Topics in Photographic Preservation 1989, Volume 3, Article 2 (pp. 9-11)

Flood Aftermath: The Preservation of Water-Damaged Photographs

By Gary E. Albright, Northeast Document Conservation Center

In the early morning on August 1st, 1985, the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site in Brookline, MA discovered that one of their storage areas had been inundated by a flash flood. The Northeast Document Conservation Center was called almost immediately for advise and assistance. Among other problems there were two large file drawers (40″ × 16 1/2″ × 10 1/2″) containing mostly photographs. One of these drawers had been partially submerged. The on-site staff removed these images from the drawer and air dried them on screens. Eventually these were brought to the center for further treatment. The second file drawer had been completely submerged. This drawer was delivered to NEDCC later in the day. Between the two drawers there were 3400 items which required treatment; approximately 85% of these were photographs, the remainder were magazine clippings and prints. The photographs included a few salted paper prints and some collodion POP images, but the majority were albumen prints, gelatin POP prints, and gelatin DOP prints.

Once the flood-submerged file drawer was delivered, emergency treatment was begun. Because they were wet, the objects inside the drawer had swollen and the drawer had to be broken to remove the photographs. Inside this drawer were approximately 1800 damp or wet images. These included 360 magazine clippings and prints, 550 mounted photographs, and 900 unmounted photographs. By the end of the day approximately 1200 of these images had been treated by the NEDCC staff. The remaining 600 images were frozen for later treatment. These were unmounted gelatin photographs which had been taken by the Olmsted firm to document their work.

Emergency treatment after the arrival of the wet photographs consisted of the following:

Subsequent treatments for all photographic material (both file drawers) were performed as follows:

Even with the quick response of the Olmsted staff to their flood, permanent damage occurred to many of the photographs within this collection. For example, albumen prints were stained and yellowed as a result of their subjection to moisture, even though these were wet for only half a day or less. Also, albumen prints with handcoloring lost much of their intensity as a result of color transfer to adjacent materials.

Several other factors caused damage to these photographs. These are important to know about as they are the type of problem which can be avoided. The first is the importance of proper mounting. When a photograph is mounted, it is essential to use good quality materials - both mount boards and adhesives. In a flood situation poor quality adhesives or papers will bleed and stain the mount and photographs. Also, photographs should be correctly attached to the mounts. One attachment method seemed to be particularly harmful, this was the adhering of the photographs to the mounts with a band of adhesive around the four edges. Since the middle is free and the edges tacked down, the photograph will badly cockle if subjected to moisture.

This flood also demonstrated the necessity of good storage materials. Any folders, envelopes, or other materials housed with photographs should be water-fast and of good quality. Moisture can quickly cause bleeding or staining to migrate from a poor quality paper to a nearby photograph. When considering storage, avoid the use of clips, staples, etc. and don't overcrowd. When paper gets wet, it expands and the presence of these materials combined with overcrowding can cause serious depressions or gouges in the photographs. Also, metals can rust or corrode, staining the images.

Finally, it should be stressed that in spite of all of these precautions damage will occur to photographs if they get wet. The only way to avoid damage is to avoid the flood. As has been stated many times before prevention is the best alternative.