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History and Care of Photos & Paper

Information sheets on design, illustration, digital imaging, photography and other related topics. Compiled and written for my clients, students, and my own work. Provided here for your convenience. If you take information form these sheets to use elsewhere, please provide the appropriate credits along with the information.

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A Brief History of Photography and Paper

Digital photography today is in vary much the same place photography was in 1853. the number of photographs produced in the United States went from virtually zero in 1826 to an estimated 3 million a year. One hundred and fifty-eight years later we are moving into the realm of images captured and handled digitally. But until the advent of economic handheld digital display devices we will not have reached the level of the wet glass plate collodion process, so popular between 1851 and 1880's, when the dry gelatin plate was finally developed.

The Camera

The inception of the first true photograph was in 1826, developed by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in France. In 1829 he was joined in partnership by Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre in 1829. Although Niépce died in 1833, Daguerre went on to announce the development of the Daguerreotype to the French Academy of Sciences on January 7, 1839. The detail of the images was captivating. Elizabeth Barrett Browning commented that she "...would rather have such a memorial of one I dearly loved, than the noblest artist's work ever produced." However, the mercury vapor used to expose the plate was deadly. They were fragile and each image required a separate sitting.

The dried collodion plate, developed in 1851, could be contact printed onto specially coated paper or viewed directly by inserting a dark backing behind it. With the substitution of dark enameled metal for the glass, a cheap, durable tintype was created, taking America by storm. Millions of photos were being used for everything from portraits in albums to campaign buttons and tomb adornments by the 1860's.

The desire for a preserved likeness motivated people to endure sitting for minutes at a time, unmoving with bright lights in their eyes. Many studios used metal poles with head or neck supports, much like today's collector's doll stands. Double lens cameras could take two photos at once, and many of these single colored images were hand-tinted on the spot.

The ability to capture detail quickly and reproduce copies literally changed how we see the world. Loved ones faces smiled (or attempted to) back at us across the miles. Distant family members could see what children or long dead grandparents looked like. The populace could see the ravages of war without the benefit of romanticized interpretations. Those who never ventured more than a days walk from home could enjoy the beauty of exotic places. Daguerreotypes of the Sphinx and the Pyramids of Egypt were taken only a few months after the announcement of the process. The large size of the negatives and the length of exposure contribute to the amount of detail captured.

The next development with similar impact came in 1888, from George Eastman's invention of roll film and inexpensive equipment, called the Kodak, to make the craft of photography available to the public.

The Paper

The other invention significant to photography was that of the paper to print it on. The exact date or dates of its invention are surrounded in myth and legend. We attribute the Chinese with the invention of cotton fiber paper around AD 105. The Phoenicians, however, were trading in papyrus scrolls as far back as the 10th century BC. The Japanese developed the mulberry bark paper we refer to today as "rice paper" around the seventh century AD. Through conquests and caravans, paper and the magic of its creation made its way across Asia into Spain and Italy without much change.

Cloth scrapes or plant fibers are beaten to break them down and mixed with water. The resulting slurry is strained through a screen to remove the fibers from the mixture. The damp mat of fibers is drained, flattened, and dried. Gelatin from the hooves, hides and horns of animals was used as "sizing" to keep quill pens from catching at the surface and ink from bleeding across the surface. Metal screens were developed to replace the original bamboo, and thin wires were laid across the surface to produce a distinctive "watermark" in the forming paper. Various additions were tried to lighten the fibers, stiffen the gelatin sizing, and prevent the sizing from putrefying in the vats of slurry. When cotton and linen became scarce, everything from potatoes and corn husks to asbestos, cabbage stalks and cattails were tried to find an economical substitute. After watching wasps building their nests in 1719, René Antoine Réaumeur decided to try wood pulp. It took decades to develop practical ways to grind the wood into pulp. Eventually wood pulp became the fiber of choice for cheap paper. In 1868 the New York Times was the first newspaper to use the new paper, produced in Massachusetts, the site of the first ground wood pulp mill in the US.

Many of these processes and materials had negative affects on the permanence and strength of the papers being produced. Bleaching stained or colored cloth with chlorine caused paper to crumble to dust before it could be used. Alum used to harden the sizing increased the acidity and radically shortened the lifespan of the paper. One of the major factors in the strength of paper is the fiber length. The Chinese had it right from the beginning without understanding to mechanism. Scraps of cloth yielded long, stable fibers. Grinding wood into minute pieces produced very short, weak fibers. In addition, the preparation process allowed large amounts of lignin from the source trees in the slurry. Lignin breaks down into acidic compounds causing further deterioration and having the ability to bleed out onto adjacent surfaces. The residue left from incomplete washing or addition of unstable chemicals is like a ticking bomb. Damage can also result from stray pieces of metal or wood in the slurry, marks from ropes used in the drying lofts of old-style paper mills, or warping from improper curing or drying.

For ideal permanence paper needs to be produced from chemically stable fibers in an acid-free environment. Pure new cotton or linen and high-alpha cellulose are the materials of modern "archival" paper. They must be processed without acidic ingredients to remain stable and free from internal deterioration. Some papers have alkali added to act as a buffer, neutralizing any acid introduced by the environment or in handling. The expected lifespan of properly produced and handled modern archival paper materials have been estimated to be in access of 300 years.

The majority of contemporary newspapers and paperback books printed will not be so lucky, with a life expectancy of not more than a couple decades. The shocking reality is that from lack of information, the majority of books printed in the early part of this century will be lucky to last into the next. At least we now have a choice.

Sandra Ragan © 1999

Proper Care and Handling of Paper-Based Materials

Choosing archival quality materials is half the battle. Proper storage and handling is the second half. The following are expanded suggestions from guidelines set forth by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts1.

1) Use clean hands or gloves when handling any porous materials. Do not touch the surface of the paper with bare hands if it is at all avoidable.

2) Support the materials with both hands to avoid bending, creasing, or tearing them.

3) Mat ALL valuable pictures. Loose pictures may be kept in acid-free folders or envelope.

4) Never stack pictures directly on top of each other. Use smooth, nonacid tissue or similar material to separate loose images.

5) Do not touch or drag anything across the surface. Never frame paper with the surface against the glass. Humidity trapped inside the frame can cause the surface to become adhered to the glass.

6) Never use non-archival pressure sensitive tapes (Scotch tape, masking tape, etc.), gummed brown wrapping tape, rubber cement, synthetic glues, or heat-sealing mounting materials on any picture to be preserved.

7) Pictures attached by glue to old boards should not be removed. They are more fragile than they appear. Over time they become brittle and easily damaged.

8) Protect matted pictures with a cover tissue or wrap them in a flexible plastic sheeting (Mylar or polyethylene - not polyvinyl chloride or PVC). However, the static electricity from plastics may attract dust or particles off the surface.

Note: Dye transfer digital prints rely in part on the attraction of molecules in the dye by the plastic-base photo paper. Surface contact with polyvinyl materials can result in a secondary transfer of color away from the print, into the covering. This is accelerated by high temperatures.

9) DO NOT ROLL pictures. Store or ship in flat packing with protection for the edges.

10) Store or display in balanced humidity with adequate ventilation. Humidity under 70% will prevent the growth of mold. About 50% is ideal. Too little humidity will cause drying and cracking. Outside walls of houses, cellars, and basements and close proximity to water pipes should be avoided if there is any indication of dampness.

11) DO NOT Hang in direct sunlight or bright artificial lights. All light will hasten fading. For viewing an optimum light of about five foot-candles, one 150 watt reading lamp at a distance of three to four feet, is preferred. Ultraviolet rays will not only cause fading but help deteriorate the paper.

12) Do not store in closed rooms. Clean, well circulated air is necessary for mold prevention. Books and loose sheets should not be stored directly on the floor. Raised supports provide better air circulation.

13) Temperature control is also important. Keep materials away from heating ducts, fire places and other heat sources.

14) Air pollution is the source of many problems. Soot and residue from cooking oils adhere to the surface and attract further contaminates. Sulfur dioxide from burning fossil fuels attacks the paper and causes discoloration, embrittlement, and fiber disintegration.
After being absorbed by the paper, it is converted to sulfuric acid. The process of deterioration will continue long after the paper is removed from the environment. Sulfur dioxide can enter framed pieces from behind if not protected by adequate backing. It can reduce leather bindings on books to powder. (high sulfur content from gas lighting in turn-of-the-century homes and libraries has done much damage to books and paper-based pictures).

15) Insects such as silverfish, termites, cockroaches, and woodworms eat their way through unprotected paper, leaving waste products, body parts and reproductive remnants behind. Most prefer warm, damp places, dark places to do their work. They especially love gelatin sizing, the flour paste and glue sizing on old photos, and bleached wood-pulp paper. Termites will devour almost anything composed of cellulose. Cockroaches prefer parchment, leather, paper, fabric, glue, and any painting media containing sugar.

1) How to Care for Works of Art on Paper, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 4th Edition, by Francis W. Dolloff and Roy L. Perkinson. Library of Congress Catalogue Card number 79-2121.
2) Photography, 2nd Edition, By Barbara Upton and John Upton, Little, Brown and Company, Boston and Toronto.
3) How to Take Care of Your Paintings and Understanding Damage and Restoration Methods, by Norma Sandler, © 1983, PO Box 691502 Los Angeles, CA 90069, 213-652-2169

Sandra Ragan © 1999

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