I've noticed over the years that photographers and photography enthusiasts by and large are interested mainly in the technical aspects of print preservation: materials, deterioration, degradation by environmental factors, light-fading and color fastness, and so on. It's an issue in framing inkjet prints, but it's been an area of concern among photographers for a long time. In the days of black-and-white darkroom prints, it was always a topic of lively interest, to the point that people argued spiritedly (and seemingly endlessly, although the end eventually came) over the efficacy of different types of print washer designs.
Although I'm not uniniterested in this aspect of print preservation, I find I'm much more interested in an entirely different area of print life expectancy (LE)—you might even call it "picture LE"—: survivability.
And what do I mean by "survivability," and what's the distinction between it and what people call "preservation" or "print longevity" or "permanence"?
Well, let's say you make a print of a beautiful picture of your spouse. You take every reasonable effort to adhere to archival best practices: you use tested materials (pigment-based ink, paper of the correct pH), you have it framed by a framer you know is well versed in museum practices, you keep it away from direct sunlight, etc., etc.
Ten years later, your new spouse finds the photograph of your now ex-spouse and, in a huff, throws it in the trash.
Voilà: The difference between "permanence" and survival, in a nutshell.
Or consider my experience when I first thought of all these issues. (My apologies if you've heard this story before.) During a 1980s visit to my grandparents, I spent three days in their attic, a treasure trove I still occasionally have dreams about all these years later. My grandmother's deceased sister had been a flapper in the '20s, a girl straight out of The Great Gatsby (she died at 22 of sin and bathtub gin), and they still had a lot of her clothes in their attic. Not only were there lots of my grandparents' things in it, dating from the '20s, but a lot of the contents of my great-grandparents' attic had been deposited there, too. There were thousands of old things somebody once thought too valuable to throw away. There was a trunk of antique china someone thought had gone out of fashion by maybe 1915; a set of silver spoons that had come over from England in the expedition financed by Lord Baltimore in 1750; old dog-eared first editions of various books by Mark Twain (my great-great-grandfather had been a fan)—and thousands and thousands of photographs, going all the way back to 1840s Daguerreotypes.
I noticed at that time that the pictures which appeared to have survived in the best shape were black-and-white prints from the 1930s and '40s in folders—paper board folders, stiff and luxuriously thick but with a soft surface, of the sort once used by high-society portrait photographers to present their work to their clients. The folders seemed to me to provide the best combination of instant, convenient accessibility—all you had to do was open them up to see the print with nothing between it and you, no glass or anything—and physical protection: almost none of the pictures in folders were bent, creased, or torn, and none of them had been crushed, no matter how much weight had been stacked on top of them.
Folders were even better protection that frames: I found several frames with broken glass, such that the glass had damaged the artwork.
So I wrote a column about that in one of the magazines I used to write for. Recommending folders. Of course, folders are not in fashion, and you really can't get nice ones these days. I tried.
But there's a more recent coda to the story about the folders. Eventually, my grandparents passed away, the house they had received as a wedding present in 1928 (nice life!) was sold, and the photograph collection from the attic was dispersed or discarded. (I have some of them.)
Most of the old 1930s-though-'50s portraits in folders went to my mother's house in Cambridge, near Boston. ...Where many of them were stored in the basement. ...Where, a few years ago, there was a flood: after several days of heavy rains, my mother said she heard what sounded like knocking coming from the basement—and she opened the basement door to find water just a few steps down. When she got down and peered across the surface of the floodwater, she saw her clothes dryer bobbing over in the far corner of the basement, gently bumping against the joists.
All those nice 1930s portraits: ruined. Those luxurious, thick paper folders that I had so heartily endorsed in that earlier column had met their match; they'd given their contents no protection whatsoever against the wet.
Three-quarters of a century isn't bad, I guess.
Again, that's what I mean by survivability. And here's an interesting aspect of that:
Objects very often fail to survive even when their owners or custodians have every intention of preserving them, and take reasonable precautions to do so.
I had an acquaintance years ago who was very fastidious about his work—very organized, very craft-conscious. Picky. So one time he was moving house, and it was rainy, wet, and muddy outdoors, and a couple of movers were carrying a large crate full of his work down a hillside that had a concrete walkway with steps in it—the kind where the treads and considerably longer than the risers—and one of them tripped, and they both pitched forward, and dropped the crate—which broke open and spilled his beautifully matted prints halfway down the hillside, in the mud and the rain and the wet grass.
He told me that, watching it, it looked exactly as if the two men had deliberately thrown the crate down the hill.
Over the years, I've only known of a few types of photographs where what's called "archivalness"—the keeping or lasting properties of the photographic prints themselves—have been catastrophically an impediment to pictures' survival. Iron-salt prints from WWII, when silver was in short supply; early and uncoated Polaroids; and, notoriously, early Ektacolor prints from the 1960s and '70s, which were what inspired Henry Wilhelm to devote his life to image preservation issues. Oh, and early desktop-inkjet printer prints, of course:
Above: a couple of pages from a book of prints I made for some friends (here I've removed the prints from the book for clarity). In this book I used the printer to color some of the the backgrounds too—these pictures are both horizontals on slightly lighter gray backgrounds. The book was stored closed, of course, and not in direct sunlight, but enough light got to the top of the pictures to fade about a quarter of an inch of the tops of all the pages that were printed up to the edge.
Below: a detail of the top of the page on the right, enhanced slightly, showing light fading. This fading showed up after only a few short years. I was so alarmed by it that I immediately swtiched to a pigment-ink printer.
Between my own photography and my grandaprents' attic, however, I have examples of many different types of photographs dating all the way from the very beginning of photography. Generally, the only ones that show longevity problems—deterioration or fading—are the most recent: Type C prints, Polaroids, and inkjets. Everything else—Daguerreotypes, albumen prints, tintypes, platinum prints, fiber-base silver prints, dye transfers, Cibas, black-and-white snapshots, Kodachrome slides—are fine, assuming you don't mind a few minor, normal, and ordinary telltales of age. (Some people actually like a few honest signs of age, I might point out.) I have a few early resin-coated (RC) B&W prints that are showing signs of problems—just. But many of my later black-and-white RC prints look as good as the day I made them, and many of them are older than my now-adult son. That's why I tend not to worry too much about how archival my prints are—use good materials, educate yourself, and exercise normal caution, and chances are the LE of your prints is going to be pretty good.
Survivability, on the other hand...that's the real rub, in my opinion. Why worry about outgassing or the UV transmission ratings of various types of glazing when there are floods, cloddish movers, and angry second spouses to contend with?
Acts of God, and what you can control
So, then, assuming you agree with me that survivability is a major issue despite the fact that nobody ever talks about it, what are the factors within your control that can contribute to the survival of your photographs? Good question....
(To be continued on Monday).
Note: Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site. More...
Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by John Camp: "One of the biggest flea markets in America is at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Ca., on the second Sunday of every month. I usually go, when I'm in town. Last Sunday, I found three separate booths peddling (as minor, cheap items, a few cents apiece) snapshots and family photos, apparently thrown away or acquired in estate sales. A young woman was going through one of the boxes, and she kept showing me photos in amazement (“Look at this one...look at this one...”)
"We have a couple of big art schools around, and she dressed like one of the denizens thereof; in any case, she was amazed by these old photos, most of them pre-1950s—many from the World War II era. Those people are now dying in large numbers, and their estates are being sold off. Nobody knows the people in the photos, and nobody cares, except folks like the young woman, who was looking at them for completely different reasons than the original owners. One photo she found showed three soldiers sitting in front of a hole in the side of a hill, with a note on the back: 'We've been living in a dugout for the past month...." That just astonished her.
"Most of these photos will never be sold. They have no real interest other than personal. I found one from Oregon that showed a lanky young woman standing in front of a genuinely ugly flat-roofed house, holding a baby, and the note on the back said 'Freddy and me in front of our own home.' Obviously a critical point in her life—she had her own home—and probably the life of the baby, who, if he survived, is probably now in his 70s or 80s. I think the chances are, he’s not around any more—that these photos were tossed when he died, or maybe, when his mother died, though judging from this photo, she’d have to be over 100 by now.
"I don't think the big destroyers of photos are physical hazards like flood or fire (though of course, those get some of them.) The big thing is, irrelevance to people still alive: the photos get tossed. Not even sold, most of them—simply sent to the dump. Most of the photos I saw had no artistic or historical merit—just a picture of Uncle Joe standing in front of a bush, maybe with a dog. There's no clue to exactly who he is, or where he is, or exactly when he is.
"There are literally millions of these things: I saw hundreds and maybe thousands last Sunday. I have the nagging feeling that they may have some value, but I can't figure out what that value would be, or to whom they'd be valuable. Our times are so well-documented that they wouldn't even seem to have much archaeological value.
"Still, it seems sad that somebody's life would be of so little ultimate value that their last images wind up at the Rose Bowl flea market, whose motto, I think, should be, "'Where crap goes to die.'"
Mike replies: John, you've pushed another of my buttons, so here's what comes out: Even if it's just for your own heirs and your family's posterity, take a moment to scribble on the back of your prints what they are—who they show, where they were taken, what the significance was. That was another lesson of my short stint as an attic archivist: there's seldom enough information. My grandmother was nearly blind when I visited, but I found I could describe photographs to her, and she would remember the photo and the who-what-where-when-why. She helped me greatly in identifying pictures and making links between generations. She's been gone since, I think, 1989. Just a name and a date might mean a lot to someone.
Oh, and another thought—wasn't a very rare early photo of Edgar Allen Poe discovered at a flea market like the one you describe? Earning a great deal of money for the finder? So there are legitimate treasures amidst all the dross. If you can find them.
Response from Robert: "A few years ago, I sat going through a box of old family photos. Some were familiar, others were from the 1920s or '30s, I turned one of these over to see if there was anything written on the reverse and all it said was 'taken 3 months ago.' I always write the date in full now because of that laughable script."
Featured Comment by Jim Richardson: "You are so right! I've come to the conclusion that, by and large, pictures do not succumb to years, they succumb to events. And that sheer volume—saving everything—is itself a detriment to survivability. It happens when somebody comes on some mountain of old stuff (even if they be wonderful photographs) and says 'What can we possibly do with all this stuff?' That is the danger point, when the next step is the dumpster. Ultimately, the photographs that finally 'go archival' are the one that enter into popular culture and the annals of history to such an extent that future generations will value them enough to save them. For survivability I think that (if I can) getting my pictures into contemporary culture is more important than getting them into archival boxes."
Featured Comment by Stan Greenberg: "Would like to add my 2¢ worth: I run a digital photo archive and cannot agree more with Mike about 'survivability' vs. 'longevity.' An awful lot of our photos survived and became part of our collection by pure serendipity–someone was kind enough to donate and identify them before they passed away. I think a lot of old photographs are tossed simply because the mental and physical burden of dismantling a deceased relative's house and belongings are too much to deal with all at once.
"We can't correct other people's past lack of common sense or foresight, but it certainly is possible to prepare (somewhat) for the future: all of the Archive's photos (and my own personal collection) are organized in directories which include place and date, the file names also have place and date, key words are embedded, and everything is of course backed up (more than once). Agree with Janne that lots of copies and documentation are the best ways to increase (not guarantee) survivability.
"One last word about the value of old photos: value is a very relative and dynamic characteristic. The flea market photos (and our achive pictures) may not have much artistic or financial value, but the background information they contain (how people dressed, what they thought was important, what house interiors looked like, etc., etc.) can often be invaluable. Not to mention sentimental value, if that young soldier from 80 years ago happens to be your great-grandfather."