Photo Foresight

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

Each year, we produce billions of photos worldwide, documenting family milestones, vacations and gatherings with friends. Our ancestors’ photographs are similar to the ones we take today, but were created with different chemicals and processes. Lay out photos from every era side by side and you’ll see a rainbow of colors because of the variety in photographic processing techniques. Yet all of those prints have two characteristics in common: They were produced from negatives — ranging from paper to glass to contemporary films — and they’re susceptible to damage. Understanding the different types of photographic materials in your collection will help you take steps to care for them. Read this guide to learn the history of prints and negatives, and ways you can preserve the ones in your own collection. 

First shots

Around the time that Louis Daguerre developed his images on metal in 1839, an English inventor, William Fox Talbot, found a way to make paper prints from paper negatives. Although these prints (called calotypes) lacked sharpness and clarity, they laid the foundation for today’s photographs.

All early prints were contact prints, meaning they were the same size as the negatives. When you see an 11×14-inch print from the 1870s, you know that the negative was also 11×14 inches. Artificial light wasn’t available until the late 19th century, so sunlight became a key ingredient of early photographic processes. The right set of environmental circumstances was necessary for a good print.

Over the years, photographers experimented with various light-sensitive chemicals, which produced the yellow-browns, red-browns, blues and purples you see in old images. Identifying the photographic method is essential for restoration, but it won’t affect how you store most of your images.

Popular photography

That said, you should still be familiar with card photographs and candid prints — they’re the images most often found in personal collections. Card photographs came in a variety of shapes and sizes. Most 19th- and early-20th-century images were printed on thin paper, so they had to be mounted on heavy cardstock or cardboard for support. Cartes de visite are the smallest cards; they resemble in shape and size the 19th-century visiting cards for which they’re named. Just as we use business cards, our more affluent ancestors would carry small cards engraved with their names. The duke of Parma decided to tote cards featuring his photo, and started the carte de visite trend. Introduced in the United States in 1860, the cards became wildly popular, setting off a craze that was called “cartomania.” Our ancestors not only rushed to photographers’ studios to have their pictures taken, they began collecting images of friends, relatives and notables. The social ritual of visiting came to include looking at the host’s carte-de-visite album on display and adding a photograph of oneself to the collection.

Photography became more than a way to document family; it evolved into a form of entertainment. A particular type of card photograph, the stereograph, was part of that transformation. Developed in the 1850s, stereographs comprise two almost identical images mounted side by side. When viewed through a special lens, a 3-D image appears. Photographers created sets of stereographs depicting everything from fictional stories to travel destinations. My mother says that her family owned an extensive set of stereographs during the Great Depression, and she and her siblings regularly played with them. The reverse side of each photo usually contained a label describing the image. Stereographs were produced until the mid-20th century.

Kodak played a key role in the evolution of photography. Until the late 1880s, you could have your portrait taken at a professional studio or by your family’s amateur photographer. Picture-taking was an involved process. The portraits lacked spontaneity; our ancestors looked stiff and expressionless. Kodak changed all that when George Eastman introduced candid photography. Promising “You press the button, we do the rest,” the company’s mass-market equipment effectively eliminated technical knowledge from taking photos. A Kodak camera came loaded with film. Our ancestors would send the camera back to the factory when they finished the roll, and the pictures would arrive in the mail along with the reloaded camera. This changed the way our families thought about photography, and our photo collections reflect the change. Notice how your 19th-century relatives look much more relaxed in Kodak prints than in earlier ones.

Early-image care

Prints created in the 19th and early 20th centuries are susceptible to different types of damage, depending on the chemical processes used to create them. For example, platinum prints (introduced in 1880) can transfer their images onto photographs that are stored next to them. So follow these guidelines to keep your old images in tiptop shape. If your photographs already show signs of damage, contact a professional conservator.

? Store photos in a place with moderate temperature and humidity. Exposure to high humidity can cause curling, fading and yellowing. If you leave your prints in a damp environment for too long, they’ll develop mold and mildew, which requires treatment by a professional conservator. Temperature and humidity fluctuations also can cause some photos’ surfaces to crack and flake. It’s best to keep your images in an environment with a constant temperature no higher than 70 degrees Fahrenheit (the cooler the temperature, the better) and low humidity.

? Limit exposure to light. Light also contributes to the fading of prints. In particular, the lovely blue cyanotype (introduced in 1880) fades rapidly when displayed. Store these images in a dark place.

? Wear white cotton gloves when handling. Closely examine your prints and negatives, and you may sec fingerprint evidence left by the people who handled them before you. Touching a print or negative without wearing gloves causes a thin layer of moisture to build up on its surface. The moisture attracts dust, which adheres to the surface and leaves lasting — but potentially harmful — impressions of friends and relatives.

? Avoid shuffling. All photographs experience damage when shuffled against one another or against other objects. Think about what happens to the surfaces and edges of ordinary playing cards when they’re used repeatedly. The same sort of wear and tear can happen to your images. Prints that are already stressed due to humidity and temperature variations are more sensitive to abrasion. Protect your photos by storing them in polypropylene sleeves, between pieces of acid-and lignin-free paper, and/or in archival-quality boxes. For a list of archival suppliers, see the “Archival Resource Roundup.”

Modern art

In the 1960s, Kodak introduced a type of photographic paper that saved processing time and didn’t curl when drying. The new resin-coated (RC) paper took about a minute to process and dry. Unaware of this paper’s deterioration problems, Kodak advertised that it was permanent. Only recently did preservation become an issue for commercial manufacturers of photographic materials.

Although Kodak has taken steps to increase its longevity, contemporary RC paper still experiences deterioration. Unless you print your own photographs or request (at extra charge) fiber-based paper from a photography studio, your prints will be resin-coated. The coating helps protect a print from abrasion, but the surface of the print still is susceptible to cracking and other damage. Fiber-based photography papers, which don’t have a coating, can last longer.

As with early photographs, you should store modern prints in a place with moderate temperature and humidity. You also should take these precautions when handling and storing your prints:

? Labeling: Graphite pencil won’t write on RC paper, so you’ll have to use a waterproof pen. Choose one that’s fade-resistant, permanent, quick-drying and odorless (when dry). Lay the image facedown on a clean, hard surface — I like to use a piece of glass the same size as the print — and gently write on the back. Just be sure to give the ink enough time to dry, or you’ll end up with ink smeared where you didn’t intend it.

? Storing: A simple way to protect your prints from breakage is to store same-size images together, either when you organize them or when they’re waiting to be filed. This enables the prints to support one another. Also note that modern prints aren’t as light sensitive as older images, so you can safely display them — if you take a few precautions. Find an area that’s out of direct sunlight and has a low level of artificial light. Sunlight and fluorescent light expose images to harmful UV rays. Keep in mind that fireplaces and other heat sources, such as radiators, generate temperature fluctuations that cause deterioration.

? Framing: According to The Permanence and Care of Color Photographs: Traditional and Digital Color Prints, Color Negatives, Slide’s and Motion Pictures by Henry Wilhelm and Carol Brower (Preservation Publishing), RC prints give off gases that deteriorate the photographic images on their surfaces (called emulsions). Sealing a print in a frame increases the rate of deterioration; RC prints need frames that allow for airflow. If the print will be exposed to pollutants in the environment, however, a sealed frame might be best. When in doubt about the type of frame to use, consult a conservator.

Glass negatives

The history of prints corresponds to the development and history of the negatives used to produce them. After prints, negatives make up a significant part of our photo collections — and they’re just as susceptible to damage. If you haven’t looked at your negatives recently, pull them out of storage.

In the 1850s, photographers created their own negatives by coating glass with a substance known as collodion. The light-sensitive silver halides in the collodion captured an image and preserved it during the photographic process. If you have glass negatives in your collection, they’re probably sitting in a box that’s too heavy to lift. Here are a few suggestions for when you have to move or rebox the glass plates:

  1. Make sure the negatives have individual envelopes or coverings.
  2. Store negatives vertically on a long edge so their weight doesn’t affect the negative on the bottom of the stack.
  3. Store them in small boxes, so you can comfortably lift them.
  4. Make sure the storage materials and shelves can support the negatives’ weight.
  5. Pack them snugly in the box to avert accidental breakage.
  6. Fill the space between negatives with heavy acid-free cardstock. This will keep them from breaking when you move the boxes.

Almost all glass-negative collections include plates broken by mishandling. Rather than throwing them away, store them flat in a protective mat cut to the same size as the full negative, suggests Sarah S. Wagner, senior photograph conservator at the National Archives and Records Administration’s College Park, Md., facility. These “sink mats” can then be stacked. Or place the negatives between two stiff pieces of cardboard, and fold a piece of paper around all four sides. You also can purchase ready-made four-flap paper enclosures from an archival supplier such as Archival Products (800-526-5640, <>).

After matching the negative’s broken pieces, ask a photo lab to make a contact print. Be sure to wear protective gloves to shield yourself from the sharp edges. If the image is in multiple small pieces, it might not be worth keeping. Have a contact print made bom the negative, and dispose of the pieces.

Film-based negatives

All damage to film-based negatives comes from exposure to high humidity and temperature, according to IPI Storage Guide for Acetate Film by James M. Reilly (Image Permanence Institute). Once the conditions are right for deterioration, the chemical changes increase rapidly. To prevent chemical changes, remove negatives from airtight containers (film cans or sealed plastic bags), which exacerbate the chemical breakdown.

The signs of deterioration vary by negative type. Of great concern are nitrate negatives, which are not only fragile, but also dangerous. This type of negative (popular between 1889 and 1939) poses a fire hazard: Nitrocellulose is chemically unstable, and under the right conditions, spontaneously combusts. If you have these negatives, don’t panic. They don’t pose an immediate threat unless you’ve stored a large quantity in a place with huge temperature swings, such as an attic. You can easily identify nitrate film this way:

  1. Examine the edges of your negative for the word safety. If it isn’t there, the negative may be nitrate.
  2. Using a pair of scissors, snip off a small section of the negative and place it in a nonflammable container, such as an ashtray.
  3. Try to ignite the section using a match. If it burns quickly, it’s nitrate; if it doesn’t, it’s unmarked safety film, which isn’t flammable.

If you discover that you have nitrate film, have the negatives copied at a reputable photo-conservation lab in your area. Federal regulations imposed by the US Department of Transportation restrict shipping nitrate because it’s a fire hazard. Once you have the copies, ask your local fire department how to dispose of the negatives. Most communities’ fire codes mention nitrate disposal.

Nitrate deterioration can damage other photographs because it produces chemical byproducts. This occurs in several phases:

  1. Amber discoloration appears on the film base, and the image has faded.
  2. The film base is brittle and sticky.
  3. Bubbles appear in the film base. The negative emits an acrid smell.
  4. Film disintegrates into a brown, acrid powder.

Safety film may show similar signs of deterioration and produce a vinegar smell. The film base also can shrink, producing waves, or “channels,” in the emulsion. But unlike nitrate film, safety film isn’t a fire hazard.

To ensure that your negatives last, consider several factors when you store them. First, the environment: You can slow deterioration by storing materials at a constant temperature and humidity. Negatives stored at 70 degrees Fahrenheit and 40 percent humidity last about 50 years. Lower temperatures and humidity increase longevity, but these conditions usually aren’t practical in a home setting. You might consider freezing your negatives, though (sec the box at far left).

The second consideration is that negatives range in size from panoramic sheets several feet long to the standard 35 mm. Each size needs to be stored separately so the weight is evenly distributed.

Again, wear lint-free cotton gloves when handling film negatives. That way, you won’t risk depositing oils and dirt on them. Gentle brushing with a soft bristle brush can remove surface dirt. Never brush negatives that are undergoing chemical changes, or glass negatives that are losing their emulsions. Handle deteriorated negatives in a well-ventilated area. Wear neoprene gloves, remove contact lenses (if you wear them) and limit your exposure time. These negatives can emit gases that cause skin, eye and respiratory irritations.

By taking these simple precautions, you can preserve your precious photographs for many years to come. Every family photo collection has a story to tell and is worth saving. Your descendants will thank you for your efforts.

From the May 2004 Preserve Your Family History