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How To Preserve Your Polaroid


Do you still have old Polaroid pictures stashed away? Are they all washed out and faded? NPR's Neda Ulaby visited a museum exhibition of Polaroid photographs taken some 35 years ago that look as though they had just slid out of a camera yesterday.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: I was not the only person at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles marveling at how beautifully these Polaroids had aged, dozens of them by artist David Hockney, showing a bright blue swimming pool and a vivid yellow lawn chair.

GLORIA FELDMAN: My Polaroids don't look like this (laughter). They don't look like this at all.

ULABY: Museum visitor Gloria Feldman says her Polaroids look more like mine - faded, bleached out, messy.

FELDMAN: You know, throw-them-away kind of condition (laughter).

ULABY: Of course, photography is inherently an unstable medium. No one knows that better than Sarah Freeman. She's one of the two full-time photography conservators here at the Getty. Even they were impressed when they pulled these David Hockney Polaroids out of the box.

SARAH FREEMAN: We were a little bit surprised, I have to say. The color is very vibrant.

ULABY: Artist David Hockney rarely displays these Polaroids. That's why they look so great. They're part of his personal collection, and he stores them away from the three major things that destroy them.

FREEMAN: Light, heat and moisture.

ULABY: Freeman has worked on Polaroids taken by Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe and other famous artists. The Getty keeps them in a room more like a refrigerator than the places you and I probably stash our photos.

FREEMAN: Not your attic or your basement, not your garage.

ULABY: The other worst location for your pictures is your living room, she says. There, the enemy is...

FREEMAN: Direct sunlight. It's challenging because we like to have our family pictures out all the time.

ULABY: Freeman takes me to the Getty's conservation lab. It's a sunlit, gray-walled studio brimming with beakers and microscopes, the most delicate paint brushes and dental tools used for repairing photographs. But Freeman says once a Polaroid has lost its color, there's nothing you can do.

FREEMAN: You can't change fading. Fading is permanent. Once something has shifted, it's changed forever.

ULABY: It's ultraviolet light that breaks down the emulsion in instant film, the same kind of light, Freeman says, that damages our skin. So she says, keep those Polaroids someplace cool, dry and dark. And by the way, wear sunscreen.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.