Enemies of photographs

Photographs have six main enemies:

  1. acid and other chemicals
  2. humidity
  3. temperature (heat and extreme temperature fluctuation)
  4. light
  5. corrosive particles
  6. human carelessness.

Acid and other chemicals
The acid, PVC or lignin content in your albums and other supplies such as paper, pens, embellishment, etc., can affect the life expectancy of your photos. The acid will damage photos over time and cause them to fade and the lignin, a natural component of wood, will break down and become acidic over time. Therefore, make sure your paper is acid-free and lignin-free for a longest photo life. In the following paragraphs, you will learn more.

Humidity
Humidity poses one of the biggest threats to photographs. According to conservators, the optimal range of relative humidity is 20 percent to 50 percent.

Photographs stored in humidity of 65 percent or more, such as in an attic or basement may become brittle or grow mold. Mold lives on the gelatine emulsion, the layer where the image is formed. Both the paper and its emulsion expand and contract in different humidities, but not at the same rate. The bonding between the paper and the emulsion may be damaged, leading to flaking.

Mildew is another hazard. There is no way to stop the spread of mildew once it has started. Again, have a new print made while the image is still visible. The rooms where important or valuable pictures are placed should have a stable environment in which temperature and humidity are maintained at relatively constant levels. This can be accomplished through the use of air conditioning, humidifiers (in dry homes, especially during the winter) and dehumidifiers (for damp environments). Running fans to keep air circulating may be helpful. Simple temperature/humidity gauges are available at hardware and electronics stores.

Temperature
Temperature control is important due to its influence on relative humidity. As temperatures drop, the air can hold less moisture, and the relative humidity rises. If the storage area is cooled without also controlling the relative humidity, fungal growth may result. By decreasing temperatures 10 degrees Fahrenheit, the life expectancy of a color photograph almost doubles.

Attics are too hot and basements are too damp for safe photo storage. Don’t hang or store important photographs on exterior walls, in bathrooms or over heat sources.

A good rule to follow is to store your albums in a room where the temperature is 77 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius) or less where heat and relative humidity are kept at fairly constant levels.

Light
Light has visible and invisible effects on paper, either of which may cause paper to become brittle and deteriorate. One of the visible effects is bleaching – fading of colors and certain dyes and inks. Another visible effect is that paper darkens when any lignin reacts with certain other compounds, turning it yellow or brownish. This reaction turns newspaper yellow. Nothing can reverse or stop photo deterioration, but a faded color print can be copied in black and white to bring back its original contrast.

At the same time these visible effects are taking place, certain invisible damage also occurs. The ultraviolet rays in sunlight and fluorescent light induce chemical reactions that break down cellulose, weakening the paper. Unfortunately, the reaction initiated by light may continue even after the source of damage has been eliminated. Buffering will minimize the breakdown.

Other factors being equal, paper will last longer when kept in the dark. However, keeping photo albums continually in the dark is seldom practical. Watch for oxidation. This chemical reaction often occurs in the dark areas of a photo or around the edges and gradually ruins the picture. Have a new negative and/or picture made while it is still clear.

Direct sunlight is the most harmful light source. Incandescent (tungsten) or filtered fluorescent lighting is preferred. Typical photocopying will not harm photographs or other printed materials. Avoid exposing your album pages or photos to light over extended periods of time (e.g., don’t leave your album open on the coffee table).

Corrosive particles
Air purity is particularly crucial to photo longevity in a city environment. Harmful chemicals and airborne particles can damage conventional photographs and digital prints.

Keep photographs away from fresh paint fumes, plywood, fumigation agents, cardboard, janitorial supplies and furniture polish. Do not leave albums open where dust can collect on them.

Human carelessness
Keep photos away from any harmful papers, plastics or glues, such as cardboard boxes and file folders. Don’t eat, drink or smoke around original photos – especially not around negatives. Handle your prints gently, by the borders, and wash your hands before handling. Negatives, prints and other types of photos can be cleaned with a soft brush such as a camel hairbrush.

If you have a photo that is ripped or partially ruined by water or other disaster, you may want to take it to a professional photo restorer.

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