Presenting Polaroids Part 2: Conservation Tactics

Note: The companion YouTube video can be found at the bottom of this post.

Before getting into the meat of presentation techniques, I thought I should discuss the conservation materials used in the upcoming posts and videos. Coming from a black and white gelatine silver print background, proper processing, storage and display to maximize the longevity of my prints has always been a concern. I can’t help but be equally careful with my current Polaroid SX-70 integral film photos.

Most photographic print materials typically have an exposed emulsion layer on a paper substrate which makes them particularly vulnerable to acidic materials, physical wear-and-tear and what-have-you. This demands mount boards and mats that meet conservation standards and mounting corners or hinges that are not only acid-free and archival but allow for the print to be removed (to be repaired or reframed) without physical damage.

However, SX-70s are significantly different; the emulsion is sandwiched between polyester sheets front and back with white plastic seals along all edges. To that extent, you would think SX-70s are less vulnerable than paper-based prints to acidic matting and mounting materials. It’s hard to gauge because so little is known about the longevity of SX-70 photos. 

My copy of Polaroid Corporation’s 1983 publication “Storing, Handling and Preserving Polaroid Photographs: A Guide” has lots of good advice about Polaroid peel-apart products but little about the SX-70 format. It does state that all photographic materials, including all Polaroid films, need to be protected from:

  • Light
  • Chemical action
  • High Humidity
  • Heat
  • Physical abuse

Regarding chemical action, Polaroid opines that: “Instant films made from integral films are least likely to be affected by exterior chemical action, because the front and back of the image are protected by tough, chemically-resistant polyester sheets.”

However, much of that 1983-vintage advice is likely moot considering the current crop of integral films manufactured by Impossible Projects/Polaroid Originals/Polaroid is a totally different formula and, by all accounts, even that formula is (happily) being improved on a regular basis.

Looking back, my 1979-era SX-70 photos, which have spent most of their lives in a small cardboard box, are as vibrant as they were when taken. However, many of the photos have undergone some physical deterioration. Specifically, the plastic edges have detached on the backs of some photos, mostly along the sides and bottom edges. 

My current crop of 2020-2022 Polaroids appear to be holding up nicely. However, they have all developed a serious concave curl, arcing between top and bottom edges but more typically between opposite top and bottom corners. It’s a stubborn curve; they refuse to lay flat! 

The only conclusion I can draw from my own observations is that SX-70 photos have their own very unique issues that are not well understood compared to photo emulsions on a paper base. 

However, there are several conservation measures that can be observed:

  1. Although SX-70 films develop in 15 minutes, it takes significantly longer for the prints to dry. Current Polaroid advice is that SX-70 films should not be compressed (in an album) or sealed (in a frame or plastic sleeve) for at least 30 days after exposure. 
  1. As with most photographic materials, Polaroids are sensitive to UV light exposure which, over time, can result in fading. If framed, ideally photos should be mounted behind UV glass or acrylic glazing. At minimum, position framed photos so that they will not be hit by direct sunlight. 
  1. Like most photographic materials, ideally Polaroids should be stored or displayed in a cool, moderately dry environment. In 1983, Polaroid Corporation recommended a relative humidity of 30-50% and a temperature of 16-21° C. that fluctuates no more than 4° C. That’s likely good, sound advice for current SX-70 films as well. However, it’s pretty hard to achieve in a non-museum space. Instead, try to avoid attics and basements, radiators and heat vents and don’t refrigerate or freeze your exposed film images.
  1. Avoid bending the film excessively as it can cause a separation of the image from its base. There is no remedy if this happens.
  1. Don’t cut SX-70 film as the image could detach from the base. Again, there is no remedy if this happens. By extension, mounting photos with push pins or thumb tacks is not a good idea either.
  1. Although SX-70 integral films are plastic sandwiches, it is still prudent to mount, mat and frame them using archival materials. If possible use materials that are certified ANSI IT 9.16 or ISO 14523:1999 (since revised to ISO 18916:2007). At minimum, look for materials that are labelled acid-free (minimum PH 7.0). For example, the label for Scotch Double-Sided Scrapbooking Tape says it meets the ISO 14523:1999 photo-safe standard and that it is acid-free with a pH of 7.0-8.0.
  1. Mount photos so that the photo can be removed without physically damaging the photo. Do not use adhesives (tape or glue) to directly attach photos to their mounts. Instead, use non-physical attachment approaches, such as polyester photo corners with an acid-free, photo safe adhesive that doesn’t come into contact with the photo. This allows a photo to be easily removed if it requires physical repair or conservation. More pragmatically, if you want to change-up a framed or album photo, photo corners make it easy by gently bending the Polaroid out of the corners and replacing it with another photo. That’s the great thing about SX-70s: they are all identical in size whether created in 1972 or 2022! 

Of course, some of these conservation measures are not always practical. In my own case, maintaining a constant relative humidity and temperature is near impossible. I live in a non air-conditioned house where the temperatures can soar into the high 30s C. in summer. In winter, a  good interior temperature can be maintained but, with radiator heating, it gets skin-cracking dry.

There are also monetary limitations. I use the best quality archival materials where possible—the above mentioned Scrapbook tape, archival photo corners, acid-free foam core and mat board, all of which are affordable options—but I also use inexpensive wood frames from IKEA and Michaels that come with ordinary glass or acrylic glazing that offer no UV protection. 

Like fighting climate change, I do as many of the good things and as few of the bad things as I can.

More From Me:

Check out my SX-70 YouTube videos at https://www.youtube.com/c/WalkClickMake

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/dfirman/

Firmangallery portfolio and store: https://www.firmangallery.com

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