Saving Water Soaked Photos, a Genealogist’s Window to the Past

Without question, losing a family member is the most devastating thing that can happen in a disaster.The second hardest loss is Family Photos.Going back to what is left of your home and seeing the remnants of your former everyday life is unbelievably painful.And seeing those irreplaceable photos lying in a water-soaked heap will break your heart.

What should you do with that heap of wet photos?Many people think they are hopeless and throw them away.Dont.Here’s what you can do to try and save both them and wet documents, which should be treated basically the same.

The photos should not be allowed to dry out unless they’ve been cleaned.Otherwise mildew will set in, which can cause irreparable harm.But if they’ve already dried out, rewet them.There will be still be mildew damage, but if these photos are all you have, it’s worth the attempt to salvage what you can.

If you’re able to send them to an expert for cleaning and restoration, do it.If not, then you’ll have to do it yourself.

Are your photos and documents still wet and you don’t have time to clean them right now?Freeze them. Put them in small clumps in sealed plastic bags or containers and leave them frozen until you have the time to deal with them correctly.If time allows, place pieces of wax paper or paper towel between loose photos before freezing them.Take photos out of frames and pull the mats off, but leave the photo and glass together and freeze them in a sealed container. For wet documents, lay them flat, preferably with something heavy weighing them down, put them in a sealed plastic bag or container, and freeze them.

For slides and negatives, don’t freeze them.Wash them gently in clean, cool water.Dry them by hanging them up with wood or plastic clothespins, or lay them flat to dry keeping the dull-looking side facing up.Keep them out of sunlight.

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Ready to clean your photos now?Lets go.

Work in a cool, airy, humid-free room out of direct sunlight.It will take hours, maybe even overnight, to dry your photos so chose your space carefully.Keep an oscillating fan blowing to keep the air moving while you’re working and while the photos are drying.

You should wear rubber gloves in case the photos have been exposed to bacteria or toxins in the floodwater.I recommend the gloves fit closely to avoid damaging the photos.

Start with photos that aren’t irreplaceable until you feel secure with your abilities.

Dont work with more photos than you can finish at one sitting.And on your first try, work with just a few until you have the routine down.Even then, don’t work with too many at a time while you keep the rest frozen.

If the photos are stuck together, work with them gently underwater to pry them apart. Have patience.If they won’t come apart right away, leave them soaking a little longer before you try again.Or even drain them and refreeze them to see if that helps.No matter what you do, you may have to live with damage caused by stuck photos.

Immerse your damp or frozen photos in clear, cold water.Distilled water is best, but clean tap water will work, too.It will also help retard the growth of mildew while you’re working with the photos.Dont add anything to the water to kill the bacteria or remove the toxins.This could destroy the photos.

Dont run water directly on the photos, just swirl them around in the water.You can have water running into the tub or sink you’re using to keep it fresh and clean, but don’t run it onto the photo directly.

Wash the dirt off by swirling the photo in clean water.Gently brush off any stuck mud or grime with soft balls of cotton.Dont touch the front of the photo roughly with the cotton or with your fingers at allyou may wipe off the emulsion, which is the photo itself.

A good idea when the photo is clean enough to see is to immediately photograph it.This will preserve what you’ve been able to recover just in case damage occurs during drying.Dont scan itplacing it face down while wet on the scanner could cause the emulsion to stick to the glass.

Hold the wet photo up and allow as much excess water as possible to drain off.

You can hang the photo to dry with a non-metal clip or clothespin or lay it flat to dry. The best method is to hang it because it will keep water from pooling on the photo and causing water spots. It also keeps circulating around the photo, allowing it to dry evenly. But hanging it can also allow the edges to curl and damage the photo.

The alternate method is to lay the photo flat face upon blotter paper or something similar that will absorb water, such as plain white paper towels. Dont use newspaper! The print will bleed into the photo and ruin it. You could even use window screen material so air will circulate completely around the photo and it will dry evenly.Use new screening to be certain no dirt or staining is transferred to your wet photos.Place something slightly weighty on the edges of the wet photos so they don’t curl.Whatever you use shouldn’t rust or bleed color when it gets wet or your photos will be ruined.You might try using long, thin pieces of light-colored wood that can flatten the edges of an entire row of wet photos.To avoid water pooling on the front of the photo and making water spots, try tilting up one end of the drying table so the water runs off the photos.Having the oscillating fan gently blowing across the weighted down photos might help, too.

Using less important photos on your first attempt at cleaning will allow you to experiment with the best method for keeping water droplets from forming no matter which method you use for drying, hanging or laying flat.

Now, what do you do with those photos that we’re in frames and now have just the glass on the front of them?First, clean them in clear, cold water by swirling them around.When the photo is easily viewable, scan or photograph the photo to preserve it before attempting to remove it from the glass.That way, if there is any damage, you have a record of it.Now, with the glass and photo wet, use clean tweezers to gently lift the corner of the photograph from the glass.Take the lifted edge in your fingers and gently pull the photo away from the glass.If it sticks, immerse the glass and photo in water again to rewet them.If the photo comes away cleanly from the glass, wash any remaining dirt from the photo and dry it.However, if part of the emulsion of the photo has transferred to the glass, you will need to leave the photo where it is permanently. Place a weight on the back of the photo while it dries to keep it from wrinkling. Later, try sending it to a professional to see if it can be saved.

For wet documents, peel them gently away from anything to which they’re stuck. Lay them flat between sheets of absorbent paper. Make certain it has no color of any kind that will bleed into the document. Change the absorbent paper as it becomes damp. Allow the document to air dry in this manner. After completely, absolutely dry, brush the document gently to remove dirt and mud. Press flat by laying something heavy on top.

Never underestimate the power of a photo.For many Genealogists, they are the most interesting items in our Family History files.I can tell my cousins that we had an ancestor on the first boat to Jamestown and they say how nice, but they thrill to a newly discovered photograph of our great-great grandmother.

If homes in your town have been damaged by a flood, whether it’s your own home, your neighbor’s or a stranger’s across town, do what you can to save every heap of water-soaked photos. These are our windows to the past. Don’t let even one be closed forever.

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Special Thanks – Once more, many thanks for sharing the pics 🙂 – One of my personal favorites.

Posted in Photograph Post Date 11/11/2015






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