How To: Caring For Your Photographs (author attribute below)
Photographs are potentially fragile objects that can be easily damaged by careless handling, improper storage, and exposure to light, humidity and extreme temperature.
MAINTAINING A SUITABLE ENVIRONMENT
Photographic materials require a cool, dry, well-ventilated storage environment. High temperature and relative humidity increase deterioration and promote the growth of mold and mildew, which could mar surfaces and break down binder layers. Avoid storing photographs in the attic, the basement, or along the outside walls of a building, where environmental conditions are more prone to extremes and fluctuations and where condensation may occur. In some storage situations, seasonal adjustments such as dehumidifiers in the summer or fans to promote air circulation may be necessary to improve problematic environmental conditions.
The ideal storage conditions for most photographs are a temperature of 68 F and relative humidity in the range of 30 - 40%. Film-based negatives and contemporary color photographs benefit from storage in cooler environments of 30 - 40 F and 30 - 40% relative humidity.
CHOOSING STORAGE ENCLOSURES
Keep photographic materials in enclosures that protect them from dust and light and provide physical support during use. Chemically stable plastic or paper enclosures, free of sulfur, acids, and peroxides, are recommended. Plastic sleeves should be constructed of uncoated polyester, polypropylene, or polyethylene. For most photographic materials, unbuffered paper enclosures are preferred over buffered enclosures. Alkaline buffering is added to archival storage papers to absorb acidity from the stored material or the environment surrounding it. However, some photographs may be altered by the buffering in alkaline papers, so unbuffered paper is recommended for most processes. Film-based negatives, which can produce acidic gasses as they age, should be placed in archival, buffered enclosures and stored separately from other photographic materials. Store cased objects, such as daguerreotypes and ambrotypes, in their original cases or frames with the addition of custom-made, four-flap paper enclosures to reduce wear and tear on fragile cases. Place individually housed prints, negatives, and cased objects in acid-free, durable boxes that will afford further protection from light, dust, and potential environmental fluctuations.The storage of photographs in albums serves the dual purpose of organizing groups of images while protecting them from physical and environmental damage. Albums can be wonderful sources of historic and genealogical information. Preserve them intact when possible and store them in custom-fitted archival boxes. For the storage of family photographs, albums constructed with archival materials are available from conservation suppliers. Magnetic or self-adhesive albums can be detrimental to photographs and should not be used.
Photographs should be protected from extended exposure to intense light sources. Limit exhibition times, control light exposure, and monitor the condition of the photographs carefully. Prolonged or permanent display of photographs is not recommended. It is important to note that a microenvironment is created when a photograph is placed in a frame for exhibition. Use unbuffered ragboard mats, and frame photographs with archivally sound materials. Use ultraviolet filtering plexiglass to help protect the photographs during light exposure. Reproduce vulnerable or unique images and display the duplicate image; in this way, the original photograph can be properly stored and preserved.
An overlooked area of collection maintenance is keeping the areas where photographs are handled or stored clean and pest-free. Paper fibers, albumen, and gelatin binders are just some of the components in photographic materials that provide an attractive food source for insects and rodents. It is vital that collections areas be free of debris that might encourage pests. Food and beverages should not be allowed. Apart from the potential for attracting pests, accidental spills can irreversibly damage most photographic objects.
Most damage to photographs results from poor handling. A well-organized and properly housed collection promotes respect for the photographs and appropriate care in handling. When images can be located quickly, there is less possibility of physical damage. The enclosures should be designed in relation to the intended use of the photographs, as well as their type and condition.
Establish handling procedures and adhere to them whenever photographs are being used. View photographs in a clean, uncluttered area, and handle them with clean hands. Wear white cotton gloves to lessen the possibility of leaving fingerprints and soiling the materials; however, gloves may reduce the manual dexterity of the user. Support photographs carefully and hold them with both hands to avoid damage. Keep photographs covered when they are not being viewed immediately. Do not use ink pens around photographic materials. Mark enclosures with pencil only. If it is necessary to mark a photograph, write lightly with a soft lead pencil on the reverse of the image.
Disaster preparedness begins by evaluating the storage location and the potential for damage in the event of a fire, flood, or other emergency. It is important to create a disaster preparedness plan that addresses the specific needs of the collection before a disaster occurs.
The location and manner in which photographs are housed can be the first line of defense. Identify photographic materials that are at higher risk of damage or loss. Remove all potentially damaging materials such as paper clips and poor-quality enclosures. Store negatives and prints in separate locations to increase the possibility of an image surviving a catastrophe. If a disaster occurs, stay calm. If possible, protect the collection from damage by covering it with plastic sheeting and/or removing it from the affected area. Evaluate the situation and document the damage that has occurred. Contact a conservator as soon as possible for assistance and advice on the recovery and repair of damaged materials.
COMMON CONCERNS AND SOLUTIONS
The following problems are commonly encountered in photographic collections:
Broken, torn, or cracked photographs: If the primary support of a photograph sustains serious damage, place it carefully in a polyester sleeve with an archival board support. If a photograph has a flaking binder layer or friable surface treatments, such as the pastel coloring often seen on crayon enlargements, place it in a shallow box, not a polyester sleeve. Do not use pressure-sensitive adhesive tapes to repair torn photographs. Consult a photographic materials conservator to perform repairs.
Soiled photographs or negatives: Brush soiled photographs carefully with a clean, soft brush. Proceed from the center of the photograph outward toward the edges. Do not attempt to clean photographs with water- 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 enclosures: 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. A conservator will be able to help identify these materials and make recommendations for their safe storage and/or duplication.
Broken glass negatives or ambrotypes: Place broken glass carefully in archival paper enclosures. Use a separate, clearly marked enclosure for each piece to reduce the possibility of scratching or further damage. For long-term storage, construct a custom sink mat that holds the pieces of broken glass, separated by mat-board shims, in one enclosure. Consult a photographic materials conservator for assistance.
Baldwin, Gordon.Looking at Photographs. Malibu, CA: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1991.
Fortson, Judith. Disaster Planning and Recovery: A How-To-Do-It Manual for Librarians and Archivists. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc., 1992.
Martin, Elizabeth. Collecting and Preserving Old Photographs. London: William Collins Sons & Co., Ltd., 1988.
Porro, Jennifer, ed. Photographic Preservation and the Research Library. Mountain View, CA: Research Libraries Group, Inc.
Reilly, James. Care and Identification of Nineteenth-Century Photographic Prints. Kodak Publication G-2S. Rochester, NY: Eastman Kodak Co., 1986.
Schultz, Arthur W., ed. Caring for Your Collections. New York: Harry
N. Abrams, Inc. 1992.
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