How to Care for Your Photographs

Oct 7 21:00 2004 Andrew J. Morris Print This Article

... are ... ... things. Yet we have become so ... to them that we take them for granted. 1999 marked the 160th ... of the public ... of ... Prior

Photographs are wonderful,Guest Posting mysterious things. Yet we have
become so accustomed to them that we take them for granted.
1999 marked the 160th anniversary of the public introduction
of photography. Prior to 1839 you could not see what distant
places truly looked like, or see yourself as you appeared
when you were younger. Most people didn't know what the
President of the United States really looked like, or the
King or Queen of England. Oh sure there were pictures,
artists drawings and paintings, but they were all
interpretations -- even the most faithful representations
were influenced by the style, medium and mind of the artist.
Along came the invention of photography, and all that
changed overnight.

With every picture you take, you are freezing a moment in
time; capturing a view that can never be exactly the same
again. You may have a closet full of such frozen moments, or
just a few rolls from your last vacation. If you want to be
able to enjoy those moments far into the future, you need to
take some care in the handling and storage of those images.
If you have family photos handed down from earlier
generations, you have a responsibility to future generations
to pass them on in as good condition as possible.

When taking care of older photographs it helps to know
something of the process by which they were made, but it not
essential. If you would like to learn more about
'Identifying and Dating Old Photographs' there is
considerable information available. In practice, all photos
need to be protected from the same dangers. Light is enemy
number one. Chemical degradation is another problem, and
much less easy to deal with. And of course you must protect
them from physical damage, be it the curiosity of children
or the fury of storm, flood or fire.


Photographs are made by the action of light on a specially
treated chemical surface (at least they were before digital
imagery was invented, but more about that later ...) Little
wonder then that even after they are fixed into a stable
image, photographs can still be affected by light. Bright
light will cause photos to fade. Actually, all photographs
are fading at all times, but light greatly accelerates the
process. The degree of fading depends on the type of process
used to create the image, how well it was processed, and
other factors. As a general rule, color photos fade faster
than black and white.

Of course you have to expose photos to light to view them,
and what good are they if they are never seen? But you
should be careful to store them in light-proof boxes.
Pictures you hang on your walls should be thought of as
disposable -- don't hang the original if it is a family
heirloom -- make a copy and hang that. Avoid placing
pictures where they will be in direct sun.


When pictures fade from sunlight it is really a form of
chemical degradation, but there are other factors that can
contribute to this process. If the pictures were not
properly processed when they were made, they have more
damaging chemicals on them, and will suffer the effects of
chemical degradation much faster than properly processed
images. If you are having copies made, or prints from new
photos that you want to last well into the future, you can
have them archivally processed to ensure the fewest possible
damaging trace chemicals will remain on the print. Old
prints can be re-processed to remove chemicals, but that
process should only be attempted by professional restoration

Another source of chemical degradation is the paper (or on
mounted pictures, the cardboard the print is mounted on)
used in making prints. If the paper is too acidic, it may
fall apart with time, disintegrating slowly from within.
There are sprays available that can be used on the back of
photos to slow this process.

Photos can also pick up deleterious chemicals from their
environment, the air around them, other pictures, or the
material they are stored in. To ensure long life, store your
pictures in safe materials designed for archival storage.
Never use those so-called magnetic photo album pages that
are sticky -- that sticky surface is made of chemicals that
will destroy your pictures.

Other factors than can affect the chemical degradation of
photographs are temperature and humidity. Like most chemical
processes, those that damage your pictures are accelerated
by heat and humidity. Excessively low heat or humidity can
also be damaging however. All materials expand and contract
with temperature changes, which can lead to cracking of the
image surface. Rapid changes in temperature and humidity can
be very destructive. Very low humidity can also cause
curling. Store your photos in an area where the temperature
is steady and avoid extremes such as would be found in an
attic or basement. Again, proper storage materials will help
ameliorate the effects of fluctuating temperature and


How many times have you seen interviews with survivors of a
disaster such as flooding or fire, where they lament the
loss of their irreplaceable family photos? There is a simple
solution to this problem. Photos have the wonderful property
of being reproducible. You can have copies made in any
quantity. Always have multiple copies made of your favorite
photos, and send them to relatives living in other parts of
the country. If you have pictures of historical
significance, contact museums in the locality where they are
from, they may be happy to accept copies. Distribute your
images far and wide, and you will always be able to find
another copy should yours be destroyed.

There are less severe forms of physical destruction that you
can protect against. Bent corners, folds and smudges from
greasy fingers can all damage your pictures. Children will
scribble on the backs if given the chance. Store your
pictures securely, in safe materials. Don't just stuff them
in a drawer. There are chemically inert plastic sleeves
available for picture albums that allow the pictures to be
viewed without removing them from their page.


The value in common snapshots and portraits lies mostly in
the associations we have with them. Portraits of our
ancestors interest us more than unidentified portraits.
Pictures of places we have been, houses we have lived in,
are more interesting than similar pictures for which we have
no associations. Even indirect associations lend worth to an
image -- a snapshot of the pyramids in Egypt may not
approach the many professional images available of those
wonderful monuments; but if we know it was Aunt Lizzie who
took that picture while on her honeymoon, the picture
suddenly has more sentimental value. These associations
require information not contained in the photo itself.
Always label your pictures! The who/what/why/when/where
associated with an image makes a world of difference in how
it is valued by others. Never write on a print with a pen,
the ink may have chemicals that will damage the picture.
Write on the back, using a dark pencil, and don't press so
hard as to damage the front side. At a minimum, put the date
and names of persons shown and/or location of the photo. If
you store them in clear plastic sleeves, don't put two
pictures back-to-back in one sleeve -- leave the back
visible so you can see if there are any notes without having
to remove the picture from its sleeve.


With the advent of digital imaging, we have a whole new type
of image to deal with. It does not degrade, and can be
copied at little expense. It is also more easily
manipulated. Long-term storage is technology dependent, and
less predictable than the physical processes affecting
chemical photographs. Will CD's or DVD's made now be intact
a hundred years from now? Will there be machines capable of
reading them? Who knows? But the opportunity to duplicate
and distribute your images at minimal cost, with room to
include as much information as you want, rather than just
the little note that will fit on the back of a print, makes
this an attractive way to share your pictures. You can be
sure that when the time comes that the CD or DVD formats are
phased out, there will be a "window of opportunity" during
which time it will be easy to transfer the digital
information from those to whatever format replaces them.

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Andrew J. Morris
Andrew J. Morris

The author, Andrew J. Morris, is a writer, programmer,
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