If you are like me you love old photographs. I love them enough to collect and rescue them from thrift shops, yard sales, estate sales, antique stores, et c. when I know good and well they aren’t pictures of my relatives. Some of these photos are labeled with names and locations and I try very hard to reunite a photograph with its rightful owner or descendant.
One such photograph I acquired from free-cycle. A lady gave away a big shoe box full of old photographs. The oldest one was a portrait of a 6 month old baby taken in 1908. I put a query out on Ancestry.com
and got a response several days later. I was totally thrilled and so was this little fella's granddaughter. I sent the photo half way across the country to her. Her family did not have any photographs of her grandfather as a child, much less alone a baby. It was so very fulfilling to make that happen for them.
The subject of this post is how to care for these photographs so they can be honored and enjoyed by generations to come.
Photographs are sensitive to their environment. Changes in the temperature and amount of moisture in the air can cause them to shrink and swell, weakening them. Excessive moisture can cause them to mold, while being too dry can cause the photographs to crack, break, and split. Photographs should be kept in a temperature and humidity controlled environment, such as under air condition, but not too low. They can stand up to lower temperatures, but when brought into a warmer room for viewing condensation forms and that is a problem. Most generally, storing on the first floor of your house on an inside wall is best as it has the least amount of temperature and humidity change. As stated, high humidity is not good, but low humidity, even though it can help prevent certain chemical changes like oxidation, is not good either. Try to keep photographs at 30-50% relative humidity.
Acid is very damaging to photographs. Acid is found in the very paper the photographs are printed on, but it is also found in materials that they are stored in and also on our fingers. You can see this damage when you inspect your photographs, they will be discolored and darkened or yellowed. Acid must be removed from the surroundings or it should be neutralized or buffered.
The best choice is to use archival quality materials for anything that touches the photographs. This means the items are acid-free and lignin-free. These products are widely available from archival supply stores, craft stores and camera supply stores. Look for mat boards, storage boxes, glassine sleeves, et c. Check out Light Impressions or Archival USA, Make sure that any plastic used is polyethylene, don’t use PVC. Never use those sticky magnetic pages, those are sure disaster for photographs.
For framed photographs, use UV protective glass or UV filtering Plexiglas to protect against dust or mishaps, but make sure you use spacers or a mat board to keep some space between the glass and photograph. Metal frames are better for photographs than wooden ones, as wood is organic and releases substances harmful to photographs. Store or hang your photographs out of direct sunlight and rotate them to limit their exposure. Loose photographs can be kept in glassine envelopes and stored flat in acid-free boxes.
Negatives should be stored separately from the photographs for a couple reasons. They release acidic gases as they age which will break down the photographs. They can be stored in glassine envelopes as well. It is also a good idea to keep them separate from the originals in case of fire or some other event.
Consider making copies of your precious originals for display and keeping the originals in dark storage. Only use pencil for writing on enclosures or, only when absolutely necessary, on the backs of photographs. Always wash your hands before handling photographs and consider wearing clean white cotton gloves to prevent oil from fingers to get on photographs.
Following these methods will give your photographs the best chance of a long life.