Preservation of Analog Photographs
We all have tons of photographs that document the people, places, events, and time periods that tell the stories of our lives. Maybe they are neatly arranged in photo albums, stuffed in shoe boxes, included in scrapbooks, or displayed proudly in our homes. Whatever the case, it is important to take measures to preserve them for generations to come.
This post will focus on general preservation of analog photographic prints and negatives from all eras of photography, but not digital image files. We will save the discussion of preserving digital image files for a later post. Because prints and negatives are inherently susceptible to deterioration, there is much to consider for ensuring their longevity.
Proper handling is the easiest and most cost-effective action that can be taken to preserve photos.
- Make sure your hands are clean and dry. Also consider wearing nitrile gloves.
- Keep your work area clean.
- Do not eat or drink when handling photographs.
- Never use fasteners of any kind on photographs. These include paper clips, staples, rubber bands, tape and/or glue. Photographs mounted in scrapbooks should be secured using photo mounting corners.
- Minimize handling by making copies and storing originals in enclosures.
Maintaining the Environment
Appropriate temperature and relative humidity levels are crucial to photograph preservation. Cooler, drier conditions are preferred. As a general rule, storage temperatures should be between 65°F and 70°F with relative humidity levels between 30% and 50% with less than a 10% fluctuation per day. These levels should be maintained rather than allowed to frequently fluctuate. Things to consider:
- Heat accelerates chemical reactions in photographs causing deterioration to accelerate. With each 10°F increase in temperature, rate of deterioration nearly doubles.
- High relative humidity provides the moisture content necessary for chemical reactions, which cause fading, discoloration, etc.
- A combination of high temperature and high relative humidity provides a suitable environment for mold growth and pest activity.
- Extremely low relative humidity can cause photographs to become brittle, curl, and flake.
- Fluctuations in temperature and humidity cause materials to contract or expand based on the conditions of the environment. This change in size leads to warping, cracking, and splitting.
Proper Storage Locations
To help ensure appropriate temperature and humidity levels, consider the following:
- Do not store photographs in the following locations:
- Attics – temperatures are often too high and fluctuate greatly; items are more susceptible to water damage from a leaky roof; an increased risk of pests.
- Basements – contain too much moisture; high mold risk; prone to water damage from seepage or flooding; an increased risk of pests.
- Garages – unstable and extreme temperature and relative humidity; exposure to elements when doors are opened; an increased risk of pests.
- Near heat sources, such as fireplaces, radiators, or vents.
- Do store photographs in the following locations:
- Interior rooms -typically more stable conditions; less risk of pests.
- Closets – typically more stable conditions; absence of light; less risk of pests.
- Away from windows – typically more stable conditions; less risk of water damage, less exposure to light.
- Off of the floor – less likely to be damaged by insects or water.
Not only must we think of the location in which our photos are stored, but also how they are stored. Storing your photographs in appropriate envelopes, sleeves, albums and/or boxes is fundamental to preservation. There are numerous photo storage options available, but they are not all created equal. Retailers often use the terms ‘archival’ and ‘archival-quality’ to describe storage products; however these terms are non-technical and do not convey the suitability of the products for preservation purposes. Instead, look for products that have passed the Photographic Activity Test (PAT), an international standard test developed by the Image Permanence Institute. Acceptable products will have the PAT logo on the packaging; if the PAT logo is not visible on the packaging, then the product should not be considered. It is also important to select products that are acid-free and lignin-free. Acids occur naturally in wood-pulp used in the paper manufacturing process. Such acids can migrate into photographs causing permanent damage and decay. Paper designated as acid-free undergoes a process that removes acid pulp when manufactured. Lignin is a naturally occurring polymer found in plants, which can cause staining and fading.
Paper or plastic products can be used to house photographs and negatives. Here are some things to consider when choosing paper or plastic enclosures:
- Since paper is opaque, items are protected from light exposure.
- Paper that meets the above requirements is stable and porous, which protects items from environmental changes and accumulation of moisture and gases.
- Provide physical support.
- Protect items from dust and debris.
- May increase handling of items since they must be removed to be viewed.
- Typically not available as album sleeves.
- Should be made of uncoated polyester, polyethylene, or polypropylene. Do not use plastics made of polyvinylchloride (PVC), as it is very unstable.
- Protect items from dirt and debris.
- Allow for the items to be viewed without removing from the enclosure.
- Provide physical support.
- Protect items from moisture and pollutants.
- Available in many sizes and formats, including album sleeves.
After photographs have been stored in the proper sleeves, envelopes, or folders, they should be stored in boxes, albums, or cabinets that meet the same archival standards.
Other things to consider:
- Digitize – make scans of your analog photographs and negatives. Not only will you have a copy, but one that you can readily share while minimizing handling the originals.
- Never use magnetic photo albums! The adhesives on album pages that secure the photos into the album are highly acidic and leach into the photographs while the plastic page cover traps acid fumes, both of which lead to permanent damage and decay.
- Whenever possible, use copies in scrapbooks. Only mount them with photo mounting corners.
- Use copies for display in the home. Originals are sure to fade over time due to light exposure.
- Whenever possible, place identifying information on the enclosures rather than the photographs themselves. Always use a No. 2 pencil, Pigma pen, or India ink on paper and a film marking pen on plastic. Ball point and felt tipped pens should never be used as the ink may bleed through and stain the photograph. Ball point pens also cause indentations due to the pressure applied when writing on the back of the photograph.
- No adhesives of any kind. Even if adhesives are labeled “acid-free”, they should never touch an original photograph.
This is a very basic look at measures that should be taken for photograph preservation.
There are many published works regarding photograph preservation that go into further detail. The following is a short list of recommended titles for further reading:
Image Permanence Institute Storage Guide for Color Photographic Materials
Image Permanence Institute Guide to Preservation of Digitally-Printed Photographs
*Ritzenthaler, Mary Lynn and Diane L. Vogt-O’Connor . Photographs: Archival Care and Management. Washington, DC: Society of American Archivists, 2006.
Taylor, Maureen. Preserving Your Family Photographs. Lexington, KY: Picture Perfect Press, 2010.