The Care of Personal Photographs

Old Photographs

The series “From the Archives” regularly features an article from the archives of our quarterly journal. The following article by Stephanie Watkins appeared in the Summer 1997 issue of the White River Valley Historical Society Quarterly.

Editor’s note: All of you have historic photographs which bring the power of imagination and interpretation to our collective past. We should give our photographs their just due and plan for their survival and use. Missouri’s Senior Conservator at the State Archives has offered some suggestions for us.

We see photographic images reproduced everywhere and we take them for granted. However, photographs are extremely complex and fragile materials, often with unique images which benefit greatly from careful handling and storage. Before your photographs are lost, there are some simple things you can do to help preserve them for future generations.

The environment you and your computer equipment prefers is also suitable for photographs. Constant humidity (45–50% relative humidity) and temperature (68–70° F) year round is a good start toward preserving your collections. You can use dehumidifiers in the summer and humidifiers in the winter to help create a stable environment. The air should also be as clean as possible, filtered to remove dust, dirt, smoke, and pollution. Regularly change the filters on your air intakes on heaters and air conditioners and avoid smoking in your home. Likewise, dust, sweep, and vacuum regularly. Dust can discolor and scratch photographic surfaces and provides food sources for mold and insects.

The place you choose to store your collection can also effect the life of your photographs. Attics are too hot or cold; basements and garages are too damp and cold; bathrooms, kitchens, laundry rooms, have water pipes and high humidity conditions which are damaging; areas near radiators and heat vents are too warm and dry and fireplaces are sooty and dirty. Which leaves you with maybe a bedroom or a closet in the interior of your home! Fortunately, these can be a good places for storage of personal collections.

Ironically, light creates photographs and also harms them. The best way to preserve a photograph is not to frame it and put it on display, but to store it in good quality materials. Negatives can be reprinted if cared for over the years, but many of your most treasured photographs (weddings, christenings, ancestors) will not have negatives from which to reprint. You can have a color copier print made for a few dollars which you can display for a few years before the dye colors fade, or you can have an negative made off your old photograph and a new display print made for your enjoyment. To help the longevity of any photographic item (duplicate or original), consider changing to low wattage tungsten-range light bulbs. Avoid displaying photographs in direct sun light or under picture lamps. Avoid putting table lamps directly beside framed photographs.

How can you tell what is a good quality material? The Photographic Activity Test (“P.A.T.” ANSI IT9.16–1994) is designed to give an indication whether materials will be safe for long term use and storage with photographic materials. Many manufacturers are now advertising materials which have met these specifications and passed the test. Generally speaking, paper materials which are of rag or cotton source fibers, and are neutral in pH or have a mild alkaline reserve (around pH 8.0) will be suitable for most photographic materials. The knowledge we gain in this area is expanding daily and former recommendations of non-alkaline materials have changed. There are some specific photographic processes which are sensitive to alkalinity, however. When in doubt, it is safer to opt for non-alkaline materials. Additionally, there are only three plastics which are suitable for use with photographic materials. They are: un-plasticized, un-coated polyethylene; un-plasticized, un-coated polypropylene; and un-plasticized, un-coated polyester terephthalate (commercial products are DuPont’s MYLAR Type D, ICIs Melinex 516, and 3M’s Industrial Grade Scotchpar Polyester Film). These materials can be purchased from mail-order suppliers in ever increasing format variations to suit almost any size, style, or need. (See the list of suppliers at the end of this article).

There are materials known to be damaging to photographs and unfortunately they are often used in photographic storage systems. So called “magnetic albums” have damaging adhesives which will lighten your images. Albums with acidic black papers are problems, especially if they get wet. Choose good quality paper when creating new albums. Glassine and kraft paper enclosures are chemically damaging to photographic materials. Replace these housing envelopes with ones of good quality. Make sure boxes are made of good quality materials or of metal, such as stainless steel. Wooden boxes and cardboard boxes such as shoe boxes are generally unsuitable for preservation storage.

Attachments such as pressure-sensitive tapes (cellophane, Scotch, Magic Mending, archival, masking, duct, etc.), “Post-It-Notes,” cold mounts, spray mounts, and glue sticks have damaging adhesives which can permanently alter or destroy a photo graph. Use good quality paper or polyester corners for mounting your photographic memories into albums. Likewise, metal paper clips, metal pins and rubber bands can cause irreversible staining (rust) and fading (sulfur from the rubber) and should be removed prior to storage for the safety of the photographs.

Writing on your photographs is very damaging. It can cause cracking of the image and the inks can “bleed” through permanently staining or fading the image. In short, it destroys the photograph. If you must write identification on a photograph, use a pencil on a hard table top and mark on the reverse border, not across the center front or back. Better still, write your identifying descriptions in pencil on the housing before putting the photograph or negative in the sleeve, folder, or envelope. Markers which are designed for use on polyester are also available through commercial vendors.

If you use and access your photographs frequent ly, consider wearing latex or cotton gloves to protect the images from dirt or oils off your hands. The prop er way to hold a photograph is by the edges, instead of by a corner with your thumb or finger over the image area. For additional protection, individually place your photographs in polyester sleeves.

Cased photographs are becoming rarer all the time and present special problems to the collector. It is best to leave these photographs in their cases. Popular methods of removing them from the cases are damaging to the case and/or photograph and can be the cause of rapid deterioration to the photograph. Photographic processes that were cased, specifically daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes, have sensitive image layers which cannot withstand touching or scratching. Store them in a good quality box or stainless steel drawer.

Lastly, consult with a photographic conservator if your items need care. Free referrals of professional conservators can be obtained by calling the American Institute for Conservation at (202) 452–9545.

Annotated Bibliography

The Identification of Nineteenth Century Photographic Prints, by James Reilly (Rochester, NY: Kodak, 1986) is a helpful reference for learning more about historic processes and care of these materials.

If you are interested in the care of contemporary photographic materials, a good reference is The Permanence and Care of Color Photographs: Traditional and Digital Color Prints, Color Negatives, Slides, and Motion Pictures, by Henry Wilhelm (Iowa: Preservation Publishing Co, 1993).

For additional general care information, consult Caring for Your Collections, General Editor Arthur W Schultz (Washington, D.C.: The National Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Property, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1992).


This listing of some commercial conservation suppliers is given as information purposes only and is not to be construed as an endorsement. Any resulting transactions are between the buyer (you) and seller. Alphabetically:

Further information

Missouri Office of Secretary of State
State Archives and Local Records Preservation Program
P. O. Box 778
Jefferson City, MO 65102
(573) 526–3866

This article by Stephanie Watkins, originally appeared in the White River Valley Historical Society Quarterly Volume 37, Number 1—Summer 1997. Click here to browse or search the archives of the Quarterly.

About White River Valley Historical Society

The WRVHS exists to preserve, protect, and promote the cultural history of Taney County, Missouri, and the upper White River Valley region through public programs and educational events.

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