The life expectancy of a photograph is dependent upon the care and handling that it receives. Photographs can easily be damaged by improper handling, storage, display and framing. There are however, things that you can and should do to safeguard these important documents of your families past.
You can prevent most deterioration by keeping photographic materials in the proper environment. Never store photographs in an attic or basement where they are exposed to extreme temperatures and shifting humidity. Controlled relative humidity (RH) is probably the single most important factor in preserving photographs. Humidity levels above sixty percent can accelerate deterioration and damage to the sensitive surface of a photograph.
Extended exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light can fade and severely damage photographs.
Avoid touching fragile photographic materials as much as possible. Wear clean cotton gloves when handling negatives and prints to prevent the transfer of fingerprints and stains to the surface of the photograph.
Store photographs in protective sleeves and enclosures that are acid-free. Suitable plastic enclosures are made of uncoated polyester film, uncoated cellulose triacetate, polyethylene, and polypropylene. Keep in mind, that photographic emulsions may adhere to a plastic surface at high relative humidity (RH) levels. The RH must remain below eighty percent if plastic enclosures are used for storage. Plastic enclosures should not be used for glass plate, nitrate, or acetate-based negatives. Paper enclosures should be acid-free and lignin free. All storage materials should pass the ANSI Photographic Activity Test (PAT) which is noted in most supplier catalogs. Avoid using cardboard, rubber bands, paper clips, tape, ink pen or markers, rubber cement, silicone adhesives, PVC plastics, or albums that are constructed of colored pages, and use “magnetic” or “no stick” pages. These materials discolor and deteriorate quickly over time.
Photographs of historic value should be matted with acid-free rag or museum board for long-term protection. Mounting adhesives should not come in contact with the photograph. Matting should be done by an experienced framer or under the direction of a trained conservator. Store all prints and negatives that are matted or placed in paper or plastic enclosures in acid-free storage boxes. Negatives should be kept separate from prints.
Consider making digital copies of valued photographs that are stored at another location in the event of a fire, flood or accident.
Restoring Damaged Family Photographs
When disaster strikes, and family keepsakes become torn, stained, burned, wet or faded, there are two very different methods used to restore damaged photographs.
An experienced paper conservator can usually surface clean, mend tears, replace missing areas and perform limited restorations to restore and preserve the original photograph. A damage photograph can also be scanned or digitally reproduced to include invisible restorations that are truly remarkable.
- Handle photographs properly
- Do not expose to extreme temperatures and humidity
- Minimize exposure to Ultraviolet light
- Don’t leave fingerprints on photographs
- Store on protective acid-free sleeves
- Do not store in attic or basement
- Digitally copy important photographs