Posts Tagged ‘ photo storage ’
Welcome to the 10th and final in our series of blogs about how to understand and interpret your old family photos. In this series, Jayne Shrimpton, internationally recognised dress historian, portrait specialist, photo detective and regular contributor to Family Tree, Your Family History and Family History Monthly magazines, dates and analyses different types of photographs and helps you to add context to your old family pictures.
Family photographs may seem relatively commonplace items because they exist within a domestic setting and often in large numbers, but they need to be looked after carefully. Inherited studio portraits or amateur snapshots may have survived so far in remarkably good condition, or they may already be damaged.
Photographs can be surprisingly complex objects and may consist of several layers, each containing different substances that react to outside influences in various ways. Unfortunately this means that certain types of photograph deterioration are untreatable, so the best policy is to try to prevent commonly-occurring problems from happening in the first place.
There are many potential causes of damage and deterioration to photographs:
- High temperatures, which accelerate fading and tarnishing
- Exposure to light, especially sunlight, which causes fading of the image
- Damp conditions, which can produce mould, ‘foxing’ (dark spots) or discolouration
- Very dry conditions, which can cause brittleness, cracking and flaking
- Poor quality or inappropriate storage, framing and mounting methods, which may emit pollutants, leading to fading, discolouration and tarnishing. This can also cause tears and creases and staining from sticky adhesive tapes and album pages
- Some photographs are at risk from insect attack such as silverfish, woodworm, booklice and carpet beetle
- Handling causes further deterioration as dirt can scratch vulnerable surfaces, while fingers may leave prints and damaging moisture from the skin
Family photos tend to be passed around frequently because we enjoy looking at them and they are easily portable, but we shouldn’t underestimate their value as fragile historical artefacts. It is important to consider how they are stored, displayed and handled if they are to last in good condition for another hundred years, or more.
It is important to store and file photographs using boxes, envelopes or albums of suitable archival quality – see later section below. Once in an appropriate storage system, they should be kept in a cool location at home where surrounding conditions are neither very damp nor very dry – a stable environment ideally with a relative humidity within the range 30-40%. Old photographs, therefore, should not be stashed in damp basements or garages, or in stuffy, un-insulated lofts, but perhaps in a dark cupboard or spacious drawer, in a room where there are no significant fluctuations in temperature or humidity.
Daguerreotype and ambrotype frames and cases (see blog one) and old albums (see blog nine) should be regarded as integral to the photographic images they contain and in these instances it’s important to keep the whole artefact intact. If any elements have a problem – for example, if a hinged case is broken – this should be dealt with by a professional conservator who will use processes geared towards maintaining the integrity of the photograph in its original context (fig.1).
It is tempting to exhibit old family photographs where they can be seen; however, try to avoid displaying them at high light levels, or for long periods of time. Ultraviolet (UV) filtering glass helps to protect photographs during periods of light exposure. Any framing materials should also be of high quality. Ideally, make a copy print for display purposes, so that the original photograph isn’t exposed to the light.
Try to keep handling of precious original photographs to a minimum, but if it is necessary, make sure that hands are clean and dry. Ideally, wear lint-free cotton researchers’ gloves: there is currently some debate about the advisability of using gloves when handling fragile papers, but most professionals agree that they are important for working with photographs (fig.2).
In addition, hold photographs by their edges and use a supporting base, such as stiff paper or card to move particularly fragile photographs. Scanning photographs (see below) then storing them suitably, working instead from printed copies or from digital image files on the computer, saves regular handling of the fragile originals.
For more detailed expert advice about looking after photographs, visit the website of the Institute of Conservation. The downloadable Icon leaflet, Care and Conservation of Photographic Materials, offers further information (fig.3).
If, as the family custodian of photographic heirlooms, you are in any doubt at all about the care and repair of old photographs in any format, professional advice from a trained conservator is always recommended. The aim of photograph conservation is both to reverse damage, if this is possible, and to ensure that future deterioration is reduced to a minimum. The Icon website also offers a useful Conservation Register of qualified, professional conservators.
Conservation quality archival storage materials
Public museums, art galleries, archives and record offices generally preserve their important photographs (and other historical items, such as pictures on paper, documents and old books) in specially designed conservation quality storage systems. Essentially these provide fragile and potentially vulnerable objects with physical support and protection against permanent damage and decay in a safe, acid-free environment.
The kinds of products that public institutions use are also commercially available to the wider public for use at home, so there is no excuse not to take good care of precious family pictures and other important keepsakes. This applies not only to old photographs but also to more recent photos and other family papers and ephemera that need to be preserved. The archival products available offer many different storage and display possibilities, including acid-free boxes of varying shapes and sizes, ring binder systems, photo album pages, folders, envelopes, pockets, tabbed dividers, sleeves and even CD cases (fig.4).
Particularly useful for convenient handling and viewing of family photographs of different sizes are transparent inert polyester or polypropylene pockets which (unlike PVC) contain no harmful chemicals and are safe for long-term storage. Other accessories include researchers’ lint-free cotton gloves, pH neutral pens for marking and mounting products, such as acid-free paper and card, archival mount strips, tape and adhesive (fig.5). These and other items are available from specialist conservation suppliers and from some general genealogical suppliers. Reputable companies can offer advice and answer queries about the best products for preserving and archiving photographs.
Creating digital images
Family picture researchers with computer skills will already be familiar with making digital copies of photographs and storing these as compressed image files on the computer or other electronic media. It’s always a good idea to create digital versions of old photographs as these can be used for research purposes, to save handling the fragile originals. Digital images are also easy to share with others via email and can be uploaded onto family history or image-sharing websites.
Photographic prints, negatives and slides can all be scanned. Card-mounted photos are the simplest to scan at home, but even framed or cased daguerreotypes and ambrotypes, which are three-dimensional objects, can usually be scanned successfully using a flatbed scanner.
When scanning photographs, it is advisable to scan each one individually rather than several at a time, as they may need to be separated later anyway for research purposes and, additionally, the details will be clearer if scanned separately. Scanning black and white photographs as colour pictures, rather than greyscale, gives the best picture quality and scanning at normal size, at a resolution of 300 dpi (dots per inch) is a good choice for most photographic images. The resolution doesn’t generally need to be any higher, unless the original photograph is very small – for example a tiny snapshot or small tintype, which are best scanned at 600 dpi.
Picture files of 300 dpi and higher resolutions naturally take up more computer or disc space than those scanned at a lower resolution but these high-quality pictures will be suitable for most purposes, including reproduction in many kinds of printed publications, should the need ever arise. Scanned images can be saved in various digital formats: both JPEG (jpg) and GIF are currently in widespread use, jpg being perhaps the more popular and considered by some users the most convenient format.
For picture researchers uncertain about scanning or without necessary equipment, there are many commercial photo-scanning companies that will carry out this work for a fee. Some high street outlets provide this service although, depending on the number of pictures to be copied, it may be worth searching the internet for the most cost-effective option.
Some of the popular genealogy websites offer a scanning service as part of the package and there are also specialist photo companies experienced in scanning old family photos. If having pictures scanned commercially involves sending original material through the post, be sure to use the most secure postal service available, such as registered post, or a reputable courier company offering parcel tracking facilities.
Finally, if storing digital images and indeed any important data on discs and other electronic media, remember to protect them also from environmental damage and accidents. Clean computer drives routinely to prevent damage to the media and only handle CDs by the very edges, storing them well away from liquids, dust, extreme heat and direct sunlight. Rigid purpose-designed storage containers are ideal, special conservation quality CD cases affording the best protection.
Old family photographs are unique and precious mementoes – irreplaceable if lost or badly damaged. Let’s do our best to ensure that they are well-preserved for future generations to enjoy and learn from.