PMG Emergency Response, Salvage, and Recovery Techniques

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  • Emergency Committee
  • Photographic Materials Group
  • Emergency Preparedness and Recovery
Page Information
Date initiated September 2009
Page Compiler Greg Hill
Contributors Priscilla Anderson, Heather Brown, Luisa Casella, Greg Hill, Hilary Kaplan, Martin Jurgens, Mogen Koch, Barbara Lemmen, Amanda Maloney, Alejandra Mendoza, Andrew Robb, Stephanie Watkins

If you are accessing this information because you are currently in an emergency response situation and need immediate triage information, please also review Stabilizing Wet Photographic Materials.

Purpose of Emergency and Disaster Techniques and Guidelines[edit | edit source]

  • An emergency situation generally has three distinct phases:
    • First, the planning and preparedness phase occurs well before any need.
    • Second, the response and salvage phase during which materials are triaged and processed to minimize damage.
    • Finally, the recovery of materials phase when damaged photographs are treated and rehoused.
  • While a brief review follows, please see AIC's general emergency planning, preparedness, and response for more complete descriptions regarding the first and second phases. Third phase, recovery techniques are photographic materials specific.
  • Response and salvage methods can impact final recovery of photographic materials. The goal during any emergency response phase effort is to maximize the chemical and physical stability of the photographic materials while minimizing changes in the image, binder, and support to increase the likelihood of recovery.
  • Salvage often occurs in extreme conditions within a limited time frame. Therefore, triage decisions are often necessary and most items will have some chemical or physical alteration.

Phase One: Preparedness Planning[edit | edit source]

  • Have a phone-tree in place to notify all necessary personnel in case of an emergency.
  • Know what objects in the collection are sensitive and/or valuable and mark their location in a way that will be identifiable only to the necessary staff, such as color coded stickers.
  • Identify any areas on-site that can be used for washing, drying, or other necessary recovery steps.
  • Have an emergency/disaster kit ready that may contain: personal safety equipment, paper towels, trays, blotter, spun polyester, plastic bags, clothesline, etc. Pre-identify resources to obtain needed supplies during an emergency situation.
  • Have pre-existing arrangements with outside contractors offering services such as; freezing objects, washing magnetic tape, desiccating the affected area, removal of standing water, disposal of damaged storage furniture, etc.

Helpful Emergency Equipment and Supplies[edit | edit source]

Gloves (latex and nitrile)

  • Always wear gloves when handling works that have been through an emergency or disaster situation.
  • Assume that all material have biological and chemical contamination.

Dehumidifiers, fans, air purifiers

  • Removing moisture from the surrounding environment will help to speed up the drying of wet pieces and decrease the likelihood of mold growth.

Electric/battery drill/driver with a variety of bits

  • Most framed works are secured in with screws and often a collection will have pieces with different types screw heads.
  • It is helpful to have several electric drills so multiple people can work quickly at getting wet pieces out of their frames.
  • Battery pack powered drills can be used for a short time if electricity is down.


  • Contents within cabinets and drawers can swell.
  • Likewise, wooden frames and stretchers can swell. To remove wet making removal, a crowbar can pry stretchers out, or if necessary, break the frame and free the work.

Plastic sheeting, cardboard and Kraft paper (large quantities)

  • Protect worktables by wrapping in plastic sheeting or paper and placing cardboard sheets on top. Replace coverings several times over the course of the work as needed.
  • Plastic sheeting can keep works from drying out too rapidly, also.
  • Cardboard can be use to build stacks for drying and to make temporary housing for works once they are dry since much of the matting and framing material will be destroyed.

Wax, freezer paper and Butcher paper

  • Inexpensive and often easy to find.
  • Can be used to interleave photographs before freezing.
  • Butcher paper - slick side is good for wet work and cleaning, dry side has good tack while working with print. Large size can be used to cover work area.

Various size trays

  • Immersion may be necessary for prints that are stuck to their glazing or that have been exposed to flood water.


  • Take many pictures with the intent of future review by insurance companies, clients, and other interested parties.
  • Pictures can quickly and easily document the condition of the works and the actions taken.
  • Often a picture can convey more than a description in the harried atmosphere of disaster recovery and salvage.
  • Sufficient lighting for good illumination for pictures may be challenging during recovery phase.

Suppliers[edit | edit source]

Hardware stores

  • window screening, gloves, polyethylene sheeting (various thicknesses), clothes line.

Art and craft supply stores

  • blotter, brushes.

Photography supply stores

  • trays.

Grocery stores and pharmacies

  • Distilled water, 90% isopropyl alcohol, wax paper, cotton, swabs.

Phase Two: Preparing to Salvage Photographic Materials[edit | edit source]

Personal Health and Safety[edit | edit source]

Please also consult AIC's Main Category Health & Safety

  • During response efforts, the building must be physically safe to enter. Respect police and other first-responder boundaries they may establish.
  • Be aware of any potential health risks associated with contaminated water, mold, or pests that may be present.
  • Have personal safety equipment on hand such as gloves, boots, hard hats, respirators, headlamps, etc.
  • Do not work alone and limit the time any one person spends in an area with active mold growth.
  • Secure the area so that unauthorized or unprotected persons cannot enter.

Documentation[edit | edit source]

  • Use a camera to visually document the damage to the extent safely possible before and during salvage.
  • Consult collection records to identify location of sensitive and/or valuable materials as a priority for recovery.
  • Keep a list/spreadsheet to track the condition, treatment, and movement of the collection pieces to the extent possible.

Phase Two: Salvage Priorities[edit | edit source]

Please note subtle differences may occur between the listing below and Stabilizing Wet Photographic Materials on AIC's general page. This list is intended for photographic material conservators who can distinguish nuances between photographic processes. The triage list is generalized, and intended for allied professional use.

Top Priorities[edit | edit source]

  • Rare, unique photographs, early or uncommon processes
  • Deteriorated cellulosic negatives - freeze if there is insufficient time for processing.
  • Digital - anything with a swellable support
  • Photographic materials stuck to themselves or housing
  • Materials that are bleeding colors - separate, isolate as best as possible
  • Negatives, if the images can be reprinted, except Ektachrome, Kodachrome, and equivalents
  • Motion picture film - freeze unless length can be processed safely, except black and white and chromogenic color

Second Priorities[edit | edit source]

In general, everything else. Prints before film, and color before black and white given inherent wet stabilities of the various materials.

  • Paper-based negatives - freeze
  • Paper-based prints
  • Salvage last, items that are replaceable duplicates, or items that are too far gone to salvage (complete loss)

May Not Survive Freezing[edit | edit source]

While air drying is preferred for most photographic materials, time and resources may not allow and freezing is the only option left. Please note, the following photographic materials may not be recoverable after being frozen.

  • Wet collodion processes (ambrotypes, tintypes, glass plate negatives)
  • Gelatin dry plate negatives on glass supports
  • Cased photographs
  • Rare color processes
  • Instant photographs
  • Digital photographs

Phase Two: Response and Salvage Techniques[edit | edit source]

Water damaged documents triage diagram
  • Ideally, salvage steps should take place within 48 hours of a water event.
  • If dealing with a large collection or space constraints, freezing may be the only viable option for salvage.

Washing or Rinsing[edit | edit source]

  • Rinse only if the photographic image layers are intact.
  • Use the freshest available water and refresh often.
  • Adjust pH to maximize cleaning as safely as possible.
  • Use ethanol to adjust for water sensitive objects when appropriate.
  • Temporary disposable trays can be made from folded polyester sheets. Multiple trays are advantageous.
  • Wet photographs that dry between the emergency response and recovery phase may be harder or impossible to clean during recovery. However, photographic emulsion layers can loose cohesion or develop mold if kept wet for long periods of time.

Drying[edit | edit source]

Photographic materials air drying in clothesline
Photographic materials air drying
  • Slow, air drying is the preferred method for recovery of photographic materials. Set up fans and/or dehumidifiers to keep the air moving and dry.
  • Line Drying: Set up a clothesline and hang materials to dry with clothespins or paperclips, which can be inserted in the rope to prevent sliding toward the middle. Paper clips make effective, inexpensive "S-shaped" hooks to hang film negatives with sprocket holes.
  • Flat Drying: Several tiers for drying can be created by using a stiff flat support such as corrugated board or fiber glass window screens that is supported on disposable cups or other similar sized objects between each tier. Place Photographs and negatives face up (dull or image side) on an absorbent surface such as blotter or on a screen. Do not touch the surface or blot off excess water.
  • Air dry vertically, plastic film negatives, glass, ceramic, or metal-based photographs.
  • Open cased photographs and photographic albums to slowly air dry.
  • Open albums to slowly air dry. Sturdy albums can be placed upright, like a book, fanning out the pages for air access. Albums that cannot be placed upright can be opened flat with spacers (e.g. wadded paper, paper-towels, waxed-freezer paper), inserted to allow air circulation between pages. Take care to avoid placing bundled material across photographic surfaces in double-sided mounted photographic albums. Reduce likelihood of double-sided album pages sticking by inserting waxed or freezer paper between pages before freezing.
  • If photographs are wet within their frame, unframe carefully watching for any areas that may be stuck to glass or mats and air dry. Don’t hang photographs in wooden frames to dry. Joints may be loosened from moisture.

Freezing[edit | edit source]

  • Make stacks of wet material. Leave in primary housing, if present, or interleave every few photographs with a release material like wax paper. Keep stacks thin at 1-2 inches (2.5-5cm). Thinner stacks thaw better.
  • Keep material wet if it cannot be frozen right away.
  • Place material in sealed zipper storage plastic bags. Push out as much air as possible before sealing and make sure each bag is well sealed. Place an additional zipper storage bag around the first.
  • Place bagged material into on-site freezers or box to send to a storage facility with frozen storage. Plastic milk crates make good freezer boxes for photographic materials. Cartons or crates require blast freezing.

Triage Emergency Event

Photographs Adhered to The Glazing[edit | edit source]

  • Materials should be kept damp by wrapping in plastic provided a conservator will be able to treat them within 48 hours.
  • Prioritize anything stuck to glass for immediate treatment. If the glazing is acrylic, the photograph should release on its own once it is dry, of course the surface will likely still be altered where it was stuck.
  • Immerse in water: ideally the photograph should lift off without a great deal of force. Do not pull a photograph off at an acute angle that can cause cracking in the emulsion.
  • If immersion is not a possibility, place release materials under the areas that are not stuck and place thin spacer material such as blotter between the glazing and the release material to try to encourage gradual release and prevent more areas from adhering.

Photographs Stuck to Themselves[edit | edit source]

  • If wet and stuck in a stack, gently peel apart resin-coated or commercial color snap shot photographs at a low angle only if possible. Do not force separation. Some image loss may occur.

Photographs Stuck to Plastic Enclosures[edit | edit source]

  • Materials should be kept damp by wrapping in plastic provided a conservator will be able to treat them within 48 hours.
  • Cut three sides of the enclosure and peel the plastic carefully off the emulsion surface using an acute angle while keeping the photograph flat. Avoid pulling wet photographs from their protective enclosures. Release slides also, as plastic and paper mounts may also be stuck to the enclosure. Be especially careful of acetate materials as they may be extremely sticky.

Phase Three: Recovery Treatments[edit | edit source]

  • Before proceeding with recovery treatment efforts, contact living artists or artists' estates to find out if reprints can be made. Consult them about what degree of change is considered acceptable to guide future treatment decisions.
  • Insurance adjusters and appraisers will want to examine the works and receive detailed proposals with cost estimates to determine what further treatment will be merited.

Wet Materials[edit | edit source]

  • Any photographs exposed to flood waters that were not initially immersed and that can be safely immersed should be washed to remove as much of the water soluble contamination as possible. Quick rinses reduce accretions and debris thereby reducing future abrasion. Longer washes reduce soluble, more imbedded materials.
  • Rinse and wash using multiple tray system (5 is nice). Use bare hands (if not a sewage-health hazard contamination), soft brushes, sponges, squeegees, cotton balls or dental cotton to clean. Place the photograph on glass or plastic glazing for support during cleaning. Rinse between each photograph cleaned. After cleaning, use a wetting agent rinse for 1-2 minutes with negatives for even drying.

Thawing Frozen Materials[edit | edit source]

  • When ready to air dry, remove bag from freezer. To thaw frozen materials, place in an isolated chamber and allow the package to rest unopened at room temperature until thawed (usually a few hours).
    • After thawing, pull any paper or plastic photo corners off first before removing photographs from albums.
    • Photographs adhered together may separate after a short water immersion (to soften emulsions).
  • Alternatively, black and white silver gelatin photographs that were frozen, can sometimes be thawed through immersion in ethanol. If the material starts to thaw, skip immersing in ethanol. Ethanol immersion is not effective for very badly damaged photographs.
    • Upon immersion in ethanol, Fuji products may bleed a blue color from the anti-halation layer. Quickly flush out any blue colorant that results before it settles in the baryta layer.
  • Many photographs can be cleaned with an ethanol:water mix in differing proportions between 1:1 to 3:1 depending on the robustness of the emulsions.

Dried items[edit | edit source]

  • Once items are dried and stabilized, recovery may entail mending, flattening, consolidating, and inpainting, techniques.
  • Losses can occur where photographic emulsion became adhered to its glazing, window mat, frame rabbet etc. It may be desirable to consolidate and inpaint these areas. Since much of this damage occurs along the edges, over matting may also be a possible solution.

Resources[edit | edit source]

Electronic Media and Online Resources[edit | edit source]

Printed Resources[edit | edit source]

  • Adelstein, P., D. Burge, and J. F. Hanna. 2006. “Recovery of Water-damaged Digital and Traditional Prints.” Postprints: 24-25 April 2006, Preservation and Conservation Issues Related to Digital Printing and Digital Photography. London: Institute of Physics. 64–67.
  • Albright, Gary E. 1989. “Flood Aftermath: The Preservation of Water-Damaged Photographs.” Robin E. Siegel, comp. Topics in Photographic Preservation, vol. 3, p. 9-11. Washington, DC: Photographic Materials Group, American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, 1989.
  • Arribas, Angels. 2004. "Cold Comfort: Flood Recovery Project of the Eduardo Paolozzi Archive." The Conservator, No. 26, p. 3-13.
  • Banks, Elizabeth S. 1986. "Recovery Measures for Flooded Archival Materials including Photographs at the Frederick Law Olmstead National Historic Site." The Book and Paper Group Annual. Vol. 5, Washington, D.C.: AIC Book and Paper Group.
  • Burge, D., and J. Scott. 2012. “Resistance of Digitally and Traditionally Printed Materials to Bleed, Delamination, Gloss Change, and Planar Distortion during Flood.” Journal of the America Institute or Conservation of Artistic and Historic Works 51(2).
  • Corning Museum of Glass. 1977. "The Corning Flood: Museum Under Water". Pp.22, 31-34.
  • Derby, Deborah. 1997. "Singing the Blues: the Treatment of Water-Damaged Negatives." Topics in Photographic Preservation, vol. 5, p. 84-88. Washington, D.C.: AIC Photographic Materials Group
  • Gillet, Martine and Chantal Garnier. 1989. "The Use of Microwaves for Drying Flood Damaged Photographic Materials." Topics in Photographic Preservation, vol. 3, Robin E. Siegel, compiler. Washington, DC: Photographic Materials Group, American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.
  • Gubby, Sarah, and Julie McCarthy. 2008. "Surfactant Use in the Salvage of Housed Water-damaged Black and White Silver Gelatin Photographs." ICOM Committee for Conservation, ICOM-DCC, 15th Triennial Conference New Delhi, 22-26 September 2008: Preprints. Bridgland, Janet, ed. New Delhi: Allied Publishers, PVT.
  • Hanes, Ric. 1981 (January). "Emergency Storage for Nitrate Film." History News 36, p. 38-41.
  • Haglund, Kristine, and Bruce R. Parham. 1981. Emergency Procedures for Nitrate Films. Denver: Denver Museum of Natural History.
  • Harvey, Christopher. 1995. "The Treatment of Flood-Damaged Photographic Material at the Perth Museum and Art Gallery, Scotland. Paper Conservation News, issue 76, p. 8-12.
  • Harvey, Christopher. 2000. "The Conservation of Flood Damaged Photographic Material from Perth Museum and Art Gallery." 'Perth flood-seminar: Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining. Papers Arising from the seminar held on 7 June 2000, on the recovery, conservation, and restoration of works of art and objects damaged in the Perth flood of 1993. Edinburgh: Scottish Society for Conservation and Restoration (SSCR), p. 17-19.
  • Harvey, Christopher. 1995. "The Treatment of Flood-damaged Photographic Material at the Perth Museum and Art Gallery, Scotland." Paper conservation news 76: 8-12.
  • Hendriks, Klaus B. and Brian Lesser. “Disaster Preparedness and Recovery: Photographic Materials.” American Archivist 46(1) (Winter 1983): 52-68.
  • Hendriks, Klaus B.; B. Lesser, et al. 1982 "Emergency procedures for photographs.” International Symposium: the Stability and Preservation of Photographic Images. Aug. 29 - Sept. 1 1982. The public archives of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario. Springfield, VA. 8-9.
  • Hendriks, Klaus B., Debra Hess Norris, and James M. Reilly. A. Gilson Brown, (ed.). "Photograph Conservation: The State of the Art." The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works - Preprints of papers presented a the fourteenth annual meeting, Chicago, IL, 21-25 May 1986. Washington, D.C.: The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, 1986, p. 42-55.
  • Hendriks, Klaus B. 1991. "Recovery of Photograph Collections Following a Flood." Sauvegarde et conservation des photographies, dessins, imprimes et manuscrits. Actes des journées internationales d'etudes de l"ARSAG, Paris 30 Sept. - 4 Oct. 1991. Paris: ARSAG, p. 15-20
  • Hill, Thomas T. 1981 (September) "Reading List of References on the Preservation and Restoration of Photographic Images." Photographic Conservation 3. p. 6-7.
  • Klein, Henry. 1976 (July/August). "Microfilm Resuscitation: A Case Study." Journal of Micrographics 9.
  • Lavedrine, Bertrand. 2003. A Guide to the Preventative Conservation of Photograph Collections Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute.
  • Lundquist, Eric. 1992. Salvage of Water-Damaged Books and Documents, Micrographic and Magnetic Media. San Francisco, CA: Document Reprocessors.
  • McCormick-Goodhart, Mark H. rev. 2007. "On the Cold Storage of Photographic Materials in a Conventional Freezer Using the Critical Moisture Indicator (CMI) Packaging Method," [PDF Sponsored by Aal_2007_1206_TA-02.pdf]
  • Moor, Ian I. and Angela. 1987. "Fire and Flood: Criteria for the Recovery of Photographic Materials" Recent Advances in the Conservation and Analysis of Artifacts. Jubilee Conservation Conference, London 6-10 July 1987. London: University of London. Institute of Archaeology. Summer Schools Press. p. 319-322.
  • Norris, Debra Hess. 1998. "Disaster Recovery: Salvaging Photograph Collections," Philadelphia, PA: Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts
  • Norris, Debra Hess. 1996. Air-drying of Water-soaked Photographic Materials: Observation and Recommendations." ICOM Committee for Conservation. 11th Triennial Meeting in Edinburgh, Scotland, 1-6 September 1996: Preprints. p. 601-608. Bridgland, Janet (ed.), London: James and James (Science Publishers) Ltd.
  • Northeast Document Conservation Center. 1992. "Emergency Salvage of Photographs." Technical Leaflet, Emergency Management. Andover, MA: NEDCC.
  • Payton, Greg. 1985. "(Question raised about remedy for smoke fire damaged photo materials) in Q&A column." Darkroom photography 7(6): 8-11.
  • Reed, Villa L. 1981 (December). "How to Work Restoration Magic on Wrinkled Negatives." PhotographiConservation 3, no.4, p. 4-6.
  • Reilly, James J. Care and Identification of 19th Century Photographic Prints. Rochester, NY: Eastman Kodak Company, 1986.
  • Robb, Andrew, 2003 (September). Photographs and Preventative Conservation: Theory, Practice, and Implementation. Workshop hosted by the Library of Congress.
  • "Salvaging Photographs and Transparencies." 2000. Minnesota Historical Society.
  • "Separating Coated Paper after Drying." 1986. Abbey Newsletter 10(3): 48.
  • Shiraiwa, Yoko. 2013. "Rescuing tsunami-damaged photographs in Japan," Journal of the Institute of Conservation. Vol. 36, No. 2, 195-203.
  • Siegel, Robin. 1999. "An Examination of Duplicating Film Damaged by Water in 1986." Topics in Photographic Preservation, vol. 8, p. 11-15. Washington, D.C.: AIC-Photographic Materials Group.
  • Swartzburg, Susan G. 1980. "The Care and Conservation of Photographic Materials" Preserving Library Materials: A Manual. p. 87-97. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press.
  • von Waldthausen, Clara C. 2005. "Recovery of a Water-Soaked Photographic Collection in the Netherlands." Preparing for the Worst, Planning for the Best: Protecting Our Cultural Heritage From Disaster. p. 163-176. Munich: Saur, K.G.
  • Walsh, Betty. 1988 (May). "Salvage Operations for Water Damaged Collections." WAAC Newsletter. Vol. 10, No. 6; p. 315-329.
  • Waters, Peter. "Emergency Procedures for Salvaging Flood or Water-Damaged Library Materials: Photographic Materials." Information Part 2: Reports/Bibliographies. Vol. 2, Issue No:1-2, p. 13-14. New York, NY: July 1972.
  • Waters, Peter, Klaus B. Hendriks, Nancy Marrelli. "Rehabilitation of Salvaged Materials: Freeze-Drying." Proceedings of an Ounce of Prevention: A Symposium on Disaster Contingency Planning for Information Managers in Archives, Libraries, and Records Centres, March 7-8, 1985. p. 145-156. Toronto, CN: Toronto Area Archivists Group Education Foundation
  • Wilhelm, Henry G. 1993. The Permanence and Care of Color Photographs: Traditional and Digital Color Prints, Color Negatives, Slides, and Motion Pictures. Grinnell, IA: Preservation Pub. Co.
  • Young, Christine. 1989. Nitrate Films in the Public Institution. AASLH Technical Leaflet #169. Nashville: American Association for State and Local History (AASLH).
  • Zorn, Sabine, 2002 (November). "Dokumentation der geleisteten Arbeiten, Empfehlungen zur restauratorischen Behandlung sowie Angaben zur Planung und Kalkulation des Gesamptprojekts." Abschulssbericht und Empfehlungen. vom. 23, bis 29. Bern: Berner Fachhochschule.

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