Melissa from Utah asks: “I always learn so much from your posts and webinars. My question today is about really old, oval, convex photos. I have inherited several in original frames. They are brittle and some are fading, one has unfortunately already disintegrated. I have been putting all of my flat photos in archival materials and indexing them for storage, but these oval photos have me stumped. They are so brittle and convex, I worry that if I take out of the frames and put them in a flat box, they will crumble anyway. Yet the frames and backing are also in poor condition and not likely archival quality. Any tips or helps for me?
Melissa has asked a great question about some photographs that many of us have in our collections. These very old, oval and convex photographs can be difficult, but not impossible, to preserve. The most important thing to remember when preserving anything is “do no harm” and “don’t do anything that you can’t undo.” These are rules that archives and archivists live by and so should the home archivist.
I would encourage Melissa to NOT remove the photos from the frames. This could cause them to become damaged beyond repair if they are as brittle as Melissa mentions. This may sound contrary to everything archival, but most likely the photos are stuck to the glass. Most oval photographs like these adhere themselves to the glass and getting them out can be very difficult and can really damage the photographs.
It is very important to try to digitize these photographs so if anything happens to the original, there is a digital version that survives. Anyone that has one of these convex images behind glass knows how difficult it can be to scan. In the archives, we take digital photographs of the image. You may have to take several shots from different angles to get the entire image. If the photograph is a large photograph, you may have to take several photographs and stitch them together with photo editing software. If a good image of the photograph can be duplicated, it would be a great idea to frame the copy if one wants to display the photo. The original needs to be preserved in an archival manner.
Melissa also has another problem. The frame and backing of the framed photograph are in poor condition. I would suggest that she take the framed photograph to a reputable framing shop and ask them if they can archivally repair the frame and backing. Once the frame and backing are stable, then it is best to store the framed photograph in an archival box surrounded by archival tissue paper so it doesn’t move around in the box. The online archival materials stores have boxes of varying sizes to fit just about any framed photograph (see list of stores below).
If Melissa or anyone is determined to remove the photographs from these frames or if they don’t feel they can handle this preservation project on their own, I would suggest they contact a professional conservator. One of the best places to find a conservator is at your state archives. They will either have one on staff or they can could give you contact information for one in your area.
I am so glad that Melissa is taking the time to preserve these precious photos of her family. Her descendants will be so grateful!
Archival Material Websites
Here is a listing of online archival materials stores. Archival tissue paper and boxes can be purchased at any of the following online archival stores. They all have online catalogs and paper catalogs that can be sent to your home. Also, be sure to sign up for email notifications because they periodically have sales and will send out email notifications.
- Gaylord Archival
- Hollinger Metal Edge
- University Products
- Archival Products
- Light Impressions
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Melissa Barker lives in Tennessee Ridge, Tennessee. She is the Houston County (TN) Archivist and a Professional Genealogist. She writes the blog, A Genealogist in the Archives, and has been researching her own family for over 26 years. She lectures, teaches and writes about researching in archives and records preservation.
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