Collectible Photographic Storage

Preparing safe collection storage systems for vintage photographs is a growing market for both photographers and custom framers. Here are some tips that will provide more effective and safe photo interleafing techniques, keeping photos safer for long-term storage.

By Paul MacFarland, MCPF, GCF

  1. When developing collection archives, each photographic image must be interleafed, preferably with a thick mat, or stored in inert plastic or paper enclosures. 
  2. Relative humidity and temperature are the major problems in image storage. Ideal storage is around 68°F with a relative humidity of 30 to 40 percent.
  3. Many emulsions will stick to plastic if the humidity is unregulated and should not be used for storing early negatives, including glass plate, acetate, and nitrate. Recommended plastics for image storage are uncoated polyester, uncoated cellulose triacetate, polyethylene, and polypropylen. PVC products have a high chemical reactivity and should never be used with photographs. PVC is easily recognized by an intense plastic odor. Basically if you can smell it, don't use it.
  4. If early images like Daguerreotypes, Ambrotypes, Melainotypes, or tintypes are in their cases, don't remove them. Instead, store them flat in unbuffered paper sleeves. Loose tintypes can be stored in polyester envelopes unless there is image deterioration or flaking, which may be adversely affected by static charge. Use unbuffered paper for these. 
  5. Storage boxes and drawers must provide a non-gaseous, inert environment. Outgassing from paint, plywood, aging cardboard, adhesives, and certain plastics will compound and advance image deterioration.
  6. Interleafing tissue and glassine are not like Teflon. Sensitive inks and emulsions can stick to them, especially with pressure and high humidity.
  7. Interleafing tissue and glassine are available in buffered pH 8.5 and unbuffered pH 7. If the work requires an unbuffered mat, it needs unbuffered tissue.
  8. If photographs are to be stacked unmatted, use a soft cotton interleaf that will possibly absorb any overlooked small grit that won't imprint the image. Stacking is not recommended but is often necessary.
  9. When visibility is important, Transparent Paper, an unbuffered archival sheet, is used for interleafing.
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