By Sherry Stocking Kline
published in the Wichita Eagle’s “Active Life” magazine in November 2005
If disaster strikes, whether it’s Hurricane Katrina, your water heater sprung a leak, or your photographs have water and smoke-damage from a fire, don’t make the trash your first destination of choice for the remains.
Sometimes, even wet, stuck together photographs can be salvaged, but you have to act fast.
“A lot depends on the circumstances,” said Darrell Garwood, preservation officer, library archives division, Kansas State Historical Society, “There is a lot of dirt and contaminants in flood water,” Garwood said, “If they have been in water, especially dirty water longer than 48 hours they may not be able to be re-claimed.”
A lot also depends on what type of photographs are damaged. Are they fairly modern? Are they old? One-of-a-kind? Hand-tinted? What kind of paper are they on?
Before you do anything, you need to know what kind of photographs you are dealing with, and it may be necessary to consult a professional for help. To help you determine what kind of photographs you can safely repair yourself, or if you have no choice but to attempt the repair yourself, there are books, such as “How to Save Your Stuff From a Disaster” by Scott Haskins, and websites such as Northeast Document Conservation Center, www.nedcc.org, and the Kansas State Historical Society’s website at www.kshs.org, (click on preserve) can help you determine what kind of photographs you have, and how best to preserve them.
According to Gary Albright, senior paper/photograph conservator, Northeast Document Conservation Center, there are a number of different photographic processes, and while some photographs can be immersed for a day or more and still be restored, others will be completely ruined by a just a few minutes of water exposure.
“Time is of the essence: the longer the period of time between the emergency and salvage, the greater the amount of permanent damage that will occur,” Albright said.
Haskins stated that it’s best to consult a professional who can deal with the photographs without adding to the damage, especially if you have old or vintage photographs.
Wet photographs should always be a priority. Albright said that wet photographs should be air dried or frozen as quickly as possible to prevent mold damage. (Yes, he really did say frozen.)
If the photographs are still wet, it’s best to put them in clean, cool water, distilled water. Change the water often to make sure the water stays clean. Do not use bleach, detergent, fungicide or disinfectants. Do not touch, rub, scrub, or try to force stuck-together photographs apart. Handle them by the edge only, preferably with a blunt, clean pair of tweezers.
Drain excess water off the photographs, and lay them out flat, and separated, on clean, lint-free material to dry. Do not use newspapers. Negatives should be hung up by the edges to dry vertically. Circulate the air the help speed up the drying process and to prevent mold. Do not use a heater.
Can’t deal with them right away? Freeze any photographs that cannot be cleaned and dried within 72 hours.
If they are already wet, rinse off any dirt, mud, etc., separate photos or groups of stuck together photographs with wax paper, put them into zip lock freezer bags and put them in the freezer. Do NOT stack anything on top of them.
If your photos are damaged, you still may be able to scan them at 300dpi or better, and use image editing software such as Adobe Photoshop or Corel’s Paint Shop Pro to repair copies of your damaged photographs. You can use that new, digital copy to make new photographs.
Garwood stated that prevention is the most important thing, and Garwood agreed.
“Address prevention first,” Garwood said, “store them properly and avoid basement storage because basements are always the first thing to flood in a house.”
After prevention, Garwood suggested that you spend a little time in disaster preparedness. Know where your photographs, family letters, video tapes, DVD’s, and important papers are, so you can go right to them for a speedy recovery should it become necessary.
If possible, Garwood said, have back-ups and replacements.
“Make this part of your emergency preparedness plan, and remember that your papers and photos are not as important as yourself,” Garwood said, “People should always come first in a disaster.”
2009 Author’s Suggestion: Before freezing or beginning any restoration attempts, consult with professionals if at all possible.
This article idea came to mind following Hurricane Katrina, and the tornado that struck the Haysville, Kansas area. We drove through the tornado devastation where houses were turned into matchsticks, and papers and pictures were blowing in the wind. I realized that after life and limb were safe, it was the thought of losing my photographs that bothered me most if we were to be struck by a tornado.