Photography Media Journal
ISSN 1918-8153

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Preservation of Photographic Materials

by: Tomasz Neugebauer

December 2005

page: 2 of 9

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Ideal preservation environments required for photographic materials are not comfortable for human researchers. This raises the question of a trade-off between access and preservation that has traditionally met with considerable skepticism from the archivists who are naturally concerned with the long-term survival of the materials. Joanna Sassoon argues that

“While digitizing can be justified on the grounds of preserving the original by reducing handling while facilitating access to the image content, any short term investment afforded in pursuit of the current trend towards commercialisation of photograph collections should not be at the expense of long term preservation of the provenance of the collection or the physical object from which the digital source originates.” (Sassoon 1998: 13)

It is because I essentially agree with the above statement by Sassoon that I combine in this paper a review of preservation techniques for physical photographic materials such as negatives and various types of prints with a review of copying and digitization strategies. The implicit point of view is that of an advocate for approaching digitization of photographs as an extension of expertise in preservation and access as opposed to an entirely new paradigm.

Susie Clark outlines the importance of improving handling, procedures and providing suitable storage conditions for photographic material. Proper handling and storage effects large numbers of photographs and it is cheaper than restoration through chemical treatment. Chemical treatment and restoration is necessary for some prints, but, “there is no point in repairing a photograph only to replace it in poor surroundings” (Clark 1990: 41). Alice Swan (1981) points to a precondition for proper preservation of photographs: accurate appraisal of the collection. Photographic materials can be undervalued as a class of research materials due to the “negative-positive generation system [that] implies replaceability” (Swan 1981: 270). As Donald E. Ross says, “we have billions of photos and we treat them that way.” (Ross 1996: 8) It is easy to overestimate the extent to which actual archival quality negatives that have been properly stored are available as well as the extent to which replacement prints will be identical to the originals. (Swan 1981: 270)

The development of a preservation plan for photographic collections requires answers to questions of quantity and quality of the collection. The relevant quantities include numbers of negatives and prints of each form (glass, nitrate, acetate, polyester, black & white, colour) whereas the qualitative analysis should result in a selection of specific groups within the collection: which materials are deteriorating?, which are most important to collection and researchers? (Wilson 1998: 4)

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