Caring for Photographs
Photographs have become so popular in our everyday lives that we often forget these objects are easily damaged by improper handling, storage and exposure to environmental conditions. In general terms, a photograph is made up of an emulsion which comprises the light sensitive material that creates the image. This emulsion is on a support which can be made of paper, metal, glass, fabric and even stone. Additional elements may include hand-coloring dyes.
Photographs should be stored in cool, low humidity, well-ventilated low light space. If too much heat or humidity is present, mold and mildew will grow, possibly causing severe damage to the photographs. Preventing damage before it happens slows down or prevents the need for substantial photograph restoration. Storing photographs in areas where rapid temperature or humidity changes occur can lead to condensation which not only encourages mold growth but can also cause the emulsion to separate from the support and stick to other surfaces. Ideally photographs should be stored at 68 degrees Fahrenheit while color photographs and film negatives should be stored in cooler temperatures at about 30 – 40 degrees. Humidity should be maintained at 30 – 40%. Photographs should not be stored in basements or attics, where temperature or humidity can fluctuate greatly and potential water damage may occur from flooding or leaking roofs.
The manner in which photographs are stored is as important as where they are kept. By their very nature, photographs are light-sensitive. For this reason photographs should be stored in light-tight boxes, folios or albums to delay the need for photo restoration. These storage containers should be made of chemically stable paper or plastics. Film negatives can be stored in buffered enclosures but these should be kept separate from printed photographs. Storing them in separate locations is a good idea since the images could become damaged by fire or flood and reprints can be made from negatives. Consider scanning and copying your important photographs on a CD and separately storing a copy in case of fire or flood. Albums should be made of acid free paper and should not have self-adhesive pages as these can cause discoloration. Archival photo corners are an excellent way to attach photos to pages without applying any adhesive to the actual photograph. It is suggested that even albums be stored in acid-free, tightly sealed boxes as the gelatin often used in photographic emulsions is attractive food for insects.
Because of their sensitivity to light, photographs should only be displayed for short periods of time. When they are displayed they should be protected from all direct light and framed in archival materials with UV-protective glass. If you wish to display a photograph in less than ideal conditions, it may be a good idea to have a digital reproduction made. The reproduction can be kept on display and the original, more fragile photograph can be preserved.
Proper handling can prevent some damage to photographs. Clean white cotton gloves should be worn while handling photographs. Oils from hands, lotions and other sources can mark the image’s surface and may not be reversible. Never use ink to mark photographs or enclosures. Instead, use a soft lead pencil on the reverse side of the photograph.
CLEANING AND CARE
Since even the slightest abrasion can damage a photograph, it is important to use only a very soft clean brush to dust the surface. Move from the center to the edges, not straight across. No solvents should be used as these can also damage and even remove the emulsion of the photograph. Should photographs adhere to framing glass or each other, do not try to separate them yourself. Contact an experienced photograph restorer/conservator as soon as possible. Do not attempt to mend tears by using ordinary tape as this can damage the image.
Always keep the areas where photographs are handled or stored clean and pest-free. It is vital that collection areas be free of debris that might encourage pests. Food and beverages should not be stored near the photographs. Apart from the potential for attracting pests, accidental spills can irreversibly damage most photographic objects.
COMMON CONCERNS AND SOLUTIONS
The following problems are commonly encountered in photographic collections:
Wet photographs: In many cases, wet photographs may be salvaged by very carefully separating them (if they appear stuck together, do not attempt to separate them since they may tear or pull emulsion from the support). Place pieces of wax paper (slightly bigger than the largest photo) between each photograph, put the stack of photos into a zip-lock bag and freeze the entire package until you can put in the hands of a trained photograph restoration specialist.
Soiled photographs or negatives: Brush soiled photographs carefully with a clean, soft brush. Proceed from the center of the photograph outward towards the edges. Do not attempt to clean photographs with water-based or solvent-based cleaners, such as window cleaner or film cleaner. Improper cleaning of photographic materials can cause serious and often irreversible damage such as permanent staining, abrasion, alteration or loss of binder and image.
Photographs or negatives adhered to enclosure: High-humidity environments or direct exposure to liquids can cause photographs to adhere to frame glass or enclosure materials. This is a very difficult problem to resolve and great care must be taken to reduce the possibility of further damage. If a photograph becomes attached to adjacent materials, consult a photographic materials conservator before attempting to remove the adhered materials.
Deteriorated negatives: Chemical instability is a major factor in the deterioration of early film-based materials. If film-based negatives are brittle, discolored, sticky or appear wavy and full of air bubbles, separate the negatives from the rest of the collection and consult a photographic materials conservator or photograph restoration specialist. A conservator can provide photo restoration and will be able to help identify these materials and make recommendations for their safe storage or duplication.
Broken Ambrotypes (old photo negatives on glass): Carefully place broken glass negative pieces in archival paper enclosures. Use a separate, clearly marked enclosure for each piece to reduce the possibility of scratching or further damaging the negative. Consult a photographic materials conservator or photograph restoration specialist for assistance.