PMG Surface Cleaning

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Page Information
Date initiated October 2009
Page Compiler Ronel Namde
Contributors Amy Brost, Luisa Casella, Alejandra Mendoza, Ronel Namde, Stephanie Watkins

Purpose of Surface Cleaning Photographic Materials[edit | edit source]

Maximize the chemical and physical stability of the object while removing damaging or obscuring surface deposits while minimizing changes in the image, binder, and support from light exposure while removing surface debris.

Factors to Consider Before Surface Cleaning[edit | edit source]

Photographs often present surface dirt or accretions. The reduction or removal of these maybe desirable for aesthetic reasons or long-term preservation as these extraneous particles may contribute to further damage by abrasion by being hygroscopic or by contributing to the chemical degradation of the object.
Cleaning the surface of photographs is a delicate procedure. The risks involved are physical (abrasion) and chemical (harmful interaction of solvents with the image layer). Surface cleaning procedures may cause permanent change in sheen or texture, two of the most important visual characteristics of photographic materials.
It is fundamental to carefully identify the photographic process as well as any existing protective layers such as varnishes which will respond differently to treatment than the specific photographic process surface. Additionally, the presence of hand coloring or retouching should be thoroughly considered before beginning any cleaning procedure.
It is also most important to evaluate the condition of the photograph prior to cleaning. Note silver mirroring, processing problems, evidence of mold or prolonged exposure to high RH, cracking of the binder or coating, etc. All of these will affect the choice of cleaning method; severe structural damage to a binder layer may rule out surface cleaning treatment or mandate that treatment be carried out under magnification at all times.
It is equally fundamental to determine the nature of the dirt to be removed which will allow defining the appropriate course of treatment.

  • Particulate matter will often be easily removed with air bulb or brush
  • Soot, from fire damage, is greasy and has to be removed by the use of solvent, eraser or soot sponge
  • Fingerprints are often composed of grease or dirt so the use of solvent may be required, although often not be successful.
  • Accretions may often be removed by mechanical action alone (using a sharp edged tool).

Material removed during surface cleaning may have evidentiary, artifactual, or historical value, and that should also be taken into consideration before performing a treatment.

Techniques[edit | edit source]

Mechanical (Dry/Non-aqueous) Cleaning Methods[edit | edit source]

With mechanical cleaning it is fundamental that the tools or surface deposits do not abrade or damage the surface of the photograph by excessive pressure, sharp edges or composed of too hard a material, since these tools will be cleaning the surface (as opposed to a solvent).

Air[edit | edit source]

If surface deposits are minimal (such as dust), a safe approach to surface cleaning photographs is using an air bulb, such as used for cleaning ears or designed specifically as a blower (e.g. Giotto brand). It is important to work methodically. Blow the surface dirt from the center outwards or from one edge to the other ensuring the dirt is not moved and re-deposited on the photographic surface in another area.
Compressed air cans often spray chemicals or aqueous droplets that may damage the surface of the object. Therefore, they are not recommended. The use of ionizing air wands is being investigated at The Met. These work by breaking the electrostatic bonds on the surface of objects, releasing dust or other particulates, as well as by blowing air. Small museum vacuum cleaners may be used for light surface dirt.

Brush[edit | edit source]

Soft brushes can be used for removing slightly persistent surface dirt. The brush must be of natural soft hair (e.g. goat) such as the Japanese Hake (brushes). Clean brushes after each use by washing with neutral soap and lukewarm water.

Cosmetic Sponge[edit | edit source]

Chamois[edit | edit source]

Eraser Crumbs[edit | edit source]

For more persistent surface dirt such as dark dust or debris, eraser crumbs may be used. Erasers used by photograph conservators are sulfur-free vinyl erasers, more commonly Magic Rub and Staedtler-Mars white eraser. Tests done specifically to address interaction of erasers with photographic materials[1]demonstrated that any eraser will leave some particulate and plasticizer residue on the surface. Eraser may be acquired already grated (in which case it is important to be sure to buy conservation grade materials), or may be grated using a ginger grinder or an electrical food processor. Once grated, the crumbs are sprinkled over the surface to clean in small areas, and rubbed gently using the palm of your (nitrile gloved) hand applying slight pressure, or using a round brush or using the eraser block itself, depending on the level of pressure needed. As soon as the crumbs become soiled they should be brushed off with a soft wide brush (Hake), and new crumbs used to continue. Block eraser may also be used.
It is important to insure that mechanical cleaning is not done excessively, that is, to a point where the surface of the object starts to be abraded or burnishing begins to occur. Highly glossy surfaces or processes without binder may not be cleaned with eraser – the first because the residues will alter its appearance, the second because residues will be embedded in the paper fibers as well as in direct contact with the image forming material and adversely react with it over time.

Eraser Blocks[edit | edit source]

See also Fire-Damaged Photographs

Chemical Solvent Cleaning[edit | edit source]

Using solvents to clean photographs surfaces requires accurate process identification. Many processes can look similar yet respond differently with similar treatment.

Spot testing is desirable prior to treatment. Unpredictable damaging effects may occur by solvent cleaning.

Considerations: To give an extreme example, if one were to wrongly identify a printing out process as a gelatin when in fact it was a collodion, the use of alcohol on the binder would dissolve it and the image would be removed, disfiguring the object irreversibly. Ethanol will swiftly dissolve Collodion. Collodion can be confused with silver gelatin prints.

Even if resistant to the solvent, a surface may be irreparably changed – such is the case of high-gloss ferrotyped surfaces which will change if in contact with water. Silver mirroring in photographs will be permanently disturbed by solvent cleaning, so best untouched if its overall removal is not the treatment goal.
Another issue with solvent cleaning is the risk of swelling the binder material, causing the dirt to penetrate it and be trapped, resulting both in a worst aesthetic appearance and in risk of further damage by future interactions of the binder material with the dirt.
Solvent cleaning is commonly done locally, using a cotton swab that is only slightly moist (never saturated with the solvent), and by rolling it gently on the surface applying very slight pressure. Cotton should be changed after each swipe, to insure that the surface dirt is not being dragged across and re-deposited in another area or abrading the surface. Commonly solvent cleaning is done under magnification to ensure observing any possible occurring damage immediately.
Poultices may also be used for surface cleaning, notably for accretion removal, and generally in a localized area. Poultices of methylcellulose or Klucel-G used in a thick gel-like concentration allow slow humidification of the accretion which will bind with the poultice material and be more easily removed.
Solvent cleaning may also be done overall which is most delicate and risky and should only be done in processes which behavior is known. This procedure requires full attention of the conservator; it also requires the possibility to interrupt and neutralize the process if necessary, as often objects will react unpredictably. Overall solvent cleaning can be done by immersion in the solvent (washing) which may be applicable in cases where a fast humidification is desirable. Overall solvent cleaning may also be done by applying a solvent-soaked hygroscopic material over the photograph and have the dirt be transferred onto that material by capillarity. This is more appropriate if a slow humidification is required.
Solvents may be used to remove persistent surface dirt or adhesives such as pressure sensitive tapes or rubber cement.
Examples of solvents used both for local and overall surface cleaning are:

  • De-ionized water – alcohol such as ethanol may be added, to increase evaporation rate of the water
  • A surfactant such as photo-flo may be added to the water (in very low concentration – 0.5% to 3%) to increase the solubilization action of water
  • Ethanol - pure or diluted in de-ionized water. The fast evaporation of ethanol may be desired;when a mix of water and ethanol are used, one can have the properties of water as a solvent with a fasting evaporation rate.
  • Water with adjusted pH, such as ammoniated water
  • Chelators added to water, such as citric acid or ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA)
  • A bath of toluene or acetone may be used for removing dry-mounted backings.

Ready to use commercial products should be avoided as their composition may be not fully disclosed.

Specific Methodology[edit | edit source]

Face-mounted Photographs[edit | edit source]

There are cases where surface cleaning is particularly problematic. A number of contemporary mounting methods pose great challenges to the conservator. Such is the example of face-mounted photographs where the photographic print has been surface-mounted onto a sheet of plastic glazing. The glazing then becomes the surface of the photograph but aesthetic reasons make it so that the object should be exhibited with no further protection, risking abrasion due to scratches by visitors and by the need of regular dusting.
Research at The Metropolitan Museum of Art allowed choosing a specific brand of microfiber cloth to dry clean these surfaces (Modern Magic® Blue Suede Cloth from Modern Plastics).
Laminating is another popular mounting method which consists of adhering a plastic layer to the surface of the photograph. These are commonly cleaned with air bulb only as the effect of direct use of cloths or brushes on these surfaces has not been researched.

Effects of Cleaning Experiments on Face-mounted Photographs

Clara von Waldthausen and Bill Wei

Effects of Cleaning Experiments on Face-mounted Photographs Talk by Clara von Waldthausen and Bill Wei, 2016

For the past twenty-five years, face-mounted photographs form a large part of contemporary photographic collections. Due to the electrostatic charge of the PMMA, these photographs can accumulate dust and soil while on exhibition, during transport and even in storage.

Cleaning tests were performed as part of the International Face-mounting Initiative to learn more about the nature of dust accumulation on face-mounted photographs and the mid-term effects of cleaning on the PMMA surface. Various methods were looked at including mechanical cleaning using dust clothes, compressed air combined with an “ion gun”, as well as the by artists commonly used AMS Cleaning System.

A second part of the research studied the electrostatic charge build-up on the PMMA surface as a result of cleaning. Which methods caused the most build-up and how long did the electrostatic charge on the surface last? This paper aims to examine the outcomes of cleaning tests and discuss some tips on cleaning strategies.

Specific Conditions[edit | edit source]

Silver Mirroring[edit | edit source]

Inherent silver particles migrating to the surface of a photographic print or negative can be disfiguring. Discussion on appropriateness of removal and techniques used can be found in the Silver Mirroring section.

Fire-Damaged Photographs[edit | edit source]

Used with permission, the following information is from the Winterthur/University of Delaware student training program in Jan 2015 in regards to processing 300 photographs, (Silver Gelatin, Chromogenic Color and Dye Diffusion Transfer). Additional research and alternative practices are most welcome to expand this section.
* Note: Wear personal protection equipment, such as nitrile gloves and particulate or dust masks when processing and treating these materials.
When using erasers, apply gentle pressure whether cleaning front or back. Highly ferrotyped surfaces that were in fire may crack locally from pressure applied to the back.
Staedtler Mars vinyl erasers may reduce soot and grime on white borders of Polaroids.
Staedtler Mars vinyl erasers cut into smaller sections, such as triangular shapes (pointed ends) may remove or minimize stubborn black marks on the reverse of resin-coated prints.
Magic Rub erasers cut into small sections) can reduce/remove areas of soot on the back and edges, of photographs.
Pink Pearl erasers can reduce or remove extremely oily soot from borders of photographs.
Kneaded erasers can reduce or remove accretions and soot near edges when wet treatments are impractical.
PEC pads, applied dry can reduce or remove grime from glossy prints.
Cosmetic sponges can reduce or remove dirt and grime on many different types of photographic surfaces.
Soot sponges are most effective on the back, especially on heavily damaged areas and grime. Soot sponges are more effective on the backs than cosmetic sponges, yet tend to cling to photographic gelatin surfaces on the front.

Guidelines and Recommendations[edit | edit source]

It is advisable to perform spot testing prior to any surface cleaning, particularly when using solvents. Spot testing should be done in more than one area (for example high density and low density) as results may vary, and under magnification.

Whenever possible surface cleaning should be done under magnification or by regularly observing under magnification to ensure no damage is occurring. It is advisable to create mock ups to become familiar with working techniques as well as spot test prior to surface cleaning.

With some objects surface cleaning is a routine procedure, such as the case of face-mounted photographs. These cases represent an increased challenge as to which method to use, as incremental damage may be caused by cleaning procedure over time.
The back of a print or the secondary support it is mounted onto may be surface cleaned by a different technique than that of the photographic surface.

References[edit | edit source]

  • Abere, M. J., R. D. Murphy, B. Jackson, G. Mourou, M. Menu, J. Mansfield, and S. M. Yalisove. 2011. "Ultrafast laser cleaning of daguerreotypes." In Materials issues in art and archaeology IX: symposium held November 29-December 3, Boston, Massachusetts, USA. Materials Research Society Symposium Proceedings 1319. ed. P. B. Vandiver et al. Warrendale, PA: Materials Research Society. 299-303.
  • Barger, M. S. 2009. "Daguerreotype research at the Materials Research Laboratory, the Pennsylvania State University: 1979-1984." Topics in Photographic Preservation, vol. 13. American Institute for Conservation Photographic Materials Group. Washington, D.C.: AIC. 137-46.
  • Bernier, Brenda M. 1997. "A study of poly (vinyl chloride) erasers used in the surface cleaning of photographs." Topics in Photographic Preservation,vol. 7. AIC. Photographic Materials Group, Washington, US: 1997.
  • Casella, Luisa and Camille Moore. 2009. "Research on Methods for Cleaning Face-Mounted Photographs." Topics in Photographic Preservation, Vol. 13. AIC, Washington D.C. pp. 200-208.
  • Gadomski, T. 2009. "Appropriate techniques for surface cleaning inkjet prints." Topics in Photographic Preservation, vol. 13. American Institute for Conservation Photographic Materials Group. Washington, D.C.: AIC. 209-20.
  • Grosso, E. 1996. "Les gommes a effacer utilisees en conservation–restauration des photographies (Dry erasers used in conservation treatment of photographs)." Conservation – restauration des biens culturels 8: 49-54.
  • Guild, S. and J. Cowan. 2001. "Dry methods for surface cleaning paper." Technical Bulletin 11. Ottawa, Canada: Canadian Conservation Institute. 1-12.
  • Hernandez, P., L. Kreuzburg, and M. Sirven. 2011. "Cleaning beverages off photographs." Topics in Photographic Preservation, vol. 14. American Institute for Conservation Photographic Materials Group. Washington, D.C.: AIC. 4-11.
  • Hess Norris, Debbie. 1999. "The Surface Cleaning of Damaged Photographic Materials: Current Practice and Concerns” in The Care of Photographic, Moving Image, and Sound Collections, York, England, 20th-24th July 1998. The Institute of Paper Conservation: United Kingdom.
  • Hess Norris, Debbie. 1995.“Treatment of Deteriorated Photographic Print Materials”, in Proceedings from the Copenhagen Conference on research Techniques in Photographic Conservation.
  • Ioanid, E. G., A. Ioanid, D. E. Rusu, C. Popescu, and I. Stoica. 2011. "Surface changes upon high-frequency plasma treatment of heritage photographs." Journal of cultural heritage12(4): 399-407.
  • Kennedy, N. W. 1988. "Three French photograph conservation techniques." Topics in Photographic Preservation, vol. 2.American Institute for Conservation Photographic Materials Group Washington, D.C.: AIC. 40-49.
  • Kent Workshop. 1998. "Cleaning color photographs." PDF at, Resources, "Cleaning color photographs".
  • Knipe, Penley. 2007. "The evaluation of four aqueous and non aqueous surface cleaning techniques on silver gelatin photographs." Topics in Photographic Preservation 7: 19-27.
  • Laver, M. E. and S. Rempel. 1981. "A study of daguerreotype cleaning solutions." ICOM Committee for Conservation preprints. 6th Triennial Meeting, Ottawa. Paris: ICOM 4: 81/23/1-1-81/23/1-9.
  • Le Namouric, B. and B. Sainte-Marthe. 2009. "Les photographies contemporaines montées sous Diasec: traitements des dommages de surface et conservation préventive." (Contemporary photographs mounted by the Diasec method: treatments of surface damage and preventive conservation). Conservation restauration des biens culturels: revue de l'ARAAFU 27. 45-53.
  • _______. 2005. "Treatment of Andreas Gursky’s Rhine II: testing of dusting materials and cleaning cloths." Topics in Photographic Preservation, vol. 11. American Institute for Conservation Photographic Materials Group. Washington, D.C.: AIC. 79.
  • Messier, Paul, and T. Vitale. 1994. "Effects of aqueous treatment on albumen photographs." Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 33(3): 257-278.
  • Morrison, Pip. 2005. "Solvent effects on silver dye bleach materials." George Eastman House Advanced Residency Program in Photograph Conservation, Third Cycle.
  • Murphy, Erin. 2007. "Basic Care of Face-Mounted Photographs: A Survey of Materials and Techniques. Topics in Photographic Preservation 12: 160-174.
  • Wei, W. 2011. "Surface micro-roughness, cleaning, and perception. ICOM Committee for Conservation preprints." 16th Triennial Meeting, Lisbon. Paris: ICOM: 8.
  • Wei, W., I. Gerritsen, and C. Von Waldthausen. 2011. "Re-examining the (electro-)chemical cleaning of daguerreotypes: microscopic change vs. macroscopic perception." Topics in Photographic Preservation, vol. 14. American Institute for Conservation Photographic Materials Group. Washington, D.C.: AIC. 24-40.

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