Something momentous has happened with the development of digital photography: For the first time since photography was invented, we have the capability to preserve original images without any deterioration for extremely long periods of time. Perhaps forever.
The negative in the shoebox
Most PHOTO Techniques readers know that storing negatives or transparencies in a shoebox is a bad idea. These boxes usually are acidic, do nothing to control temperature and humidity, and can lead to damaging physical pressure from having the originals on top of each other. All of these factors lead to premature decay and damage to precious originals. It is not unusual to find color negatives damaged beyond recognition after only a decade or so of storage in a shoebox.
I know many black-and-white film shooters who are complacent about preservation of their originals. They seem to believe that if they store their negatives in acid-free sleeves or envelopes and then place them in a metal cabinet, they will last forever. Nothing could be further from the truth. They will last longer than color materials, but they definitely will deteriorate under these conditions.
Good preservation of film originals requires placing the originals in very low-humidity, hermetically sealed containers that are stored in special cooling or freezing units that can maintain a very narrow temperature and humidity range. Double-hermetically sealed containers and humidity-controlled cooling units are highly recommended because the slightest leak can ruin an original.
Having properly sealed rooms, dehumidifiers, cooling units, and containers is a very expensive proposition. This is why there are dedicated facilities for this purpose, such as the one at the University of Arizona, which houses the originals of many of the best-known photographers of the 20th century. Even though originals are expected to last a long time under these storage conditions, they will still slowly deteriorate. Furthermore, chances are that some deterioration occurred prior to the work being sealed in the containers. Finally, trying to make new prints or scans from these originals can create problems. The process of warming up the work, taking it out of the sealed containers, dehumidifying it again, and resealing them properly is tedious, expensive, and time consuming. Also, the original will suffer every time it is exposed to the bright light of an enlarger or a scanner. And last, but not least, there is always the possibility of accidental damage, such as a scratch, while handling the original.
Bottom line: A film original is a fragile object that starts to deteriorate immediately after it is processed and can be easily damaged when it is handled. One can slow the deterioration, but not stop it completely. (For more information on this and related topics, I recommend Henry Wilhelm’s book, The Permanence and Care of Color Photographs.)