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Photographs as Family Heirloom - Care & Preservation

Updated: Jul 13, 2023

Care and preservation of family photographs heirlooms from ageing and deterioration. Self-learning for personal development at

Chitra is in big trouble! She spilled a glass of water on one of the old photographs from the family album. Been advised 100 times about not opening albums around food and drinks, Chitra couldn’t resist opening one when her friends came over for a playdate. Now, her dad is very sentimental about these and has laid down ground rules for their viewing and handling. Chitra has no doubt broken the code and her punishment is no less gruelling. In her upcoming short vacations, she did a research project on ‘Importance, care and upkeep of family photographs / albums’. She also had to present her findings to her family on a weekend evening, foregoing the movie time. As expected, her family threw a barrage of questions on her. Let’ see how the discussion went and then maybe you can decide if Chitra did a good job!

Why are photographs important, so special?

Photos capture priceless moments, memories of times gone by and people that may no longer exist. Once they are gone, these memories are lost forever! Care and preservation can save these heirlooms from untimely ageing and deterioration.

Can you tell us something about the old photographs in the album, similar to the one damaged? What is the material? Did they always look the way they do today? When was the earliest photograph taken?

Until the 1880s, photographic processes used to print negatives — such as calotype, ambrotype, tintype, salt print and the albumen print — generally produced images with a variety of brown or sepia tones. Later processes moved toward a black-and-white photos, oldest being the Carte de Visite and cabinet card varieties the colour photos and finally digital photos.

View from the Window at Le Gras dated 1826 or 1827 is the oldest surviving camera photograph taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce

The black and white photograph or monochrome photos that are precursors of modern day photography are well-processed silver-halide-based materials. The photos captured on a black and white camera film are then printed. Silver Halide photographic prints are printed using light-sensitive paper and silver-based chemistry. The paper is exposed to light, and the image is infused into the paper through a chemical process.

The 20th century also saw the advent of colour photographs. The support is mainly paper. Most colour processes are again based on silver halide chemistry but the final image material is primarily made up of either pigments or dyes.

Do you think photos remain the same or do they change or deteriorate with time? What can damage a photo? What are important factors of ageing / deterioration of photos?

Photo images tend to fade with time. Largely made of sensitive materials, they change tones as they age.

  • Direct contact with water due to leaks, floods, or accidental spillages should be avoided. Water breaks down the emulsion of the photo, thereby damaging the image and also makes the surface tacky.

  • High RH or more moisture in air can also lead to mould growth, cause photographs to stick together and cause paper supports to warp and distort.

  • Dry air can make photographs brittle and cause photographs to crack.

  • Higher temperatures are bad for photos, the warmer it is, the faster your photographs will deteriorate. Also, a stable temperature is better than one which is constantly fluctuating.

  • Light initiates photochemical reactions that will cause fading and, paper supports to brittle.

  • Dust, skin, hair, fibres, soot, pollen, moulds and other deposits or gases from aerosols, paints, glues and air fresheners can cause abrasion, fading and discolouration of photographs and make the supports brittle.

  • Most photographic material is organic (albumin, gelatin, cellulose) and is food for moulds and insects like silverfish. These pests can cause complete loss of the image if neglected, discolouration and staining.

  • Fire destroys photos completely, and all reasonable steps should be taken to prevent fire.

  • Photographs are easily damaged, when improperly handled. Poor handling can cause tears, cracks and scratches in photographs. Also, while handling with bare hands, damage can be caused by the oils and grease in the skin.

What should be done to the photo that became wet?

The very first step is to dry the photograph. Allow excess water to drain off the photographs and then spread the photographs out to dry, face up, laying them flat on an absorbent material such as blotters, unprinted newsprint, paper towels, or a clean cloth.

Do not touch the front (emulsion side) or allow the front to come in contact with any other materials as it dries. Do not cover from the front. Do not try to wipe it.

Well, the photo was only slightly wet. But if it was completely wet or soggy, as during flooding, and falling apart, I will have to freeze it! And then seek a conservator’s help.

How to save photographs from pollution?

  • Make sure that you keep the areas where you store your photographs clean and tidy. A weekly vacuum or dusting with a micro fibre cloth is important.

  • Do not use any aerosols, paints, air fresheners and other gaseous items in areas where you display and store your photographs.

  • Keeping the place clean and good housekeeping will also prevent pest infestation.

How to protect photographs from light?

A simple solution is to store photographs in the dark, preferably in an acid-free box or in a cupboard. Displayed photographs should be placed away from windows, or direct lights. Try adding UV filters to windows and use lights with low UV. A better solution is to display copies, keeping your originals in the safe storage.

What are the common mistakes people do while storing personal photographs at home?

Unfortunately, photos and albums in most houses are not stored properly. They are often kept in the attic which is very dry. The storage place should be relatively dry, 30-50% relative humidity (RH)), cool/cold (70°F or below), clean (free of dust and pollutants), well-ventilated and stable. It should be dark with limited light exposure to photos. The attic, garage, cellars and basement are not ideal locations for storing your photos.

Also, never mark or scribble at the back of the photograph with pen. This is not good, one should use a soft graphite pencil or archival photo-pen at the back. It is preferable to mark the photograph’s housing materials instead.

Photos in the album should not be pasted with glue. The ones that are not in albums should not be bundled using rubber bands.

The albums shouldn't be over-stuffed and the paper supports should be archival in nature. If photographs are in paper envelopes; the envelopes should be made from archival quality paper.

What can we do to conserve our family photographs at home? Does taking care of family photographs cost a lot?

  • Photographs should be housed individually, within protective primary enclosures, such as folders or sleeves void of PVC, acid or lignin, to protect them from dust, light, and handling.

  • Paper envelopes are opaque, so photos need to be taken out for viewing. If used they should be made of archival quality, acid-free paper, preferably buffered and free of colourants that may bleed.

  • Plastic sandwich bags are a good, inexpensive alternative.

  • Usually, photos are housed in photo albums and photo boxes. Storage of family photographs in albums is better with many commercially available albums or archival albums that now use photo-safe materials. So, we may need to buy those!

  • Do not overfill an album, since this can cause the pictures to get bent or creased, or to more easily fall out, get lost or get damaged.

  • For those that don’t go in albums, we need photo boxes. These are boxes that can accommodate materials in either a horizontal or vertical storage orientation.

  • Keep negatives separate from print materials. Some negatives can produce harmful gases with time, and this will damage the prints.

  • Most important, we need to start digitising the very old and rare photos.

Why should we digitise family photographs? How can we digitise family photographs?

The best way to make sure our old photos are protected and kept safe throughout the years is to get them digitized. Digitization ensures that there are digital images of old photos. These can then be stored onto a computer or another device so that if something happens to the originals, we will always have digital copies.

This can be done by scanning old photos at home on a flatbed scanner. Or I could even use a photo scanning app on my smartphone. It will take time but I think I will do it.

Chitra did a fabulous job of researching about the care and preservation of family photos and albums.

We will come up with new stories about taking care of family heirlooms soon!

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About the Author

Padma M. Rohilla received her Doctorate degree from Queens University Belfast in UK in 2008. She obtained her Masters of Arts in the Conservation of Arts from the National Museum Institute in Delhi in 1994. She started her art conservation career with INTACH in 1994 and later moved to the Delhi Institute for Heritage Research and Management in 1999 to work as a Lecturer. She later re-joined INTACH in 2011 and was the Director of the INTACH Conservation Institute Delhi till March 2022. Her position entailed leading conservation projects undertaken by the Delhi Centre, supervising the practical work carried out at the Conservation laboratory she was in-charge of and research work carried out by INTACH Conservation Institutes (ICI). She was also involved in training and capacity building programmes undertaken by ICI and the INTACH Heritage Academy (IHA), the ‘Directory of wall paintings’ project and the publications. She organised the well-received INTACH ‘Conservation Insights 2020’ lecture series during the COVID 19 pandemic. You can get in touch with Padma by writing to her at

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