We’re in for a special treat today: Guest Jenn White of Scrappers Workshop shares tons of tips for preserving, repairing, storing and making the most of your precious older photos…
Dusty, dirty, and dripping with sweat, my sister and I heaved the footlocker down from the attic. It was the last of the dark green wooden military lockers, and hopefully contained treasure. We carefully pried open the top to find pure gold: a lifetime of scrapbooks and photos, carefully stored by my mother… in the worst possible place, a 100-degree attic!
I’m grateful to have these memories – everything from my mother’s elementary school report cards to her wedding photos – but a little intimidated by the responsibility of caring for them. So I set out to try to right some of the wrongs done and preserve the memories for my children and grandchildren. I had to dip into my bag of tricks for a lot of these photos and thought I’d share some of those techniques with you!
Damage Control for Old Photos
The first step is to mitigate the damage being done by improper storage. I can’t undo 40 years in the attic, but there are things to be done right away:
- Check the packaging. Anything still in the paper folder from the photo finisher should be moved into an archival quality box, page protector or album.
- Check the albums. If you have any of those old “magnetic” albums, the kind with wax stripes for sticking the photos to and a thin plastic overlay, set those aside for treatment later.
- Look for negatives. You probably want to take them out of the sleeves they came in and put them in archival sleeves. You can get page protectors that hold strips of negatives, this is a great way to store them as you can see what’s on them without taking them out of the protectors.
- Evaluate frames. A photo framed without a mat (a cardboard frame with an opening for the photo that sits between the photo and the glass) should be removed very carefully. If it’s stuck to the glass, set it aside for attention later. If you can get it out, put it in your archival box, protector or album.
- Look for signs of water damage or moisture. You may need to spread everything out to be sure it’s dry before storing. If there is mold or mildew, set aside for more treatment later.
Troubleshooting Damaged Photos
Now we need to deal with the problem areas:
- Magnetic albums: Hate these! They are the worst possible things to put your photos in… I can’t believe they still sell them! The wax is made with petroleum which is oily and can soak through the photos putting lines in them. The plastic is full of terrible chemicals that outgas and leach the color from your photos. So you need to get them out. If they’re terribly stuck, try warming them up with a hair dryer from the back. Once you have them out, wipe gently with a soft cloth to get off as much wax as you can, and put them into individual photo sleeves, either in an archival quality photo album or page protectors. You don’t want to stack them up in a box because residual wax on the back could ruin anything stacked under it.
- Mold and Mildew: Get them out into a cool, dry location with good air circulation. This can be a challenge in the summer, but over an air-conditioning vent or even in the freezer is okay. You want the mold to go dormant and dry out. Even though sunlight is bad for photos, this is a case where a brief sunbath is not a bad idea – 1-2 hours at most. Once the mold is dry and powdery, you can gently wipe away the mold dust with a soft cloth like an old t-shirt. Do protect yourself – gloves, a dust mask or respirator and eye protection are a good idea if you’re sensitive or have a lot of mold. Store these photos separately from your non-moldy photos so you don’t inadvertently contaminate the good photos. Check them after a few months of storage in a cool, dry environment just in case the mold reactivates. If it does, repeat the process.
- Water Damage: If you have extreme damage, as in a flood or tornado, and there is dirt on the prints, you want to gently rinse them before mold has a chance to grow. Fill a large dish tub with cool clear water and gently submerse and rinse the photos. Do not run water directly on them just wave them around to get the dirt off. Be careful not to let running water from the faucet on them or to rub them with your hands, you could damage the emulsion. Then dry them carefully, handling them only on the edges. You want very low humidity and a very cool room (below 68F if possible). If this isn’t possible, you can put each print into a freezer Ziploc bag (yes, while it’s wet) and freeze it. When you are ready to dry them, you can clip them onto a clothesline strung in the room or lay them onto pieces of paper towel and run a fan above or below them (but not on them) to keep air circulating around them. Replace the wet paper towels as the prints thaw/dry out, being careful to touch the photos on the edges only. It may take 2-3 days for them to dry thoroughly. If they curl you can flatten them by putting them between clean white paper and putting something heavy on them for a while – after they are dry.
Photo Storage Solutions
The most important thing to remember is: If you are comfortable, so are your prints. The ideal temperature is what is comfortable for people, between 70-75 degrees F. So no more attics or basements, unheated storage rooms or garages. Clear space on a closet shelf anywhere but the bathroom or kitchen. Too many opportunities for moisture in those locations.
Archival storage materials are important. This means all paper should be non-acidic, lignin-free paper. Avoid envelopes with center seams, they can leave a mark from the adhesive. If you have to use them, put the back of the photo against the seam. Plastic holders should be of pure polyethylene, polypropylene or polyester (Mylar D). Avoid using PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic – it has a strong odor and will generate acid gas that will fade your photographs. In addition, the image can stick to this type of plastic making it impossible to get it off of the print. If you’re unsure whether an album, box or envelope is of archival quality, either find someone to ask or don’t use it. There are many sources for good archival storage supplies… one we like is Light Impressions. Archival materials are more expensive and you may not wish to store every photo this way, but splurge for sleeves or pages for your more fragile or important photos and a good box or two for the rest.
Now that you’ve got everything safely protected, it’s time to think about long-term storage. In my next post we’ll look at what you need to know to digitally preserve the images for use and posterity. So… where are your photos right now? Are they as comfortable as you are?