Sorting through albums and bins of old photos can be exciting and overwhelming. There are treasures in those bins – grandma looking like a movie star on the beach, a photo of your great-uncle who died in the war, the only baby photo of your father. However, digging for those treasures can be a bit messy. Damaged photos, improper storage, and sheer volume can make sorting difficult.
Before jumping in, we recommend sorting photos with intention. What is your photo goal? Visualize the end result. What do you hope to achieve?
If you don’t have a specific goal or project in mind, taking on “The Great Photography Clean Out” can be daunting. Questions like “What do I keep? Who is this person? How many boyfriends did mom really have?” pop up as you pick up piles of photos. Most people have goals that fall into at least one of three categories: display, preserve, and share.
You want to begin by making piles of the photos you want to display, store, and share. Which photos are the most precious to you? Put them in a pile. Which photos do you want to digitize and store/share? Put them in a pile. Which photos contain the anonymous people or relatives you do not know? Put them in a pile and find a relative who does know who they are. (If you do not know who is in the photo, we recommend reaching out to family members or visiting ancestry websites to uncover clues. You could have the only photo left of someone’s great-grandmother.)
As you work your way through the piles, think about what you’re finding and what you can do with it. Do you want to create a family wall? Would a snapshot of grandpa fishing look nice in your son’s nursery? Do you want to digitize photos and share them with family? After the photos are digitized, should you make a photo book for your coffee table? We’ve seen clients get very creative with their photos and include personal items like hand-written notes, heirloom pieces, and more in their homes.
It is also important to be mindful as you are sorting. Wear cotton gloves and avoid touching the surface of the images with your bare fingers. Specific types of photography need to be handled and stored properly. We’ll dive into the different photo formats, common photography problems, and solutions below.
Photography is a wonderful art form. Since its inception, photography has captured everything from historical moments in time to snapshots of loved ones and everything in between. However, like most manufactured items, photography methods have been subjected to the “faster, cheaper” mentality – how do we make something faster while keeping the cost down? This has resulted in a number of interesting photography styles and processing methods.
Here are a few of the more common photography methods that are likely to pop up in your sorting:
Daguerreotype (1838 – 1860) Daguerreotypes were usually used for portraits, but rarer landscape views are highly collectible. The process required exposures of ten minutes or more and made portraiture an impractical ordeal. Hand coloring was frequently applied to finish the image.
How can I tell? Does it look like you’re looking in a mirror? These images can be exceptionally sharp in detail.
Conservation Tips: Never touch the plate surface. It should be sealed in a package or under glass to protect from abrasion, air or pollutants. DO NOT HANDLE WITH YOUR HANDS! Fingerprints and smudges can become permanent and tarnish the image. If in a casket/Union Case, do not take out as the surface will oxidize.
Ferreotype (Tintype) (1853 – 1930) Tintypes were made by creating a direct positive on a sheet of iron metal that is blackened by painting, lacquering or enameling and is used as a support for a collodion photographic emulsion. It is very resilient and does not need drying. Photographs can be produced only a few minutes after the picture is taken.
How can I tell? A photograph that is ALWAYS on metal. The highlighted portion is either a pasty white, cream, gray or brown.
Conservation Tips: Keep in storage envelopes to protect from light and humidity. Add cardboard to the envelope to protect deformation. Images can become rusty and flake off if introduced to moisture. Avoid contact with fingertips.
Ambrotypes (1852 – 1870) The ambrotype is a photograph that creates a positive image on a sheet of glass using the wet plate collodion process. The resulting negative appears to be a positive image – the clear areas look black, and the exposed areas appear light. This is achieved by coating one side of the glass negative with black varnish. By blackening the negative, it allows the thick glass to give the image added depth. This system was less expensive than the daugerreotype and lacked the daugerreotype’s shiny metallic surface. Ambrotypes were usually hand-tinted.
How can I tell? Image is on glass that you can see through to black paper or painted black. The bright part of the image has a pasty cream or grayish appearance.
Conservation Tips: Keep enclosed in a sealed package. The ambrotypes are sensitive to light, air and humidity. They are extremely sensitive to water. DO NOT HANDLE WITH YOUR HANDS! The images can cause the emulsion to flake and/or fall off. If in a casket/Union Case, do not take out. The image of the woman is a perfect example of flaking.
Albumen Prints (1850 – 1900) The albumen prints was the first commercially exploitable method of producing a photographic print of a paper base from a negative. It used the albumen found in egg white to bind the photographic chemicals to the paper and became the dominant form of photographic positives from 1855 to the turn of the 20th century.
How can I tell? You’ll need an expert to examine the emulsion. Most cabinet cards and carte de vistes are albumen prints.
Conservation Tips: Keep protected from high humidity and light. Store in protective envelopes. Handle with cotton gloves to protect from the oils in your skin, or hold by the edges of the cards.
Carte de Viste (1859 – 1905) This was a very small photograph (about 2.125″ x 3.5″ in size). It was usually made of an albumen print, which was a thin paper photograph mounted on a thicker paper card (about 2.5″ x 4″ in size). The photograph was about the size of a visiting card and were traded among friends and visitors. The popularity of these card photographs led to the publication and collection of photographs of prominent persons. Albums for the collection and display of cards became a common fixture in Victorian parlors.
How can I tell? About the size of the modern business card with a print on one side, and the photographer’s information on the reverse.
Conservation Tips: Keep protected from light by storing cards in a UV protected or paper envelope. Keep away from water, and do not touch the face of the image with fingers or moisture. Carte de Viste of famous personalities are still highlyprized by collectors.
Crayon Portraits (1860 – turn of 20th Century) Crayon portraits are a weak photographic image with extensive handwork in pastel or charcoal. In lieu of an original, a photographer would take a photo of another format (like a tintype or a cabinet card), increase the image size and hand color the photo to achieve the look of a portrait. Most of the crayon portraits were done posthumously for the family to display in their home.
How can I tell? Crayon Portraits look like a work of art. The image may have a charcoal/pastel, dusty surface.
Conservation Tips: Do not try to clean or touch a crayon portrait surface. Touching the surface of the image could lead to lifting the image and destroying the hand coloring. The photo should either be properly fitted for framing by a professional or stored in a museum box. If it’s a unframed convex print, it should be stored in a museum box with the appropriate support underneath of the print.
Cabinet Cards (1866 – 1900) Cabinet Cards are similar to Carte de Viste. Cabinet Cards are larger, and were originally used for landscape photos before being used for portraiture. They were large enough to be seen across the room when displayed on a cabinet (hence “Cabinet” card). These photos has enough room on the back to allow for extensive logos to advertise the photographer’s services.
How can I tell? Similar to the Carte de Viste, but closer in size to the modern 5×7. These cards were created as brown tones, sepia tones and black and white.
The originals will fade with prolonged exposure to the sun and UV light sources.
Glass Negatives Similar in appearance to the modern negative, only in black and white and on a piece of glass.
How can I tell? The most common glass negative is 4×5 inches. They are also found in 5×7 and 8×10 sizes. It will clearly be a negative (reverse image) versus a positive or slide. The emulsion may be silvering and reflect like a mirror in places.
Conservation Tips: Keep protected from light by storing cards in UV protected or paper envelope. Keep away from water, and do not touch the face of the image with fingers or moisture. Oils from skin will cause silvering and accelerate deterioration.
Unusual Formats: Salt Prints, Carbon Prints, Platinum Prints, Cyanotype, Slides/Chromes, Contact Prints, Hand Tinted Fiber Prints, Transparencies, Stereoscope Cards and Slides, and Medium Format
Some of these formats are not as common but are still easy to work with. If you have questions or want to schedule an appointment for consultation, call us at 410-825-6858.
Source: Lavédrine, Bertrand. Photographs of the Past: Process and Preservation. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 2009. Print.
Favorite family photos are often the victims of being well-loved. Whatever the situation, the typical family photo has mostly likely been poorly handled or improperly stored.
Common problems include:
1. Silvering – A darkroom black and white print utilizes precious metal – silver. The photos have a silver emulsion and went through a series of baths to fix the image so it would stop processing. A photo can tarnish or “silver” for any number of reasons. If a photo was improperly processed without a fixer or with an expired fixer product, the photo can tarnish. Oxidation from improper storage can also cause silvering. We frequently see photos with fingerprints embedded into the emulsion. Any new chemical, like hand oils, can restart the chemical process of development and cause the photo to silver. You can recognize silvering by the metallic sheen on the face of the image.
2. Silverfish – You’ve probably seen these bugs scurrying around drains or crawling up the walls in your basement. Silverfish live in damp or humid environments, and they love to eat emulsions and fibers. Photos, books, and linens are like a giant Thanksgiving feast to them. If photos aren’t stored in an airtight container or have any gaps in their frames, silverfish will scoot in and enjoy them. Artwork and photos will have holes in them after an attack.
3. Stuck to Glass – A photo becomes stuck to glass because there is a lack of airspace between the photo and the glass. If any moisture gets behind the glass, then the photo emulsion will become gelatinous and adhere to the glass as it dries. The common culprit for moisture is spraying a cleaner directly onto the glass. The cleaner drops into the bottom of the frame and goes behind the glass. Note: If a photo is stuck to glass, do not try to pull it off. It is easier to restore a photo that has not been damaged further.
4. Crazing – The environment is constantly shifting with varying degrees of humidity. As the temperature and humidity levels rise and drop, a photo will expand and contract accordingly. This will cause a photo or piece of art to craze. You’ll see tiny cracks running through a piece. Depending on the material (i.e. metal photo buttons), the photo will crack completely and begin to curl. This is also very common for pieces that are stored above fireplaces.
5. Mold – Again, a humid environment is not friendly to photography and art. Storing photos in a damp basement or hot attic can bring introduce moisture into our images and create a breeding ground for mold. Glass cleaner can also cause mold if it is sprayed onto glass and gets into the frame, matting, or photo.
6. Poor framing – A frame is the photo’s first line of protection or its first enemy. The paper on the back of the frame is designed to help keep bugs out (see #2). The framing materials need to be acid-free. Anything less than conservation grade materials will eat into the art and burn the piece.
7. User-error – There are a ton of DIY solutions out there, but not all of them are tried and true methods. Many people try to de-acidify their own prints that either cannot or should not be de-acidified. People think a photo is stuck to a board when the photo is actually a cabinet card. Photos in caskets should stay in caskets. Fingers do not belong on grandma’s face.
Many of these problems cause permanent damage. You cannot reverse silvering or crazing, but you can slow it down. You can often remove mold or release a photo stuck to glass if it hasn’t been ripped. Most of the more serious problems need to be addressed by a professional, but many can of these issues can be avoided with proper storage and handling. The first line of defense is a good offense.
Many times, you can stop damage before it even begins. It is impossible to reverse most of the above common problems without resorting to restoration. However, following a few simple tips will help prevent further damage to photos as you sort through them.
Some of these tips sound simple and obvious, but they are essential to protecting your images. You should still follow them even if your photos have suffered damage. There are ways to restore photos (original and digital restorations), but it isn’t always easy. Some solutions are easy fixes that can be done at home, but most of the restoration work should at least be seen by a professional prior to starting any work.
There is a scene in a British comedy that features two Victorian women trying to lighten a piece of delicate lace. They pour buttermilk over the lace and leave it to lighten. While they wait, the cat eats it and the ladies are forced to visit the vet to “retrieve” the now ruined lace. It is a hilarious piece of comedy by Imelda Staunton and Julia McKenzie, but losing something precious is less funny when a priceless photo is destroyed because of a DIY seen on social media.
Safe DIY’s include:
1. Photos with a textured emulsion – think tiny honeycomb surface
2. Crazed or cracked surfaces that lift away from the backing
3. Photos stuck to glass
4. Convex crayon portraits
5. Daguerreotypes, Ambrotypes – any photo in a casket
Unfortunately, anything suffering from one of the above common problems will have to see a pro. Convex prints, hand-oiled portraits, glass negatives, and other unique photographic images will also have to be handled by a professional. We’ve seen too many people wipe away a face on a photo when they’re trying to clean it or break an otherwise perfect convex print when trying to digitize it to advocate for any risky DIY procedures. A true pro will not charge you for an evaluation.
You don’t get a second chance to save an original photo. Weigh the value of your experiment. If you’re willing to potentially sacrifice a photo for a DIY project, then go for it. However, keep in mind that most professionals will give a free consultation and give you a recommended treatment plan.
There is a mass movement of folks that are unencumbering themselves from their possessions. The influence of the Danish lifestyle and digital archiving methods have empowered people to let items go. We understand the desire to declutter, but “scan it and toss it” is not always the best approach to dealing with family photos.
Keeping the original photo, slide, or negative has its benefits. The original formats help date the images for genealogists. A cabinet card can give us a rough estimate of when and where it was taken. Details can sometimes be lost in the scanning process if the image was handled correctly, and details like clothing, backgrounds, and more can be essential to dating an image.
In fact, the original photo, slide, and negative are the original generation of an image. They hold the most information about a photo. Each following generation (a scan, emailed JPEG, digital download, etc.) loses a little more information from that original. It’s harder to restore a photo from a poor 3rd generation image than it is to rescan the original format.
It is also smart to keep the original as a backup in case anything happens to your copies or digital files. Computers and drives can fail. Cloud services can disappear. Drugstore prints can turn magenta or blue. You should always duplicate your files onto a separate drive or system in case your primary computer dies or a particular format becomes obsolete (…have you noticed newer laptops are not equipped with CD drives?). But if something does happen, you’ll have your original to work go back to.
Evaluate whether you truly want to throw out your pieces to gain a little shelf space. Snapshots from vacations may not be as important as your grandparents’ wedding photos, but how would you feel if they disappeared forever? Think about this as you sort through your photos and develop a photo plan.
University Products – silica desiccant packets, archival albums, storage, and more
Print File – archival photo and negative sleeves
Nations Photo Lab – photo book and photo gifts
Rocky Mountain Film Lab – old film development
Maryland State Library Resource Center Enoch Pratt Free Library – ancestry, Maryland records, local newspapers, periodicals and more
Digital Maryland – Maryland historical collections
Library of Congress – tips for the care, handling, and storage of photographs and film