Most of the time, those old photos that have been passed down from generation to generation have simply been kept in an old cardboard box up in the attic, in the basement or out in the garage. Many of these locations are subject to water damage from rain or flood. The temperature and humidity extremes found in these locations during the year are also damaging to your old photographs.
On top of Mother Nature, many of those old photos were mounted on that black paper used in so many photo albums that were so commonly used in the first half of the 20 th century. While they didn’t know it at the time, that black paper is very acidic and will eventually leach into the photos contained within those albums, destroying the photographs forever. The process is accelerated, when those albums are subject to temperature and humidity extremes or moisture.
Besides the more obvious damage found in old photographs caused by moisture, you can also find foxing (mold), silvering, bends / creases / folds and fading.
What to do?
Well, the first step is to keep your photos out of the elements. At the very minimum you should put those photo albums and loose photos in water tight zip lock storage bags as a start. Keep them out of direct sunlight to prevent fading. This should only be an interim measure, as ideally you should follow the steps outlined below to maximize the life expectancy of your photographs.
Loose photos should be placed in archival safe sleeves. These sleeves are available in various sizes and can be found easily in internet searches. These sleeves, should be identified as acid and PVC free. Photo albums should be sealed in air tight storage bags. This will slow down the acid in the photo album paper from interacting with the photographs. In an ideal situation, these photos should be removed from the pages of the album and stored in individual archival safe sleeves. If the photos are glued on to the album pages, they may be able to be removed.
This is a painstakingly slow process and must be done very carefully, as you are at risk of causing permanent damage to the photos. I would suggest contacting a professional archivist, should you decide to remove these glued photos from an album. For the sake of brevity, I will not go into the procedure in this space. Once in archival safe sleeves, you may wish to use an alpha numeric numbering system to add any identification to the photographs. Don’t write directly on the photograph. Add the number, written on an adhesive sticker to the archival sleeve (not directly on to the photo itself) and then using a spread sheet, identify the photograph, cross referencing it to the number you applied to that specific image. Identify one photograph at a time, so you don’t mix up the sleeves. Finally, store all the like sized photos together in an airtight and watertight rigid storage container… snapshots, early albumen photos, 8x10s, postcards. The photos are more likely to bend and crease if they are stored loosely together. If sorted by size and format, they will be placed next to other similar sized photographs and are less likely to bend or crease.
Ideally, if you add a rigid backing material to each photograph, then you should virtually eliminate any unwanted bending and creasing. Once again, PVC and acid free backing material is also easily available online. If you wish, you can also scan all of your photos and save them on your laptop. This way you can enjoy the images on a regular basis, while minimizing handling of the originals. On a final note, you may ask why not just scan the photographs and then dispose of the originals, so you don’t have to carry them around with you.
As a collector, the original photo carries significant value over a digital reproduction. The same way a coin collector would want an original coin and not a reproduction of that coin or an art collector would desire the original Mona Lisa over the highest quality reproduction. As a purist, even the most advanced digitally scanned images do not offer the resolution of the original. I’m sure a computer software technician may disagree, but the fact remains that there is value in the original photograph that does not exist in a digital reproduction.
Should you ultimately decide just to scan your family photographs and then discard the originals, I would like to suggest contacting a collector who would compensate you for any historical value contained within those photos. That way the originals can continue to live on as part of a larger collection.
I hope this has been helpful.
Preserve your old photographs and they can then be enjoyed for generations to come.