Conservation advice: photographs

Photographs are complex yet fragile objects, which tend to deteriorate as a result of the vices inherent in their composition as well as through the normal processes of ageing. However, deterioration of original photographs can be slowed and damage from physical or environmental influences minimised, by good storage and handling practices.

Storing your photographs

Proper storage protects your photographs from the damaging effects of light, dust, incorrect handling and rapid changes in the environment.

We recommend that you place your photographs in an 'archivally safe' photograph album. These are available from archival suppliers.

The album can be made of paper or plastic, but should fit the following guidelines. Some plastic albums have removable pages with pockets to hold different sized photos and negatives. Please note that albums with adhesive pages, available in department and variety stores, can actually harm your photographs.

Archival paper on board contains no lignin, sulphur, metals or colorants. The best paper is rag paper which is made from cotton, but paper with a high alpha-cellulose content made from wood is suitable.

The paper or board should have a neutral pH (that is, a pH of 7). Some archival papers are 'alkali buffered'. Buffered papers are not suitable for photographs because they may affect some early types of photographs and dyes in early colour prints.

Of all the plastics available, only polypropylene and polyester (also called Mylar or polyethylene terephthalate) are suitable. However, photographs can stick to plastics at high humidity (over 60%). This is not a problem in Canberra which tends to be dry, but can be a problem in moister climates, for example, Brisbane. Do not store your photographs in plastic if the climate is moist or conditions are likely to be damp.

Use archivally safe paper or plastic photo corners to fix your photographs to paper or board. Do not use glue or sticky tape.

Handling and displaying your photographs

The general principles applying to documents also apply to photographs - handle with care and only when necessary; and use clean, dry hands.

It is important not to touch photographs as oils and acids on the fingers can damage the photographic emulsion. The silver image will tarnish, just like a silver trophy or cutlery, but more damage is done because the silver grains are so much smaller.

Like paper items, photographs need to be supported when they are carried, not picked up by one corner. This especially applies to large photographs like panorama prints and prints on brittle cardboard decorative mounts.

Photographs should never be bent or folded as the emulsion will crack. Similarly, folded or tightly rolled photographs should not be forced flat, as the stresses will cause further emulsion damage.

Moisture weakens photographic emulsion and can lead to image loss. Wet photographs should be dried face up in a cool airy room as quickly as possible to prevent destructive mould growth. Nothing should be placed on top of damp emulsion, as it will stick.

Don't laminate photographs or use sticky tape to repair them. These materials will discolour the photograph and can pull off the emulsion layer destroying the image.

Preferably, only copy prints should be displayed to protect originals from exposure to light.

If original prints are displayed, they should be placed in an area with low light and where the temperature and humidity levels are moderate and relatively stable. Original photographs should never be exposed to direct sunlight.

Photographs should be framed with an archival cardboard window mat to prevent the photographic emulsion from coming into contact with the glass.

Please seek conservation advice if an original photograph becomes stuck to frame glazing or to a plastic enclosure, as attempts to remove it can result in image loss.

Photographic Conservators at the Australian War Memorial contributed the information. The methods are the same as the ones used at the Memorial but some materials have been substituted so that you can obtain them easily.

The Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material provides a directory of conservators in private practice. You can use the directory to find someone in your region with the expertise to provide qualified care of your memorabilia.