Collector Tip: Storing Photographs
Updated: Sep 14, 2021
Sadly, we all have a finite number of walls at home to display the art we love. So, when your photography collection grows beyond your available wall space, or when it’s time to rotate a work and give a favorite print a rest from light, choosing the right storage is critical - even more so if the collection is valuable.
Photographs, especially color prints, are extremely light sensitive. If your photographs are mostly framed, storing them is relatively easy: keep upright, wrap in protective, acid free material and place in a dark space. But you need a different approach to store unframed works:
Matted and loose photographic prints are best stored flat, stacked atop one another inside archival boxes made of materials that meet international standards for the long-term storage of photographs.
It’s All in the Box
Why is the box important? Beyond protecting works from physical harm (that’s obvious), your box is also an enclosed "microclimate" that protects photographic prints from environmental risks - light, dust, temperature and humidity swings. In addition, photographs are more vulnerable than other works on paper. Their multiple layers (support, binder, image material) are made of inherently unstable elements that interact with acids and air pollutants, which deteriorate photographs over time.
Many ordinary boxes are constructed of papers and adhesives that emit pollutants, which can get trapped inside the container and cause your photographs to fade and stain. I don't think any collector wants to store their collection in a box that inadvertently accelerates deterioration.
The solution: acquire boxes specifically made to protect photographs. They're sold by
archival suppliers and are used extensively by museums, archives and galleries. Photography boxes are available in various sizes, materials and price points to fit your needs, and are suitable for storing other works on paper as well. Quality photography boxes have the following three features in common. They are:
• Constructed from acid-free and lignin-free card stocks: Acid free paper has a neutral pH at the time of manufacture (paper made from wood acidifies over time). Lignin is an acidic compound naturally found in wood that can be removed in the paper making process. Boxes frequently use papers buffered with an alkaline reserve (calcium carbonate) to neutralize acids that are absorbed from the air or that naturally develop through aging.
• Constructed of rag or museum board card stocks: These are paper stocks made of cotton, which is not acidic.
• Utilize safe coatings and adhesives: Quality boxes will have passed the Photographic Activity Test (PAT), an international standard that ensures the materials used in the box were tested and won’t react with photographic images. Many archival suppliers will note in their product specifications if the box materials (papers, boards, adhesives) passed PAT. If it's unclear, ask the supplier.
Types of Boxes for Photographic Prints
Solander Cases (also called Museum Cases)
These cases provide maximum strength and rigidity for photographic prints. Constructed from rigid bookbinding boards and wood, Solander Cases are generally covered with black bookbinding cloth and lined with acid free buffered paper. Metal latches and lips where the cover meets the base create a tight seal from light and contaminants. These boxes have “clamshell” style lids, and the boxes lie flat when open to easily slide matted works from one side to the other. They’re stackable and attractive, and look great on open shelves.
Portfolio Cases/Presentation Boxes
Not as expensive as Solander Cases, Portfolio Cases also use clamshell construction and hinged lids that lie flat when open. They’re usually made from fabric or buckram-covered book binding boards and are lined with acid free papers. However, these attractive boxes aren't always constructed of materials that have passed PAT, so they're best used for short term storage only. Consider other boxes if you need a long term storage solution.
Recommendations - for short term storage only:
"Standard" Archival Storage Boxes
Made from acid free barrier board or acid free cardboard, archival paper storage boxes are the most affordable option. Used extensively by archives and museums to store photographic prints, they’re available in different strengths and thicknesses, and in a variety of sizes and heights. Some have reinforced metal corners for added strength; others have clamshell lids or drop-down side panels to help slide works out of the box. The papers are usually buffered with an alkaline reserve to prevent acidification. And it’s easy to find options that pass PAT.
Storage Tips ...
Store your photographic prints matted. Mats protect your prints from physical damage and from direct contact with glass or plexiglass when framed. It's best to choose archival, museum quality mats as well.
Use acid free, buffered paper or tissue between both matted and unmatted prints in the box. Interleaving protects photographs from grit and dust, and prevents scratches on prints mounted without a protective window mat. When storing photos with window mats, carefully place the interleaving paper atop the photo and beneath the window. Buffered paper is recommended for interleaving most photographic prints. However, you may want to consult a photograph conservator for guidance storing albumen prints, cyanotypes and dye transfer prints. They're more sensitive to alkaline, so unbuffered paper may be more appropriate. Loose prints can also be safely stored in archival polyester sleeves or bags.
Match the sizes of prints and their mats as closely as possible to the box dimensions to prevent shifting. Store similarly sized matted prints together or select a box to house the largest print you’re storing.
Don’t overfill boxes. It’s fine to stack matted works atop one another, but note that stacking will put the greatest pressure on the photographs at the bottom of the box.
Your photograph collection will have the greatest longevity when stored in dark, cool and dry locations. Consult a photograph conservator to discuss any concerns you may have regarding preservation issues for the specific type of prints you collect.
Preserving your family photographs, by contrast, is a whole other can of worms, and the subject of a future blog posts (stay tuned).
If you need guidance on storing your photograph collection, reach out and I can recommend choices. You can always sign up for a free 30-minute consult.
New York City