Preserving old family photographs

We'd just finished putting the finishing touches on an album of my husband's baby pictures when his mother sat down on the couch beside us for a closer look at the photographs on the first page. ''But that's not Bruce,'' she said, peering at the scrunched-up face in the tiny bonnet. ''That's his cousin Kathy.''

We pulled the photo out and turned it over. There was no date to fix the little bundle in the receiving blanket in his or her proper moment in the sun, no name to confirm an identity. Still, we were a step ahead of many people who start out to put together an album of family photographs only to find that they don't have much information to go on. We at least had a mother's memory to turn to.

''An unidentified photograph doesn't have much appeal or value,'' says an archivist who works closely with old photos. ''That's why we tell people that one of the first things they should do in sorting out family photographs is to identify them. If a picture's going to be saved, it has to tell who's in it and when it was taken.''

As curatorial assistant for visual collections at Harvard University's renowned archives, Robin McElheny is in charge of taking care of the photographs , prints, drawings, architectural plans, and maps that come to the university for safekeeping. Delving into her desk drawer, she may come up with a barely visible daguerreotype, a graying 19th-century tintype, or an 1872 albumen print of Harvard's assembled Phi Beta Kappas. But one of her primary interests is preserving family photographs.

''People come to us and say they have hundreds and hundreds of photos and ask what should they do with them. What we try to emphasize is that sorting out and deciding what to keep is the first step in preserving records carefully.''

Ever since Kodak's Brownie camera came into popular use in the late 1880s, amateur photographers have been capturing family histories on film. Dig into almost any box of musty memorabilia in the attic and you're likely to come up with a handful of portrait pictures or shots of such ceremonial events as weddings and graduations.

Old photographs usually require special handling. Discovery of a 19th-century print, says Ms. McElheny, should be followed by a visit to the local library to look for a book on the history of photography. One standard reference work that can be helpful in dating and caring for old photographs is ''Collection, Use & Care of Historical Photographs,'' by Robert A. Weinstein and Larry Booth (Nashville, Tenn.: American Association for State and Local History.)

If a photograph with particular sentimental value has stains or if it has inadvertently been written on, it can be taken to a photo conservator for possible repair. ''It's an expensive process,'' Ms. McElheny explains, ''but sometimes even a tear can be mitigated to some extent.''

Once photos have been identified by writing the names and dates on the back in pencil -- never pen -- the next step is deciding whether to keep them in an album, box, or frame.

''Albums are nice because they imply some kind of narrative,'' Ms. McElheny explains. ''They're also easy for people to handle, and because they're normally closed, they don't allow a lot of dust or light to come in.''

However, choosing the right type of album is essential in preserving photographs. Albums that have sticky backings are unstable chemically, and those with sheets of plastic that cover the pictures and hold them in place are harmful because the plastic can pull the emulsion off photographs. Pasting photos in scrapbooks which have acidic pages also can damage prints.

''The nice thing about using mounting 'corners,' which I prefer, is that you don't actually glue the photos to your album and you can pull them out whenever you want to,'' Ms. McElheny notes. ''Of course, if you're not going to put together an album simply because you don't like licking all those little corners , then by all means use something else. The point is to get the photographs into an album.''

Once completed, albums should be stored in a cool, dark, dry, dust-free environment. Because temperature and humidity are especially damaging to photographs, albums should never be put away in a hot attic or damp cellar. ''Don't put your albums on bookshelves above radiators, or on shelves that get hit by sunlight,'' Ms. McElheny adds. ''Another thing people don't realize is that animals like photo albums. Many of the albums that we receive for the archives have been nibbled on by mice.''

Pointing out that it's not hard to make a personalized album with a sturdy binder and sturdy paper, she adds a few words of caution: Don't put too many photographs on one page (to keep the pages from tearing) and don't put photographs at the edge of the pages (to keep them free from fingerprints as pages are turned).

Ms. McElheny keeps many of her own family photographs in a small file drawer designed to hold 4-by-6-inch prints. The photos are arranged chronologically in envelopes with brief notations on the outside. Anyone who's considering a box for storage, she says, should be sure it's made of acid-free paper.

Many families, of course, like to have their favorite photographs framed. As long as acid-free matteboard and airtight frames are used, and the pictures are hung out of direct sunlight, they should hold up well. ''What's important to remember, if you're framing a photograph yourself, is to keep the image away from the glass,'' Ms. McElheny explains. ''Because if humidity gets in between the photograph and the glass, the emulsion from the photograph will come off on the glass if you ever try to un-frame it. That's one mistake I see very frequently.''

Because color film fades so quickly, Ms. McElheny advises anyone who asks to take black-and-white photographs. If you're commited to color prints, she says, at least try to snap a few back-up photos with black and white film. ''In the long run, that's what holds up best.''

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