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

Overwhelmed with recently inherited Photo colection

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Old 01-07-2006, 07:18 AM
mcamp60 mcamp60 is offline
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Overwhelmed with recently inherited Photo colection

I inherited a lot of old family photographs. As an amateur genealogist I am very excited but the volume and condition have me floundering for direction.

I starting to inventory the collection and soon realized the collection has many items in degrading or are in questionable condition.

Summary of the collection

20+ old photo albums with from early 1900’s – 1970’s. Many photos are on the sticky pages with clear plastic covers.
Many folders & envelopes with loose photographs (same circa as albums)
The BW photos, a few 1000 (pre-1950’s in my collection) are in various states of wear but most are curling, dirty, creased, fading, yellowing, corner and edge wear. A lot of the older photos (1900-1940) have small rips.

I don’t know how to proceed. It seems that a large percentage of these photographs would benefit from some conservation intervention but the volume and the cost are fearful. I started to think maybe I could just put them in archival quality protection, to slow down the deterioration, and work on the conservation aspect overtime but I don’t which type of enclosures that would best.

Any practical advice is appreciated.
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Old 01-07-2006, 08:31 AM
Cassidy Cassidy is offline
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Location: Australia
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hmmm, first thoughts are get your scanner up and running and scan them, secondly it is unclear as to whether humidity has played some part in their deterioration, so if so, maybe store in a trunk for a couple of days with an open borax container to absorb all moisture

Last edited by Cassidy; 01-07-2006 at 07:08 PM.
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Old 01-07-2006, 09:16 AM
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mistermonday mistermonday is offline
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The first thing I would do is use a high quality scanner, and make high resolution scans. Save these unedited files as lossless (compressed or uncompressed) high resolution in a universal format like .tif and archive them on a writeable DVDs, CDs, or bulk external storage drive (like a Maxtor One Touch). If you use CD or DVD, make duplicate copies. This becomes your "freezing of time".
Then as time permits, you can gradually work to retouch and restore the images from the digital files. Until you decide if and how you wish to restor the original prints you should place then in an environment which will slow down or arrest short term degradation due to excessive moisture and temperature which promote the growth of molds and the acceleration of chemical reactions in the paper and the emulsions. Regards, MM
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Old 01-07-2006, 10:34 AM
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byRo byRo is offline
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Location: Goianésia, Brazil
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Hi there, mcamp60, welcome to RetouchPRO.

One of our members (sally / is a professional in this area.
Check out her site ( for a lot of useful information - see "Free info".

For instance, you will discover that your photos may have more chance surviving if correctly stowed away, than written on a CD.

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Old 01-12-2006, 10:14 AM
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Sally Jacobs Sally Jacobs is offline
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Location: Wisconsin, USA
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Archival storage for a large inherited collection

I see that my reputation precedes me (thanks, Ro!).

mcamp60, it just so happens that we are in a very similar situation. Over the last couple years my husband and I have each inherited small family photo collections from our grandparents. Together they make up quite a large collection: at least a dozen surnames, 1890s - 1990s, sticky albums, loose photos, sizes from small to 11x14. It took a lot of trial and error but I've managed to adapt archival best practices to the realities of a family collection that remains in private hands. Ready? Here we go...

You were dead-on right to start with an inventory. That's *always* the first step. It allows you to identify which items are in bad shape and need help, plus it gives you an idea of the scope of the collection.

For me, the next step was to rescue photos from sticky albums. These are notoriously hazardous to photographs. I call them a chemical sandwich -- acidic backing board and glue on one side, polyvinyl on the other. Terrible! The best tool for removal is called a microspatula. It's a very simple stainless steel tool that's made for scooping powdered chemicals -- but just the thing for separating a photo from a sticky page. I sell a Photo Rescue Kit on my website that includes white gloves, archival bond paper and instructions.

This rescue not only gets them into a more stable environment to slow down the deterioration, it also reduces much of the bulk. (Bonus!)

Be sure to retain any information that's on the page. I didn't come across this in my collection, which is very different from paper page scrapbook albums (which usually have something written on the page).

*How to sort them?

I sorted by surname and then by date. I also separated the 4x6 and smaller from the 5x7 and larger prints. Archival best practice is to store similarly sized prints together because it reduces abrasion and curling.

*Where to put them? (My system)

(1) Photos 4x6 or smaller go into paper envelopes that are acid free, lignin free and have passed the Photographic Activity Test (PAT). Then they go in a box which allows the envelopes to stand up, which makes it very easy to thumb through the collection this way. Until the box is full you should keep the envelopes from shlumping down. Fortunately, the paper envelopes are made of sturdy paper and offer some additional support.

You can find the envelopes and boxes at archival supply companies like Light Impressions. I sell a kit on my website that includes 25 envelopes and a black box.

What I love is that you can fit multiple prints in each envelope. Archival best practice says not to have too many, but I think this is a case where practicality has to rule. I put up to 20 or 25 prints in each envelope. There's no question they are better off that way than loose in a shoebox or in a sticky album.

Damaged prints should be wraped in acid free paper or put in their own separate enclosure. The prints in my collection are in great shape as far as curling and tearing, so I haven't struggled with this issue yet. We can talk about this more off the list if you like.

Mark the envelope with identifying information. "Robt S. Jacobs, 1930-35" "Harry Jacobs, ca. WWI" "Sally Jacobs 1980-86" "unidentified Jacobs ca. 1900" "photos to be framed" &tc. Be sure never to write on the envelope while there are photographs inside!

(2) Photos 5x7 and larger go into paper envelopes and then into an 11x14" flat box. Also available from archival supply companies. I haven't sourced good paper envelopes for the oversized yet. (Did I mention I'm only half way through my project? ) Right now the prints are in manila envelopes that were part of the sorting process. Those are *not* OK for the long term, but we have to be pragmatic about large projects like this. I'm trying not to set the bar so high that I get overwhelmed and give up. "Baby steps, baby steps, baby steps" is my current mantra.

*Why paper?
I decided on paper because it allows me to sort into groups and also to ID photos without actually writing on the prints. I also love the paper envelopes/box combination. Here's an example of why: I'm creating a DVD slideshow for my Dad's 60th high school reunion. The letter asking alumni to submit photos for this collaborative project went out a week ago. At the last minute I was asked to incude a photo of my Dad from 1946. It took me less than 10 minutes to locate, scan, and email the perfect photo. Now THAT'S a sytem that works!!

*Conservation vs. Re-formatting
I would advise against repairing tears yourself. Tape is not going to help in the long run. There are some simple ways to relax a print to fix the curling. You are correct that professional conservation treatments are very expensive. It really depends on your budget.

But here's a question that might help: Do you need to save the artifact itself, or is it the *information* contained in the artifact that you truly value? If you answer in the latter then scanning and printing an archival quality print is the answer.

I hope this helps. Please let me know if any of it doesn't make sense or if you encounter a situation I haven't covered.

mcamp60, you are a FABULOUS family archivist and I applaud your efforts!

Way to go!

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Old 01-12-2006, 10:20 PM
RL Design RL Design is offline
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Just my 2 cents... I have always wanted someone to ask me to quote this type of project. This is what I would be quoting for (a.k.a what I would do if they were mine). I would scan all of the photos, apply light retouching to all (unless more was desired) and then print a coffee-table book for the customer. The book would include all of the photos at a fraction of the cost of having them reprinted individually and duplicate books could be made for other family members. Perhaps all members interested could split the cost. Dates and text could be added to the book as well. I would give a huge quantity discount for the work. I have tried to encourge customers in the past to hand over thier projects for this, but so far it is just a dream of mine. Oh, and not just for profit , I just think it would be a fantastic job to work on!

As for storing the originals, I am not an expert on this, but it looks like you have had some good advice allready.
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Old 01-13-2006, 07:36 AM
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Sally Jacobs Sally Jacobs is offline
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Illustrated Family History Book


I think a book is a great idea. (On acid free paper, of course!) Like a digital scrapbook, which is just the thing for craft-impaired people like me. This is actually my long-term plan for my family collection. Easy to make copies for everyone and presumably less expensive than printing hundreds of photographs archivally.

I *REALLY* love the idea of scanning recipe cards, ticket stubs, newspaper clippings, handwritten letters, and even wedding certificates. I also want to include short vignettes that relate favorite family stories. But I'm not going to deal with the final presentation until everything is in stable condition and sorted. (baby steps, baby steps, baby steps...)

Years ago, I was the image researcher for a great series of heavily illustrated historical coffee table books for 8-12 year old girls. I wish I could get one of those designers to do my family's book! (For an example, and search for "Welcome to Kit's World")

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Old 02-08-2006, 03:31 AM
Earlene Earlene is offline
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Hi, I'm new to all of this but here goes:

I, too, have recently acquired a sizable collection of old family photos with the same problems: album pages falling apart, photos glued to the pages, etc. Reading your posts has really helped answer alot of my questions except one. I would ultimately like to be able to take the photos out of the envelopes that Sallly suggested and place them in some sort of viewable format (like albums) so that we can enjoy them. I'm a little overhwhelmed now, though, as to how to decide how many albums, what size, etc.

Any ideas?

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Old 02-08-2006, 04:43 AM
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philbach philbach is offline
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Presentation of Photos

One thing about digital photography or a large collection of photos is how to present them to others. What I do is turn them into a movie and make a DVD and add titles and music. At about 4 seconds per picture thats 15 pictures per minute and 150 per ten minutes. So you can really show a lot of data in a 15 to 20 minute movie.

Another way to put the photos on a web site.
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Old 02-08-2006, 07:12 AM
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Sally Jacobs Sally Jacobs is offline
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Safely displaying photos

Earleane, Welcome!

I feel very strongly that photographs should be enjoyed. My plan is to get everything stablilzed first and then to think about display once that's done. This is a big big project and I expect to be working on it for a loooong time.

And I have yet to find my ideal album. I want one that (1) meets my high standard of quality - PAT Passed and metal binding that won't come apart - (2) has space for caption information and (3) is slip-in rather than glued. I'll post something here if/when I find it.

Until then....

The safest way to display photo in an album is to use adhesive archival photo corners and high quality acid free paper. The glue never touches the photograph itself and photos can easily be removed at any time. You can find these supplies at any scrapbooking store and probably even a scrapbooking section of a craft store. You can include extended captions and notes directly on the album pages. Unfortunately for me, I am utterly craft-impaired and can't seem to place a photo straight using this method.

The least expensive alternative is clear slip-in pages with 3-hole punches that go into a binder. Stay away from vinyl binders and go for a cloth-covered one. The least expensive supplier of PAT-passed sheets is Print File. ( I wouldn't shop at because they also sell Pioneer products which have never been tested for the Photographic Activity Test.

Light Impressions sells a nice album called "Imperial Slip-In" It's about $30 and it holds 300 prints up to 4x6. My only complaint is that the binding is glued rather than metal. Prints are heavy and I've had one of these split on me already (it was made by a different manufacturer but once bitten, twice shy).

Phil - I do the same with my digital photos. Everyone loves it!!
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