Old photos are especially fragile. Photographs can yellow, crack, and stick to glass, or become moldy. To prevent further damage, all you need to know are a few basics on how to properly store and mount your photographs. For photos that have already been damaged, have no fear: a number of solutions are available, although they often require the assistance of a professional.
First the basics: What makes a photograph
Photographs have three basic layers: the supportive backing, the binder, and the image material. The supportive backing is typically cardboard or heavy paper. The binder is an agent that binds the image to the backing, and is usually made of abdumen or collodion. The image material is suspended in the binder, and can consist of silver, color dyes, and pigment particles. Each layer requires special care. Paper can yellow or grow mold. The binder can become soft and sticky, or dry and cracked, depending on the humidity of the air around it. Image materials such as color dyes fade much quicker in direct sunlight.
Second: Things to consider when storing your photos
- Use archival quality supplies. For the purposes of both storing and mounting your photos, you want to use archival quality supplies. Archival quality papers, folders, enclosures, and mats are made of materials which will not deteriorate the photograph.
- Photographs should be stored in a place that is dark and cool, and which will not be at risk for very low or very high humidity. These rules out most basements and attics. The storage area should also be clean and free of household pests. The binder on photographs, especially abdomen, is an attractive food for insects.
- Photographs can be stored in chemically inert paper folders or plastic enclosures. Acid-free paper is available buffered, meaning it comes with an alkaline reserve that can neutralize any acid that is formed. Some photographs are sensitive to alkaline environments; in such cases, use a neutral paper (acid-free and unbuffered).
- Plastic enclosures should be made of chemically inert plastics such as polyester. The polyester should not have a hazy film on its surface. While plastic enclosures have many benefits, such as protection from external humidity and dust, they can occasionally trap humidity and attract dust inside next to the photograph. It’s best to use these enclosures in areas that are constantly at low humidity.
Third: Things to consider when mounting your photos
- Sunlight will hasten the deterioration of your photographs. Air that is not controlled for temperature or humidity will also have adverse effects on the image’s longevity. For these reasons, it’s recommended that you do not use your original photograph for display purposes. Instead, have a high-quality copy made and keep the original photograph safely stored away. If you must display the original, keep it out of direct sunlight, in a cool environment that is neither too dry nor too humid.
- When mounting your photo, again look for materials that are acid-free. This will prevent the photograph’s supportive backing from turning yellow. Mounting a photo requires four components: the mat (or frame); backing board; hinges or photo corners (these attach the photo to the backing board); and the glazing material. All supplies made of paper should be acid-free.
- Only use glass or acrylic. The “glazing” material is any thick, clear material that protects your photo from UV radiation. Do not let the glass or acrylic come in contact with the photograph. If there is too much humidity, the photograph could become stuck to these smooth surfaces. To prevent this, use a mat as a spacer. This will put enough space between the backing board and the glazing material to prevent sticking in case of high humidity.
Finally: What to do if your photos are already damaged.
- MAKE A COPY!!! Before attempting any repairs to your damaged photos, make a copy. If your photograph is stuck to a glass (or acrylic) surface, scan the photo through the glass. This will ensure that you have a backup in case the photo is damaged further.
- Do NOT trust everything you read on the internet!! There are guides out there in case you want to try repairing your photos on your own. However, fixing things on your own, especially without professional consultation, is not recommended. Every photograph has unique characteristics that need to be taken into consideration, such as how it was printed, the type of print it is, and the specific damage done to it.
- A photograph stuck to glass may tear if you attempt to remove it. Using solvents on a photo to remove mold may deteriorate the image. Even simple problems such as a few tears require some professional input–the adhesives in some tapes can deteriorate photographs.
Photographs require a lot of care to prevent damage in the long run. If you store and mount your photos properly, you can increase their longevity and prevent complications such as mold and stuck photos from occurring. In the event that your photos have already been damaged, consult a professional conservationist rather than attempting any repairs on your own. Also, this cannot be emphasized enough: before any changes are made to your photo, either by the conservationist or yourself, create a high-quality scanned copy of your photo. Digitally restored copies of your photo cannot replace the original photograph, but you will be happy to have the copies if the original is damaged or deteriorates beyond recognition.