Council for the Preservation of Anthropological Records
to helping anthropologists, librarians, archivists,
information specialists and others preserve and provide
access to the
records of human diversity and the history of the discipline.
Basic Steps in Preservation of Photographs
Photographs are an integral
part of anthropological records, and photo documentation can often
consist of hundreds — even thousands — of images. The
sheer number of items and the changes in format and technology over
time make preservation seem challenging. Organization and good basic
housing and storage are the keys to preservation.
Good organization is the first step in preservation,
and preservation of information that goes with an image is as critical
as preservation of the image itself. Photographs, though used singly,
come in sets, and these sets reflect the context of their creation.
Organization is also called arrangement. There is
a subtle difference: organization tends to reflect the context of
creation (by project, date, geographical location, etc), whereas arrangement
may reflect an active, analytical process by the creator (setting
forth evidence, comparison, authentication; or for publication, exhibit,
etc.). Each has its own merits, and it is worth mentioning implications.
Typically, photographic images are organized by the
research, fieldwork and/or project in which they were created. Consistent
documentation of a project requires organization by whatever principles
are relevant (year, geographical location, community, family, activity,
site, etc). Organization should include documentation for the images,
in groups or individually, usually done as the photographs are taken.
Both the organization and the documentation help to make a systematic
link between images and field notes, and between prints and negatives.
It may not indicate your use and analysis of photographs: these tend
to be reflected in reports and publications.
Often, photographic images are arranged by use, sometimes
by default: slides are arranged for lectures, photos for publications,
content analysis, exhibits, etc. Such arrangement may illustrate your
ideas and analysis, later publications and continued use; it may not
make it so easy to connect prints with negatives, or images with their
original context of creation and documentation.
Variety of photographic formats is typical in collections.
You may create images in several different photographic formats, both
over time, and within each project: 35 mm prints, 35 mm. negatives,
4x5 transparencies, slides, enlarged prints, etc. It is best —
and easiest — to keep formats together, where possible, identifying
Increasingly, digital cameras are being used, and
images produced through computers. It is even more important to print
these out and document the hard copy. For information on digital technology,
see CoPAR's Bulletin on Managing Electronic Records.
Simple, basic preservation storage of your photographs
is useful for as long as you hold and use them. If and when you turn
your papers and photographs over to an archives, professional staff
will evaluate the need to rehouse the collection in professional quality
Cleanliness is of course primary: clean folders,
clean, new boxes, envelopes and sleeves. If possible, buy acid-free
materials from an archival supplier (supply catalogues can be found
in Bulletin No. 11) but ordinary office supplies will suffice if they
are brand new.
Do not use labels, on prints (glue will aid deterioration)
or on folders (they will fall off).
Write all information, preferably in pencil.
Heat, moisture, and light are enemies of all photographic
materials, as are sticky liquids and crumbs, insects and other forages.
All boxes should have lids.
Never use PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic sleeves.
This is a heavier, stiff plastic with a distinct plastic odor. These
are not sold in archival catalogues, and sleeves are now uncommon
but may be already in use in older papers. The plastic will bind to
the photographic print over time.
Do not use plastic binders. Many 3 ring binders are
made of PVC plastic, and are not recommended: they give off a gas
which contributes to considerable deterioration of photographs (and
paper). Never use PVC sleeves — heavy plastic with a distinct
Negatives should be stored in a
cool, dry place. They need to be stored in sleeves or envelopes. Negatives
scratch easily, and carry fingerprints forever. They should be separated;
do not store them together without sleeves. In a pinch, clean new
sheets of paper can be folded to hold negatives.
There are many different kinds of negatives, and
sleeves appropriate for all. If you have older negatives (before 1948)
they may be nitrate or acetate, and yo will need to ask the advice
of a photo archivist, museum conservator, or photographic conservator.
Recognizing such negatives requires either knowledge or special tests.
Museums, state or other archives, or university special collections
are good places to go for advice or referrals.
- Nitrate and acetate negatives should always be
sleeved in acid-free, unbuffered paper, never in plastic.
- All safety negatives (color or black and white)
can be stored in good quality polyester sleeves.
- Acid free paper sleeves are always acceptable for
all negatives; old manila type sleeves (often used for photographs)
are not good —they are highly acidic.
Professional archival catalogues carry a very wide
variety of sleeves.
- 'Page preservers' – 8x10 polyester pages
with channels or pockets for negatives (also for slides or prints:
carried by catalogues and most photographic stores, usually in an
acceptable plastic, at least for the short term; least expensive
- Archival sleeve-and-box sets: carried by all major
catalogues, which are more expensive, very easy to use and helpful
for good identification.
- Acid free paper sleeves for
negatives in formats other than 35 mm.
Note: similar format sleeves in which negatives come
from the processor are low quality, but acceptable for interim storage.
Ideally, sleeved negatives should be stored unfolded,
in file folders.
Slides can be either stored in polyester
page preservers, or in any of the variety of slide boxes. They should
be kept clean, dust free, and out of the light and heat. Slides are
meant to be used; exposure to the heat and light of the projector
will, however, contribute to some deterioration over time. As makers
of film experimented with color stability, slides from particular
dates can be subject to color shifts no matter how they are stored
or whether they are used or not.
Document all slides – best done on the slide, in pencil.
Prints can be sleeved in a variety
of methods, including albums. Prints are the 'use copy' of a negative,
and it is not essential that they be sleeved, but they should still
be taken care of. The decision on whether to sleeve or not to sleeve
will derive from factors of: cost, age — and perhaps rarity
— of the print. Sleeve in:
- Polyester page preservers, for different sized
prints (least expensive, holds several prints and thus takes up
- Polypropylene sleeves in different sizes for individual
prints (archivally sound, moderately price
- Mylar sleeves in a few different sizes for individual
prints (best archival material, highest price)
- Paper sleeves are not recommended as the print
will have to be taken out to be seen.
- Place prints (sleeved or unsleeved) in clean file
folders (acid free is best) or even in 8x10" envelopes (acid
free is best).
Albums are a good way to display
and document sets of prints.
- Avoid those albums which
have waxed pages (‘magnetic’ albums) on which prints
are placed. The prints will be permanently adhered to the page,
and the glue is highly acidic and contributes to deterioration (it
will also discolor over time).
- Avoid glue and black, or
other colored, highly acidic paper
- Do not use tape to hold images
in place. Photo corners can be used, or page preservers, or cut
slits in the base paper into which you can slip the corners of the
Photographic stores carry albums which, while not
archival quality are not harmful to photos:
- Albums with plastic or paper
with plastic sleeves; acceptable for interim, non-professional storage.
- Albums with high quality
plastic and acid free paper pages from archival catalogues.
Digital prints may also be sleeved; they should be
treated like traditional photographic formats. The paper on which
these are printed, and the inks used, distinguish them from traditional
photographs. Longevity of many high quality printers (see CoPAR Bulletin
No. 14) have been found to produce long lasting copies, and the stability
of digital prints continues to be tested and will improve.
The only issue with digital images is not preservation
so much as documentation: since these images can be manipulated and
altered it is useful to document whether this is an original, or a
manipulated document. Some projects, when documenting photographs
on computer databases, will include 'digital' as a category to be
Moving Image Film
Moving image film requires similar storage to negatives:
clean, cold (the colder the better) and dark. Store the reel flat
- the film, wound on a core, is actually on edge. Archival plastic
canisters are sold in supply catalogues, but original containers are
adequate for interim storage. Do not attempt to run an old film (even
your own) on any kind of equipment. The film may have shrunk, and
the probability of damaging or destroying it are very high.
If you have, or are given, old film, look at it.
Is it curling, breaking warped? Has it crystallized on the surface?
Is there brown powder inside the can? Can you smell something acrid?
If the answer to any of these questions is 'yes' – you need
help. Contact a good archival institution and ask for guidance, or
look up the Image Permanence institute on the Web. Older moving image
film (before about 1940) can be nitrate, and should be checked. If
it is nitrate and if it is stored in metal canisters, the film must
be removed and rehoused in archival canisters. In this case too you
may want to ask the advice of a preservation archivist.
Document the reel: copy whatever is written on the
original canister — which may not be accurate — and add
your own comments ('rehoused October 2002'). Typically, when writing
old information on new containers or folders, place it in quotation
marks; this indicates, precisely, a quote. You, or whoever else reads
the information, will know it comes from another source.
Identification and documentation can be done in a
number of ways.
- Write on forms or notes to accompany prints –
usually prints are then numbered; use a pencil (not a ballpoint
or felt tipped pen). On modern wax coated prints, use a 'Prismacolor'
brand soft blue pencil, available in most art stores. Film pens
can be used, but the ink may show through the print.
- Write on the plastic sleeves containing images
– use a special film pen (also for numbering negatives)
- Write on the folders in which the images are placed
- do not use labels (which fall off easily); pencil lasts better
than ballpoint or pen.
- Write on the edges of slide frames – in
pencil or pen.
- Do not use very sharp pencils on prints –
they will imprint the photograph.
- Do not use ballpoint, or felt tipped pens, both
of which will smear.
- Maintain the organization – replace negatives
or prints to their original files; if removing negatives or prints
from a folder, make notes, or write on the print or negative, to
identify where it came from.
- If there is old information, on envelopes or slips
of paper accompanying the image, make sure it accompanies (or is
written on) the print. If rewriting old information, put it in quotation
marks; if possible identify the source.
- Place your own comments on other people’s
photographs in square brackets and write your name and the date.
Hold prints and negatives by the edges; fingerprints
leave permanent marks.
Never write directly on the face of a print or negative.
Pencil lasts better than pens.
Ballpoint pens smear.
Felt tipped pens 'bleed' through prints, or mark
Keep strips of 35 mm. negatives in strips
– never cut out one frame. It is difficult, if not impossible,
to make a print from it.
Keep prints and negatives out of sunlight, heat,
Keep negatives sleeved – even the sleeves in
which they are returned from processing are acceptable.
Keep single format negatives sleeved singly to prevent
Keep groups of negatives together, in a file or even
Do not use rubber bands or paper clips on prints
If possible, and especially if you do not have the
negatives, keep prints sleeved.
Photocopies, digital images, etc, are excellent for
use, duplication for filing, and cross reference.
If you make many copies of an image (photocopies,
digital images, etc) make sure to maintain either the negative or
one good print as an original — for identification, copyright,
Often collections incorporate photographs taken by
others: be sure to note this, especially
if these come from another archival collection.
Prints and negatives are separately housed and stored
in professional archives. However,
do not separate yours until you have devised a system to connect prints
to their negatives. An easy way to do this is to sleeve them appropriately
and keep them in identically labeled folders.
Simple identification systems are always best. Many
people keep a record as they take
photographs, and have a system of numbering their rolls with, for
example, a project acronym, a date, and a roll number; prints will
have this number plus the negative frame number. However, numbering
every image is extremely time consuming. Numbering or naming groups
of images is more manageable. The research may determine your decisions
on how to best design documentation. Whatever system you use, keep
it consistent within a project or a group of images. It does not matter
if each project or group has a different system.
Archival supplies and supply catalogues
There is a large range of materials sold in archival
catalogues, and selecting the right item can be confusing. Archival
catalogues provide supplies in a variety of materials, for a variety
of purposes, and not all are designed for preservation. Look for the
term "preservation materials" or "archival quality."
In plastics, polypropylene is acceptable, vinyl is not, plasticizers
are not, PVC is not. Good suppliers will have staff
who can give information on materials.
In the last resort, if you have loose negatives,
clean white envelopes and folded paper (much of today's sheet paper
is acid free) can be used for negatives. Separate negatives so that
they do not scratch each other. Document everything.
References and Resources (See also
CoPAR Bulletin No. 11 for more details)
Archival supply catalogues:
Gaylord Brothers (Syracuse, NY): 1-800-448-6160
Hollinger (Fredericksburg, VA): 1-800-634-0491
Light Impressions (Brea, CA): 1-800-828-6216
Metal Edge West (Commerce, CA): 1-800-862-2228
University Products (Holyoke, MA): 1-800-628-1912
A good source for albums in archivally sound materials
(note that their catalogues include other materials) and reasonable
Century Photo Products: 1-800-767-0777
For help with films and digital images:
Image Permanence Institute: www.rit.edu
Rochester Institute of Technology,
70 Lomb Memorial Drive, Rochester, NY 14623-5604
Phone: 585-475-7230 or 5199. firstname.lastname@example.org
The Society of American Archivists has excellent
guides. The guide for photographs is:
Henry Wilhelm, 1993: The Permanence and Care of
Color Photographs: Traditional
and Digital Color Prints, Color Negatives, Slides, and Motion Pictures.
Grinnell, Iowa; Preservation Publishing Company.
An interesting reference to some of the conceptual
issues with photographs (and thus their organization and documentation)
Michael S. Ball and Gregory Smith (1992): Analyzing
Visual Data (Sage Publications)
Written by Willow Roberts Powers
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