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How to Preserve Those Beloved Vintage Family Photos

Architectural Digest logo Architectural Digest 6/14/2017 Lindsey Mather

© William Abranowicz It's a common ritual at family gatherings: pull out the dusty old box or stack of albums and flip through old photos from decades past, of mom as a toddler and grandpa as a gangly teenager. Digitized versions are certainly practical, but they can't replace the sweet nostalgia that comes with seeing those vintage snapshots up close and personal. With that in mind, we embarked on a mission to find out how to keep them in the best possible condition, turning to Paul Messier, Pritzker Director of the Lens Media Lab at Yale University West Campus, for his advice. Here's what he had to say:

Keep it cool

"Recognizing the combined role of light, temperature, and humidity, many cultural institutions will store photographs under specialized conditions, sometimes including cold storage," Messier explains. Of course, you likely don't have museum-quality storage at home, but where you keep your photos does matter. "Dry, cool conditions will significantly lower the rate of deterioration. Avoid the basement, garage, and attic," says Messier. He also warns against selecting a spot that would expose the photos to excessive sunlight.

Preserving Personal Mementos and Children's Artwork

Choose your photo album wisely

Certain materials in albums or other enclosures can actually harm photos rather than protect them, says Messier. "Such albums may incorporate adhesives and papers that can chemically interact with photographs and cause staining and fading." Your best bet is products made of plastic and paper that pass the Photographic Activity Test. (Find this information by checking the supplier's website). "They may cost more and provide fewer design or aesthetic options, but pay major preservation dividends over the long term."

Give framed photos breathing room

Ensure there is air space between the photo and the glass, as well as between the reverse of the frame and the wall, says Messier. Plus, the photo itself should be attached to a mat with care. "Use non-adhesive methods, like photo corners," he suggests. As with photo albums, mats and any materials inside the frame that could come into contact with the image, such as the backing, should pass the Photographic Activity Test. Lastly, the glass itself should have a protective UV coating. And if the photo is a particularly beloved color print, Messier recommends framing a high-quality copy for peace of mind. (Color photos are more likely to fade than black-and-white ones.)

When in doubt, ask an expert

"Preservation of photographs is not a passive activity, and sometimes requires intelligent and timely intervention," notes Messier. "There are many resources online, like the Library of Congress and the National Archives, that can help guide decision-making. Any general guidelines will, of course, have exceptions. A great resource is the American Institute for Conservation, which maintains a database of conservators by region and specialty. Before making a major change or investment, consulting with a conservator can be a very smart move."

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