“When you discover old photos and albums, it feels like unearthing buried treasure,” says Rachel LaCour Niesen, a photographer and founder of Save Family Photos, an online archive of family photos from around the world. I know exactly what she means: When my parents decided to sell their house last year, my brother and I started excavating our own personal version of King Tut’s tomb. We found 50 years’ worth of memories gathering dust in the basement — our old comic books, report cards, letters home from summer camp. We also found hundreds upon hundreds of family photos. There were delicate frames with stiffly-posed black-and-white portraits of our great-grandparents, snapshots from my parents’ honeymoon, thick albums filled with fading baby pictures. We also found thousands of slides, some stuck for half a century in their cardboard sleeves, and in a small wooden box, a stack of 8mm home movies.
It was emotionally overwhelming to see these forgotten memories from my childhood and from my parents’ younger days. There were photos of long-gone grandparents, aunts, and uncles, some in great condition, some curling up or faded. With the advent of family photography going back to the 1860s (a century and a half before anyone ever heard the phrase “Instagram filter”), most families have at least a few of their own treasures buried in the closet — and depending on how they were stored, that 19th-century sepia-toned portrait may be in even better shape than the Instamatic snaps from your third birthday party.
To figure out the best way to preserve all these memories, I asked Niesen and Sandra Christie, a photo restoration expert and owner of The Photo Restoration Center, for their advice.