Obviously, a good photograph deserves a long and happy life. Though, an average one may grow in worth when you can say, "Gosh, they used to dress funny," or "Oh, that's what a panda looked like."
Even the not very good family snapshot will take on great value when you can say, "Oh, that's what we used to be like. I remember now."
For those photographers recording their world in digital mediums, preservation is relatively simple. A copy of a digital record is identical to the original. Therefore, backup the original long before any deterioration can occur, and pray that the program and equipment that displays this record does not become obsolete and disappear.
Most photographs, even those viewed or transmitted as digital records, start their lives as conventional film and photo paper images. The good news about the more conventional forms of photographic images is that the equipment to view them will be around as long as we are. The bad news is that it takes a little care to make these images last a long time.
Obviously, film and paper have to be properly processed and washed. Everybody knows how to do it. Unfortunately, not everybody does it. Those who do their own developing and printing have the option of doing it properly. Most custom and in-house labs do all right by film and RC prints because it doesn't take much time or effort. Black and white fibre prints are another matter. There are a lot of labs that do not go through the time-consuming task of washing and drying these prints with permanence in mind. They just can't do it and deliver a print at a competitive price. To the extent that fibre prints are often the choice for archives and exhibitions, this is a sorry state of affairs. If this affects you, pick your lab carefully.
The one thing that most of us can control is the storage of our negatives and transparencies. For openers, do not use glassine or kraft paper envelopes for long-term storage. These were common storage devices for negatives and large-format transparencies before plastic sleeving material became popular. You don't have to be ancient to have some of your negatives stored in these envelopes. And, to a limited degree, they are still around. First, their glued seams attack the image, then some of the goodies in the paper take their turn. I am sorry to say, I speak from experience.
In what should you store your negatives and transparencies? Actually, not all paper envelopes are nightmares, just most of them. The advantage of paper? You can write on it. After all, you are a journalist and it would be nice to know what you had photographed, after old age or an overly pleasurable lifestyle dims your memory for specifics.
English photographers are very fortunate. The Atlantis Silversafe products are among the best. In America, if your local photo or art supply store doesn't stock appropriate materials, Light Impressions mail orders the "InfoFlap" envelopes and a variety of other paper storage products that meet the ANSI IT9.2 specifications. (IT9.2 isn't perfect, but it puts you in the top range of products and eliminates the hype-artists who proclaim "archival" for products that eat images alive.)
Certainly, these paper envelopes are exceptionally safe if you sleeve the negative and transparency strips stored in them. You will probably want to do this anyway, just to lessen the chances of damage from abrasion, dirt, fingerprinting and careless handling. Of course, this leaves open the question: what sleeves?
According to Henry Wilhelm, high density polyethylene seems to cause the least scratches when you move film in and out. The four-frame envelopes that hold color negatives sent to a one-hour lab are almost always polyethylene. You can also purchase longer 35mm and 120 envelopes, and sheet film envelopes. This is a good, cheap way to handle a high volume of film.
Sleeves that open along the top, so that you don't have to slide the film in and out, offer an obvious advantage. Clear polyester, like DuPont Mylar, is the most elegant and the most expensive. Polypropylene is not as clear or stiff, but is a lot cheaper.
Sometimes, it is difficult to find sleeves for larger sheet film sizes which are open on three sides. Rather than risk damage when sliding the film in and out, I take sleeves that are sealed on two sides and trim off one sealed side thus creating an overpriced, inconvenient, slightly small, but safe sleeve.
Clear, thin polypropylene "pages," the kind that allows you to make a contact print without removing negatives from the pages, have given me a little trouble. A very few negatives have annealed, or stuck to thesurface of the sleeve, and show marking or damage when removed from the sleeve. It has happened to other photographers I know, although not a lot. The apparent villains are slip agents. But, I am still worried about these pages for long-term storage. Light Impressions sells a page made of heavier polyethylene that is "frosted." You can't contact print through it, but you do have the convenient "page" format. If I were a "page" man, this is the route I would go for long-term storage.
Next month: "Slides, Prints and How to Keep Them from Going Belly-Up," along with a few other thoughts about storage. In the meantime, here are two important pieces of information.
The Permanence and Care of Color Photographs by Henry Wilhelm, is the best book ever in the whole wide world on picking photo materials that last, and how to store them properly. Don't be fooled by the words "color photographs" in the title. Digital, color and black and white all come under the scrutiny of the photographer who developed the East Street washers, helped some very important movie makers when they discovered their years of hard work were going to start fading after 10 years of storage, and has a greenhouse of genuine sun-faded photos under examination. ISBN 0-911515-00-3 and ISBN 0-911515-01-1. Preservation Publishing Co., 719 State St., P.O. Box 567, Grinnell, Iowa 50112-0567.
The website for Light Impressions is http://www.lightimpressionsdirect.com Visit it. Get the catalog. It is an invaluable resource for those senior photographers dashing around in an attempt to preserve a lifetime of work, and even more valuable to those who have the sense to do things correctly from the beginning (although I have never met one of those).
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