Here are a few suggestions to help you care for your family photographs. For further information, contact the paper and photograph conservator at the Nebraska State Historical Society's Gerald R. Ford Conservation Center.
Improper Care Proper Care 1. Do not use tape to repair tears on photographs. 1. Tears are best left unmended. Package the torn photograph in a clear polyethylene* envelope to prevent further damage. 2. Do not use ink pens of any kind to write on the back of photographs. 2. Writing on the back of photographs is a good way to identify family members, locations, etc., but it is important to write only in the margin and to use only a Number 2 pencil. Be very careful not to exert too much pressure while adding your caption. 3. Do not store photographs in albums that use adhesives to keep the picture in place. 3. There are several good ways to store photographs so you can enjoy them without causing the images to deteriorate too rapidly. There are several different types of albums currently available on local markets that hold photographs on a polyethylene page. This is an acceptable method if you enjoy looking at your photographs regularly. Polyethylene also allows for clear viewing without handling the actual photo. Another method is storage in acid-free* paper boxes with acid-free paper dividers. This method allows more images to be stored in a smaller space, but is not as convenient for viewing. 4. Do not store photographs, negatives, or slides in the basement or the attic. 4. Store your photographs, negatives, and slides in rooms that are temperature controlled. It is very important that photographs not experience dramatic shifts in temperature and humidity. Storing them in attics, basements, and other unregulated rooms can cause the emulsion* to buckle and crack, the colors to fade or shift, and the probability of mildew damage to increase. 5. Do not allow photographs to experience prolonged exposure to sunlight. 5. Sunlight causes damage to the chemical composition of photographs. This results in image fading, color shifts and fading, and emulsion deterioration. 6. Do not attempt to clean photographs. Their images are produced by many different photographic techniques, some of which are quite sensitive and require professional cleaning. You may damage your photograph if you attempt to clean it. 6. Most "dirt" that appears on photographs is not threatening to the survival of the image. A professional conservator can assess whether a photograph is in jeopardy and can suggest a course of treatment. 7. Do not display original nineteenth and early twentieth century photographs. 7. Have a conservator assess whether the photograph can be copied. The newest method of copying photographs is by creating an electronic image file. The staff at the Digital Imaging Laboratory can create amazing facsimiles of your family photographs without fear of damage to the original.
* Glossary of Photographic Conservation Terms
- Any paper product that has a neutral pH (about 8.5)
- A negative image on glass that appears positive when placed over a black background. Similar in appearance to the daguerreotype, the ambrotype does not need to be held at a particular angle to view the image.
- A positive image on a copper plate coated with silver. The daguerreotype must be held at an angle that does not reflect bright light in order to view the image. This was the first type of imaging process to become popular worldwide.
- The chemical coating on film and photographic paper that is light sensitive. Without the emulsion, the photographic image would not be possible.
- An inert plastic that is available in numerous formats for photographic print, negative, and slide storage.
- Similar to the ambrotype, this is a negative image that appears positive due to the black background material coated on the thin sheet of metal prior to the application of the emulsion. Thousands of tintypes were made in the United States and a majority of them still exist.
** Reilly, James M. Care and Identification of 19th Century Photographic Prints. Rochester: Kodak Publication No. G-2S. 1986. Reilly highlights how to identify your early family photographs. He also goes into great detail explaining early photographic processes.