When disasters hit, most people don't mourn the refrigerator or the couch. Instead, the loss of precious family photographs, scrapbooks and memorabilia is what brings them to tears. While it may seem unlikely when facing piles of soggy, mud-spattered photos, papers and other valuables, saving them may be possible by following a few simple steps.
Saving Water-Damaged Photos
Most photos, negatives and color slides can be cleaned and air-dried using the following steps:
- Carefully lift the photos from the mud and dirty water. Remove photos from water-logged albums and separate any that are stacked together, being careful not to rub or touch the wet emulsion of the photo surface.
- Gently rinse both sides of the photo in a bucket or sink of clear, cold water. Don't rub the photos and be sure to change the water frequently.
- If you have time and space right away, lay each wet photo face up on any clean blotting paper, such as a paper towel. Don't use newspapers or printed paper towels, as the ink may transfer to your wet photos. Change the blotting paper every hour or two until the photos dry. Try to dry the photos inside if possible, as sun and wind will cause photos to curl more quickly.
- If you don't have time right away to dry your damaged photos, just rinse them to remove any mud and debris. Carefully stack the wet photos between sheets of wax paper and seal them in a Ziploc type plastic bag. If possible, freeze the photos to inhibit damage. This way photos can be defrosted, separated and air-dried later when you have the time to do it properly.
More Tips for Handling Water Damaged Photographs
- Try to get to flood-damaged photos within two days or they will begin to mold or stick together, making saving them much more unlikely.
- Begin with photographs for which there are no negatives, or for which the negatives are also water damaged.
- Photos in frames need to be saved when they are still soaking wet, otherwise the photo surface will stick to the glass as it dries and you will not be able to separate them without damaging the photo emulsion. To remove a wet photo from a picture frame, keep the glass and photo together. Holding both, rinse with clear flowing water, using the water stream to gently separate the photo from the glass.
It is important to note that some historical photographs are very sensitive to water damage and may not be recoverable. Older photographs should also not be frozen without first consulting a professional conservator. You may also want to send any damaged heirloom photos to a professional photo restorer after drying.