The fact that a few paper documents were salvaged from the 1912 Titanic shipwreck after living on the bottom of the ocean floor for nearly 75 years is truly remarkable. Although no photographic images were found in the wreck, this is likely because the medium was in its infancy, rather than the implausibility that images could survive. Of course, being subjected to a shipwreck is the most extreme example of water damage!
Causes of Water Damage
When you consider the number of floods and storms that hit the U.S. every year, hundreds of millions of prized family photos have likely been destroyed since the sinking of the Titanic. Unforeseen problems in your house like a burst pipe or a small leak in your basement can cause damage. And on the completely mundane end of the spectrum, spilling a soft drink on a stack of photos or storing them in a damp, humid place can also cause water damage.
How Water Damages Prints and Negatives
Although some photographic materials can survive in water immersion for two days or more, others quickly deteriorate. Images can separate from mounts, the emulsion can dissolve or stick together, ink can bleed, and staining can occur. Another serious problem is that mold can grow within 48 hours at 60% relative humidity and 70° F. This can cause permanent damage including staining, weakening or loss of emulsion, as well as pose a health risk. You might think negatives or transparencies can’t be damaged by water since they aren’t paper and were developed in a water/chemical bath once upon a time. But water causes the film to swell and the emulsion to soften, making it vulnerable to damage from dirt that can get embedded in the film. And even negatives stored in plastic or acetate can get damaged.
Is Repair Possible?
The first step in rescuing water-damaged photos and negatives is to remove them from water immediately or as soon as it’s safe to do so. If you can’t dry them right away, photos can be put in a frost-free freezer for up to several months to prevent mold. Here’s what you’ll need:
- Nitrile or latex gloves and N95 respirators (if flood-damaged)
- Paper towels, wax paper, unprinted newsprint, clean dishcloths, or any other absorbent material to aid in the drying process
- Twine, tacks, small plastic clothespins, and a clothesline
- A clean, dry space
Tips for Drying Photos
The process of salvaging water-damaged photos takes time and patience. Restoration isn’t possible until the photos are dry and mold has been removed.
- Don’t force photos apart when they’re stuck together because this will cause irreparable damage
- If the photos are visibly dirty and the emulsion is intact, rinse them in a tray of clean water prior to drying
- Be careful not to wipe or touch the wet photo surface and only hold it by the edges
- Lay photos face up on plain paper towels, replacing the towels every two hours until photos are dry
- Use a fan to increase air movement in the room and prevent mold, but never point it directly at the photos
- Reserve the clothesline method for sturdy photos and slides
- After photos are dry, gently remove mold with a soot sponge cut into squares using a slow circular motion – wear gloves, a mask, and long sleeves before attempting this
Restoring Water-Damaged Images
For some people, the idea of salvaging water-damaged photos is too overwhelming and they turn them over to a professional conservationist. This is quite costly but certainly recommended for photographs or art worth hundreds or thousands of dollars. For family photos that have sentimental value, it’s possible to scan the photos and repair them digitally. This requires a high-quality scanner, editing software (e.g. Photoshop), a lot of time, and considerable retouching skills. A professional scanning service has the equipment and trained photo restoration technicians to bring your damaged photos back to life. And after your photos are digitized, you’ll never have to worry again about damage – as long as you regularly back up the drive you store them on!