Understanding the Problem
Photographs employ a process in which a medium which has been coated with various chemicals that react to light is first exposed to a light source to "take" the picture and then is processed using other chemicals that fix and stabilize the image. The negative is then used to create prints on paper that has been coated with even more chemicals. Given the number of chemicals involved, it should not be surprising that no photograph is completely stable. Although in the short run it is insignificant, a small amount of sensitivity to light is always present. Photographs can also react rapidly and unpredictably in the presence of other chemicals.
All photographs fade over time. Traditionally processed black and white photographic prints may last a century or more. Color photographs, because of the various dyes used to create the color, are very susceptible to color change and fading. In particular color photos that are exhibited, may experience noticeable color change after only ten to fifteen years. Polaroid or other "instant" developing photographs are also likely to be chemically unstable and as a result fade very quickly.
The Enemies of PhotographsPhotographs are vulnerable to the same enemies as is paper; heat, humidity, light, and mishandling. Because of their chemical nature, photographs also often react negatively to the presence of other chemicals. Even the oils from a person's hands, if left on a photographic print or negative, can eventually cause finger prints to become permanently embedded in the image. Because photographic images are found on light sensitive materials that cannot be made completely stable, bright light is particularly destructive to photographs.
Preserving PhotographsIdeally, photographs should be stored in an extremely cool environment, with color filming lasting longest at a temperature of about forty degrees fahrenheit. Few people are willing to go through the expense and trouble of purchasing a refrigerator solely to store their film. More practical suggestions include:
- Store photographs in the coolest place in a home that is not subject to high or rapid changes in humidity. Avoid the basement of most homes.
- Always handle photographic prints and particularly photographic negatives by the edges. An even better option, is to wear light gloves made of a lint free material while handling photographic images.
- Do not expose photographic prints or negatives to bright light for extended periods of time unless the negative from which the photograph was made can be found and is properly stored. If a negative is not available, a copy negative should be made prior to exhibiting the photographic print.
- Use high quality color negative film and paper to take and print color photographs. After conducting independent tests for long-term durability, Henry Wilhelm, in The Permanence and Care of Color Photographs (1992) recommends among the negative film marketed for the amateur market the use of Fujicolor Super G 200, Konica Color Super SR 200 3M ScotchColor 200 Film or Polaroid OneFilm Color Print Film (ISO 200) in the medium speed range (ISO 160-200). Wilhelm's more surprising finding was that there was great variability in the fading quality of the paper upon which photos were printed. Fujicolor Super FA Type 3 and Fujicolor SFA3 papers could be exposed for fifty years without color fade.
Photographs: a Checklist
- Store photographs in a cool place that is not subject to high humidity.
- Store photographs away from bright light. If you choose to display family photographs use UV filtering glass.
- Always handle photographs by their edges. Better yet, wear gloves when handling photographic items.
- Select film with longevity in mind.
- When employing a professional photographer ask that he or she print photos on long-lived paper.
- Treat color photographs as a temporary medium and assume you will have to have them copied.