09 December 2011

Preserving History 1- Photographs

Grandfather as a boy with siblings, Kentucky
Most of you have piles of old photographs that the family may or may not have organised (most likely not) sitting in boxes in the attic or basement or some out of the way closet. Almost all of you own a digital camera and have pictures floating in the ether of Internet or on some flash drive somewhere. First off, shame on you. Second, you are not alone.

One of the greatest inventions of man, in my opinion, is the camera. While we could always draw a person, or sculpt them, the accuracy of the camera has never been rivalled. Whether it is a still shot or a moving picture, you are looking at the person. Living. Breathing. Real. There's no beating that. It is no wonder some believe your soul is captured in a photograph. So how do we protect and preserve that soul?

Step 1: Organise!
First thing you need to do is separate your photos. Everyone has a different way on this depending on how they want to find them. I tend to clump by era, family, then individual. So if I'm looking for a childhood photo of my grandfather, I am looking in the Gibson family boxes, 1930-40, then his specific file. Events and group shots are in a group photo box for that time period. My dad is straight individual. In a group shot, it's whoever is oldest. So some photos of Grandpa are in one box, some in another if he's pictured with his parents/grandparents..... I find that weird. But hey, as long as he can find what he's looking for, right? You want to do this with digital photos too. Separate them out in folders by event, person, date, whatever.

Once you have the photos separated, you need to LABEL them. How is anyone supposed to know who's pictured if you don't tell them? If you label a photo directly, use a soft pencil to keep from damaging them. I don't like to label photos directly, I put them in a photo sleeve and label the sleeve. I'm always worried about damaging old photos. On the other hand, Grandma wrote on all her photos in ballpoint pen, so......

Step 2: Display
What's the point in photographs if you never look at them? Who (besides my crazy mother) doesn't like to see the smiling faces of family proudly displayed in the living room? Here are some rules to displaying a photograph:
  1. Display a copy rather than the original whenever possible.
  2. Use ultra-violet filtering glass or acrylic for framed photos.
  3. Use an acid-free mat or spacer to keep photos from touching glass.
  4. Minimize light damage by turning off lights when you leave the room; use low watt bulbs.
  5. Keep out of direct sunlight as much as possible.
  6. Rotate the photographs on display by storing some and then changing them periodically.
Really it comes down to Light is Your Enemy. I'm sure you all can attest to sunlight's color sucking abilities. Don't let it happen to your family history! Don't let the sun shine on photos. Don't put them on a table directly under a lamp. There's a reason art museums don't like flash photography!!!

I actually scanned all my photos and have those handy-dandy digital photo frames around the house. Each frame has a revolving assortment of a person or event or the like. Dad says it's like walking into Harry Potter's house with all the moving pictures. I like that.

Step 3: Backups!!!!
This is the step most people forget. I want you to think for a moment, though. What would happen if you had a house fire, tornado, earthquake? We lose so many possessions in such a circumstance, but you know what most people really talk about missing? The photos. The irretrievable memories lost. So you need a backup. And then a backup of your backup! I have several myself. Like I said, I store the original photographs rather than display. There are old photos as well as printed copies of my best digital shots stored, with copies displayed. That's backup one. I store any negatives of old film in a second location (currently a safe deposit box). That's backup two. I have a hard drive of digital copies of all photos new and old. Back up three. I keep a second hard drive at my father's house. Back up four.

I'm not one for "cloud" services. I don't like the idea of the Internet holding all my music and photos. I'm always worried about too much being online. However, if you don't care, that's also an excellent place to store. Just make sure it isn't your only place. God forbid their servers crash or get hacked.

Step 4: Store
Now that you've organised and picked out the pictures you simply MUST have on display, it's time to store the rest. The rules of storage:
  1. Wash your hands! Photographs can be damaged by your own natural oils. Make sure your hands are clean and dry. Wear gloves if you can.
  2. Store photos in acid-free sleeves or envelopes (or polypropylene pages).
  3. Store photos flat to keep them from damage and curling.
  4. Never put adhesives onto photographs! If you are putting in an album (acid-free pages, please), use photo corners or sleeves.
  5. Handle all photos and negatives by the edges to avoid touching the surface.
  6. Store in a cool, dry place where the temperature and humidity won't fluctuate wildly (basements and attics won't cut it!)
A few notes:
On media choices- Everything has a shelf life. Depending on the paper, and the storage, a photo can last without fading from 5-200 years. Old photos started to fade within a decade, so take the most care with them now. New printers and paper are less acidic, so they can last you quite a bit longer. But they will still fade within 50-200 years..... more than most of us have to be concerned with, but think of the generations to come! CDs and DVDs can seem like eternal things, but does anyone remember the floppy disk? And what about format? What if you have a Mac now, but an IBM system later? What if the software you use isn't around in ten years? Will you be able to convert? You need to dutifully keep up with technology and transfer your files so they aren't trapped on an outdated system. And again, depending on storage, they can be degraded and unusable in a decade! Memory cards run into the same problems (does anyone besides a Canon user have a CF card?). Their life span is only expected to be 2-5 years. That's not a lot of time, people! And I've already voiced my opinion on cloud services and their ephemeral nature.

On scrapbook materials- I don't like run of the mill scrapbook materials. Some aren't as safe for photos as they say. I mean, they're perfectly fine for making a new scrapbook with new photos. I just don't trust them with my heirlooms. I prefer using archival quality acid-free sleeves you can find online at any number of curator outlets. (University Products is just one such store). Just be sure whatever you use has passed the standard photo tests and your best judgement.

On gloves- There is some argument about whether or not gloves are necessary. While most people have no problem, some people's natural oils are too acidic. And one doesn't find out if they should wear gloves until they damage a photograph first. The consensus with archivers seems to be that as long as the photo is properly stored and your hands are clean and dry (wash prior to any handling), then you'll have no problem. Some even go so far as to say gloves ruin the ability to feel the object and can lead to more damage. I personally feel that you should handle all photos and very old materials with gloves if you are not a careful handler. A "better safe than sorry" kind of thing. I would personally hate to be the one to scratch a photo with a nail, or leave a fingerprint on a negative. A powder-free latex glove is what most "amateur" curators use, but white cotton gloves have been standard for a while. There are actually quite a few options depending on what you're handling. For photos:

Nitrile- This is the new standard curator glove. The pros are that it's disposable, has a good grip for slippery objects and any tears are obvious so you don't use bad gloves. The cons are they don't always fit tightly for fine handling, and you have to make sure you get the ACCELERANT FREE ones if you have an allergy (or are handling anything with silver as the accelerant can tarnish). The reason these are popular is because of the great number of things you can handle (from paintings to bone) without damage.

Nylon- These are good if you can't get Nitrile. The pros are they don't leave fingerprints, fit more snugly than cotton gloves, and are reusable. The cons are they don't reliably keep oils and sweat from objects, they can deposit lint and must be washed regularly.

Cotton- As I said, this used to be the standard for all curators. The pros are reusable gloves that won't leave fingerprints. The cons are they aren't really recommended for photographs as they can leave lint, they can transfer contaminants if not washed properly and don't protect against sweat and oils reliably. Plus, if they are loose-fitting, you can't get a proper grip.

Latex or Rubber gloves- Because of the cotton cons, these are often used in conjunction. The pros are disposable gloves with protection from sweat and oils. The cons are (obviously) possible allergic reactions and they can degrade easily, depositing residue on your photos. They aren't actually recommended for any archival use.

*Sources National Parks Conserve O Gram Sept. 2010 on choosing the right glove, IFLA.org December 2005 newsletter "Misperceptions about White Gloves"

Bottom Line
Whatever way you choose to display, organise and store your photos, above all, treat them with respect. The more care you use now, the longer they'll be around. More important than how you handle them is how you remember the people in them. Take the time to look at your photos. Bring them out at family gatherings and remember. Laugh and Live.


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