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and Memories

Preserving images from our past isn’t necessarily a scientific process. It just takes time.





Professional photography greats like Luke Swank and Teenie Harris went to great lengths to preserve the products of their labor. (See articles on pages 16 and 34.) Decades later, the digital revolution has made the storing and preservation of photo images a no-brainer. But the baby-boomer generation and the generations before it didn’t have the luxury of storing lifelong memories on disk. Most are in boxes or photo albums—storage methods that are hardly fool-proof, a point made painfully clear after the recent flooding of New Orleans.

Since the birth of photography in 1839 and the invention of the daguerreotype (the first commercially used photographic process), people around the world have been enthralled with photography’s ability to preserve the moment. And for almost as long, people have been anxious to protect their photographs and the personal memories and history they represent.

Bernadette Callery, museum librarian for Carnegie Museum of Natural History, explains that every type of photograph is a complex interaction of material, surfaces, and development processes—and all are “intrinsically fragile.” And regardless of their age and type, they have a common enemy—deterioration.

If your photos are in good condition and you’d like to keep them that way, experts agree that you need to keep several factors in mind: storage materials, environmental conditions, and handling.

The Steps to Preservation
According to Miriam Meislik, archivist/ photograph curator at the University of Pittsburgh, you don’t need to be an expert to protect photographs—you simply need to use care. “Certain types of photographs, such as ‘albumin’ prints from the 1880s to 1890s, have special storage requirements,” says Meislik. “Since most people don’t know what types of photos they have, I recommend sticking with the most conservative storage methods that will work for all types of paper photographs.”

1. Choose the Right Storage Materials
Meislik says the Internet has opened up a world of materials and information that formerly was available exclusively for conservators and librarians. For instance, the same materials that she uses for the University of Pittsburgh’s collections are available to everyone at
a reasonable price. (See resources at end of article.)

Starting with albums and binders is fine, as long as you use unbuffered, acid-free paper and photo corners, and never use adhesives or “magnetic” photo album pages. Both buffered and unbuffered paper is available, and either would be fine. Meislik opts for unbuffered paper as a general rule because some types of older photos require it. As an alternative, polypropylene, polyethylene, or Mylar sleeves or pages are fine, but again, she warns that all plastic sleeves are not photo safe. “Be sure you know what you’re buying before using clear sleeves,” she warns.
If you want to store your photos in boxes, you’ll again need to choose the right materials. Your photos can be wrapped or separated by unbuffered, acid-free paper and stored in special photo-safe boxes that are sold in an array of sizes. To avoid crumbling or cracking, never stack fragile photos on top of one another. They should be individually wrapped and supported, if necessary, by more of the same paper, before placing them in your photo-safe boxes.

2. Choose the Right Environment
Humidity, heat, and light are the enemies of photo prints and negatives, so you’ll want to avoid the attic and the basement. An ideal spot is a dark closet shelf on an interior wall of the house, where your photos will be safe under dry, dark, relatively cool conditions. “Please do not put mothballs
in with your photos!” says Meislik, who has seen many photographs ruined by the strong chemicals. “Don’t even be tempted!”

3. Handle Your Photos With Care
When it comes to handling your photographs, abide by the the adage “less is more.” Hold photos by the edges to avoid getting oil or dirt on the surface. If your photos are extremely old or valuable, you may even want to go “pro” and wear white cotton gloves.

After the Flood
Here’s what Callery recommends in the immediate aftermath of water damage:

  • Use both hands to support wet photographs, as they are fragile.
  • Rinse off mud with clean water, but avoid touching the image surface.
  • Lay your photos in a single layer on a clean flat surface and allow them to air dry. Avoid exposing them to direct sunlight.
  • Photos that are stuck together should be rinsed with clean water, then sealed in a zipper type plastic bag and placed in the freezer. At a later time, your frozen photographs can be defrosted, separated, and air dried.

Advice for Old Photos: Consult the Experts
If you have old photographs in frames or older photographs such as daguerreotypes or ambrotypes in their telltale decorative cases, resist the urge to open them. “The best advice is to leave them alone if they seem okay,” says Meislik.

Framed photographs, especially those without a mat or space between the glass and the photo, can get stuck to the glass and tear when you try to remove them. In addition, Meislik explains that the decorative cases of ambrotypes and daguerreotypes help to seal out moisture and dirt.
If you want to clean these photos, she recom- mends that you take them to an experienced conservator rather than attempting any cleaning yourself. And you’d be wise to follow the same advice for any damaged or deteriorating photos.

If you don’t know where to find a professional conservator, send an email to Miriam Meislik for guidance:

Online Resources
To Purchase Photo-Safe Storage Materials:

Care of Photographs:

Identifying Types of Photographs:

Descriptions and Examples of Photo Types:

Salvaging Water-Damaged Valuables:

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