As custodians of precious old family photographs dating back generations, we owe it to our ancestors and descendants to protect them for the future. Old photographs are essential records of our family and social history – there’s nothing like seeing your ancestor’s face preserved through the years with the camera’s snap.
Damaged or dirty photographs are endangered heirlooms. Ideally, you have albums, digitized copies, and backups stored online in safe-deposit boxes. You may treasure that smudged print, mourn the stuck-together ones, or even have whole boxes or albums deluged by a flood or an irreplaceable image photo-shopped by sticky fingers. There are a few gentle how to clean photograph methods for those photographs not safely tucked behind glass frames and mounted on acid-free matte.
How to Clean Old photographs
The first step to getting a clean photo is to ensure that your old photographs are in the best possible condition – free of dust and, most importantly, damp spores and any damaging items such as paper clips, pins, staples, string, and rubber bands. You may also want to employ an old photograph restorer/conservator to advise whether repairs are needed.
Before working with your on how to clean old photos, prepare a clean surface away from any liquids. Handle photographs delicately – never lift more extensive photographs on paper or glass by the corner, and proceed with care when opening curled photographs/negatives that may need professional help to flatten. Materials get brittle with age and can easily snap. A piece of acid-free mount board is ideal as support.
It is good practice to wear gloves when handling old photographs to avoid transferring oils, etc., from your hands. Nitrile gloves are ideal, but ensure that they are clean if you prefer cotton. Dust, dirt, and damp spores have a significant effect on the life of photographs. So using a soft brush, ideally made of squirrel hair or a synthetic equivalent, works gently over the old photograph’s face to remove dust and damp spores. A small dust-blower may be helpful in the reverse, but aerosol air dusters are too powerful for the surface of an old photo.
Also, never use pressure-sensitive tape such as Sellotape for repairs. This dries out, turns yellow, and stains. Any repairs should be made on the reverse using acid-free tape, but consult a restorer/conservator for more complex jobs.
Faded photographs and those with a mirrored appearance known as ‘silvered out’ will continue to deteriorate but can usually be rescued by having a new negative and traditional print produced. These should be your priority to ensure you do not lose your images.
When putting together an old clean photo archive, it’s essential that you only include traditional darkroom-printed photographs rather than digital prints. Darkroom prints are still produced as our ancestors did and last about a century. In contrast, even professionally produced digital prints often have a lifespan of no more than 10–15 years, while inkjet prints only offer a couple of years at best.
How to Store Old Photographs
If possible, keep your old photographs in the original album. Consult a conservator to repair any damage to the spine or pages to have clean photos in the future.
If you choose your photograph album, make sure it is high-quality, with acid-free pages and glassine interleaves. A ring-binder with polyester sleeves that allow for later additions or changing the order if necessary is the ideal choice. Old photographs can be inserted directly into the sleeves or mounted on acid-free card inserts. You will only carry out this exercise once, so it is worth investing in good-quality items to create an archive for the future.
In addition, acid-free boxes are available for all sizes of photographs, newspapers, heirlooms, etc., and can be used in conjunction with suitably sized acid-free polyester sleeves or acid-free tissue.
Avoid storing your old photographs in attics and outhouses because of the varying temperatures and likelihood of bugs – woodworms like eating the mount surrounds, and silverfish enjoy the gelatin content prevalent in prints after the 1870s. A spare room is ideal because these are usually kept moderately warm and rarely heated to high temperatures. If it’s too dry, your old photographs will dry out; the damp spores will return if it’s too humid, and then you have to again search for how to clean a photograph.
There are many things you call irreplaceable, but perhaps old photographs are the most important. Old photos are your only visual link to people and places that belong to the past. You cannot retake these pictures. Because treasured old photos are looked at so often, they are subject to a lot of wear and tear and need a great deal of cleaning and maintenance to keep them going for years to come. You will have to do this yourself and cannot expect a cleaning services company to do it. Cleaning old photos takes just a little time and patience; nothing expensive or complicated is needed; follow the above-mentioned tips.