Photo Preservation Guide Part 2: Handling, Exhibiting & Storing
This is the second part of a three part series on preservation; the first served as the introduction to proactively create preservationally sound prints. This part will focus on handling, exhibition, storage, and environment. The final part will explain the invasive conservation treatment of these prints.
Whereas it is extremely important to process a print archivally, the handling, exhibiting, storing, and environment play an equally important role in its permanence. Below is a number of steps to take to ensure the longevity of a print, whether it's a print you produced yourself, a print purchased for a collection, or even an antique family photo.
Handling: Hands are dirty. Even after washing them, all sorts of natural oils exist that can cause harm to photographs and negatives alike. To ensure that no potential oil or dirt gets onto the print or negative, always wear gloves when handling these materials. Some manual dexterity is lost when wearing gloves though, so use extra care and caution when handling with gloves. Typically, I use powder-free nitrile gloves when handling negatives [latex gloves are also fine to use, however, many people have allergies to latex and nitrile are latex-free], and white cotton gloves when handling prints. Even when wearing gloves, avoid touching the image of the print and handle the print by its sides and corners.
|Handle photographic prints with gloves, and never touch the image|
Exhibiting: Whether displaying prints in a private home or exhibiting in a gallery, matting and framing should serve to protect and promote easy handling, as well as present a visually stunning support for the work. There are many ways to mount the photograph: dry mounting to a board, corner tab mounting to a board, window mats, and direct matting to name a few. Whichever method is chosen, the most important advice is to use the best materials possible. For all paper products used, select materials that are acid-free, lignin-free, cotton rag, archival, and/or unbuffered. These terms are used in various ways, so don’t feel shy to ask which is the most archivally sound or safe material to use. Another consideration is that the mounting and framing is reversible. The photograph should always be able to be safely removed from its frame and stored appropriately after its display. I have seen some atrocities which probably seemed like an interesting idea at the time, such as gluing a photograph to a piece of wood, but after a few years the thing had nearly decomposed because the adhesive from the glue combined with the chemical decomposition of the wood, combined and formed a deadly attack on the photograph. So before getting too creative, think about longevity and long-term access.
|Corner-mounted print on a 4-ply archival mount board|
Storing: When preparing for storage, it is important to remember that a photographic print is a whole bunch of chemistry sitting atop paper. Enclosures and sleeves help protect photographs from pollution, accidental damage through inappropriate handling, and random gashes. There are many options to protect prints, the most common is to interleave with paper and stack prints in an archival box, or store prints in sleeves and then place in a box. When interleaving with paper, it is imperative to use acid-free, archival, unbuffered paper. The paper serves as a buffer between the prints so the chemistry does not migrate to the next print, as well, it makes it easier to handle the print by using the paper as a carrier support to lift it in and out of the box. If using plastic sleeves instead of paper dividers, by sure to use archival quality sleeves that do not contain PVC. Polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, is commonly used but its chemical make-up is not stable for long-term storage. It will eventually deteriorate and release plasticizers and other chemicals into the photograph that will degrade the print over time. Safe plastics to use are polyester, most commonly called mylar or melinex. It is fine to insert prints into these sleeves, and then store in an archival box.
Environment: Stability is key. It is imperative to have a non-fluctuating temperature and relative humidity. That said, it is ideal to have a cool temperature and a relative humidity of less than 50%, however, keeping a stable environment is the most important. The beauty of black and white film, for me, is multifaceted, but one aspect is the longevity. Unlike a chromogenic print, a digital image, or resin-coated paper, black and white film is a survivor. When processed appropriately and stored properly, the negatives and prints will last hundreds of years. However, if squirreled away in a scorching attic, damp basement, or in direct sunlight, you will out live both the negatives and prints. So, when deciding where to store the boxes of prints and negatives, avoid the darkroom, basement, and attic; if storing in your home, a closet can be quite safe, as well as drawers in an unused dresser. Flux, unless referring to the art movement, is terrible for any artwork. A drawer or closet can provide a small micro-environment within the larger, slightly more fluctuating temperature throughout a home.
|Shrunken, irreparable negative due to extreme heat conditions|
An example of what heat can do to a negative is shown in the above image. I came across this negative in an archive of a famous photographer. Massive shrinkage occurred due to heat. Sadly, this cannot be reversed and the negative cannot be saved.
Stay tuned for the third (and final) part of this preservation series, which will address conservation treatment- what to do when disasters strike, how to salvage materials yourself, and when to seek professional conservation help.
Kate Contakos is Head of the Preservation Department at Stanford University, and was a founding member of Shutterclank! (film photography magazine). She shoots black and white film on her Leica, Mamiya, and Nikon, and spends lots of time in her custom built darkroom in her loft in San Francisco. She is currently addicted to Ilford’s MG Art cotton rag paper.
Further Reading and Resources
Adams, Ansel. The Print. Little, Brown and Company: Boston, 1983.
Issues in the Conservation of Photographs. Ed. Debra Hess Norris and Jennifer Jae Gutierrez. The Getty Conservation Institute: Los Angeles, 2010.
Lavedrine, Bertrand. A Guide to the Preventive Conservation of Photograph Collections. The Getty Conservation Institute: Los Angeles, 2003.
Rempel, Siegfried. The Care of Photographs. Nick Lyons Books: New York, 1987.
American Institute for Conservation Photographic Materials Group:
Gawain Weaver’s Care and Identification of Photographs Workshops:
Image Permanence Institute:
George Eastman House: