Last month we posted up some basic pointers for the preservation of personal papers, including a few general guidelines for the care of photographs. This post will focus specifically on photographs to allow for additional detail in the suggestions for their particular care.
Since their invention in 1839, photographs have become such a common feature of most people’s lives that it is easy to forget how vulnerable they are. When considering how to handle, care for, store, and display your photographs it may be helpful to bear in mind that a photographic image is the result of a chemical reaction which occurs when light-sensitized material is exposed to light. Most importantly, this chemical reaction does not stop once the image has been captured, it is merely temporarily interrupted. So from that point onwards the length of a print’s life depends, amongst other things, on being able to prevent this chemical reaction from continuing until the image is lost. This is done primarily through limiting exposure to heat and light. Despite a photograph’s seemingly robust appearance, it is probably the least durable and most easily damaged of all image types.
Of course, a photograph can be created by one of many processes, and images have been made on a variety of materials ranging from glass and paper to metal or plastics. While each photographic process is unique, and photographs can vary dramatically in appearance and format, there are things which can be done to help preserve them for as long as possible.
Some of the following have already been mentioned in the previous blog post, they are included again here for completeness sake.
- Ensure hands and working surfaces are clean, dust-free and dry and only hold photographs, slides, and negatives at the very edges. Finger prints cannot be removed and attract dirt so, ideally, white cotton, vinyl or nitrile powder free disposable gloves should be worn.
- Try to keep items on a flat surface for support and, when carrying items from place to place, use a box lid or tray – particularly if you are working on large photographs, glass negatives or lantern slides. If you have a large collection of photographs and again particularly if you are working with glass negatives, it may be worth covering a stiff piece of card with several layers of white tissue and using it as a work surface. You can tear off a layer of tissue as it becomes dirty and the pad you have made will act as a cushion should you accidentally lose your grip on the glass.
- Do not force curled/folded items open as this will cause damage. If your photographs are loose and beginning to curl, store them face down to stop this from getting worse until you can put them into sleeves or mount them.
- Cased photographs such as daguerreotypes should not be dismantled even if only to change a damaged cover glass. The image on the support surface is not ‘fixed’ and the slightest disturbance will cause irretrievable loss. It is advisable to seek the advice of a Conservation professional regarding care and storage of these items.
- Do not leave your photographs out in the light unnecessarily. Cover prints you are not working on or looking at – or turn them face down. Even short bursts of exposure to light will contribute to a photograph fading and colour photographs are especially vulnerable.