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Displaying Old Pictures
by Dr. Oneida Cramer

A picture frame is more than the definitive edge on a work of art although the earliest of frames were just that--painted borders around frescos in ancient Pompeii or early Christian Byzantine mosaics. Becoming a separate, detachable structure by the 13th century, the frame moved firmly into the domain of the furniture makers by the 15th century and has since evolved along with the decorative arts. With the development of photography, frames took on a protective role for the encasement against erosion by light and the environment.

"Conservation framing is preserving the art," says Beckie Reisberg, co-owner of Photographic Archives Lab & Gallery. "Generally, you want a neutral environment for photographs." Acid deteriorates photos, turning images yellow or even quite brown. But the ultraviolet rays of sunlight are a photograph's worst enemy.

Simply covering the photograph with UV glass will add years to the image, according to Dave Murff, a framer at Preston Art Center. Still, photography should be placed only in ambient light, never in the path of direct sunlight, which fades even UV covered material, according to Reisberg. For optimum preservation, make the display a buffered environment and use reversible attachments. Reversibility means capable of returning the photograph to its original state.

"That's the key to archival framing, whether a lithograph, a photograph, or document," said Reisberg. And key to a buffered environment is an alkaline mat board.

No glue! Use rice paste, made with rice and distilled water, to attach a photograph to the mat board. First, apply the paste to small strips of Japanese tissue paper tabs and adhere them to the photo back. (Japanese tissue paper is available at Paper Routes.) Second, center the photograph inside the mat window and secure tabs with acid-free tape. Finally, seal the photograph inside an air-tight frame.

Besides adding an aesthetic border, the mat board creates space between the glazing and the photograph; and space allows for air circulation, which reduces the build up of moisture, the growth of mold, and the problem of an image sticking to the display surface. Small raising devices inserted into the four corners of the photograph also add air space, but without an accompanying border. Use proportion to match the size of the image with the over all dimensions of the frame when selecting between a mat border or the raising devices.

A frame should primarily enhance the art, says Reisberg. With photography, simplicity is the trend. Mat and frame set the mood through color and tone. But, the style still gives definite consideration to the decor. Follow the aesthetics of what comes naturally, says Reisberg. If you've chosen the art for a particular room, then other ardent colors are probably present in that room because the eye naturally appeals to complementary coloration.

Black and white pictures are best patterned with black, white, or gray frames. A white frame tends to expand the image while a black frame closes the boundary. Only keep dark borders to a minimum to prevent appearing gloomy. Painted frames also coordinate color with decor, for instance, a reddish tone frame to go with mahogany furniture. Or, try a natural wood frame, such as rosewood, or other dark woods. Gold remains a favorite finish, especially gold gilded frames. And for versatility, consider the warm blends of silver and gold that are now available, says Reisberg.

The Art of Framing, by Piers and Caroline Feetham is a profusely illustrated reference on the art and craft of picture framing as well as a chronicle on its history. Available in local stores or from the library, this treasure of a book profiles all aspects of framing offering a diverse sampling from the simpler, narrow frames to the grand embellishments.

Portraits, for instance, take on an elegance when framed in elaborate solutions. Old photography looks especially lovely in heavily embossed frames typical of the day. However, if a photograph shows signs of degeneration, store it in an album, especially an archival album with acid free paper, says Reisberg, and frame a reproduction. If you must frame a partially faded photograph, Reisberg suggests making a copy negative to preserve the image in its current state on film.

Portraits (the 8 by 10 inch and 16 by 20 inch) are the most frequent requests at Preston Art Center according to Murff. The biggest factors in figuring costs are size and molding, not archival framing, says Reisberg. Framing runs generally from $75 to $150, which includes archival treatment.

If your photograph is good enough to frame, says Reisberg, you might as well do it right.

-by Dr. Oneida Cramer
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