Photographs keep our history alive. They are portals into our stories and ancestors, allowing us to connect to the past. This is why it is crucial to keep them safe and take action to prevent them from losing quality over time. Being aware of hazards like environmental conditions or storage will help you make better choices to reduce the risk of losing those precious gems.
The main culprit of photo deterioration is environmental conditions. This can range from ordinary living conditions in different climates that impact your photographs over time to sudden acts of god like a flood or a fire, which can severely damage or completely destroy your treasured prints. Obviously, we have no control over the latter events, but we do have some options to mitigate the risks. Keep reading to find out what elements could deteriorate your photographs and what you can do to prevent it.
The first element to bear in mind is temperature. In general terms, heat accelerates chemical reactions, which can cause images to fade. The ideal range is between 65°F and 70°F, and the key is to maintain this temperature throughout the year – attics and basements are not recommended for storage unless they’re insulated. And consider the positions of the photographs displayed around the house, for example, the one sitting near a warm, south-facing window.
Following temperature, next to keep in mind is humidity, which is the amount of water in the air. High levels can cause oxidation, fading, and foster fungal growth. Organic materials in physical photographs such as gelatin, cellulose, and paper can easily dampen again and harbor mold. A photo that lives, say, in a bathroom or kitchen that regularly has vapor, may suffer from the humidity fluctuation over time.
On the other hand, extremely dry conditions risk making your photographs brittle or can cause them to shrink unevenly. So aim for the comfy middle and keep it constant. The combination to avoid at all costs is high temperature and high humidity, or you’ll have a very sorry-looking photo on your hands.
Another major element to look out for is light. As with your skin, ultraviolet rays can also cause intense damage to your heirloom photographs. Whether direct or indirect, prolonged exposure to sunlight will make the image fade and turn yellow. And although UV glass in frames can lessen the impact, some prints will still lose some quality over time if exposed to daylight. Keeping them in a closed space prevents this, but as it is not always possible or aesthetically preferred, consider giving exposed photographs a break by rotating them to prevent deterioration.
Consider your actions – how you handle and decide to store your cherished possessions can have a tremendous impact on how long they stay in good shape. For example, when you take them in your hands, be careful of the edges as they can tear or bend easily. Also, the natural oils on your fingers can accelerate the deterioration process, so wash and dry your hands thoroughly before handling. Avoid touching the front (also known as the emulsion side), or use cotton gloves whenever possible. It’s small actions like these that can make a big difference.
Finally, something that encompasses most of the above is the kind of materials that hold your photographs. Be it the envelope from the 1950s containing negatives, the frame you bought at a local craft store, the shoeboxes you’ve got hundreds of polaroids stored in, keep in mind most of these items are not made of archival materials.
The envelope itself and the glue on it are likely acidic. The frame may be stained with urethanes, and the backing may be a particle board comprised of chemicals, both of which degrade emulsion. Also, the glass on the frame is probably not UV protective. And the shoebox is likely not an archival storage box – if it is, hooray!
If not, it may be time to invest in moving your items to another container for the long run. One can find so many archival storage items these days; it is just a matter of looking. Sometimes a little research and guidance can go a long way.
While this goes outside normal day-to-day conditions, having grown up in Louisiana, I witnessed great losses of historical items and photographs due to hurricanes and flooding. This is why I feel it is necessary to talk about it as more and more regions of the world experience these types of catastrophes.
Although we may not have control over a flood, a fire, or a tornado, we can store our precious items in safer containers and places. For example, consider investing in water-safe and archival-safe sleeves or a fireproof safe. Also, place your pictures on a higher shelf to prevent water from reaching them.
To Keep Your Photographs From Deteriorating
There are many things you can do to slow down or prevent the decline of your pictures. As mentioned above, storage conditions and materials are crucial, but if damage has already been done, I feel deeply for you and want to acknowledge that restoration is almost always an option. Salvaging items can often be done if it happens promptly. So don’t be discouraged. Reach out and ask for help.
If your treasures are still intact, most assuredly, we can embrace the digital age and digitize all our precious photos and negatives, keeping the files on a cloud and in a hard drive. This way, you can prevent any further deterioration from happening.
At Facsimile, I scan and convert negatives, slides, and photographs to digital format and organize them in a way that best suits your needs. This way, you can easily create copies or print them for displaying without the risk of losing the original, and you can share pieces of your history online with family and friends from afar.
If you would like to know more about the process or have an image assessed, make sure to contact me. I am happy to help.