All Those Photographs!

All those Photographs!

One topic that comes up consistently with my clients when discussing the archiving of their historical documents and photos is how to handle the thousands of printed photographs that they have amassed. Remember that my clients tend to have lots of prints and most are color.

Beginning in the mid-19th century, the ability to print images on paper gained widespread and long-lasting use. Printing on paper meant that photographs could be used to memorialize oneself, as a memento, to document adventure and travel, for political purposes or advertising.

Ever since snapshot photography became popular and easily available (thanks Mr. Eastman), people have grappled with the different ways to store, view and share photos. I have family albums in different configurations, dating back to the early 20th century. The subjects are carefully identified (using white ink of course) and I can see who was in the pictures, where they were taken and what they were doing. The value of keeping those hard copies is in holding them in your hand and in their permanence. If properly conserved, a photograph should last hundreds of years.

You may have noticed how well preserved the older black and white photos are compared to color snapshots taken only 40 to 50 years ago. Exposure to light causes the most harm to photographs but processing paper and chemicals also fade and change color photographs. All photos are best preserved in temperature controlled, low humidity environments (like the average home) and in the dark (in an album, in a box). Hint: if you are going to display a photo for years, make a copy for display, from the negative if available, and keep the original in a dark, acid free storage place. By the way, faded color photos can be somewhat restored digitally for viewing using a free editing software or the software on many scanners.

In a rather extreme example, I recently I worked with a collection of about 400 envelopes of photographs, as they came from the processor, that were well cared-for. Assuming the standard 24 picture roll of 35 mm film, that is approximately 9600 photographs.

I had a conversation recently with a friend and his wife who had carefully made scrapbooks of photos for each year as his children grew up. In addition he had over 100 VCR tapes that he had recorded during that time. He has all of this plus his parent’s albums!

I can relate. I have always liked to take pictures (or snapshots really). My early cameras were easy to use, cartridge film style, point-and-shoots. They were generally inexpensive and as new models came out, I would upgrade. Later I got a good SLR camera and really enjoyed the creative side of photography.

All this time the only thing that held me back was the expense and inconvenience of developing. So, when digital cameras became available, I grabbed one and began storing my snapshots on discs, drives, etc. One of the most appealing features of digital photography was being able to screen a lot of photos and easily cull the bad ones, keeping only the shots I wanted. (More about digital images in another blog.)

I want to interject that I did not take many slides despite the high-quality images they produced. But my brother-in-law, who is quite a photographer, took a bunch of them and had fun putting them in carousels then having slide shows. The challenge today with slides is keeping the projecting equipment in good working order. We have left that technology behind plus it is a bigger challenge to edit slide collections due to the size and needing a backlight of some type. Slides, however, can be digitized with readily available tools. There are many reputable companies that can digitize slides and video today.

Here is my thought process as I dealt with all my photos. First, I designated different time periods of my life to date. I purposely kept the number of periods low.

  • Youth pre-college
  • College to marriage
  • Marriage and child raising
  • Children’s college years
  • Life after children

Next, I asked what story about me do my available pictures tell in each of these periods? For example, as a youth I was fairly athletic, enjoyed outdoor activities such as camping, was an Eagle Scout, was a slightly above average student, liked to travel, etc. As I reviewed my photographs, I tried to pick as few as 10 to 20 to illustrate my story during each period. I looked for snapshots of important events, things that I had impact on or impacted me, things that were important to me. These are the pictures that future generations hopefully will value and these are the ones I professionally conserved.

I created an archive album using 80# acid-free paper and archival clear mounting corners (no glue please). I used buff colored paper and captioned the pictures with #2 pencil. The actual 3-ring mechanism is in an acid free, opaque, rigid cardboard archive box. These supplies are readily available from professional archive supply houses like Gaylord Archival or University Products. Remember to identify the folks in the pictures.

For me and my family that knows me, I still have all of my other photos to enjoy but when they are no longer meaningful to the descendants, they can be thrown away, leaving the photos that tell my story preserved for posterity, in one, much smaller box.

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