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History, Conservation, and Repair The history of photographic prints, and how best to care for and repair them.

Albumin Photos-Preserve and Protect

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Old 11-19-2001, 08:25 AM
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thomasgeorge thomasgeorge is offline
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Albumin Photos-Preserve and Protect

By its very nature, the Albumin photo is subject to many preservation problems and many deterioration hazards. On the negative side, many of these are inherent in the very physical and chemical nature of the process used. On the plus side, a few simple steps can be taken which can help to slow down the deterioration process.
First, lets look briefly at the most common forms of deterioration you will encounter. A good starting point is discoloration. Here there are two main causes-the chemical and physical composition of the photo and external sources.
The type of silver found in the Albumin print is of the photolytic type. This form of silver is found as small particles suspended in the Albumin binder and is very reactive-no only to light but to darn near anything which comes in contact with it. Especially sulfur. As the fixer used on these photos was sulfur based, if fresh fixer was not used and washing was not thorough, the retained sulfur reacts with the photolytic silver in the albumin layer and forms silver sulfide--a major cause of yellowing. Impurities in the paper support and the albumin used also react with the silver forming various discolorations. Fading as a result of this is also to be expected and in fact is seen accompanying the discoloration, typically beginning in the hight light areas and spreading from there.
Next are the dark blotches frequently seen on these photos. This is called "foxing" and is seen also on old documents. The causes are many. A few are; Metal particles in the paper or albumin, mold, localized impurities and a host of other poorly understood factors.
The physical problems are simply listed and understood--Poor handling, improper display, poor storage.
So, what can be done to give these old photos a fighting chance? First and foremost, The greatest challenge is that of humidity. From this one factor spring most of the other problems. High Humidity is death to Albumin photos. Period. In the presence of high humidity, chemical decomposition rates increase, mold growth accelerates, and severe problems with cracking and curling occur, only to be further enhanced when the Relative Humidity begins to drop. Short of building a special climate controlled room or storage area, what can be done? First, the photo should be stored in a protective archival type sleeve and kept in an area where the temp. will be around 60 degrees F. Attempts to control humidity in its storage cabinet by use of whatever means is avaliable is a good idea as well. Keeping the RH at around 40% is a good goal.
The photo when displayed must be kept out of intense light--natural or artificial. Intense light no only will cause fading--it causes cracking of the albumin layer as well.
Handling the photo should be done sparingly and with gloved hands. Using two hands is highly recommended as bending or creasing is guaranteed to damage the photo. This is a brief summary folks, entire books and college courses exist on this topic. The goal here is to provide a few of the more importiant and practical tidbits, so feel free to add your own. I am interested to get all input possible-- After reading this, open the attachment and see if you can identify the problems of the photos. Thanks--Tom

Last edited by thomasgeorge; 11-19-2001 at 10:32 AM.
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Old 01-01-2002, 01:13 PM
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DJ Dubovsky DJ Dubovsky is offline
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I love these segments you've been putting out Tom. If I ever get one of these prints, I will be contacting you for expert advice. Living in the humid southeast, I would imagine these prints don't survive long from what you described in your review. I was sorry I had missed this one when I saw it in Doug's monthly e-mail of forum lists. I had been keeping up on them with eager anticipation. I want to learn about all the old types of prints and processes. I know it's a tall order but I realize from what I've read so far, I know so little and in this business, that could be a problem. Thanks again Tom.
DJ
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Old 03-31-2002, 02:06 AM
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Yes, are we going to hear about other processes? I enjoyed this one a lot.
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Old 03-31-2002, 09:11 AM
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Yes, more on the way....I am just finishing up a little project that required sorting, organizing, identifying and working out proper storage for 411 photos dating from 1890's thru 1950's which were found stuffed into two large containers ( One was an sheet metal "True Blu Crackers and Cakes" box, an interesting Antique in its own right) in the basement of an old house..along with restoring selected ones for a family album...total was 300 pages... anyhow, had to get this done so I could buy more toys...Tom
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Old 03-31-2002, 11:14 PM
Jill Jill is offline
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Wow, that was great information Tom. What a large but fun project, I love digging thru old photos!
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Old 04-01-2002, 11:35 PM
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Tom, wonderful introduction to albumin prints, thanks for posting it.

OK, I'll try the test:

1: mechanical tearing

2: mold. I'm really not sure about this one, since most of the mold damage I've seen looks more filimentous. It just didn't look like insect frass or precipitated crystals, that are also dark spots.

3: At first I started to call this mold, but there no clumps of mycelia, so I decided they are cracks in the albumin layer.

4: fading or sulfiding. Not as yellow in the hightlights as the samples in books I've seen of sulfiding. There is a picture in "Care and Handeling of 19th Century Photographic Prints" that looks a little like that. It was attributed to high humidity damage.

So did I even get close?

--tks
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Old 04-02-2002, 08:17 AM
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Tim, Very good! Correct on all counts. #2 shows a combination of mold, foxing and sulfiding...often these are seen together as it is common for more than one type of deteriorative process to be active on old photos, #4 is fading from improper display ( it was in pretty good shape until the owner placed it in a frame in direct sunlight and 3 months later, well, the photo says it all...some oxidative/reductive deterioration is also present due to humidity and heat.#3 is a close up of a stereocard dated to 1885 which had been stored in a very dry environment, subject to extreme temperature swings ( as in "piled in an attic corner with about 20 others').... Excellent book you mention, also if you get a chance check out "Conservation of Photographs" put out by the Eastman Kodak Co...it is a bit technical but very readable and full of good info... Tom
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Old 04-02-2002, 10:59 PM
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Tim_S Tim_S is offline
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With all the things that can go wrong with old photographs, I amazed that any of my family's pictures survived to get to me. As you have seen in other posts I have everything from Ambrotypes on to modern prints. My earliest memories are of a box with all of these jumbled together in the attic. I guess I can thank our mild California climate for their survival. At least they were stored in the dark...

I'll try and find a copy of the Kodak book, it sounds interesting, and I think I'd like to see more about the technical aspects.

--tks
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