As a young photographer, I wanted to photograph my first daughter’s every accomplishment. And so (though her mother would have liked still more shots) I did get some nice pictures of her early years.
About the time she was six, we moved to a new house. While packing I discovered some of those early pictures—many of them stained and fading after only a few short years. Our children weren’t even old enough to appreciate them, let alone show the precious pictures to their own children.
I was puzzled. The pictures of my grandparents that fill our genealogical and family history albums have survived fifty to seventy years. I wanted to know why my pictures weren’t lasting even ten years. What I learned was eye-opening.
We live in an age of disposable everything, when few things are designed to last more than a few years. Photography is no exception. “Color products begin to fade the moment their respective processing cycles have been completed,” says one photography magazine.1 Some black-and-white prints begin to deteriorate after only a few years, and others may be processed with a technique that leaves the paper saturated with acid, which causes the prints to slowly self-destruct. Add environmental and storage problems, and the ultimate longevity of photographic materials suffers greatly.
Is the family historian left to “throw in the towel”? No—there is hope for photographers, and the method can be either easy or involved, with the end result being as valuable as the effort expended.
Properly processed and cared for, black-and-white photographs made on paper of fiber base can be expected to last more than 100 years. That’s why those early pictures of grandparents are still as beautiful as ever—they had to be processed right, or they wouldn’t have lasted. The right type of color prints and slides, with proper storage, can last at least half that long with no deterioration.
What can be done to increase the life of valuable photographs, either historic or contemporary?
First, existing pictures need care. Much damage to old photos is a result of poor handling and storage. A photographic image is fragile. These suggestions will help your pictures last:
—Avoid writing directly on a photograph. Write on the envelope a photograph is stored in, or next to it on the page where it is mounted. If it is necessary to write on the photograph itself, write on the back, close to the border, with a soft no. 2 pencil. Use only enough pressure to make the writing visible.
—Mount photographs properly. The best method is to use acid-free triangle photo-corners, or to dry-mount the prints with dry-mount tissue and a heat press. Never use rubber cement, white glue, or cellophane tape to mount photographs. Use only quality paper albums, with pages that are at least 25 percent cotton or rag. 100 percent cotton or rag is best. Never use self-adhesive or “magnetic” albums with plastic pages, since the chemicals in such pages hasten the deterioration of the photograph.
—Keep photographs and negatives in a dark, acid-free environment with low relative humidity (below forty percent). Finding a dark place is fairly easy, but controlling the humidity and acid content may be more difficult.
Silica gel should not be used to control humidity, because it will dry prints and film until they are brittle. Storage envelopes that seal out humidity can be purchased, but storage items must be placed in these envelopes in an environment of low humidity, or on a day when the humidity is naturally low.
The American National Standards Institute recommends a pH of 7 to 9.5 for proper storage of film and prints. Photographic dealers will have storage sleeves and envelopes that meet these standards.
Store negatives in separate negative envelopes, available at photo stores.
—Photographs made since about 1950 probably have not been properly processed for long-term storage—to “archival standards” (see below). So if you have color prints in your album, you may want to have the negatives reprinted in black-and-white on a fiber-or paper-base material, processed to archival standards. Expect to pay more for each picture than the usual printing price.
If you have color slides, and want the longest-lasting prints, have Cibachrome color prints made from them. (Cibachrome is the color print material with the greatest stability. Currently only color slides can be printed on Cibachrome paper—color prints cannot.)
For the pictures you are currently taking, use film and paper with the greatest storage stability. Black-and-white prints on a fiber or paper base processed to archival standards will last the longest.
Today’s common color prints and slides begin to fade in as little as six to ten years, with the exception of Kodachrome slide films (Kodachrome 25, 64, Professional Type A, and Daylight 25) and movie films made with the K-14 process (Tungsten 40). These films are predicted to have a dark-fading time of more than fifty years.2 Again, if you desire to have your color slides preserved as prints, have them printed on Cibachrome paper.
Find a processor who will produce prints to archival standards (this is more expensive than regular commercial processing) or learn to do it yourself. This involves elimination of unused silver from the developed prints, and treatment with a protective toner, which shields the fragile silver layer from atmospheric impurities. The process is one a person with some photographic darkroom experience can perform. Information for the process is available in these books:
Thomas L. Davies, Shoots: A Guide to Your Family Heritage, Addison House, Danbury, New Hampshire.
Processing for Permanence, no. J19, Eastman Kodak Co. (Dept. 454, 343 State Street, Rochester, New York 14650.)
Ansel Adams, The Print, Basic Photo Series no. 3, Hastings-on-Hudson, New York: Morgan and Morgan, Inc.
Caring for Photographs, Life Library of Photography, New York: Time-Life Books.
Jacob Deschin, “Barbara Morgan: Permanence Through Perseverance,” Photography Annual, 1971.
Eugene Ostroff, “Conserving and Restoring Photographic Collections,” museum newsmagazine, Dec. 1974 (Curator of Photography, Smithsonian Institution).
“Permanence: Martin Hershenson,” Technical Photography, Aug. 1978, p. 14.
“Preserving Photographic Records: Klaus Hendriks,” Industrial Photography, Aug. 1978, p. 30.
Henry Wilhelm, “Color Print Instability,” Modern Photography, Feb. 1979, p. 92.