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Freezing Photos

It is extremely important to act before the photographs have had a chance to dry or grow mold. If permitted 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 the 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 cannot 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. Le the excess water drip off. 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 be able to remove your photos from it. If they can be removed, threat 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 to that they remain upright and move them to the freezer.

If you have not 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 which 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.

Drying frozen photos

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 towel rolls (a generic brand is fine), photo plotting 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 he floor beneath the photos to catch thawing water and residue. Keep the room as cool (temperatures – below 68 degrees F – is recommended) as possible, it will extend the drying time but help reduce the chances of mold. Expect a possible 2 to 3 day drying time.

If you are going to use a clothes line and plastic clothespins 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 cur. 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 of them until they are dry. This should help them resume their shape.

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