Heather Brown, a second-year art conservation graduate student at UD, examines an early cellulose acetate film negative likely damaged by exposure to high relative humidity conditions. 

Saving storm-damaged photos

UD conservators triage to provide advice, resources


3:39 p.m., Nov. 7, 2012--In a news clip on MSNBC, Phyllis, a 62-year-old grandmother from Staten Island, clutches a black-and-white photograph of her mother in her wedding gown. She found the family treasure strewn among the muck and marsh grass where her shattered home ended up in Hurricane Sandy’s wake. 

If you have recovered photographs or photo albums that were damaged by the superstorm, don’t throw them out. There is hope for saving storm-damaged photos, according to Debra Hess Norris, professor and chair of the Department of Art Conservation at the University of Delaware. 

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Norris, who is an expert on photograph preservation, and her colleagues and students at UD are triaging to provide the public with advice and resources for salvaging storm-damaged photographs. Email questions to art-conservation@udel.edu with the subject line “Save My Photograph,” and the UD team will provide recommendations for treatment, as well as contact information for professional conservators if requested.

“It’s about giving people who have had to deal with so much some hope and guidance for saving photographs that are precious to them,” Norris says. “In many cases, water-damaged photographs can be saved.”

Norris offers these general tips and guidance:

  • Don’t dispose of your photographs even if they have dirt on them or have become distorted from being in water.
  • Allow the photographs to air dry. Place them on screens or paper towels to allow the air to circulate around them. Do not use a hair drier or other direct source of heat, as this can lead to further damage. 
  • If photographs are in plastic sleeves, remove them from the sleeves to dry. 
  • If the photographs are stuck together, allow them to air dry. Conservators can later do their best to disassociate them while minimizing damage. 
  • Document everything — snap a photograph of the damaged photos with your cell phone or other camera. 

UD’s Department of Art Conservation offers preservation degrees at the undergraduate, master’s and doctoral levels, and is among a limited number of programs globally to provide graduate training in the field of photographic materials. The program’s alumni work in museums and private practice throughout the world. 

Photo by Courtney Von Stein

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