Lightening Old Photos

Dear Donia,
How can I lighten a photo of my grandmother in her wedding dress?

Old, dark photo

Q. Dear Donia,

I have an old photo of my grandmother in what I believe is her wedding dress. However, the pictures has darkened and I believe it is dirty. Is there a way to safely clean it so that the image is clearer. The picture, if it's the wedding picture I think it is, was taken in February of 1869 (It's not a tintype and appears to be a "regular" photo—if that make sense for this date?) Thank you for your assistance. 

A. Dear Mary,

What a wonderful photo to have and what a shame that it has darkened.

There are multiple reasons for your photo to darken. It could be browning from being stored in an environment with high relative humidity like a basement. It could also be darkening due to poor processing when the photo was first created. At the time the photo was taken, photographers mixed their own chemicals and did not follow standard procedures for developing. As a result, not all photographs of that era survive without some sort of staining, discoloration, or fading due to residual chemicals or poor processing. If the darkening is due to poor processing or high humidity, there is little you can do to "clean" the photo. In this case, it would be best to scan the photo and digitally clean it up.

Dirt could also be the culprit in the darkening of the photo. There are many options for cleaning photographs that can be found on the internet. PLEASE use extreme caution and remember that this photograph is the only one so if something goes wrong, you have lost it. You can try to brush the surface soiling with a clean, soft brush such as the kind that you can find in the cosmetics aisle. Start at the center of the photograph and work your way outward in small strokes. Do not try to clean with erasers (these can scratch the photo) or water- or solvent-based cleaners (these can do irreversible damage to the emulsion layer where the image resides). If the discoloration does not come off with the brush, it could be imbedded in the emulsion layer and will not come out without professional intervention. You can contact a conservator from the American Institute for Conservation to locate a conservator in your area.

Please don't try anything that would cause you to lose this piece of your family history. Digital technology is definitely your friend in this instance.

If you have any further questions, please don't hesitate to contact Dear Donia!