To keep your pictures in excellent condition for many years, you have to take good care of them. Restorations are often possible ("nobody will even notice it"), but not ideal. Especially in photography, since careful conservation may save you the costs of an expensive restoration. Proper conservation however involves that little bit more than a storage box at room temperature.
Let’s be clear about one thing: photographs will always lose the battle against eternity. But to hold out as long as possible "you must understand what you own", says photo restorer Clara von Waldthausen. After all, every photo consists of different material. Black-and-white prints on barite, fibrous paper with a thick emulsion and gel layer, will endure longer than photos on synthetic rapid processing paper (PE/RC). Colour emulsion is by definition less stable than black-and-white. And slides are especially fragile (straight into the fridge or freezer!).
A different view
Clara von Waldthausen makes a clear distinction between preventive conservation and active conservation. Preventive conservation does not revolve around the photo, but around stabilising the object’s environment. The temperature must be around 13C, every decrease of 5C doubles the storage life of colour photo paper, and all solvents must have vaporized entirely in a recently painted or polished room. In addition, the photograph's lux-hours are calculated; the period over a year that the image may be exposed to a certain amount of artificial or natural light without damage. Make sure to use an alkaline-lined cardboard box for the - horizontal - storage of prints and negatives after their spotlight moments. Active conservation is really a job for the professional restorer. The aim is to stabilise the photo physically and chemically, or, in other words, to make it healthy again. A well-known example is adhesive tape damage - an issue Von Waldthausen once had to tackle when she was asked to restore Ed van der Elsken’s private archive; he attached all the photos in his scrapbooks with cellotape-. When aesthetics are essential, often in preparation of exhibitions, the photo should be restored to its best possible condition.The first 'showcase project' that Herman Maes, photo restorer of the Nederlands Fotomuseum (Dutch Photo Museum) in Rotterdam, worked on was a picture torn up in six pieces. The owner wanted his girlfriend 'back'. Maes restores for private individuals as well as for the Dutch Photo Museum. There is a significant difference in working on antique family photos and taking up a documentary series by the Dutch photographer Cas Oorthuys. But Maes believes they are equally interesting. Yellowed family shots often hold more emotion than a photo from a series shot by a professional photographer.
Both Maes and Clara von Waldthausen mostly work on images that have a long life behind them. Before they decide what the best way of treating an image is they have to thoroughly examine it. What is possible considering the photo's technique, the print bearer and the ink? When was it first printed? Which materials were used? How was it transported, exhibited and stored over the years? Has it been restored previously? How and where? Once all these questions are answered in a condition report, the restoration process can start. Since no formula procedure exists there is a great demand for research. PE prints from the 1970s for instance are not renowned for their stability. Through testing and researching a lot can be learned about preservation, for example by subjecting newly made prints to artificial ageing. After a successful method is determined, the more valuable pieces from days gone by can be treated. However,research does not always imply going back decades. At the moment, Von Waldthausen is researching restoration methods for 64 works of the French artist Christian Boltanski. A so-called ‘silver technique’, emulsions based on silver saline, are used on modern, semi- transparent plastic which are slightly stretched at the perforation rings in the corners. After twenty hours of research another forty hours were proposed (and the museum considered if a reproduction wouldn’t be a wiser choice).
It remains to be seen if current technology will facilitate conservation and restoration. The developments are too rapid to be subjected to research. Nevertheless Herman Maes finds digital technology a logical step to follow analogue techniques. But because the supply of digital images outweighs the demand for them, some are worried that a large portion of a generation in images will be lost. How much material is needed to capture the character of an age? Digital technology also means, oddly enough, more storage work. Making three back-ups of megafiles requires appropriate software, and what is a computer’s life expectancy? Selecting images will become quite a job, because each individual file has to be opened in order to judge it. The old shoebox suddenly seems almost attractive again. It will take a few years before we will know if digital imagery can stand the hands of time. "We are waiting for digital work to deteriorate, really", concludes Clare von Waldthausen.
How can a collector avoid making a badly conserved purchase? Not easy. When buying a picture it is hard to tell if the image was kept in relatively damp conditions or hung above a radiator for a year. And when the work visibly starts to fade, the degeneration is well on its way. But even though photographs are made of organic materials, their lives can be stretched. After all, the first known photo in the world, made with a camera obscura, goes back to 1827. The heliographic print by Joseph Nicephore Niépce (France, 1765-1833) may be in a bad state and must be stored in an oxygen-free container, but it still is part of the collection of the University of Texas. Then there is also the risk of forgery. There are new prints available that have never been part of vintage editions. Only a very skilled eye can see if the photo looks too good for its age. So if you have fallen in love with an antique photograph, it is advisable to primarily follow your heart, but also seek advice if in doubt about the condition. Many people have been fooled because they think they know it all, but a photo often holds a lot of untold stories.