Preserving photos

August 17, 2011

Church historians and others who take care of historical documents: Do you wonder what to do with piles of photographs of many sizes, shapes, and conditions?

Photographs provide a special challenge as they need different care than regular paper documents. Here are some guidelines for photo care.

First, when possible, store photographs separately from other paper documents. Because of the composition of the chemical compounds used in photography, photos are best kept separate from other papers.

Second, sort photographs and mark them with any identification you have. We all know the frustration of finding a photograph that has no identification and of trying to find someone who remembers the when, where, and who of the picture. Mark with pencil on the back and try not to leave indentations on the paper.

“Photographic images play a primary role in the documentation of historical events,” says Mark Shenise, associate archivist for the United Methodist General Commission on Archives and History. “They freeze in time those moments that have sacred meaning to both the memory of the individual and the congregation. Oftentimes at local church gatherings many photographs are taken to record a specific event while there is little or no written record to augment the photographic account.”

He created a quick guide on how to identify, maintain, research, use, and display a church photographic image collection. Find it at

Over the years I have come across in the Minnesota Conference archives tightly rolled photographs. Unrolling them can damage the photograph.

A simple process

A simple way to preserve rolled photographs is to create a passive humidity chamber. It is quite easy to make one with two storage containers with lids, one slightly smaller so it will fit inside the larger one.

Pour just a few inches of water in the large container. Perforate the lid of the smaller container with small holes to allow humidity to circulate. Place the rolled photos in the smaller container, close the lid, and then put the small container in the larger container. Close the lid of the larger container. Let the chamber sit for a few hours.

After some time (you may have to experiment depending on how long the photographs have been rolled, the paper thickness, and other conditions) check on the photographs and see if they have “relaxed” a bit. When you can unroll them easily, lay them flat on paper towel and lay more paper towel on top of them, creating a sandwich. Place something heavy on top and allow them to dry completely. Then store them in a cool dry place, out of sunlight. GCAH also provides instruction on how to accomplish this at

Another helpful resource is the Minnesota Historical Society’s short guide, “Ask the Expert: Preserving your photographs, Windows to the Past”:

Preserving your church historical documents is challenging. Taking the time to care for them is very rewarding and will ensure you will have the photos for many years to come.

Please feel free to consult me on your questions about caring for church records.

Kathy Spence Johnson is the Minnesota Annual Conference archivist.

Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

122 West Franklin Avenue, Suite 400 Minneapolis, MN 55404

(612) 870-0058