The Photo Collection: The Accidental Custodian

by Leone Hinds

In this age of smaller families and smaller dwellings, storage places for treasured pictures of family are fewer than in past times.  But as this situation comes to light it sometimes happens that a person asking questions of relatives about ancestral homesteads and the people who once lived there and as they try to understand their family history, they find that they are the one being offered old family snapshots.  Most of the snapshots are the one-and-only kind, something precious and not likely to be seen again if they don’t step-up and take possession of them.

If this sounds like your present situation you have just become the ‘Accidental Custodian’ of family treasures, THE PHOTO COLLECTION.

The moment you realize this is true, look for a museum-archive with space and environmental conditions that will protect the collection while still giving you and family access to it when reasonably required, then talk about donating your snapshots that have meaning to their community.

This effort on your part may be the most important decision you could make in protecting the long life of a family photo collection.

Preparing a donation

Your duty at this point is to obtain archival quality envelopes, if possible, in which to enclose each print or negative separately.

Assign the envelope its own number, try to give names to people in the snapshot, possibly a date when the snapshot was taken, where it was taken, and any information about it that came to you with the print.  It sounds like a lot of work and it is, but a snapshot or artifact meant to be part of a family or community history is only worthwhile when reasonably complete information accompanies it.  Information is needed in order to recognize an event, a situation like a flood, or a person who once lived in the community, and the more detail the better.

Make sure that the pen and ink used to write down information is of a nature compatible with the print or negative in the storage envelope.  Talk to someone who sells archival supplies as to the best possible choice for record keeping.

When identifying a number of people shown in a print it is usually done ‘left to right’, but you have to know the correct way the group was seen before you can assign names in the right order.  With a snapshot it is easy.  When it’s a negative it needs a little thought.  Turn the negative over and over so you can see the difference between a shiny side and a dull side.  Hold the negative so you are looking through the shiny side to see how the group stood as the snapshot was taken, so naming the people ‘left to right’ will give the right information.

It gives one a feeling of satisfaction when each snapshot, negative or family portrait is given an information sheet providing some of the story of their life and you are not longer the ‘accidental custodian’ of such treasures.  If by chance you wish to remain the ‘accidental custodian’, make the information sheets for your own legacy and remember to mention the collection in your will.

Most black and white snapshots made between 1899 and circa 1970 are a paper support on which a layer of light sensitive gelatin is coated.  This coating, also known as emulsion is a layer in which silver halides are suspended.

When the snapshot was developed those silver halides were affected by light and imprinted as an image in the gelatin.  Where the snapshot shows the darker portion that image, often a person, is the area where chemical developer affected the silver halides.

The part not affected by light was totally or partially removed by the last liquid bath, known a ‘fixer’.  This gives the snapshot the black, gray and white areas that make up the recognizable features of people in the picture.

Photographic gelatin is a highly purified protein that is very stable as long as it is kept perfectly dry.   Gelatin swells when exposed to moisture and can be very easily damaged.  Since gelatin is an organic substance it grows fungus readily in humid conditions.  To preserve the image in a snapshot is what you must be concerned about if your family treasures are to have a long life.  This is best done by providing dry and cool conditions when storing original, older photographic material.

The paper support

In the beginning of the manufacture of paper made exclusively for printing snapshots only linen and cotton rags were used.  As demand for fine paper increased and there was increased use of dye in the textile trade, the rag stock began to fail to meet the standards of purity required for photo paper.  It was then that the Eastman Kodak Company began researching the use of wood pulp papers, which, after a lengthy time, met the high standards as support paper for snapshots.

Snapshot Negatives

The film base or support material for very old negatives of a time frame, 1899 to around the end of world war two was cellulose nitrate, a material that is relatively unstable when there is a considerable quantity of it packaged up and kept in an airless container.  Transparent cellulose nitrate is similar to gun cotton, with a little less nitrogen, meaning it is not explosive but it is highly flammable.

That kind of film base decomposes slowly under ordinary conditions.  The by-products, gases, like nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide, and others hasten decomposition unless the gases are allowed to escape continually from the container.

In order that the fire hazard is as small as possible, keep nitrate film base negatives separate from where you store the other parts of your photo collection.

You will identify the nitrate film, first by an educated guess or recorded information allowing you to consider their age and secondly by a pale yellowish coloring that is infused throughout the whole negative.  Keep each negative separately stored in an archival paper envelope and place those in a ventilated container that will allow the gases to escape.

The use of nitrate base film was slow to be discontinued and it is possible to find negatives manufactured as late as 1951 made of the nitrate base.

Old Kodak film negatives viewed carefully may show a line along the edge saying ‘Kodak Safety Film’; in that case the negative is NOT a nitrate based negative.

Many Kodak roll films were made to make snapshots, especially during world war two.  These films were for several styles of camera and made snapshots about 2 ¼ x 3 ¼ inches.  The film could be either nitrate base or safety film.

Duplicating a Negative

If you are fortunate to know a photo finisher who still produces black and white prints from old negatives you might ask if he or she can duplicate a negative.  If so, and you have a negative that is deteriorating but is special enough to warrant the considerable expense involved, you might consider that avenue.

Since the new negative is made by a method involving emulsion to emulsion your new negative is in reverse.  Your information sheet must show the fact so the ‘left to right’ can be understood.

The Disposition of Nitrate Base Negatives

When disposing of old negatives that have disintegrated or been duplicated, if you have only a few, they may be discarded in your household garbage.  Do not burn the negatives.  Burning presents hazards similar to old ammunition and should be handled with respect.   Large numbers of old negatives that you may want to dispose of for safety reasons should be kept under water in a steel container until you find a qualified person to take charge of them.  They constitute ‘hazardous materials’ and caution is advised.

Any negative you are about to discard should be offered to a museum archive for their opinion as it its historic value before you lower them into a bath and dispose of them.  Some may show the community in transition and be required by the archive.  Donating negatives of interest is important to a complete local history.

It is very important to handle any negative by its edges only.  Even something you are about to dispose of should be protected from oily finger prints, scratches and contamination that might diminish any prints from it, until you are certain of its disposition.

Cleaning a Negative

Cleaning a negative should only be done if absolutely necessary.

Sometimes storage and handling has been so poorly done that the emulsion has a depth of contamination on it so that it seems doomed.  If you are convinced nothing more could possibly do it harm, but you still want to keep it, try this:

First, take a needle and in the corner of the negative where the margin is clear, make a small hole.  Find a paper clip and make a tiny hanger out of it by unbending it.  Prepare a place where you can hang the wet negative when you are finished.

Now, fill a small basin with warm water.  Tear a piece of cotton cloth into small wash clothes.  Put the negative into the water, let it soak a couple of minutes, then using a cloth, well wetted, just barely touch the surface of the negative to brush away the grime.

Work slowly until both sides of the negative have been cleaned.  When you are done put the paper clip into that little hole you made being careful not to touch the surface.  Then hang it up.

Because it hangs from one corner, it drains well and evenly.  Leave it hanging until dry all over as it is very vulnerable to serious scratches and emulsion tears when it is wet.   Some hours later inspect it to see if you have been able to improve it.

When preparing it for storage note on its envelope that you found it in very poor condition and that you cleaned it using only water.

If you feel the water bath helped but there is still contamination that should wash away, you can repeat the bath using fresh water and cloth.  Soak the negative a little longer this time, repeat the brushing.  Perhaps more grime will wash away and new detail will come into view.

Effects of Light on Displayed Black and White Prints

Black and white prints exposed to light sources rich in ultraviolet radiation, such as fluorescent tubes or direct daylight will, after a moderate period of time, show some yellowing in both the gelatin and the paper base.

Any light used to view the print should be no more powerful than necessary to provide adequate viewing.

Sepia toned prints seem to resist atmospheric contamination better than the black and white photos but either will collect dust in the gelatin over time due to humidity changes.

Treasured prints are best duplicated and the copy displayed.  Your original should be given the best storage conditions available.

What Your Collection May Mean to Future Researchers

The information that is fully recorded about a picture is an important source of family history for a researcher.

From personal knowledge I know how much it means to have the information about the people in a picture placed there by a previous owner.

I have a picture of my great grandparents that was taken in 1875 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of their marriage.  There is information about the location, their clothing, their life together and even some health notes that were very informative.

Another photo sent to me shows a couple, the lady being of a branch of family that arrived here in 1783, she, being born in 1794, and married in 1817.  The photo I received dates from 1867, also a 50th anniversary occasion.  The lady being the child of the progenitor of that branch of family, it is the closest we can come to knowing what her parents may have looked like as they aged.

Both these photos are treasures in our family history because they tell us so much about the photo subject and something about ourselves.

When you write up the information for a photo tell everything you can about the people.  Where possible give a date, describe them by height, weight, hair, and eye color and tell about the location, the event, i.e. a family reunion or vacation etc.

This record is your legacy.  Whether you are the originator of a collection or the ‘Accidental Custodian’, you are an important person the life of all those family treasurers.

Note:  This article has been printed with permission from Leone Hinds, a member of the Wellington County Historical Society. Posted February 4, 2016.