Emergency Procedures for Restoring Wet Photos

One of the first questions asked by those who have experienced flooding and water damage in their home is “can my photos be saved?” If the damage to your photo collection is severe, you may want to consider hiring a professional conservator to do the work. Companies that specialize in digital photo restoration can also create digital images of photos that aren’t damaged severely and recreate them through specialized software.

When dealing with water damaged photos, there are three very important rules to always remember:

  1. Avoid touching: Never touch the image on a wet photograph. The same is true for wet negatives.
  2. Halt further damage: Soggy photographs must be placed in the freezer or air dried immediately. The longer they remain wet, the more damage they sustain. Placing them in an environment that halts the process of destruction is essential to the recovery process and will allow you a brief window of time to decide what can be done to save your photographs.
  3. Act quickly: Even though you have slowed or even stopped the degrading of your photograph, it’s still imperative that you act quickly in order to keep the damage from becoming permanent. The best case scenario is to find a reputable conservator, who can guide you along the way or who can salvage the photograph for you.

Drying Method for Wet Photographs:

  1. Remove photographs from their albums, scrapbooks, frames or in some cases from each other. Caution: If your photos appear to be glued together by the moisture or stuck to the glass of your picture frame, quickly place them in the freezer until you can get professional help.
  2. After you’ve allowed any puddling water to run off the photos, lay them out to dry with the picture’s image facing up. Make sure you carefully set them on material that is absorbent, such as a clean cloth or towel, blank newsprint or blotters. Unfortunately, many historical pictures can be quite sensitive to the damage sustained from water and may not be salvageable.
  3. Employ the use of fans to circulate the air in the room and to keep mold from growing on the photos and complicating the recovery process. Your photo may begin to curl up as it dries. Don’t react by trying to flatten them, this can be fixed later
  4. If you have wet negatives or slides, hang them on a line, using clothespins made from soft wood or smooth plastic material. Some photographs may be dried this way as well. Slides will most likely need to have their frames removed. They can be remounted after they have completely dried.
  5. Some wet photos containing mud and dirt on their image, may be cleaned if you act quickly while they’re still moist. Place them briefly in a bucket of cold, clean water or under a slow stream of tap water to remove the mud. Photographs are made by many processes and you should contact a professional conservator immediately to find out which type of photograph can be rinsed in water.

Freezing Methods for Wet Photographs

  1. With the exception of photos that are stuck together, it’s important to separate your wet photos with wax paper, then wrap your stack of separated photos in wax paper, before you place them in your freezer.
  2. When removing your frozen photos, remember to air dry them after they have thawed. As your individual stacks of pictures thaw, peel them off layer by layer and place them image up on absorbent and clean material and allow them to be air dried.

Remember, acting fast is the key to saving the quality of your precious photographs. As difficult and emotional as it might be to discover your photos, all wet and dirty from some water related incident, remaining calm is a must. A level head and quick thinking is the key to salvaging your photos and ensuring that the memories they bring to your heart and mind will be with you well into the future.

For help in locating a conservator in your area or to have your questions answered, contact the following groups:

Northeast Document Conservation Center
(978) 470-1010

American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works