How to Store and Preserve Photographs

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Staff Sergeant Major Gregory Van Pelt With His Dog Butcher Pictured Successfully Completing 47 Hours of Drunken Debauchery, 1915

My mother tells me that I shouldn’t wash lights with darks when I do laundry. When I was a kid, I just ignored the advice and washed my laundry willy nilly. Now that I am an adult, I understand the advice a heck of a lot better. Just as we preserve books and paper in one way, we preserve physical photographs in a similar but slightly different way and for many of the same-ish reasons as why we separate lights and darks when we do our laundry.

If you are of a certain age (pre-digital camera in other words and yes, I just realized that using that statement has made me “old”), then you probably have photographs that you took using a SLR camera where you had to take the film in to be developed.  Even if you grew up in the all digital era, you might have inherited physical photographs from family.  There are a lot of different types of photographs, especially the further back in time we go.  This post is NOT meant to be a comprehensive guide on how to preserve every type of photograph, but instead is aimed at good rules of thumb to help those photos last longer.

Developing a photograph is a chemically intensive process.  Where books will have acidic paper, photographs are contending with a wide variety of paper types and chemicals that will cause all sorts of problems.  If you have film negatives or family movies, then you might have a completely different problem known as vinegar syndrome. You’ll smell vinegar syndrome long before you will see it.  If your film stocks smell vinegary, immediately isolate the films and try to determine which ones have been affected.  If you must keep the contents of those films, and you have vinegar syndrome, contact a conservationist immediately as once you have vinegar syndrome, the degradation process accelerates and spreads to other films (which is why you isolate).  Conservation is costly, so be prepared.

Negatives and films aside, what could your pictures be facing?  Most commonly, again, depending on the type of picture, is an issue where the layers separate.  Think of a photograph as a sandwich.  You’ve got the paper layer on the bottom and then different chemical layers on top to make the image. Keeping the layers from separating is the goal with proper storage.

As you prepare to move, you are more than likely going to go through your photographs and make decisions about what to keep and what to get rid of.  As you do that, also think about how your photographs are stored. Moving is stressful, but it can also be a great time for repairing bad habits.

How should you store photographs?

Just like paper, photographs fade in light.  Keeping them out of the light, including artificial light, will go a long way in helping them survive longer.  If you want to display photographs in photo frames (as many people do), I strongly recommend getting a second copy made either from the original or better, from the film.  Any good museum will have originals on display for only a short time.  If the display is going to be up for a long time, then a copy is made of the original and it is the copy that is displayed.

Your pictures should be stored in a cool, dry, and dark, place.  Optimally, this would be 30-40% humidity, enclosed in a cabinet, and a temperature range of say between 50-70F.  Since most of us don’t typically control our environments that specifically, aim for cool, dry, and dark.  Just like books, do not put your photographs in the attic, basement, bathroom, or kitchen.  All of these environments have wide temperature and humidity swings which will cause a lot of damage over time.

Ideally, your photographs should be housed in vinyl sleeves.  As this might be more intensive then you are comfortable with, using computer paper to create a barrier layer between photographs will work just as well.  Again, we want to separate acid from acid.  These days, computer paper is alkaline and will work just fine as a barrier layer.

When you are handling your photographs, make sure your hands are clean as the oils on your hands will leave prints and contribute to the breakdown of photographs over time.  Try to handle them by the edges and not actually touch the picture side.  If you are going to be handling a lot of photos, you might want to use a pair of clean cotton gloves.

Many of us have our picture in albums or scrapbooks.  This isn’t a bad thing but a lot depends on how the photographs were put into those albums.  If adhesives were used, it will strongly depend on the adhesive.  The photographs will be fine for awhile, but as the decades go by, the adhesives will definitely impact the life of the photograph.  If you must write on the photographs, mark on the back only and with light pencil.  Ideally, you wouldn’t write on them at all, but lets be realistic, as parents and grandparents age, we want to capture who is in the photographs that we have.  As I painfully learned several years ago, the time to do a genealogy project is not after many of the previous generation has died, but that is a post for another time.

What about moving?

Pack the photographs in boxes so that they aren’t going to shift around a lot.  If your photos aren’t going to be sitting in a shipping container or truck for more than a few days (though realize that there is always risk here), then they should probably be fine.  Any photographs that are of particular value to you, and especially ones from the 1800s, should probably move with you in your car as they are going to be more delicate/valued.

Photographs tell us a lot about our families but also about the world that they came from.  When I think about the life of my maternal grandmother for instance, she saw the development of cars, computers, television, and new methods of cooking that utilized things like refrigeration, food processors, and microwaves.  When I look at photos of her as a young woman, I see a very different world than the one I am used to.  Those photographs make me feel connected to her and to the time she came from.  With a little extra care, your photographs are going last a long time.  Good luck!

JJ Pionke

JJ is an Academic Librarian.In her spare time, she reads a lot, rides her motorcycle, and plays video games.

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