Monday, August 24, 2015

Preservation at Home - Photographs


Last week I went over the nitty-gritty of preserving your precious, one-of-a-kind textual materials (err, papers, for non-archivists).  We discussed some ambient measures that can be taken to reduce, stop, or at least slow the progress of deterioration for paper documents and what the major concerns are when working with them (keep them upright if possible, flat and well-supported).  This week I am going to go over some tips for keeping those old photographs from turning into blank sheets of photo paper.

The three enclosures - Milar, polypropylene and an acid-free thumb cut sleeve


Photographs are tricky—they are composed of a chemical soup which may or may not contain various metals, plant dyes/inks and an emulsion layer which can be prone to getting sticky when it breaks down.  This is especially true for materials that were not properly developed.
As one of my mentors once said, if you want to truly preserve your photographs—scan them, then put the scanned copy in a frame and put your originals in a freezer pack.  This will halt the decay of chemical layers making up your photos.  An option, but one that will obviously be somewhat costly and then leaves you with a freezer full of photographs.  The first thing to do is stabilize the environment.  Much like my advice from last week, we need to get those photos into a box, and placed in an area of your domicile that experiences the least fluctuation in temperature and humidity.  This will keep them from warping, the inks from running and the emulsion from getting tacky.  Once you’ve found a suitable place then the next step is to evaluate any current issues—this means, are they 1) in a scrapbook with a glue backing, 2) a scrapbook with light adhesive and static bond sheets, 3) in a shoe box, or 4) taped to something . . . .  #’s 2 and 3 are your best starting point.  If you have photos in a shoe box, leave them there—perhaps add some cardboard (acid free) to ensure vertical stability and flatness, but other than that you are in a good place.  If you want to “go big” on this, you can purchase some polypropylene sleeves from an archival supply company to ensure your photos are well-encapsulated.  If you have a static-bond scrapbook, then life is not too bad—usually there will be little if any damage from the scrapbook, so just lift the sheets and slide the photos out, put them in a box and find the magic place in your home to keep them.  Feel free to spend as much as you want on archival supplies.  Outside of the polypropylene, you may want acid-free, thumb cut sleeves for the polypropylene enclosed photos.  Sounds like a lot, well, the reason for the additional sleeve is you can write on the sleeve (names, dates, locations) and not on the precious photograph.  If you have employed adhesives, whether they be glue or tape, then you, my friend, have your cut out for you.  You must remove the images from any contact with anything sticky.  Glues will slowly seep into the substrata of your photo and wreak havoc!  Tape tends to tear out precious parts of the image (content loss) when removed, so be judicious with your methods.  Use a hair dryer to re-activate the adhesive and liberate your photos from the tyranny of their sticky captors, then proceed to do as much preservation as you feel necessary to make sure no further damage occurs.

Archival shoe box, not for shoes
So keep those bad boys away from water, naturally and fire, of course—but also light.  UV light can destroy photos in a few short years depending on exposure levels.  Even a photo in the back of a dark hallway that receives 1-2 hours UV exposure per day will eventually turn into a freaky image of ghost friends and relatives as the definition fades like a bad rock & roll outro.  So keep those photons away from your photos and you should be doing great.

Move those photos to a dark stable place, and you’ve won the battle against degradation.  You may not win the war (long term, permanent conservation of your photos) , but don’t worry about that—no one will.

This should have been posted on Friday last week, but time got away from me again.  So, you can expect another post from this week dealing with digital materials. 

Till then,
Max

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