Photo Detective: Preservation Pointers

Photo Detective: Preservation Pointers

I'd planned to write about photo identification this week, but then I went to get my eyes examined. At the receptionist's counter, I saw a sign that read, "Do you recognize any of the members of this class of 1949?" Someone had used tape to attach pictures of...

I’d planned to write about photo identification this week, but then I went to get my eyes examined. At the receptionist’s counter, I saw a sign that read, “Do you recognize any of the members of this class of 1949?” Someone had used tape to attach pictures of the students to the counter. The tape covered more than the edges—it coated the images’ surfaces. Whoever posted those pictures had created a preservation problem unknowingly. When the person decides to remove the pictures from the table, he or she won’t be able to separate the images from the tape without harming them. This incident made me think about all the inadvertent harm done to family pictures. In this case, a simple project to identify the members of the class actually damaged the class portraits. Shaken by the sight of those pictures, I thought I’d review the dos and don’ts of photo preservation.

Don’t stick anything to the surface of an image.
It doesn’t matter if the product’s being touted as “acid- and lignin-free” or “safe for photographs.” Never mar the front of a picture in any way. What’s considered safe today may not be tomorrow. Any adhesive stuck to the front of an image can remove parts of the picture and stain them over time.

Never write on the front of a photo.
I believe that most damage done to pictures is by mistake—a case of good intentions gone awry. Some friends recently returned from a vacation and wanted to identify where their pictures had been taken and when. Their solution was to write on the front of each picture with ink. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but they ended up ruining their photos. There are other options.

For example, you can take a picture with a digital camera or scan a print onto your computer, and then use a photo-editing program to “write” on the image. Next, print out a copy. That way, you won’t ruin the original.

If you use the right tools, you can caption the backs of original images. Avoid ball-point and felt-tip pens. Ball-point pens leave indentations in pictures, and their ink often smears. Felt-tip pens can bleed into porous paper. Instead, write on the backs of your images with a soft lead pencil, such as the graphite ones used for drawing. For plastic-coated papers select a pen that’s odorless (when dry), waterproof, quick drying and resistant to fading. You’ll find several types in scrapbook and art-supply stores. For more tips, see my article on labeling images in the October 2003 Family Tree Magazine.

Print digital images on photographic paper.
I love the ease of digital imaging, but I find that many people don’t understand the implications of printing their images at home. Printing at home is fine IF you use the right materials, including a good photo printer. (Contributing editor Rick Crume reviewed photo printers in the December 2003 Family Tree Magazine.) And using the right inks and papers can change the fates of your images from preservation disasters to preservation dreams. To find out which inks and papers meet your preservation needs, visit Wilhelm Imaging Research’s Web site. An authority on picture preservation, the company tests papers, inks and printers, and posts the results on its Web site.

Use good-quality albums.
One of the best ways to save your photographs is to place them in acid- and lignin-free albums. Magnetic albums, which incorporate adhesives and plastic overlays, may be inexpensive, but they’ll cause irreversible damage to your prints by exposing them to chemicals.

The John Porter Everyday Archives collection from Celine Countryman just appeared on the market and offers attractive albums that will keep your pictures safe. Wilhelm Imaging Research has tested the line and found that the products will keep images safe up to 200 years. The John Porter Web site directs you to vendors in your area.

That’s my rant for this week. Next column, I’ll be back with more solutions to photo mysteries.

By the way, I’m looking for photo success stories from readers who have used the tips and techniques presented in this column. Please contact me at if you have one you’d like to share, and send the image. It might end up in Family Tree Magazine!

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