Preservation of Cultural History Through Photography

Subject: Art
Pages: 8
Words: 2183
Reading time:
8 min
Study level: PhD


Photography is the creation of lasting images through the use of a device that records the light emitted or reflected by an object. Light or other electromagnetic radiations may be recorded chemically or electronically. Chemicals that enable the recording of images include the film. Electronic photography is made possible through the use of an image sensor such as in the digital camera. Photography is done for several purposes. It may be done for business purposes, for scientific use, as an art, for the preservation of cultural history or purely for recreational purposes.

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History of photography

Photography was officially disclosed to the world in 1839 after being invented earlier by Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre. Among the basic concepts of photography was the dark box, a lens and a light-sensitive material. One of the greatest challenges in photography was the light-sensitive material. However, silver had been known to be a material that darkens when exposed to light. This idea pioneered the invention of the various materials used in photography. The earliest process of photography was called the daguerreotype process. This was done on silver surfaces. They were polished such that they appeared like mirrors. The images that resulted had a brownish or greyish toning. Another early process included the cyanotype process. Some of the materials included the carbon prints, calotype, collodion negatives, albumen prints, autochrome, silver prints, salt prints and the platinum prints (this provides among the most beautiful photos).

Preserving National Heritage through photographic archives

Conservation photography has been used over the years in environmental conservation and culture conservation. This is meant to expand the public awareness of the issues and to stimulate remedial action. Photography is one of the most powerful mediums in the attempts of conservation. It has served its role since the 1860s. However, it was not widely acknowledged back then. In order to make an impact, the conservation photographs should be put into context. A carefully catalogued archive of such photographs may increase the impact in people’s minds. It may be used to provide material for creating awareness or activism. Images that show the importance of community or other issues of cultural importance may evoke a sense of belonging to the people concerned.

Just like the family photos taken by family members as reminders of meaningful memories, the photographic collections stored by institutions serve as a reminder of important aspects of the institution’s or country’s history. These photographs are important since they are a representation of who the people are and where they have been. Whenever an institution loses its collection or during the loss of the country’s photographic heritage, this usually means that tangible reminders of meaningful memories are lost. Such losses may also have serious implications for the people’s collective history.

Awareness of the importance of the preservation of photographic collections has grown. With this awareness, the need for more information about these collections has also grown immensely. This has also called for the availability of experts in preservation of such heritage. This is in order to ensure that this heritage is secured for the sake of the future generations. Among the countries that have realized the importance of photography in the preservation of the country’s heritage is the Middle East. For example, the Getty Conservation Institute joined hands with several other bodies in the quest for the preservation of the national heritage. The national bodies that participate included the Art Conservation Department of the University of Delaware, the Arab Image Foundation and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This coalition was made in order to enable the identification and access to photographic collections within the region. This body also trained personnel in order to raise the visibility of the collection. Some of the concepts that these personnel are trained in include identification, preservation and display of the photographs. They are then expected to raise awareness and support for the photographs within their respective institutions. This could probably be through presentations.

The preservation of photographs of great importance is done both at national level and at individual level. The government may preserve its heritage through the preservation of photographs in areas such as the national museums. Citizens may also preserve their cultures and values through preservation of photographs that depict such aspects. For example, the Italian Americans have attempted to preserve the heritage of Southern Italy to the United States. It is only logical for them to engage with the former generations since they are the ones who carried the language and culture into the U.S. Through this preservation, the Italians in America may continue to shape and redefine themselves. They will understand what should be honoured so that their identity shall not be distorted by the cultures in their current place of inhabitancy.

Through the use of photography and personal reflections, they have managed to produce a historical collection that would preserve their heritage. This awareness was raised when the American Italians realized that their generations were fading and it became a race against time to preserve what remained of their experiences and culture. Their experiences were largely unwritten until recently. One of the books that consist of oral historical collection is the ‘Boston’s North End: Images and Recollections of an Italian-American Neighbourhood’. It consists of engrossing photography accompanied by personal accounts that provide a vivid description of the people’s encounters. These encounters include those of joy, hardship and other daily events that characterised this working class.

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Through photography, they could also preserve the memories of the North End Italians. This was where there was hard labour with little pay. The Italian American women also faced discrimination at work since they were paid less for working just as much as their counterparts did. Another aspect of the Italians that has been preserved through photography is the powerful impact of community. The community valued each individual and those who were less fortunate where taken care of. For example, in the event that there was an orphaned child or a situation where a family could no longer take care of their child, the community could literally adopt the child and take care of him or her. The child would not go hungry with the community around. Therefore, these photographs remind the Italian Americans that their culture was that of genuine concern for the less fortunate. These cultures have their roots in the people’s experience in southern Italy.

Preserving national heritage through photography is also the government’s responsibility. This is whereby the government or state allows for the preservation of such photographs in museums. An example of museum dedicated to the preservation of rich photographic heritage is the Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA). This is in the United States and it possesses an international reputation of excellence. It presents high quality exhibitions and publications, among other services. It was founded in the early 1980s. The City of San Diego donated a huge area of land in order to facilitate the building of the huge museum. After its founding, it became one of the first museums in the U.S. that specialized in the collection and presentation of fine photographic art. These photographs spanned the history of photography since its inception in the 1830s to the present day. The collection of over 7000 photographs allows for the preservation of the rich heritage and also acts as a documentary record. The photographs are the works of several renowned photographers including Alfred Stieglitz and Margaret Bourke-White. With such a huge collection of photographs, the museum attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors annually. It is also a great destination for many professional photographers, scholars and researchers.

Another museum that employs photography in the preservation of the national heritage is the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was developed as an independent curatorial department. It houses a collection of over 25000 photographs dating back from the 19th century to the present date. Among the most treasured photographs include those from the inventor of photography himself. There is also a collection of landscape photographs and French photographs from well-known photographers including Timothy O’Sullivan, Edouard Baldus, Charles Negre, Nadar and Carleton Watkins. The museum started collecting its photographs as early as 1928. Other important collections include those of the Ford Motor Company. The company donated several photographs as a donation to the museum. In its collection, there also exist photos of the post-war years. The famous photographers of the time include Garry Winogrand, Robert Frank and Harry Callahan.

Another museum using photography in the preservation of heritage is the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). It began collecting its photographs in 1930. In its possession, it has over 25000 works. These photographs do not only include works from professional photographers only. However, the collection also consists of works from amateurs, journalists and scientists. The California Museum of Photography is yet another facility that uses photography in the preservation of culture. It provides a cultural presence, community center and serves as an educational resource at the same time. It explores photographic media through its exhibition, collection and publication. It serves an audience of multicultural nature, providing insight to both the old and the young.

Preservations through proper storage

The usefulness of photographs of national value is in their preservation. Millions of photographs are usually lost due to natural disasters or other factors such as war. The photographs have several natural enemies. They include rodents, insects and direct sunlight. Some not-so-natural enemies include adhesives that degrade with time, chemicals that are given off by wood or other materials such as rubber. These chemicals may cause the photographs to fade. High humidity may also cause the growth of mould. Therefore, this calls for proper storage of the photographs. The areas in the buildings that are best suitable for the storage of such photos include the garage, attics and the basement. The use of materials that have long-term stability is recommended. These materials are referred to as archival products. Some products that are sold locally are not good enough since they may trigger deterioration. These products include Polyvinyl Chloride and high-acid wood pulp. Among the most basic precautions when it comes to the storage of photographs of great (national) importance include the use of archival materials, storage of the photographs in areas with favourable temperatures and humidity (dry) and keeping the photographs away from direct sunlight.

When institutions intend to preserve some of their large photographic prints for sustainability purposes, it is important for them to store each photograph individually. This includes putting each in a separate polyethylene bag. To ensure the best results, it is important to place each in an acid-free mat board. A window-mat made of a similar material should be hinged in such a way as to fold over it. Linen tapes that do not contain acids should be used to hinge the mats in place. Archival mounting corners should be used for holding the photographs in place. The use of wood frames is not advisable. This is because wood gives off harmful chemicals. Therefore, in order to ensure that the photographs are preserved for as long time as possible, it is important to use metal frames.

If such photographs are to be stored in areas that allow for viewing, it is important to avoid exposure to direct sunlight or unfiltered florescent lights. This may cause fading or it may accelerate the process. In such storage areas, therefore, it is recommended to use ultraviolet-filtering acrylic sheets. These should be used instead of glass frames. This should reduce such risks. Institutions that intend to store the photographs away from people’s view should do it in such a way as to ensure that the photographs are preserved. The archival boxes, for example, could be used. In order for institutions to ensure the best choices for storage, the consultation of an expert conservator may be necessary. The conservators normally advise on issues to do with the preservation, display and storage of the photographs of great importance. They may also provide expert advice on the proper ways of cleaning the photographs and the restoration of damaged photographs. All these would ensure the preservation of history.

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Photography entails the use of the proper equipment in the taking of photos. This is done for several reasons and they may be taken for individual use, for corporate use or international use. When done for personal use, it is done in order to preserve some of the personal experiences that may be useful to the person or his family. Family photos are important in the preservation of some of the great memories. Institutions also keep photographs that may show some of the accomplishments that the institution has been able to attain. This culture is important since it creates a sense of belonging and fosters a sense of pride. When it comes to the preservation of national heritage, photography also plays an important role in the preservation of the country’s pride. Such photographs are stored in the museums and other cultural centres and facilities for posterity. Photographs of great importance should be stored kept in conditions that would ensure that they are preserved for a long time.


Cerrone, Olivia. “Preserving living history: Interview with oral historian and photographer, Anthony V. Riccio.” 2012. Web.

Max, Lent, and Tina Lent. Photography galleries and selected museums: A survey and international directory. Venice: Garlic Press, 1978.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Museum department: Photographs.” 2012. Web.

UCRCMP. “California Museum of Photography.” 2012. Web.

Ward, Carleton. “Conservation photography.” Master’s thesis, University of Florida, 2008.