Why is my childhood fading? Unfortunately, there is no silver lining

Ever wonder why old black and white portraits seem to stand the test of time?

Do you ever hang on to some tidbit of knowledge for so long that it seems to blend into what you might consider common knowledge. But, then, one day, as you are writing a photography blog, you realize it isn’t.

Last week, as I was decrying the purported archival qualities of photo discs (Photo Discs: The perfect heirloom?…or a broken promise?), I realized many might not be familiar with something that has been right under their nose since they were a baby. I didn’t see it clearly until my photography classes, but you might have an “A-ha” moment when I tell you now. Let’s give this a try:

Imagine, if you will, walking through an antique store and seeing some old portraits or rummaging through photos of your great, great-great, or even great-great-great grandmother. What comes to mind? I’m willing to bet it is black and white photographs of your ancestors dressed nicer than you ever have been, sitting proud and distinguished before a solid backdrop, and not smiling (more tidbits on this topic by clicking here). The photos themselves are in relatively good condition. Some have yellowed a bit (click here for details: Why Do My Photos Turn Yellow?), but, for the most part, there is no fading. It is just an old, black and white portrait.

Now, fast-forward a few decades. Imagine you are looking through your grandmother or mother’s childhood portraits. These are in color and some are even Polaroids. I imagine you are now picturing a very different kind of photo. A color image of people dressed in everyday clothes and hairstyles, smiling, laughing, and hanging out, but also one that is faded, blurry, highly contrasted, and discolored in the style of Instagram.

This picture of your truly circa 1979 clearly shows fading and discoloration
This picture of your truly circa 1979 clearly shows fading and discoloration

So, why do the older photographs look so much better qualitywise? This is where that not-so-common knowledge thing comes in. Before I began my photography classes at Murray State, I never gave serious thought as to why those older pictures held up so well, while newer ones (for me, that would be photos from the 60s and 70s and my baby pictures from the 80s) were faded and discolored. Before, I just assumed those color photos had always looked like that and that newer photos just looked better by comparison. Also, I never questioned whether they would be around for my great grandchildren the same way those black and white portraits had come to me from my great grandmother. Then I received the tidbit that I have carried with me ever since. A tidbit you might not like, but remember, printed photos can be restored and updated.

The secret lies in the photo procedure and how that image was captured. Now, I tried to find a website that would spell the nitty-gritty details out, however, I soon realized there are too many tangents and offshoots in the vast history of photography to derive such a straight forward site. So I will boil it down to what I was taught, as it pretty much sums it up in more general terms:

Let’s go back to those old photographs for a moment. The initial decades-long wave of popular photography relied on silver halide crystal emulsion to capture the image. That is, the film emulsion had a layer of the photosensitive silver salts, which reacted to light. When focused light was cast upon it for a given period of time, it was “exposed” and an image created. Photo developing chemicals would then remove unexposed silver halide crystals and stabilize a negative. Then, by passing light through the negative and focusing it onto photosensitive paper (which also uses a silver salt emulsion), a black and white image could be created.

Now, the key word in much of what I just said is “silver”. Essentially, those old photographs are simply a collection of differences in light and shadow cast in metal. Hence, given they were properly processed, they can last for a long, long while.

Now, lets look at those faded color photographs from the 60s, 70s, 80s and, eventually, the 90s. This process came decades later when photography started to become much more mainstream, cheaper and colorized! Problem is, there are two primary methods for colorizing any image, be it paint or light: Pigments and dyes. Pigments are fade-resistant and are more or less what makes things in nature the color that they are. For example green grass is green because of pigmentation. Dyes, on the other hand, are widely synthetic and are made from substances, which can break down when exposed to ultraviolet light.

Knowing this, can you guess why those old color photos are fading? That’s right, film manufacturers used dye-based films for color photography. While there were some color films in those days (such as Kodak’s Kodachrome), which offered more stability, most of those rolls your mom used to buy at Walmart were much less so. As a result, both the photos and the negatives were, and still are, prone to fading over time. This is especially true of photos left in the sun or exposed to other ultraviolet sources (such as lamps) even just a little bit each day.

While this might have you scrambling to get all your portraits safely out of the light, bear in mind the only way to nearly halt the degradation process would be to specially freeze your images in the dark. See more information on that here from archives.gov. Even then, gamma radiation from the sun will find them, as it pretty much penetrates everything (didn’t I say this could get way more technical than it needs to be?).

So, there you have it! Your very own tidbit to keep in mind as you go about photographing your life’s moments. And, while it would not be practical to go back to silver salts for your selfies and family gatherings, one should not fret! As I touched upon last week, many of today’s professional photo labs are using more archival methods of color printing including better formulated dye and pigment inks. They boast 100-year archival life spans, and, also like I said last week, only time will truly tell. However, if you have the image printed, it will be 100% more likely you will be able to restore it later as opposed to one retained as a bunch of “1s” and “0s”on a disc, which may or may not be readable in 100 years.

But, hey, let’s not forget the big picture (no pun intended). Your portraits are intended for your enjoyment, are they not? Your best bet would be to have your more precious moments professionally printed and then professionally matted and framed behind UV-resistant glass and hung away from areas of harsh light. But that is a topic for yet another blog!

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