic materials


General Guidelines for the Proper Storage of Photographs

Good storage is arguably the most important preservation measure for photographic materials:

  • A relatively dry (30-40% relative humidity) and cool (room temperature or below), clean, and stable environment (avoid attics, basements, and other locations with high risk of leaks and environmental extremes).
  • relative humidity is the single most important factor in preserving most photographic materials;
  • For contemporary color photographs, however, temperature is the controlling factor affecting stability.  Storage at low temperatures (40°F or below) is recommended.
  • Minimal exposure to all kinds of light; and no exposure to direct or intense light;
  • Distance from radiators and vents;
  • Minimal exposure to industrial (particularly sulfur-containing) atmospheric pollutants;
  • Protective enclosures within a box.  Appropriate enclosures for cold storage are available from various vendors.  Suitable protective enclosures for photographic materials are made of plastic or paper that meet certain specifications:
  1. Paper enclosures must be acid-free, lignin-free, and are available in both alkaline buffered (pH 8.5) and unbuffered (neutral, pH 7) stock.  Storage materials must pass the ANSI Photographic Activity Test (PAT), which is noted in supplier’s catalogs.  Buffered paper enclosures are recommended for brittle prints that have been mounted onto poor quality secondary supports and for deteriorated film-base negatives.  Buffered enclosures are not recommended for contemporary color materials. Paper enclosures minimize unnecessary light exposure; are porous; easy to label with pencil; and are relatively inexpensive.
  2. Suitable plastic enclosures are made of uncoated polyester film, uncoated cellulose triacetate, polyethylene, and polypropylene. Note: Photographic emulsions may stick to the slick plastic surfaces of these storage materials at high relative humidity (RH). Plastic enclosures must not be used for glass plate, nitrate, or acetate-based negatives.
  • Store all prints and negatives (whether matted or in paper or plastic enclosures) in acid-free boxes.  If possible, keep negatives separate from print materials.  Store color transparencies/slides in acid-free or metal boxes with a baked-on enamel finish or in polypropylene slide pages;
  • Prints of historic value should be matted with acid-free rag or museum board for protection.  Adhesives should not touch the print. Matting should be done by an experienced framer or under the direction of a conservator;
  • Protect cased photographs (e.g., daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes) in acid-free paper envelopes and store flat; keep loose tintypes in polyester sleeves, or, if flaking is present, in paper enclosures; and
  • Storage of family photographs in albums is often desirable and many commercially available albums use archival-quality materials.  Avoid albums with colored pages and “magnetic” or “no stick” albums.


Matting and Framing

Photographs chosen to be framed should be matted to museum standards.  Conservation or museum quality mat boards, photo corners, and UV-filtered plexiglas are recommended.  Photographs should be matted to prevent direct contact with the frame or glazing.  Avoid pressure sensitive tapes, rubber cement, and glues with securing photographs in mats.  Older mats and frames should be carefully examined and photographs removed if mats or frames are poor quality.  Seek assistance from a qualified framer or conservator before removing photographs from old mats and frames.  It is also a good idea to consult a qualified and competent framer when you are framing your images.  James L. Pierce Custom and Fine Art Framing is located in Maryland, but services galleries and museums nationwide.


Digital Imaging

Scanning photographs is a popular way to provide greater access to the images and share them widely with family and friends.  Older photographs may be brittle and have fragile surfaces so exercise care while scanning to avoid damage.


Dealing with Condition Problems

For condition problems that are insufficiently addressed by the measures outlined above, conservation treatment by a photograph conservator may be necessary.

The national professional association for conservators, the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) , maintains an online directory for finding a conservator by specialty and geographic location and provides information on how to choose a conservator. In addition, AIC also offers guidelines for the care of collections beyond library materials.


My Family Photographs

Below are three generations of photographs from my family, illustrating the importance of taking care of and preserving your photographs.

Pictured from top to bottom:  1. My Mom and Grandma;   2. Me and my Mom; and   3. Me and Biscuit.

Mom and Grandma

Mom and Me

IMG_3596 2


Happy Wednesday!

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