Photographs are vulnerable to damage. Here are some things you can do to ensure they last for the longest possible time.
Handle photographs by their edges to avoid leaving fingerprints. Oils and salts in our fingertips leave permanent marks on photos and contribute to fading of the image.
Do not try to repair photographs that are torn or in pieces. Materials such as sticky tape and masking tape cause fading and staining. Keep the photograph in a folder or sleeve by itself.
Light, heat, water, pollution, and insects can damage photographs. Keep photographs somewhere they will not constantly be moved or disturbed.
The best place to store your photographs is somewhere clean, cool, dark, dry and well ventilated.
Avoid storing photographs in the following places:
- garages or sheds: they are often damp, have insects and can get very hot in summer
- on the floor: this will put photographs at risk of water damage if there is a flood
- hot water cupboards: the combination of heat and moisture causes mould.
Storage materials for photographs
Storage materials for photographs include boxes, folders, albums and sleeves. They can be made out of paper or plastic. Use conservation-quality materials to store photographs if possible.
Avoid laminating unique or valuable photographs. Once photographs have been sealed in the plastic they cannot be removed. Over time the material used to laminate the photographs can damage them.
Good photograph albums provide excellent protection for photographs. Poor ones can cause damage.
Choose a photograph album where the photographs can be easily removed, for example albums with plastic sleeves or with corners for the photos to be placed in.
Do not use magnetic albums (albums that have sticky cardboard pages and plastic covers that cling to the photos). Adhesive on the pages will damage the photographs. It can also be difficult to remove the photographs once they are stuck to the pages.
If your photographs are already in an album, it is best to leave them this way. Removing the photographs may cause more damage. The original sequence of the photographs may also be lost.
Negatives are very important and should be carefully looked after. If anything happens to the print you can always have another copy made from the negative.
It is best to store negatives in individual sleeves, and separately from prints. Rubbing together can easily cause scratching.
Glass negatives require extra care. They can be easily broken. If you have glass negatives in your collection, store them upright in a sturdy box and prevent scratching by placing them in individual sleeves.
Recording information about photographs
It is important to keep any information about the photograph, such as:
- who the photograph is of
- where it was taken
- when it was taken
- who the photographer was.
It is not necessary to write on the photograph. If you do:
- write on the back of the photograph in the border area or near the edge
- use a soft pencil like a 2B (pen or felt tip marks could seep through to the front of the photograph)
- print softly.
You can prolong the life of your photographs by taking care over the way they are displayed.
You should avoid:
- hanging photographs in sunny places (this will make them fade more quickly
- hanging photographs over fireplaces (high temperatures and smoke will cause damage over time)
- putting pins directly through photographs
- using self-adhesive tape, glue or paste in direct contact with a photograph.
Framing photographs improves their appearance and helps to protect them.
If you are using a professional framer, ask them to do it to ‘conservation standards’. This is more expensive but will give greater protection to the photograph.
Hang photographs in places where they will not be knocked or bumped. Use strong hanging devices and hang framed photographs securely on the wall. Hanging devices should be in proportion to the size of the frame. Very heavy frames require cleats or extra heavy D-rings. A good picture framer can help with this.
Making copies of old, rare or valuable photographs
Having copies of special photographs made is a good option. The original can be stored safely somewhere else and the copy placed on display.
It is best to use a reputable company for making copies. Choose one that is experienced in working with historical photographs.
Making digital copies is not a good way to preserve photographs. If you decide to scan photographs keep the original, as the original photo is likely to last longer than the digital copy.
Preventing damage from water and fire
Taking small precautions like keeping photographs off the floor and away from sources of water will help reduce risk of damage caused by floods.
If photographs are damaged by water in an event like a flood they can usually be salvaged. To prevent further damage:
- act as quickly as possible: mould can develop in a very short space of time.
- dry wet photographs face up on a clean flat surface in a room with good air circulation. Use a cool fan to promote air circulation if necessary.
- rinse photographs gently in clean water if they are covered with silt or debris from floodwaters.
Install smoke alarms to reduce the risk of fire, and sprinklers where possible. Contact the New Zealand Fire Service for guidance on fire safety issues.
Contact a conservator if collections are damaged. They may still be salvageable. A list of conservators is available on the New Zealand Conservators of Cultural Materials Pu Manaaki Kahurangi website.