Photography has a long standing history of marrying art with science. Before digital photography, developing photos always involved various chemicals and processes. Often each photograph was a one of a kind piece since most photos were manipulated in dark rooms, meaning no two prints came out exactly the same. Framing these antique photos is also a merging of art and science. These pieces are often family heirlooms with sentimental or sometimes even historical significance, which means preservation should always be a priority.
Photographs have several enemies when it comes to condition. Light, heat, humidity, mold, bugs and mishandling are all potential factors when it comes to preserving photos. They are often already fragile, faded or worn. Materials used in framing years ago were not as archival as those used today, so the mounting and framing itself may contribute to the gradual decline in condition.Fortunately, thanks to science, we now have materials of a higher caliber to use when working with art and photos. One of the most important factors in framing historical photographs is creating as close to an inert environment as possible. Thanks to acid-free foamcore and PH neutral mats, the photograph does not come into contact with the acids that can cause damage and discoloration over time. If you have ever removed an image from an old mat and found the edge is brown or discolored where the mat overlapped it, then acid from the mat is usually the culprit. The matting also protects the photo from coming into direct contact with the glass.
Mounting the image is another important step. Drymounting, or heat activated mounting, is not usually considered appropriate for delicate photos and original works of art as it is permanent and adheres the entire back surface of the piece to a piece of foam core. Instead it is generally best to use archival tape such as Filmoplast to hinge the photo to the backing or the mat. For photos that are on thicker substrate, such as tintypes of those already mounted to boards, a sink mount can be created with foam core shims around the image.
If a fillet is being used or if the photo is going directly into the frame without a mat, frame sealing tape should be used on any parts of the wood that will be coming into contact with the photograph. This creates a barrier between the acids in the wood and the piece.
Using UV protective glass or acrylic is also recommended to prevent further fading of the photo. Finally, sealing the framed piece with a backing prevents dust, bugs and debris from getting into the frame, keeping the photo safe to be enjoyed for many more years.
For photos that are extremely valuable, fragile or damaged it is worth considering the option of having the photographs copied and saved digitally. This ensures that the photographs can be reprinted in the future. The copies can also be restored digitally to enhance them and erase much of the damage, then framed for display while the originals are stored safely.