Photographer Tip: Reconsidering Safe Deposit for Storage
Updated: Sep 14, 2021
Since the 19th century, bank safe deposit boxes have provided peace of mind - a trusted, secure place to store and protect valuables and important personal documents from theft, fire, natural disasters and unauthorized use.
Over the years, that allure of safety hasn't been lost on photographers – during the analog era when safekeeping one’s unique film negatives was essential, and today in the digital age, when finding a safe, secondary location to store images on a hard drive is part of a "3-2-1" backup plan.
Bank safe deposit boxes are a viable option for storing personal documents outside the home, but if you're a photographer, they're not necessarily the best place to store your negatives, prints and hard drives.
Why? Because safe deposit boxes pose serious preservation, security and legal issues that photographers (and other artists, too!) must consider to make an informed decision before renting one to store work, especially if you shot in film and your negatives haven't been digitized or checked regularly.
Five Things to Know Before Storing Your Work in "Safe" Deposit
Uncertain Climate Control: Banks may promote their safe deposit vaults as “climate controlled,” but a bank branch's HVAC system can't provide the optimal and stable storage environment for long-term preservation of vulnerable photographic materials. Fragile cellulose acetate film-based negatives (still and moving image) require constant temperature and humidity controls to prevent chemical deterioration. A locked, airless and infrequently opened safe deposit box containing your negatives is a recipe for vinegar syndrome, which causes shrinking, buckling and embrittlement of the film base. With vinegar syndrome, the trapped acetic acid fumes from even a few deteriorated negatives can breakdown and destroy other negatives stored in a confined space. Color dye fading, silver image fading and mold growth are other major risks.
Environmental Risks: Think floods. Many safe deposit vaults are located in the basements of bank branches, and strategically renting a box high on the vault wall won't necessarily protect your negatives or prints from water damage and high humidity if the entire basement is inundated by water.
This isn't as uncommon as you think. Hundreds of safe deposit boxes flooded and more than 30 bank branches closed in Houston after Hurricane Harvey pummeled Texas in 2017. The banks eventually removed drenched boxes to temporary storage facilities and contacted box owners to retrieve their wet property. The inevitable time lag was probably too late to salvage water-logged negatives or hard drives.
If you don't believe a natural disaster could happen to your bank, consider the possibility of a leak or burst pipe. Hmmm. So if you’re committed to using a safe deposit box and have no other storage option, try to house photographic negatives (and prints) in archival photographic enclosures that have passed the Photographic Activity Test (PAT), and encase the whole lot inside one or more archival zippered polyethylene bags. Same with a hard drive. You can never be too cautious.
Errors, Robberies and Mergers: Theft can occur (and occasionally does) when boxes are mistakenly opened by bank staff or are relocated to other facilities when banks merge, close or consolidate branches. Losing track of the contents of safe deposit boxes in the complex merger of bank operations isn't as rare as you think. When banks are at fault, customers are rarely compensated for their losses. In fact, they rarely recover anything at all. Additionally, most banks cap their liability for losses. Customers are often bound by the bank’s most-current leasing terms, regardless of the year they leased their box. Carefully read your safe deposit lease so that you understand fully the terms of your agreement. The loss of a lifetime of your professional work is as valuable as another customer's loss of jewelry or family heirlooms, right?
Minimal Protection by Federal and State Laws: Nothing stored in a safe deposit box is insured by either the government or the banking institution. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the government agency that provides deposit insurance, doesn’t cover the contents of safe deposit boxes, and there are no rules requiring banks to compensate customers if their property is stolen or destroyed. It’s up to you to purchase insurance to cover what you store in your safe deposit box, either from insurance companies that offer policies for safe deposit box contents or through business or artist insurance policies.
No Access on Short Notice: Bank hours are limited, and safe deposit hours even more so. That's could be problematic when you need access to your negatives or a backup hard drive outside business hours.
Delayed Access after Death of the Box Owner: Banks seal safe deposit box when the owner dies, so a box may become inaccessible upon your passing. Depending on the state you live and the bank, it may take weeks or months and require a court order for an executor or beneficiary to gain access to manage your estate.
If you absolutely need to store your work in a safe deposit box, here are some useful recommendations:
Digitize film negatives and keep copies (backups) in multiple locations. Never discard your originals.
Check and open your safe deposit box regularly (at least once a year) and monitor the condition of your photographic materials and hard drives.
Make an inventory of everything stored in your box and revise every time you put something in or take something out.
Insure the contents of your box.
Know your bank's policies and coverage limits and carefully read the safe deposit lease agreement.
Decide what happens to the contents of the box should something happen to you. Know everyone who has access to your box. You can allow access to a designated power of attorney or add a person you trust as a deputy on your safe deposit box as well.
If you alone rent a safe deposit box, make sure your family or heirs know where the box is (which bank branch) and where to find the inventory and box key.
If you have questions or need personal help creating an inventory or a storage plan for your artwork, I'm here to help. Sign up for a free 30-minute consult.
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Your Vital Records (and Why You Should Care Now) (blog post)
The IPI Storage Guide for Acetate Film, James M. Reilly, Image Permanence Institute, Rochester Institute of Technology.
Safe Deposit Boxes Aren't Safe, New York Times
Archival Zippered Bags, and other archival enclosures for photographic materials, Gaylord Archival