Storing and Preserving Antique Photographs

Storage and Preservation Techniques to Keep Photos Safe

"It's a Wonderful Life" autographed cast photo. Photo courtesy of Richard Goodson

When it comes to photograph collecting, the options are virtually endless. Collections can focus on topics from babies to brides and historic places to famous people along with other clever categories collectors come up with as they're duly inspired. Most commonly, however, photo collections catalog family memories. Whether a collector is acquainted with the people in a photo collection or not, there are some important things to know about making printed images last for future generations.

Claire Maxwell, a director of the Williamson County Historical Commission located in Central Texas, often talks with groups about photographic preservation. In her informative presentations to historical societies, genealogical groups, museums and non-profit organizations, she emphasizes proper identification, handling and storage.

Starting with Identification

To aid in identification, write as many details as possible on the back of each photo you own, including who is in the picture, where it was taken, the date, and the ages of the people in the photo. Any other information, such as a description of an occasion or special event, will be appreciated by those who might own the photo in the future.

Maxwell notes that using a ballpoint pen to label photos, especially modern examples, should be avoided. Photo paper often has a plastic coating that keeps the ink from being absorbed into the paper so it easily bleeds onto other surfaces.

Bearing down on the photo to make sure the ink adheres can break the seal and dent the photo as well.

Instead, she advises her audiences to invest in a permanent marker available at photo supply stores but suggests making sure the ink is dry before stacking photos to avoid messy transferring.

Handling with Care

Handling photos should be done sparingly. When it is necessary, avoid touching the image side. Oils fingers leave behind cause dirt to collect and can provide a haven for mold spores, according to a handout Maxwell uses in her presentations. She recommends wearing light cotton gloves when working with photos to minimize contact with the the image side of a print of any age.

Maxwell also encourages supporting photos during handling since older, heavy photos are prone to breaking and "all photos suffer structurally over time with uneven support."

Tackling the Storage Issue

Improperly storing photos can cause all types of problems down the road. "That really is the one I usually hammer home," said Maxwell referring to the importance of proper storage.

The most common mistake people make is putting photographs in "magnetic" photo albums which are actually cardboard covered with adhesive and a plastic cover. These albums cause problems in three ways.

First, the cardboard used to fabricate magnetic albums is acidic, which causes deterioration in photo paper. Secondly, the adhesive on the pages is also acidic. This reaction causes the backs to stick permanently as time passes, which not only ruins the photographs when they are removed, but any information written on them is lost as well.

Finally, the plastic cover contains polyvinyl chloride which releases gases causing photographs to fade, wrinkle and stick to the plastic. "Put those three things together and it's like a pressure cooker for a photograph," said Maxwell.

Items such as glue, tape, staples, rubber bands and paper clips can cause stains, scratches and dents to photos as well. Wood and wood products, like cardboard and paper, harm photographs and should only be used if labeled "acid-free."

Even framing should be done with care. Using acid-free mats to prevent photos from touching the glass and acid-free backboards to deter deterioration of the image help protect and preserve.

Other safe ways to store photos include plastic sleeves void of PVC purchased at photo supply stores. Plastic sandwich bags are also a good, inexpensive resource.

Maxwell suggest storing large numbers of photos layered between sheets of 100 percent cotton bond acid-free paper in metal or acid-free cardboard boxes.

Enemies to Avoid

To avoid ruining antiques, temperature, humidity and light are the three enemies to avoid. A good rule of thumb is storing photos where you are also comfortable. In other words, not too hot, cold, wet or dry.

This means keeping them out of attics, garages and basements where they'll be subject to extreme temperature fluctuations and excessive humidity. Since damage to photos can only be reversed through expensive conservation methods, if at all, careful conservation really pays off. 

More on Proper Photo Handling:

Packaging Paper and Photographs for Shipping