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Make sure your photos have a future, Part 2 (05/02/2004)
By Tom Hirsch

There are many reasons why we take pictures. It might be to produce a record of an event, to capture the unpredictable expression on a child's face, to record the golden anniversary of loved ones, or to try duplicating on film the fleeting colors of a brilliant sunset.

Whatever our reasons for taking photos, we would like them to survive into our old age, and the golden years of descendants who would find these records of value, or at least of interest. All photographic materials will deteriorate with age. But if properly stored, they can retain their original qualities for many years; and, hopefully, for centuries.

For long-term storage of prints, it is safest to purchase albums and storage containers from a reputable photo or art dealer. Many department stores carry products for this purpose, but all too often they contain harmful chemicals that can hasten the demise of priceless photos.

When you buy albums or storage containers, make sure that they are marked "Archival," or that they contain no bleaches, wood pulp (the glues can be harmful), acetate, or polyvinyl chloride (PVC). You've seen, and possibly used, albums with plastic overlay sheets for holding photos in place. Many, but not all, of these overlays contain PVC. Check the album's label.

Also, avoid storing photos in shoe boxes, or any household containers that are put together with glue. Not only can glues be harmful, but the gasses contained in the fibers of most cardboard also have properties that can deteriorate emulsions. This is also true of wooden boxes, drawers or shelves. Fumes contained in wood are detrimental to photographic materials; even wood that is over 100 years old. Never store photographs in white letter envelopes. Chemicals used for bleaching the paper are acidic and can damage photographic emulsions.

Then what is safe for storing photographic materials? You can use any acid-free envelopes or folders which can be placed in acid-free boxes. These could be stored on metal shelves. Also safe are plastic sleeves, envelopes or transparent plastic album sheets made of polyethylene, polypropylene, or Mylar-D.

Incidentally, if you store prints in file boxes, you can lose track of them very easily unless you have some sort of filing system. One of the easiest ways of keeping track of them is to get a set or two of tabbed dividers and label each set of prints by year and event or subject matter.

The conditions under which photographic materials are stored also have an impact on longevity. One of the biggest culprits is heat. Temperatures should be maintained at around 70 degrees, give or take ten degrees. In a warm, humid climate, photographic materials should be stored in an air conditioned room.

Avoid storing photo materials in an attic unless it can be climate controlled. Continual temperature extremes from hot in the summer to cold in the winter can be very damaging. A garage is bad because of temperature fluctuations, but it should also be avoided because carbon monoxide fumes emitted by cars are deadly to photo materials.

Humidity is another factor. Store pictures in a location where you can maintain relative humidity at about 50 percent, plus or minus ten percent. Humidity above 60 percent will promote the growth of mold and fungus. Below 20 percent, photo materials can crack and curl due to dryness.

Okay, so how can you preserve your prints for posterity? Only in storage devices that are chemically inert. And where is the best location? Under a bed? Uh, uh, too dusty. In a closet? Probably. If you take all the conditions into account, your photos should be enjoyed by your heirs for many years to come. 


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