Conservation of a 19th Century Family Photograph

 Antique family photograph before and after conservation treatment.

Antique family photograph before and after conservation treatment.

If you're lucky enough to have mementos and photographs of your ancestors, they are probably treasured family heirlooms. But although your family considers them precious items now, there is a good chance they have seen many years of wear, handling and questionable storage conditions. 

 Antique family photograph, with damage to the board and photographic emulsion.

Antique family photograph, with damage to the board and photographic emulsion.

Family photographs come into our studio regularly, exhibiting everything from cracked and broken support boards to stains and surface dirt, to scratches or loss of emulsion. Digital restoration professionals can help you make copies that are touched up by computer, but our studio can restore the original item using safe and reversible treatments, and preserve it for many more generations of your family to appreciate. 

 Damaged antique photograph in raking light.

Damaged antique photograph in raking light.

We recently treated this charming 19th century black and white gelatin photograph for a private client. The card support had suffered a break across the lower corner, narrowly missing the mounted photograph, and the photograph itself presented deep scratches and loss of emulsion across the image. Many of these losses were caused by biological damage, the munching of insects on the starch-based gelatin and paper of the object.

 The break in the mounting board was repaired with wheat starch paste.

The break in the mounting board was repaired with wheat starch paste.

Treatment was begun by first addressing the crack in the board. This was repaired with wheat starch paste and the board then flattened in a press to reduce the planar deformation. Some losses in the board material were filled with paper pulp to even out the surface.

 A barrier layer is applied to the damaged areas before inpainting.

A barrier layer is applied to the damaged areas before inpainting.

Next, the damage to the photograph was addressed. The losses were first covered with a barrier solution in order to consolidate the paper surface and facilitate removal of the inpainting if necessary in the future. Then, the lost information in the image was carefully in-painted using watercolours, a procedure performed under magnification to ensure accuracy. 

 Applying watercolour to the lost emulsion of the photograph.

Applying watercolour to the lost emulsion of the photograph.

 Inpainting set-up for conservation treatment of the photograph.

Inpainting set-up for conservation treatment of the photograph.

Finally, cracks and lifting flakes of the emulsion were adhered back down with a photo grade gelatin solution, the same material as the original emulsion. This helps restore a smooth surface to the piece, and reduces the chances of further damage.

After treatment, the visual unity of the image is restored, and the portrait can once again be fully appreciated as a record of a the family's history. Perhaps a family resemblance can be traced to today's descendants of this matriarch?

 The photograph after conservation treatment. The inpainting restores the visual unity of the image, and the portrait is whole once again.

The photograph after conservation treatment. The inpainting restores the visual unity of the image, and the portrait is whole once again.

Do you have family heirlooms that have suffered damage over the ages? If you're interested in having them conserved, don't hesitate to get in touch with our studio. There is no cost for an estimate. Or, visit our portfolio section to see other examples of conservation of archival materials.