44th Annual Meeting – Photographic Materials Session, May 17, "Salvaging Memories: The Recovery of Fire-Damaged Photographs and Lessons Learned in Conservation and Kindness," by Debra Hess Norris

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but its  worth is immeasurable when all other possessions are lost. The efforts of  the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation can  be described, therefore, as invaluable. For the past two academic years, Debra Hess Norris and the faculty, staff, and the graduate students of the WUDPAC program have undertaken recovery projects for photographs damaged by fires and floods. In addition to the rigorous course load of the Photographic Materials block at WUDPAC the classes of 2017 and 2018 have added examination, documentation, and treatment of between 240 and 260 photographs, or  about 25-35 photographs per student.  Their goal was to help people and families who have just survived heartrending disaster.
On Christmas Day in 2014, Ricky and Traci Harris lost their three sons and Ricky’s mother to a devastating house fire. Searching for any way to lessen their grief, friend and WUDPAC PhD candidate, Michael Emmons, sent this image to Ms. Norris via text message:
Emmons & Photos
One of the firefighters had taken the time to collect the fire-damaged photographs and lay them out in the Harris’ garage. Mr. Emmons coordinated with Ms. Norris to have the 260 photographs brought to the Winterthur conservation labs where the first-year graduate students began examining them for treatment. Each individual photograph had a unique variety of damage. By working closely with Mr. Emmons as the Harris family liaison, the students were able to approach treatment with approval and context from the family. The emotional nature of the project was the biggest, but not only, struggle for those involved. Condition concerns ranged from minor planar distortions to an irreversible white haze to the bleeding of inks and dyes. After minimizing the smell of smoke by storing the photographs with zeolite and blotters, students focused on surface cleaning and flattening. The stabilized photographs were then housed in polyester sleeves with zeolite-containing papers to increase the ease of future scanning.
May 24th, 2015 a flash flood hit central Texas with waters reaching 33 feet high in a matter of hours. 30 lives were lost and over 1,000 homes were damaged. As with the Arno floods that formed the theme of AIC’s 2016 Annual Meeting, compassionate volunteers and first responders attempted to salvage photographs and other personal belongings. Local archivists were able to do much in the recovery of the photographs, but 240 of the most severely damaged were sent to Winterthur for their new graduate students. The types of photographs sent ranged from tintypes to digital prints, negatives to photo albums and all suffered severe damage ranging from flaking and delamination to inactive mold. Although there was a wider variation in materials than the fire-damaged photos from the previous year, the primary treatment concerns remained surface cleaning and flattening but also included consolidation, tear mending, and unblocking. Each student was also able to choose one photograph for loss compensation as both an educational exercise and an attempt to make the most severely damaged images more cohesive. In both projects, students progressed from dry to wet cleaning techniques as detailed below and routinely used microscopic examination to assess their progress and analyze different techniques.

dry cleaning technique wet cleaning technique

Left: Dry Surface Cleaning Techniques, Right: Wet Surface Cleaning Techniques

Different approaches were also needed for fiber-based supports vs. resin-coated supports, again detailed below:

approach for fiber based support approach for resin coated support

While the educational opportunities of these projects were immense, what I find truly remarkable is the way they inspired and reflected compassion and benevolence both inside and outside the field of conservation. The subject matter clearly resonates with many of us as there was not a dry eye by the end of Ms. Norris’ presentation and the Q&A section was filled with heartwarming remarks and suggestions for how to continue and spread these outreach efforts. Additionally, the public reactions to various press and social media resulted in an inundation of offers for volunteer work, especially for the Harris family. So I would like to end with Ms. Norris’ call to action, “As a profession we must seek ways to share our skills and knowledge broadly, to be a visible presence following unthinkable tragedy, and a known resource for families facing the potential loss of their treasured photographs.”
Debbie ackn
For details on D4 and its use in photograph conservation, Ms. Norris suggests Shannon Brogdon-Grantham’s abstract entitled “New Approaches to Cleaning Works on Paper and Photographic Materials” from the 2015 Biannual PMG Meeting.