Making Your Photos Last

By Jeffery Jay Luhn Back to

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Is there a way to make your photos live for a century beyond your lifetime? What strategies can you pursue to motivate people to find, view and preserve your work? Creating important and accessible content is the first step in preserving your photographic legacy, but it may all be lost unless you build an enduring archive with both traditional and digital methods.

My inspiration to archive and distribute photographs comes from the collections of Morton and Herbert Luhn, my grandfather and great uncle who started making personal photos and putting them into albums around 1907. By 1919 they had amassed and distributed hundreds of photos like the one of them taken while hiking in the snow in Yosemite in 1913. (Herbert is in the lead holding his camera) In 1921 Herbert purchased a photo shop and built it into the largest camera store in San Francisco. Many West Coast photographers including Ansel Adams,

Edward Weston, Joe Rosenthal and Ruth Bernhard were friends and customers. Herbert remained an active photographer, always sharing his shots, until he passed away in 1958.

Morton Luhn age 9. Savoy Studio San Francisco March 3, 1898. Completed 3rd year in school.

Times have changed since Herbert’s day. Now billions of people exchange pictures to stay in touch, share experiences and remain relevant to their social networks. While this process creates valuable snapshots of who we are and what we’re doing, it also trains people to see photography as a temporary and insignificant part of a cluttered visual landscape. It will take a combined strategy of archival photo methods, digital preservation and content to insure your photos will last 100 years.

While traditional prints will always remain relevant, logistics demand that large collections be stored in digital form too. Burning DVD disks of your photo archives and swapping them with your fellow photographers and family members will lower the risk of data loss from computer crashes or other disasters. This strategy will require you to continually copy your archives onto newer types of media as they become available. Don’t be tempted to include too many images and alternative takes in your archives. Limit your collections to the images you know your conservators and descendants will appreciate most.

Think of your prints as a trail of breadcrumbs that will lead people to your larger digital archives. Label and store the prints in acid-free archival boxes along with the disks. If you produce photo books, include a disk in those too! Label the outside of the archival boxes with the recipient’s name and place a brief description of each portfolio box into your will. Yes, you read this correctly: include the portfolios in your will because it’s the only way you can be assured that the portfolios will get to the right recipients. If the content of your portfolios have value, their new owners will use whatever innovations lay ahead to drag the images into the future. Like the sticky seedpods of the Forget- Me-Not flower, your photos will cling to descendants and continue to entertain curious minds long into the future.

Presuming that your archival boxes do survive a century, what will people learn from looking at the contents? Old images are fascinating frozen moments but they will lose value if viewers don’t know the subject or date. Add captions and file names that inform people in the future about the when, who and where of each image. Write the information onto the back of the prints with a soft lead pencil or insert descriptive text right into the bottom of the image. For digital archives I recommend attaching descriptions in the metadata field accessed through the File Info menu in most photo editing applications. Your descriptions will be embedded into the photo file as an .xmp attachment. There’s no limit to the length of a description, so the feature works very well for preserving detailed historic data.

Morton Luhn standing in front of Tamalpiase train, 1909.

What about the lifespan of prints and photo books? Longevity depends upon what type of process, paper and storage conditions. The best traditional silver halide photo papers (properly archivally processed) and with care taken to protect them from light, heat and moisture, will last over 250 years. Many labs produce handmade black and white silver prints from digital files at a cost of about $20 per 8×10. This may seem expensive, but for novice printers (making prints at home with a high quality inkjet printer, archival paper and pigment inks) there can sometimes be a high cost associated with the learning curve of making prints.

If you want to make your own archival inkjet prints, and color is important to you, recent tests by Wilhelm Imaging Research will be of great interest: Images printed on Canson 100% rag Infinity Montval Torchon paper printed with HP Vivera color (pigment) inks using an Epson 9880 printer are estimated to last 350+ years when displayed under UV glass in normal household conditions. Photo books made from similarly high quality materials are available from color labs that service wedding and portrait photographers.

Wilhelm recently published test results on the Xerox iGen Family of printers and the HP Indigo Digital Presses. Because books are essentially ‘dark storage’ they’ll fade much less than display prints, however edges of pages may show some yellowing because of exposure to the air over time. Keeping books and prints away from the kitchen and garage where fumes collect will help minimize yellowing.

The future caretakers of my life’s work view the images on an iPad.

What are the least expensive options? Fujicolor Crystal Archive prints, an economical resin coated silver hal- ide paper used by many commercial photo finishers, lost only 27% of it’s color and 14% of it’s tone after the equivalent of 50 years of display behind clear acrylic in typical household conditions. (60 lux of illumination for 16 hours per day) A 14% loss of tone over 50 years isn’t too bad. Aardenburg Imaging conducted the Fujicolor test in 2011. Kodak advertises that their Professional Endura Metallic paper will show no noticeable fading after 100 years of display in household conditions.

Each company and testing agency has their own standards, so test results must be compared in detail. But it’s encouraging to know that even reasonably priced commercial machine prints will hit the century mark if they’re protected from moisture, light and heat under normal display conditions.

After the archival issues are solved, it’s going to be content that will make people want to preserve your photos for the next century. Take a hint from the photo of my one-year-old granddaughter scrolling through hundreds of images on her mother’s iPad. She’s looking for shots of herself to share with her cousins. These kids are the future caretakers of my life’s work. If my shots don’t contain their ‘visual DNA’, they won’t keep them and pass them on. I make sure they get their images in digital form so they can enjoy them now, and I compile collections of prints and CDs for them to have in the distant future.

If you create photos that are too good to throw away and you make sure they end up with the right people, your artistry will be celebrated in 100 years.

Editor’s Note: This article is an introduction and launch point to future articles on archival storage and preservation. These articles will explore preservation, research standards and practical methods for archiving prints and digital files. In the meantime, please refer to the resources at the end of the article for additional information.

Jeffery Jay Luhn began his career as a small town newspaper photographer while attending the photo program at Laney College, Oakland, CA. He later graduated from Brooks Institute of Photography and shot for United Press International in Asia and Latin America.

Jeffery founded a studio in San Francisco and for 30 years did studio and editorial shooting. Client list and photo galleries can be viewed at LuhnPhoto.com. 

Resources: Websites: Archival Methods-archivalmethods.com, Aardenburg Imaging-aardenburg-imaging.com, Canson Infinity-canson-infinity. com, Fujicolor Crystal Archive-fujifilmusa.com, Gaylord-gaylord. com, HP Vivera Inks-hp.com, Kodak Endura Paper-kodak.com, Printfile-printfile.com,WilhelmImagingResearch-wilhelm-research. com 


About the Author

Jeffery Jay Luhn
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Jeffery Jay Luhn began his career as a small town newspaper photographer while attending the photo program at Laney College, Oakland, CA. He later graduated from Brooks Institute of Photography and shot for United Press International in Asia and Latin America. Jeffery founded a studio in San Francisco and for 30 years did studio and editorial shooting. Client list and photo galleries can be viewed at www.LuhnPhoto.com.