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Recovering Wet Photographs

When you are faced with disaster scenarios that threaten your book and paper-based collections, it is helpful to know how to respond and minimize the damage incurred to your precious artifacts.  The following is a primer I have put together with instructions regarding how to handle water-damaged photographs.  If you have questions, feel free to submit an inquiry via the contact page!

  1. Retrieve photos from the disaster scene
  2. Set up an area to salvage the photographs. This will require ventilation, fans, flat surfaces to dry photos on, clotheslines to hang flexible film from, as well as  appropriate protective gear (respirators, nitrile gloves, etc.)and newsprint.  Washing photos will require a water source and plastic trays.
  3. Examine the photos.  To remove dirt and debris, clean them while they are wet.  Set up a series of plastic trays, rinsing the photos in each tray before drying.  Gentle agitation with a soft brush can be helpful, but take care, as you do not want to disturb the emulsion surface.  Handle the images from the edges rather than the center.  If possible, only touch the verso.
  4. Keep materials wet until you’ve determined a course of action for their salvage. Don’t allow them to dry in contact with one another, or other surfaces, as they are likely to stick.  You have 48 hours from the onset of water damage before mold growth will set in.  In many instances, you can submerge photos for a week or more.  There are exceptions (collodion and digital photographs, for instance.)  Change the water daily if possible.
  5. Set priorities: Which photos need to be salvaged first?  What has already been digitized?
    1. Types of objects damaged:
      1. Negatives are generally more stable than prints, and black & white prints are generally more stable than color photos.
        1. Salvage priorities:
          1. Color photos first
          2. Black & white photos 2nd
          3. Negatives 3rd
            1. Exceptions to this rule include safety or nitrate film that was already in a deteriorated state to begin with.
          4. Air drying immediately is the first preference for salvage, with freezing being the second but acceptable choice in most instances.
            1. Exceptions include tin types, ambrotypes and dageurreotypes which should not be frozen.
            2. If your damaged collection includes audiovisual tapes, get outside processing assistance with these items.
          5. Drain off excess moisture before freezing or while air drying. Blotters/paper towels can disturb emulsions, so use with care.
          6. Air dry or freeze. If you choose to air dry, hanging the photos from clotheslines is preferable, though less practical.  Laying flat and gently blotting away moisture works well.  If freezing, place photos in small bags divided by wax paper, to prevent clumping.  Frozen photos are best dried by thawing, followed by air drying.  When thawing, do not allow the stack to dry out, or the photos will stick together.
          7. Vacuum freeze drying – if you don’t have time to freeze photos, you can use this method. However, gelatin photos can get a mottled look, though they won’t stick together.
          8. Vacuum thermal drying – don’t use it! The items get heated up, causing the gelatin emulsions to stick together & mottle severely.
          9. Don’t freeze collodions if you can avoid it. This goes for tin types, ambrotypes, daguerrotypes & any other cased objects
          10. For help with surface cleaning, flattening and repairing damaged photos, contact a conservator.

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