March 08, 2007


I've created an acronym for something I find myself repeating over and over and over whenever I'm answering questions about how to keep your family treasures safe.

Seemed like a good idea at the time (SLAGIAT).

There are things you can do to a photograph today that won't look like they've caused any damage. But if you worked with historical records for even a short time, you'd see lots of seemingly innocent items that change dramatically over time. Have you ever seen a forty year old rubber band? Blech. And lots of times the items suffer some kind of damage, usually staining. Damage that could have been avoided so easily.

Examples of SLAGIAT:

  • encapsulation
  • tape
  • ink
  • bare hands (fingerprints)
  • rubber bands
  • chemical cleaners

We had a SLAGIAT question on the radio show.

Problem: Fire-damaged prints.

If they are so soot covered that you can't see what's in the photo, you've got (literally) nothing to lose. In that case, you might as well try an extreme measure like chemical cleaners. Once you clean it enough to get a visible image, make a high resolution scan. Print our copies at your favorite photo processor.

If the fire damage is just a little bit of darkening or an occasional smudge, I would recommend scanning the photos and restoring them digitally. Do not apply chemical solvents to the prints. Do not attempt to wipe them off.

Bottom line? There are times when drastic measures are necessary, but just make sure the cure isn't worse than the disease.

Pssst...there's something you should know. My views on chemical cleaners are considered overly cautious to the point of being extreme. Professionals photographers don't think twice about cleaning prints and film. Many scanning companies (especially in the publishing world) clean prints as a matter of routine. Archival supply companies sell the cleaners. But just because you can't see any damage today doesn't mean you haven't caused irreversible chemical damage.

Preservation is all about caution:

  • Don't do anything you can't undo.
  • Eliminate all known hazards.
  • Avoid likely hazards.

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