PRESERVING ANTIQUE PHOTOGRAPHS
How to Handle, Store, and Display Old Photos
by Joelle Steele
Antique photographs are extremely fragile. The chemicals and other materials used to create them can easily break down and degrade over short periods of time, especially if they are mishandled or exposed to elements that speed up that deterioration. Whether you have Daguerreotypes, tintypes, snapshots from the 1920s, Polaroids from the 1950s, or some other old photographic prints, negatives, or slides, you need to handle them carefully and store them correctly so that they can be enjoyed by generations to come.
As a general rule of thumb, it's best not to handle photographs at all. Oils from your hands can damage prints and negatives. But, since there will be times when you must do so, such as when you are storing these items or reproducing them, always wear gloves. You can select from either lint-free cotton, nylon, or surgical. If you need to clean your old negatives or slides before storing them, use anti-static wipes or static brushes. Gloves and all other supplies for handling and archiving are available from photographic supply houses, many of which have great Web sites with full details for what to use for your collection.
When handling a photograph, put on your gloves and hold the prints, negatives, or slides by their edges. Don't bend or fold them. Don't write on them. Don't cut them. Don't use any cleaning chemicals on them. Never try to disassemble old cased photographs, such as Daguerreotypes or tintypes. Do not try to remove photos from card stock on which they are mounted — those old "cartes de visite" were printed on very thin paper that will not survive being removed from the card stock.
Antique photos and negatives have many enemies, including molds, moisture, sunlight, glues, insects, the paper in old photo albums, extremes of temperature, and many air-borne chemicals found in smog and cigarette smoke. To protect them for future generations, you need to place them in suitable archival storage.
Begin the storing process by working at a very clean table, desk, or other surface. Put on your gloves. Carefully remove any paper clips and staples (the metal can rust and damage the photo), rubber bands (they contain sulfur which also damages photos), or tape from your photos or negatives. If there is glue on the back of a photo, use a razor blade to gently scrape it off. If you think removing something will damage the photo, take it to an expert and have them remove it for you instead.
Place your negatives in sleeves made of polypropylene or polyester (the higher quality of the two, which is the replacement for the old Mylar sleeves), and use the self-locking mechanism to hold the film in place. Mount small prints onto archival paper on one side only, using polypropylene mounting corners. Place archival tissue between the sheets and then place them in high-density polypropylene bags or envelopes. Place large prints in polypropylene bags or envelopes by themselves or with archival tissue as a buffer between them. Do not pack the bags or envelopes too tightly. Label all your envelopes and bags with an adhesive label on the outside of the bag or envelope. Do not place labels on the photos or negatives themselves. Lay your archival envelopes flat in archival boxboard containers with metal corners. Most storage boxes come in different sizes, and the metal corners allow for stacking and also prevent the corners and the contents in those corners from being crushed in.
When storing the ultra-fragile glass plate photographs such as Daguerreotypes or any other wet plate collodion process images (i.e., ambrotypes), leave them in their cases and do not place them in polypropylene or polyester bags or envelopes. Do the same for tintypes and photographs in domed glass frames. Wrap them in something soft, like old cotton handkerchief or T-shirt materials. Store them either upright or glass side down in your archival boxes.
With albumen prints, keep them away from bright light and humidity at all costs, even for short periods of time, and place them in unbuffered acid-free paper sleeves. Then lay them flat into archival boxes.
Store prints separately from negatives. Store black-and-white prints and negatives separate from color prints and negatives. Store slides separately from all other negatives and prints. Store glass plate and tintype images separately from all other photographs. Safety film was introduced in 1939, and before that the highly flammable nitrocellulose film was in use, so store any negatives that are older than about 1939 separately from everything else. Remember that color prints and negatives are the most unstable images, and no matter how careful you are in storing them, they will not retain their appearance as well as your black-and-white images. Store any photos that are in bad condition (e.g., water-damaged, eaten by insects, etc.) in sealed archival bags or envelopes separate from all other photos. If you have old photos in their original albums, store them separately in their own archival boxes. But, if they are stored in the self-stick or "magnetic" type albums, remove the prints from those albums and store them as individual prints.
Store your archival boxes in a dark, climate-controlled room that has a reliable and consistent temperature of about 66-68°F (18-2O°C), with approximately 40-50% relative humidity. Do not store your boxes in a basement, garage, or attic, or in any unheated or overly warm room, or in a closet that is on an outside wall, or in any area that is subject to fumes from cars, cigarette smoke, or insects or pests of any kind. Do not place your boxes on the floor. Do not store your boxes next to a wall or backed up to a wall where there is anything that can cause a flood or fire, such as a heater, fireplace, electrical panel, sewer or water line, shower, toilet, etc.
The best way to display your antique photographs is to display copies only. If you have negatives, have prints made or scan your negatives or your existing prints. With encased photos, such as Daguerreotypes, the images should never be removed from their cases. You can scan them, but experts often recommend against using any duplicating process that requires exposure to so much light. I personally prefer to use a camera for duplication. However, duplicating these images with a camera can also be quite difficult, because Daguerreotypes have almost mirror-like surfaces, and other encased glass plate photos, such as ambrotypes and tintypes, also have highly reflective surfaces.
If you are not an experienced photographer, it is probably better to take your glass plate image to a professional and have it photographed. Doing it yourself is quite a challenge, because it is very hard to shoot these images and not get a glare or reflection from their surfaces, some of which are even more reflective because of the very black areas (e.g., dark clothing), that produce areas of even greater reflection. In addition to the fact that you will probably have to shoot from a variety of angles to avoid these reflections, you may additionally have to make some adjustments to the area in which you take the photograph.
When I photograph Daguerreotypes and tintypes, I disable the camera's flash, and I use a cardboard box that I painted medium charcoal gray inside. I cut some very narrow slits into the sides of the box to let a small amount of ambient light in, just enough to illuminate the image, but easily controlled by covering the slits on one or two sides of the box if necessary. I put the box on a countertop, put the camera on a tripod facing into the box, and I place the glass plate image, still in its case, against the inside back of the box, as upright as possible. I drape a black cloth with a hole in it over the camera and tripod, leaving only the tip of the lens sticking out through the hole. I then use a remote to snap the picture. Whether shooting with a 35mm or a digital camera, I always bracket the shots at different exposures or settings. I then either scan the negatives or prints from the 35mm or, as I do more frequently these days, I simply download the images from my digital camera.
I import the images into Photoshop, where I compare them to see which version is best. Daguerreotypes come out quite dark, as do some tintypes and ambrotypes. They need to be lightened up considerably when you're editing them onscreen. I also make any minor adjustments to the image to make it as clear as possible. If it is a badly damaged photograph, I also restore it by removing all damage. After I am happy with the image, I print it out onto photographic paper using a color printer (inkjet or laser), and then mount that duplicated image and frame it.
Not everyone is sufficiently skilled in the use of Photoshop to make a good quality copy of a photographic image. If that sounds like you, you may wish to display the original. I do not recommend doing this, but if you do, here are a few caveats:
• Leave glass plate photos in their cases and do the same with photos in domed glass frames.
• Be sure that you mat print photographs on acid-free rag board, and that you use a double mat to prevent the photos from coming in contact with the frame's glass.
• Do not glue the print to the mat in any way. Use only small pieces of archival quality art tape to hold it in place at the corners, or use polypropylene mounting corners.
• When selecting a frame, remember that wood emits acid gases that can damage an old photograph. In the long run, aluminum frames are best, and there are some forms of plastic frames that are also considered to be archival.
• Hang your photo on an inside wall or standing on a secure table where it won't get knocked over and broken, with glass possibly damaging the image. Use earthquake gel to hold the frame or case in place, particularly if you have small children, pets, lots of company, or live in earthquake country.
• Display your framed photo in low light, tungsten light only. Do not place it near a lamp or focus any overhead lights on it.
• Do not place your photo next to a window, a fireplace, or near any oil or gas heating sources.
This article last updated: 10/17/2012.