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Artifact of the Month: Photograph Preservation and the Paul Johnston Collection

Posted by on November 19, 2013

Last summer, MAH archives intern (and San Jose State Library Science graduate student) Greg Gardner processed the Paul Johnston Collection. He writes about his insights in tackling this photographic collection, and how we here at the Museum preserve our collections for generation to come. Thank you Greg for all your diligent work in making the archives accessible. 

By Greg Gardner

Libraries, museums and archives preserve items from the past so the community of the present and the future use can learn and enjoy them.  All of these institutions make a major commitment to preservation.  Most people when they hear preservation first think about saving paintings like the ‘Mona Lisa’ or protecting documents like the ‘Declaration of Independence.’  But because photographs are relatively new, less than 200 years old, and so commonplace, most people are carrying a camera phone, preserving them is not an immediate thought.  Photographs have had a profound impact on society.  The photos of Matthew Brady, Mark Gardner and others from the battlefields of the American Civil War provided a stark reality of death and destruction in war, this influenced public attitude towards the war and how it should be waged.  Then there are the photographs of W.H. Jackson, the first person to photograph Yellowstone.  He captured the natural beauty of this area.  Without these photographs Congress may not have created the first national park.  There are many other instances in which photographs have captured a moment that energized a community.  All institutions must take action to preserve these historic resources, historic treasures, our heritage, for the present and the future.

One of the special collections at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History archives was donated by Paul Dombey Johnston in 1986.  He was born in Vancouver, Washington in 1889.  He moved to Capitola, California with his family in 1899, finally settling down in neighboring Aptos in 1905.  He worked as a cherry and apple picker, in an apple drying shed, and sold popcorn at the Capitola Beach.  He later became a mail carrier and then an owner of a gas station and garage.  He married Christina Henrietta Jensen in 1913.  They were both avid sportspersons travelling extensively across Northern and Central California.  Another passion they both shared was photographs and photography, they collected and captured almost one hundred years of history that included the people, places and events that helped to shape Santa Cruz County.

Paul and Christina Johnston were strong community supporters.  As a mail carrier Paul travelled throughout Aptos and the surrounding region.  He probably knew every resident in the area.  Christina was an active member of the Parent Teachers Association and she supported her community by collecting for the Red Cross and even sewing clothes for those in need during the Great Depression.  This strong sense of community led to their desire to carry the history they had saved forward to future generations.  There photographs have been used to help tell stories such as the book “Forever Facing South” by David Heron or in photograph exhibitions like “I’ve Seen It All” organized by Paul Johnston himself.


The photographs in the Johnston Collection illustrate many issues faced by preservationists today.  These issues are not unique to the Johnston Collection.  For example, in Deadwood, South Dakota a professional photographer’s, Josef Fassbender, photo collection from the early 1900s was recently unearthed in 2011.  The staff and volunteers who are processing this collection are already discovering issues of photographic paper deterioration and exposure to moisture and dust.  Photograph degradation can be broken down into three categories: biological, mechanical, and chemical.  Biological degradation is most often exposure to mold but also includes bug or rodent infestation.  Fortunately, the Johnston Collection did not show any signs of biological degradation.  However, there are signs of mechanical and chemical degradation.


Mechanical Degradation

Mechanical degradation occurs when a photograph is exposed to a mechanical force that stretches, pulls, contracts, expands, tears, gouges, or scratches.  Most often this is an unintended consequence of poor storage

Paul Johnston Boardwalk, 1907This photo from the Johnston Collection is of a group of friends on the street outside the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk about 1907.  The lower left corner shows the effect of bending and flexing a photograph.  The vehicle on the left side in the background is difficult to identify due to this distortion.  Also, along the creases some of the photograph medium itself has sloughed off, these locations can also provide a pathway for other forms of degradation.

Paul Johnston woman and man by cattle gateThis photo is of two women and a man on a set of railroad tracks alongside a cattle gate.  This photograph shows a more subtle form of mechanical degradation.  Many photographs are kept in photograph albums or scrapbooks using corner tabs.  These corner tabs can over time, through constant pressure on the same spot, distort the photograph.  Looking at the corners of this photo one can see the obvious signs of flattening in comparison to the rest of the photograph.  These corners can be weakened to the point that they can easily break or tear off.

Paul Johnston Neptune Casino, c. 1905This photo shows the Neptune Casino about 1905.  In this instance, the Johnston’s saved this photograph by gluing it in a scrapbook.  At a later date he wanted to use it for some other purpose so he attempted to remove it from the scrapbook.  The process of removing the photograph resulted in corners being torn off.  This issue is still prevalent with the newer forms of albums in which the photographs are mounted on self-sticking paper.

Chemical Degradation

A photograph is created by a chemical process.  In some cases these processes may not be the most stable so they can deteriorate over time without any outside influence.  However, in most cases there needs to be an exposure to an outside source for chemical degradation to occur.  This outside source can be exposure to light or varying levels of moisture.

Paul Johnston, Rio Del Mar Beach

This photo is of the Rio Del Mar Beach near Aptos most probably from the early to mid-1950s.  This is an early Kodacolor photographic process; unfortunately this early process was not the most stable.  These earlier Kodacolor photographs over time tended to fade to magenta.  This naturally happened as they aged; they did not have to be exposed to any outside element.  A few years later Kodak perfected the process so this type of fading no longer occurs.

This photo is of a group of people, including Paul and Christina Johnston going on Paul Johnston, honeymoontheir honeymoon, outside the Aptos Train Station in August 1913.  The band across the middle of the photograph clearly demonstrates the effect of extended exposure to light.  Usually there is not a band like this but there must have been books or other objects stacked on the photograph.  Photographs will usually not show fading effects as long as there is a reasonable light intensity and a reasonable length of time.  It is the combination of light intensity and time that causes photographs to fade.

This photo is of Christina Johnston with a group of her co-workers from the Hihn Apple Packing Shed in the 1910s.  This is a good example of the silver oxidative-reductive deterioration, otherwise called silver mirroring.  In the dark portion lower right of the photo there is a bluish-silver speckling, the silver molecules are clumping together.  Photographs from about the 1890s to the 1920s can show this silver mirroring.  The mirroring will usually start on the outer edges of the photograph and work its way towards the center.

Paul Johnston, Hihn Apple Packing Shed


Preservation is the process of saving an item for as long into the future as possible.  The most important preservation step that can be taken is to control the environment.  Extreme temperatures and/or humidity, or extreme daily variations in the temperature or humidity, is a major culprit in the biological, mechanical, and chemical degradation of photographs.  For photographs the rule of thumb is colder is better.  But, there is also a practicality to photograph storage, not every organization can have a freezer storage facility.  The Library of Congress Audio Visual Conservation Center at Culpepper, Virginia is a freezer storage facility for over 1.1 million motion picture films, television and videos.  A specialized facility like this is expensive to build, to maintain and also requires very strict protocols for moving the film to and from the storage area to prevent mechanical degradation.  So, for practical purposes the optimum storage temperature is 18€ C (65€ F) with a relative humidity of 35-50%.  Proper storage temperature and humidity are the most critical components of the preservation process.

Proper storage materials are another important component of the preservation process.  Storage boxes provide the next line of defense for photograph collections.  Boxes provide protection from dust and other pollutants, accidental mechanical stress, and most importantly from exposure to light.  The last line of defense for photographs is the enclosures.  These enclosures can be made of paper or plastic, with plastic enclosures the photograph can be held and looked at through the enclosure.  Enclosures provide extra stiffening thus reducing the likelihood to bend, flex, or fold the photograph.  They also protect the photograph from dust and other particulates.  Finally they prevent handling damage, the oils from fingers are kept away from the photograph (finger oils are acidic, attract dirt and can help promote chemical reactions in the photograph).  These enclosures, since they are in direct contact with the photograph, must be non-reactive.  All storage materials used should pass ANSI IT9.16 Photographic Activity Test (PAT) to ensure they do not cause fading or staining.  This multilayer storage provides the best protection possible for photographs.

Digitization is another tool that can enhance the preservation of photographs.  Creating digital scans of photographs can increase access to these historic and artistic resources while at the same time reducing the handling of these resources and their exposure to the environment.  Digitization involves more than just taking scans of photographs.  There is also the collection of information called metadata.  The descriptive information of the photograph such as the dimensions, the condition, the photographic process, and even whether it is the original or a copy are important to maintain the identity of the photograph.  As with all photographs it is also important to collect information on the subject of the photograph – the who, what, where, when and why.  This metadata is critical to maintain the context of the photograph.  Another area in which digitization is demonstrating its usefulness is the preservation of scrapbooks and photo albums.  There is no longer the need to attempt to gently separate, or cut, the photograph from the glued or sticky pages to get access to single photographs.  The photograph can be scanned while it is still in the scrapbook and the digital copy shared.  Digitization is powerful tool that can help with the preservation of photographs.

Preserving our heritage is an important function for museums, libraries, and archives.  Preservationists have to balance the preservation of an item with the access to and exhibition of that item to promote learning.  As an individual, as a community, as a society, we will not know where we are going if we do not know where we have been.  We must learn from our past, what was done right or what was done wrong, to prevent mistakes in the future.  All of us can take some basic common sense actions to preserve out photographic heritage for many years to come.




“Care, Handling, and Storage of Photographs,” Library of Congress.  Accessed August 15, 2013,

“How should I store my photographic prints?” National Archives.  Accessed August 15, 2013,

Reilly, James M.  Care and Identification of 19th-Century Photographic Prints.  Rochester, NY: Rochester Institute of Technology, 1986.

Ritzenthaler, Mary Lynn and Dianne Vogt-O’Connor.  Photographs: Archival Care and Management.  Chicago: Society of American Archivist, 2006.


  • Sangye Llamo Hawke

    Greg rocks…..