For many archivists and family historians, digitized photographs are the way to go now. Scanning old or antique photos preserves them in sense, before they physically break down and literally fade out of existence. But, we we still have to do our best to keep the wolf from the door and preserve what we can pf these old treasures. Whether you hold your family’s archives or are a collector of old photographs from flea markets, storing and caring for them requires some very specific knowledge.
Different Types of Photographs
Ever wonder home some photographs can still look great after 150 years while others are already faded only a few decades after they were taken? The difference is not only in the storage of the photo but in the type of photo itself. Each type of photo has different weaknesses and it’s important to note how your storage may be affecting various photographs differently.
Albumen prints were created almost exclusively during the 19th century and are prone to foxing (those brownish spots that can obscure the image and the mat). Albumen prints are often mounted on a heavier substrate such a cardboard, which can cause damage to the print over years. These types of images can also be prone to crazing and silvering with age. Many cabinet cards are albumen prints. Unmounted these prints will often curl or tear because the paper is so very thin.
Ambro Types, tin types, daguerrotypes, and other early-photography prints are often printed on glass or tin, sometimes with elegant brass borders or clamshell cases. Due to their more durable medium, these photographs are often seen with scratches and other signs of abuse because they were handled rougher than paper prints.
Polaroids are one of the least archival types of prints. Sensitive to heat, light, and moisture (despite their polyester base) these prints are subject to fading rather quickly when compared to other prints.
All color prints will fade in perceivable ways even within a few short years. We many notice less fading with black and white or sepia images, but with color prints the distortion of color becomes apparent very quickly. The reason many old color prints fade to a reddish or pinkish tone is because in many types of color printing the magenta color is one of the most stable and fades last.
Keeping photos safe for the long haul means protecting the prints from their worst enemies: heat, sunlight, moisture, abrasion, and materials that off gas. Paperclips, adhesives, and even storing them on a wooden shelf can contribute to their deterioration.
Those stick-in photo albums that we once loved to pieces are not good for prints (they also loose their stick after a while). It is recommended that negatives and color photos be stored separately from black and white prints.
Handling and Display
Acid-free display options are always ideal, and that includes everything that might touch or be near the photos- frames, mats, photo albums, folders, boxes – you name it.
There’s nothing that can be done to bring a Polaroid back to life once it has faded, but keeping yours away from light can help preserve it for the future. Some go so far as to limit exposure to any light at all, only taking them out on rare occasions. Even just displaying photos in your den can ultimately lead to their demise.
Two killers for many types of prints are wooden frames and acidic mats, and they are both frequently found surrounding many of our treasured family photos. It’s hard to justify removing an 1890s photo from its original wooden frame, but sometimes that’s what needs to happen in order to preserve the photo.
We hope these resources and tips will help you maintain your photo collections for years to come. And remember to treat your old photos gently!