preserving old photos | the preservation program

 In this post we will talk about preserving old photos and the best way to do it.  What are the most suitable materials for albums and boxes to store photos? What are the most common damages found in old photographs? How to handle and pack our family photos?

You can find answers to these and many other questions in the certified online course

Preventive Conservation of Photography

In this post, learn about the importance of preserving old photos and what is a photo preservation program.


Photography and memory

Mankind has produced images from the time of the painted caves to our days. The invention of photography allowed for the creation of more realistic and objective images, and all in fractions of seconds.

Used as a means of expression and communication of personal and social nature, photography has ranged between hobby and profession.

Regardless of the context of its production, it touches our lives in various forms, promoting emotions and sensations and registering unique historical and social moments.

preserving old photos | a responsibility

Because its nature is intrinsically linked to the concept of memory (singular or collective), it lies in us the responsibility to preserve the photographic prints in the best way possible, ensuring also to preserve the memories contained therein.

preserving old photos | know its composition

Apart from being an image, a photograph is a palpable object, which occupies a place in space and requires specific attention, through its physical and chemical composition and the weaknesses that this may entail.

Thus, the preservation and organization of a photographic archive will depend on several factors, including the nature and destination of the collection and the use proposed for it.

What is a photo preservation program?

Preservation focuses on the necessary measures to increase the lifetime of an object, document, drawing, photograph, etc. Because, obviously, keeping the piece in the storage area or in its box just isn’t enough.

Thus, preservation must be:

– Permanent – carried out according to a predetermined plan and structured according to the needs of the photographs (or whichever objects we intend to preserve);

– Consistent – maintaining uniformity in the actions;

– Moderate– maintaining a pondered and measured attitude, because we are working with fragile elements.

conservar fotos antigas

Conservation treatment: photograph going through cleaning process, in the Imperial War Museum (Imperial War Museum) of England.
The conservation technician cleans the surface of the photograph with rotating movements, and never dragging the swab on the photograph, so not to risk small abrasions.


preserving old photos | stages of a preservation program

Defining the preservation project goes through several steps, each one composed of permanent actions that determine how to proceed with the photographs, in order to ensure their future continuity.

So, we can then identify 3 steps, which can be summarized as follows

1. Diagnosis: the first analysis of the photographs:

  • what types of prints are part of the collection and their characteristics,
  • how many prints are there (of each type),
  • what is their state of conservation and which problems they may present,
  • which are the existing packaging systems and which are the most appropriate.

2. Organisation: preparing an inventory, with all relevant information of the photographs:

  • does the collection have a name?;
  • write out the total amount of prints, divided according to the types (for example, 25 glass negatives, 5 albumen prints, 57 chromogenic prints in album,…);
  • define historical origins and authorships of the prints;
  • add a short description of the contents and states of conservation;
  • how was the print acquired? (donation, procurement, etc.);
  • if necessary: evaluate monetary value of a particular photograph or photographs or that of the collection in general.

3. Treatment Plan: the strategy for the preservation of photographs:

  • how should we organise the collection? (numbering, cataloguing and placement in reserve rooms, etc.);
  • it defines which prints need treatment and which are of priority treatment;
  • what are your treatments required and who performs this task? (what training or skills the technician should possess, etc.);
  • where and with what materials should the treatment actions be undertaken?;
  • is it a global or a selective process? (are there prints that require special treatment; can you apply the same actions and storage systems to all prints, etc.);
  • which are the most appropriate packaging and storing materials? (and why);
  • it establishes a schedule of actions (setting how, where and who does what);
  • it establishes a budget (how much money is needed for each task or treatment).

Therefore, as we have seen, the definition of the plan of action concerning the preservation of our prints requires a considerable amount of work and study. It is important that it be careful and objective, always taking into account the specific needs of the photographic materials at hand.


Want to learn how to run a program to preserve old photos step by step? Discover our online course.

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