Nearly everyone has mementos and treasured photographs that tell the tale of their lives. Ticket stubs from the first baseball game attended, programs from the first ballet. Photographs of Christmases, summer barbecues and proms are taken with the intention that they become part of the chronicles of our lives. But will these keepsakes really last to become a permanent record?
Usually these treasures are stored in boxes and albums that actually start eroding the very items intended for saving. Christening gowns and antique lace gloves are often carefully wrapped in tissue and stored in boxes, only to be found disintegrated years later.
Knowing how to properly display and store photos and other keepsakes is the key to preserving them for posterity. Increasingly, there are specific materials and types of storage systems on the market designed to help preserve precious items. They range from acid-free boxes and albums to sealed frames and display cases that make it easy to see the photos and other items while protecting them from fading and normal deterioration.
"Any time you store or frame anything, you are adding to its longevity by virtue of placing it in an enclosed area," said Geralyn Lawson, director of catalogue production for Exposures. "But truly archival means preservation for hundreds of years. Most of us just want to save things for a lifetime."
Photographs are perhaps the trickiest to preserve because they are often displayed and thus exposed to environmental conditions that can add to their demise.
Light, temperature and humidity are the biggest culprits in deteriorating photographs and photo negatives, according to Dennis Inch, vice president for sales and marketing for Light Impressions, one of the leading catalogues for photography archival supplies.
"One of the best ways to save photographs is to properly store all negatives," Inch said. "It's surprising, but we did a survey that showed 25% of the public questioned threw out the negatives when the prints came back," Inch said. "That could be a big mistake because the picture you don't like today may end up being the last one taken of Aunt Mary."
There are several ways to store photographic negatives from binders filled with pages of plastic sleeves to full archival systems using a new take on the old shoe-box storage used in many homes.
The best way to ensure a photograph will last a lifetime is to shoot with black-and-white film, which does not fade like color film does, according to Mark Chamberlain, owner of BC Space Gallery in Laguna Beach.
"This color process that came out in the '70s does not last," Chamberlain said. "It's a shame because most people don't realize that and think they'll be able to pass down their photos to future generations."
If the photo you want to safeguard is color, Chamberlain recommends having a transparency made. Transparencies, or slides, last longer than a print. Having one made in a 4-by-5 inch format will help ensure that future prints will be sharp, he said.
"Of course, the advent of the computer technology with some of the new programs are really extraordinary and will result in better lasting color prints," Chamberlain said.
Another way to keep a photograph from fading is to have it printed using a special process that is more stable, and costly, than the usual color procedure.
Commonly referred to by its old name, Cibachrome, the Ilfochrome Classic is a procedure in which a polyester-based material is used instead of the usual resin coating. In addition, the dye process used has an extremely long life, Chamberlain said.
However, the process is labor intensive, with the cost for an 8-by-10 ranging from $25 to $45.
Inch stresses the importance of saving negatives in a systematic way so they can be easily found later when prints are wanted. It is costly to make prints from photographs. New storage systems, which allow for safeguarding both photos and negatives, are carried by some specialty shops and can be ordered by catalogue from companies such as Light Impressions and Exposures.
Organizing decades' worth of negatives and photos can be a daunting task that few are eager to undertake, but if seen as a visit to the past with the goal being a more organized way to view this history in the future, it can be enjoyable.
Keeping photographs and negatives away from harsh environments is the first step in making them last.
Acids found in common photo albums, mat board and other inexpensive paper products such as envelopes can, over time, eat away photographs and the image on a negative. Choosing "archival quality" or acid-free products will solve this problem. Going acid-free will cost more than using regular paper products, but it is very important for preservation.
The very best archival products are also lignin-free, according to Lawson. Lignin, a component of the cell walls of plants, is believed to contribute to the chemical degradation of paper; it is removed during the manufacturing process of top archival materials.
The new box storage systems usually include a box (shoe box or recipe-style box), paper envelopes for photos and plastic sleeves for negatives.
The idea is that as soon as you get the developed film from the printers, you transfer the negatives into a sleeve and photos into an envelope. Using duplicate sets of numbered labels that come with the kit, you affix one to the negative sleeve and the other to the photo envelope so you can later locate the negative. Then, you write on the envelopes which pictures are inside and store them in the box.
Exposures' shoe-box system costs $16.95 and includes 24 photo envelopes, 24 labels and four negative sleeves. The photo archive system from Light Impressions is similar, but its box looks more like a recipe box and includes a print index card that fits into the top of the box. The cost is also $16.95.
If you prefer photographs in albums, make sure that you use acid-free pages and that you do not damage the photos. For instance, don't choose albums that use adhesive to hold the pictures in place.
"Those magnetic pages aren't magnetic but have adhesive added to them," Inch said. "The problem is, over time, either the adhesive comes loose, and the pictures all come spilling out when you pick up the album, or the adhesive gets gummy, and you can't then remove the photos.
"The key to archival is complete reversibility without doing any damage to the original," he said.
At least one traditional technique for holding photos in albums--those little triangle corner pockets--is becoming popular again because it does not harm the print.
The corners, which are attached to the album page but not the photo, are available in specialty catalogues, camera shops and some stationery stores. While the black paper style with glue on the back is the best-known version of the photo corners, they are also manufactured in clear styles.
Negatives can also be stored in binders filled with special plastic sheets divided into sleeves.
Of course, photographs are not the only mementos to safeguard. Diplomas, certificates, even children's artwork could be preserved with the proper storage. Albums that use photo corners instead of glue are a good choice. There are also albums made from acid-free paper that the documents are placed on and then slipped into plastic sleeves for easy viewing.
If you want to display such keepsakes, the basic rule is to keep them from direct light.
"There is glass available for frames that has a UV coating," Lawson said. "And it's important to use acid-free mat board. Museum-quality rag mat board is truly archival--not derived from wood but from rag cotton. It is also truly expensive. I think acid-free mat board is fine for most projects."
For displaying three-dimensional items, such as antique buttons or old tools, a shadowbox is a good choice. These frames are constructed of acrylic or wood and should be deep enough so the items don't touch the glass or acrylic cover.
"They are protective in that they keep out dust and other dirt from the items framed," Lawson said.
"I recently included part of a basketball with a bunch of Michael Jordan memorabilia," said Ron Breeden, owner of Main Frame and the Breeden Gallery in Orange. "The box had to be 4 1/2 inches deep, and we had to have it custom-milled."
Framing something of that size and complexity can be costly (about $300, Breeden said). In that instance, there were also Jordan basketball cards that are collectors' items and cannot be damaged in any way without losing value.
"We framed them in the plastic sleeves the collectors use and then taped the sleeves to the backboard."
Pins, cloth tape and sewing are all ways to attach a three-dimensional object to the backboard of a frame, as long as the object is not being damaged.
Another way to display three-dimensional objects is to use curio cabinets or glass-topped display tables.
"These allow accessibility and are not permanent mountings where you can't pick them up," Lawson said. "Still, you are reducing the risk of breakage and harm from dirt."
And slowing at least a bit, as do the various other preservation techniques, the march of time.