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This is a photograph of my grandparents when they were married in 1945:

1945 wedding photo

As you can see, it's black and white photograph, but in taking it from the frame to scan, I noticed an oddity. What's going on with the sepia-toned border? The line doesn't match the current frame, but it's possible that this was in an older frame with rounded corners.

Is it possible that the original was all sepia-toned but that it faded to more neutral gray over these last 70 years? (The border actually goes all the way around like that; the scan is just cropped without it here.)

If that's not it, what else could cause this?

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It's something else.

Your photograph appears to be split toned. That simply means that the image wasn't completely bleached out before the sepia toning was done; a pale, low-density silver print, mostly of the shadows, would have still been visible. That gives considerably more depth to the shadows than a "pure" sepia-toned print, where the darkest darks available are silver sulphide brown. That supposition isn't just based on the darkness of the darks (which could simply be a result of the scan settings) — you also have some areas in the bottom vignette that are tarnished out to the characteristic blue of an oxidized silver print.

The part that was under the frame appears to be (very mildly, considering the time span) acid-damaged. And not just any random acid, either; it's precisely the sort of sulphurous compounds that sepia toning was meant to overcome. Basically, the metallic silver has been bleached out somewhat in those areas, leaving a more purely sepia-toned image (silver sulphide), but without the depth to the darks that split toning achieves. That could be because of the materials the frame is made from, or it could simply be that those areas of the print were, on average, at a slightly higher humidity level because they were confined closely while the rest of the print could "breathe" more easily.

Luckily, the damage is minimal and well-defined, both in the bleaching and the tarnishing, so restoration will be a relative piece of cake (as these things go). But the "original condition" you're restoring it to (assuming that is the aim) should look like a very slightly stronger version of the main part of the image, not what you found under the frame in this case. Your darkest darks should be fairly neutral, your midtones very warm but not pure, and your paper tone should be more cream than golden yellow.

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I think this image is printed on double weight paper. Photo papers are made from mostly wood pulp. This stuff has a relatively course structure with the cells of the wood somewhat intact. Likely the photographer had a darkroom on premises and did his own film developing, enlarging, and paper processing (this was the norm).

Likely this is pretty standard paper, not resin coated (RC). Archrival stability is easy to achieve provided the paper was properly fixed and then thoroughly washed to remove the residual chemicals of the process. Particularly difficult because residual chemicals are trapped in the wood cells. Thorough washing is the key. Double weight papers required about 1 hour in running water. If a washing agent (hypo clear) chemical bath is used, wash time is cut considerably. Given that few darkrooms in that era were concerned about water conservation, I will bet this print was improperly washed ---meaning residual chemicals remained.

After the print was processed, many photographers toned their prints. This is a chemical treatment that was done for aesthetic reasons. To many, a brown or sepia tone made a more elegant presentation. There were many toning methods. We cannot say which one was used.

Most common was a twostep “Sepia Toner”. The print was bleached in “Farmer’s Reducer”, a solution of potassium ferricyanide (not particularly toxic). Next, the print was bathed in a solution containing the sodium sulfide which re-developed the silver image giving it sepia (red + brown) color. Besides the warm tone, when properly done, the print became super archival ---meaning the image likely will outlast the paper it’s printed on. Note I said properly done.

The typical silver in gelatin print, properly washed and fixed, is stable. However, the silver will eventually be attacked by airborne sulfur or other agents. Sulfur was a plague in the coal burning era. It gradually attacks the silver causing it to tarnish. The problem was, the tarnish is brown or yellowish and uneven. The sepia method uniformly pre-tarnished the print. Now a print properly treated this way has a nonreactive image.

By proper, we are talking about proper fixing, proper washing then toning and then re-washing. All papers exposed to the air and humidity are subject to chemical fading. The edges of the paper are clean cut with a knife. Airborne chemicals can freely enter the paper from the edges. Framed pictures are vulnerable because the frames are painted -- thus chemicals leach out and into the print paper.

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Usually a framed image preserves the photo toward the edges because it isn't exposed to as much light as the rest of the image. Old photos sometimes yellow over the years depending on how well they were processed and the papers that were used. Yours looks like it was sepia toned though. Is it possible that somewhere along the years it was behind something else like on a table or had something proped up against it.

  • The line actually goes all the way around — it would be very logical to assume that it's from an older frame. But the peculiar thing is that it's the part under that frame which seems faded, not the rest. The other answer explaining this as acid damage seems plausible to me. – mattdm Jan 4 '15 at 23:45
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