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A common question in the minds of families as they suffer through the tragic aftermath of flooding or fire and its resultant water damage is "Can I save my photos?" According to Eastman Kodak Company, there is hope if proper care is taken.

The first task is to decide if it might not be easier to replace the photos by arranging with relatives to copy their photos or if you have undamaged negatives, make copies of them rather then to salvage what remains of your collection.

If restoration is the method you choose there are several ways to go about this. I ’am afraid to say that even under ideal conditions there inevitably will be losses. The best we can hope for is to minimize the damage and reduce the amount of loss.

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. If you have decided to salvage your photos, first and foremost don’t let the photos dry out. They tend to stick together and when dry will probably not come apart without irreparable damage.

Before starting to reclaim your photos (or anything for that matter) from the ravages of a flood please take the time to read a few pamphlets about safety.

Pamphlets can be read on line or ordered from many government agencies. If the photographs are irreplaceable (unable to get copies from your relatives, or use undamaged negatives) and are of great sentimental value or are family heirlooms and you have decided to attempt salvaging the photographs it would be irresponsible of me if I didn’t suggest contacting a professional conservator, they usually have years of experience dealing with this specific problem. For a referral see: American Institute of Conservation’s (AIC) Guidelines for selecting a Conservator at http://aic.stanford.edu/select/select.html.

Most experts agree that if you are unsure of the vintage or type of film or photo plate you have, contact a professional conservator to decide what action to take.

The following information was gleaned from experts in the National Archive’s and other leading experts offering the following tips for the restoration and preservation of historical photos, family photos and papers from water damage and is geared towards the more common photographs found in the average home.

Ivan Hanthorn, head of the Preservation Department at the Iowa State University Library, says, "Freezing buys you time by stabilizing the situation".  Please remember to use freezing as a tool only if you are unable to complete the project immediately after the disaster.

It’s extremely important to act before the photographs have had a chance to dry or grow mold. If this is allowed to happen, the chances of salvaging the photographs are greatly reduced. If you find you have more immediate matters to attend to and a thorough cleaning and drying of photos will have to be put off; the best course of action would be to remove any loose dirt and debris by rinsing your materials in a tank of cold clear running water until the water overflow runs clean. Do not run water directly on them as this may cause further damage to the already softened photographic emulsions.

Place the rinsed photos in second tank of clean cold water (to prevent them from drying) and finish rinsing the rest of them. After you have completed the rinse, clean, dry, and refill the original cleaning tank (or have a third tank) with cold water. Now take the individual photos (in small manageable groups) and return them to you initial cleaning tank. Work with them submerged. Gently separate the films or prints from each other or their storage material. Do not force the separation -- you may cause further damage. Separate them as much as possible, then return them to the water bath while you start another batch repeatedly return to the photos that could not be separated and try again to separate them. If no progress is noticed on those that have clumped together. Treat them as individual photos and freeze them as you would an individual photo.

Remove the photos from this last soaking, one at a time if possible (or clump if necessary) and be sure to only handle the photo by the edges. Let the excess water drip off, Hanthorn says. Then place the item in a plastic bag (freezer bag if possible) and place them in a container with like sized photos and stick them in the freezer.

If you have photo albums; duplicate the procedure used with the photos to hopefully be able to remove your photos from it. If they are able to be removed, treat them the same as you did the individual photos. If you have any difficulty separating the pages or photos from the pages leave them till later. After rinsing in clear cold water let the excess water drip off and place them in a suitably sized container using wax paper or butcher paper as a separator between the sides of the container and other albums, if you have more than one. Stand them vertically on their spines, pack the items just tight enough so that they remain upright and move them to the freezer.

If other flood cleanup is more pressing, put flood-damaged photos, documents and books in the freezer, says Lois Warme, extension interior design specialist. " Freezing will delay further damage."

If you haven’t yet, it would be a good time to talk to a conservator to decide a course of action and your insurance agent to see if drying and restoring the photos would be covered under your homeowners or flood policy.

This procedure has given you time to calmly sort through the facts and narrow down your options as to how you will continue your salvage project. You may wish to only have a handful of photos professionally restored i.e. the ones with the greatest sentimental value or the ones that are family heirlooms. You have now bought yourself some time so that you can review the items you have frozen and decide which items you really want to save and which items you can discard.

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A couple of resources to have available would be a dehumidifier if you are going to work in the basement or a small room, a clothes line (to hang film or pictures), nylon or plastic window screening, rolls of plain white non-printed paper towels rolls (a generic brand is fine), photo blotting paper, or just plain white blotting paper and Tongs, used to develop film may be desirable - less hands on the photos.

If you will be working in a room open the windows and run a humidifier to lower the humidity as the photos are thawing and drying out. Be sure to cover the floor beneath the photos to catch thawing water and residue. Keep the room as cool (temperatures -- below 68° F -- is recommended) as possible, it will extend the drying time but help reduce the chances of mold. Expect a possible 2 or 3 day drying time.

If you are going to use a clothes line and plastic clothes pins string it up now. If you want to use the plastic window screening cloth, as I prefer, use 2 cheap saw horses and staple or nail a stretched piece between them. Lay pieces of blotter or paper towel (cut at least an inch larger than the photos) and put one photo Face Up on each piece.

Run a fan to keep the air circulating above or below the photos but not directly on the photos.

As the blotter or paper towels get wet remove and replace them with dry ones, being sure not to touch the image side - use the tongs (preferred) or fingers and handle from the edges only.

After they've dried, the photos may curl. To uncurl them, you can rinse each curled photo carefully in a photo tray or dampen the back, then place them between clean white blotters and apply weight on top them until they are dry. This should help them resume their shape.

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When the flood water is replaced with clean water, slowly and gently separate the layers of film. Gary Albright of the Northeast document Conservation Center explains that you may find that a final rinse in a water/Photo Flo mixture (a negative wetting agent purchased from a photo supply store), slide cleaner, or a similar commercial product is all that is necessary to clean them, if not - repeat the process until you see no further improvement. Be sure to only handle the negatives or film by the edges and when done, preferably, they should be hung vertically on a line or propped on edge to air dry.

Ideally, slides should be removed from their frames for drying and then remounted.

Slides mounted between glass must be removed from the glass or they will not dry. Do not freeze glass slides without contacting a conservator first.

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Use of a photo stabilizer on color negatives and slides made on Kodak Ektachrome film will facilitate cleaner and more uniform drying. Photo-Flo Solution and Stabilizers are available through photographic dealers and pro photo finishing labs.

After the Salvage and all efforts to salvage the materials, you can consider additional restoration. Reprinting negatives or making copies of prints might be the first step. Further restoration may be possible through retouching and then recopying. Today, digital imaging can offer significant benefits in restoration.

Nothing will replace your sentimental attachment to your original photos; however Yesteryear Memories will be able to reproduce your images so you can save those treasured moments. At Yesteryear Memories we can make copies of the originals and restore them to a condition as good or some say better than new.

The Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation (FAIC)
1717 K Street, NW, Suite 301 Washington, D.C. 20006
Telephone (202) 452-9545 FAX (202) 452-9328
E-mail: infoaic@aol.com
Web Site: http://aic.stanford.edu

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At Yesteryear Memories we pride ourselves at breathing new life into that old photograph.  Our photo enhancement and retouching process makes the difficult look easy.


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