Photographs can be the most poignant of cultural objects, and yet few people stop to think about how diverse they may be. Photographs can be negative or positive images; the majority are found on supports made from paper, glass or film, but occasionally they may be on a metal, leather or textile base. Frequently, they are also associated with frames, albums, cases and even jewellery. In most photographs the main image-forming substance is silver, but dyes and pigments are found in colour photographs and in digital prints.
Photographs frequently consist of multiple layers, each layer containing different substances which behave in a variety of ways. This complex structure can make certain types of deterioration untreatable: what might be beneficial to one layer may be harmful to another. Consequently, the first line of defence for the owner is to prevent problems occurring in the first place.
Choosing the right types of paper and plastic is cost-effective and will ensure your collection does not deteriorate. Papers and boards used in frames or to make enclosures should be of a very high quality to avoid future problems - they should be 100% cotton, unbuffered (i.e. pH neutral and not acid or alkaline) and free of impurities. The most widely-used materials recommended in the museum world are:
Despite taking the above actions, an owner may have photographs which have already deteriorated. If a damaged photograph is not conserved, further damage can result. Be aware that many types of damage can be exacerbated by a well-intentioned amateur repair, adding to the cost of professional treatment.
Cases, frames and albums should be regarded as integral to the photograph(s) they house and it is important to keep the whole artefact intact. For example, if a case is left broken, a photograph may fall out of the case and be badly scratched. Therefore if these associated objects have structural problems they should be also be dealt with by a conservator; the conservation process is geared to maintaining the integrity of the original photograph in its context.
In some cases, a conservation process may be quite subtle. For example, conservation quality materials will be secured in the back of an original frame or case as part of the structural repair - so ensuring a future for the photograph for generations to come. Sometimes the effects can be more dramatic, for example removing substantial surface dirt to reveal hidden detail.
There is unfortunately one area where damage is irreversible, and that is fading and tarnishing. This can result in a considerable loss of detail and once it has happened it cannot be reversed, so the advice given above about care of photographs is particularly important. Conservation can only help to keep what remains, but a conservator will be able to give pragmatic advice about what can nevertheless be achieved.
If the cause of the fading and tarnishing is the quality of the framing materials, then a professional conservator can conserve and reframe the photograph using good quality materials.
The aim of conservation is to reverse damage where possible and ensure future deterioration is reduced to a minimum.
Conservation by Design Limited
Tel +44(0)1234 853555
pHoton paper, Melinex enclosures
Conservation Resources (UK) Ltd
Tel +44(0)1865 747755
Silversafe paper, Melinex enclosures
John Purcell Paper
Tel +44(0)20 7737 5199
Argentia paper, Heritage 100% TG off-white museum board
Tel +44(0)1842 752341
Use the Conservation Register to Find a conservator.
© Icon, the Institute of Conservation 2011.
This article offers general guidance and is not intended to be a substitute for the professional advice of an accredited conservator. The views expressed are those of the author or authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Conservation. The Institute of Conservation and its partners accept no liability for any loss or damage which may arise if this guidance is followed.
The Institute of Conservation would like to acknowledge the support of The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 in the production of this guidance information. Further information on The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 and its work is available at www.royalcommission1851.org.uk.