This is the final part of a three part series on preservation; the first served as the introduction to proactively create archival prints, the second focused on handling, exhibition, storage, and environment; and this part explains the conservation treatment. If prints are processed archivally, and handled and stored properly, the most common reason a print would need conservation treatment is due to some sort of disaster. There are disasters a non-professional can handle, and ones they cannot, and below I will explain when it's time to call on a professional for help.

photos that got wet and stuck together

Types of Disasters: Working in the field of preservation, I get called for all sorts of imprudent occurrences that have happened to items. A cat urinated on the photograph, the carrier’s truck partially exploded, a viewer showed the photographs’ visceral affect it had on her by spray painting it, as well as more common and ordinary manifests such as floods, fires, and fading. The field of preservation can be viewed as a type of healthcare; one must treat their items well, protect them from harm, use care to avoid the sun, go for check-ups, but also, at times, a doctor is needed.

negatives in a bucket of water

Handling Disasters: Last year, a few days after Hurricane Irene plagued the east coast and flooded nearly everyone I know, I got an unexpected call from a friend in great need. The basement of his parents’ home in upstate New York flooded; and the basement is where his mother stored family photo albums. Now, the basement is not a place to store such heirlooms as I have explained in the second part of this series, however, the reality is that many people use both basements and attics for storage. In this disaster, everything was under water, there was no electricity, and the area was in a state of emergency. So, the best advice I could give over the phone and to an untrained preservation professional, was to keep the negatives wet and begin to air dry the prints as soon as possible. Negatives can stay in water much longer than prints, so the first thing to do is place all of the negatives in a bucket of clean, fresh water, and tend to the prints. Wash the photographs in clean water and air-dry hang as one would after producing the print. During a disaster, this may be less ideal or a less archival process than one would do in the darkroom, but it saves the print! As long as it is washed in clean water and hung to dry, it prevents the photographs from sticking to one another as well as prevents mold from growing.  When dealing with wet materials, it is important to keep air circulating, lights on (mold grows in moist, dark places), and monitor continuously. The prints may curl but can be flattened later. The important thing is to get the prints apart before they have time to fuse together or grow mold. Once the prints are hanging to dry, the negatives can be fully washed, put through hypo, and then dried as if processing all over again.

air-drying prints

Professional Help: Almost all other disasters will require professional help. If photographs are damaged through chemical breakdowns, harmed during exhibition, killed during transportation, punctured, burnt, red wine sodden, faded, sliced, painted, placed in the oven (I have heard the most ridiculous of tales throughout the years!), a photo conservator is needed to repair the damage. Conservators are highly trained, typically embodying a fine combination of scientific knowledge and artistic ability. The conservator performs invasive single-item treatment, and in following the healthcare analogy, they are the specialist doctors, the ones you usually need a referral for. The professional organization for conservators, The American Institute for Conservation, has a website that serves as a referral for finding photographic conservators via geographic locations. One can also always call a local university, seeking out the preservation department to ask for a referral as well as share the disaster story, a tale that is always returned with sympathy by the preservation professional no matter how many he or she has heard over the years. All of this being said however, conservation is expensive and should be reserved for special, irreplaceable prints. So, take caution as much as possible in the general health and well-being of your photographs, and properly store the negatives in case disaster does strike. 

a look inside Kate's conservation lab
a look inside Kate's conservation lab

Read on in this mini series on Photo Preservation-
Part 1: In the Darkroom
Part 2: Handling, Exhibiting, and Storing

Hope you enjoyed and learned from this preservation series. Please feel free to contact me with any questions, or to share any disaster stories – I never grow tired of helping or lending a sympathetic ear! Best of luck for longevity.  -Kate

Kate Contakos is Head of the Preservation Department at Stanford University, and was a founding member of Shutterclank! (film photography magazine). She shoots black and white film on her Leica, Mamiya, and Nikon, and spends lots of time in her custom built darkroom in her loft in San Francisco. She is currently addicted to Ilford’s MG Art cotton rag paper.

Find her here-
Twitter: @contakos

Further Reading and Resources

Adams, Ansel. The Print. Little, Brown and Company: Boston, 1983.

Issues in the Conservation of Photographs. Ed. Debra Hess Norris and Jennifer Jae Gutierrez. The Getty Conservation Institute: Los Angeles, 2010.

Lavedrine, Bertrand. A Guide to the Preventive Conservation of Photograph Collections. The Getty Conservation Institute: Los Angeles, 2003.

Rempel, Siegfried. The Care of Photographs. Nick Lyons Books: New York, 1987.

American Institute for Conservation Photographic Materials Group:

Gawain Weaver’s Care and Identification of Photographs Workshops:

Image Permanence Institute:

George Eastman House: