Through proper handling and suitable storage and display conditions, family photographs can be preserved for the enjoyment of future generations. The Department of Paper Conservation at the J. Paul Getty Museum offers the following basic guidelines to care for treasured photographs:
Handling—Careful handling is most important
Consider your photographs delicate, valuable objects. Handle them carefully to prevent scratches, tears, bends, and other damage.
Wash your hands before handling. Do not touch the face of the photograph to avoid depositing oils from the skin, which can contribute to deterioration of the image.
When practical, wear white cotton gloves for added protection.
Storage conditions—Proper housing is essential
High humidity, heat, and exposure to light can contribute to the deterioration of most photographic materials. Therefore, store your photographs in a cool, dry, and well-ventilated area away from light. An interior closet is usually a good choice.
Do not store your photographs in basements, attics, or garages where they have a greater chance of being exposed to fluctuations in temperature and humidity, water damage, and pests.
Inspect storage areas regularly for signs of rodents or insects.
Selecting storage enclosures
Place photographs in envelopes made of acid-free paper or polyester sleeves and then store these in archival boxes. If you are using photo albums, choose non-self-adhesive ones with acid-free pages.
Whatever storage container you use, make sure it is made of materials that have been proven not to interact chemically with your photographs. Any material in direct contact with the surface of the photographs should have passed the American National Standards Institutes Photographic Activity Test (PAT). Ask your art materials supplier or framer about these standards.
Consider using a storage enclosure that allows viewers to see your photographs without handling them.
Displaying your photographs
If possible, keep the original photograph in storage, away from the light, and use a copy of the photograph for display.
When framing, use ultraviolet light-protecting glass or acrylic. Photographs should not be in direct contact with the glass or acrylic. Acid-free mats create a safe space between the photograph and glass.
Hang your framed photographs in areas with low light levels and away from direct sunlight.
Dealing with damaged photographs
Since photographs are complex and delicate objects, cleaning, repair, and stabilization should only be performed by a conservation professional. For a list of conservators, consult the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.
For additional information on preserving photographs, both those produced with film and digitally, as well as other topics related to preserving family history, Heritage Preservation's Caring for Your Family Treasures is a good resource. The book is available at the Getty bookstore and at HeritagePreservation.org.