Photo cleaning and care – solving common problems

Part 2 of 2 –

A little TLC can preserve your photo treasures.

Proper handling can prevent some damage to photographs. Clean, white cotton gloves should be worn while handling photographs. Oils from hands, lotions and other sources can mark the image’s surface and may not be reversible. Never use ink to mark photographs or enclosures. Instead, use a soft lead pencil on the reverse side of the photo.


Since even the slightest abrasion can damage a photograph, it is important to use only a very soft, clean brush to dust the surface. Move from the center to the edges, not straight across. No solvents should be used as these can also damage and even remove the emulsion of the photograph. Should photographs adhere to framing glass or each other, do not try to separate them yourself. Contact an experienced photograph restorer/conservator as soon as possible. Do not attempt to mend tears by using ordinary tape, as this can damage the image.


Always keep the areas where photographs are handled or stored clean and pest-free. It is vital that collection areas be free of debris that might encourage pests. Food and beverages should not be stored near the photographs. Apart from the potential for attracting pests, accidental spills can irreversibly damage most photographic objects.

Mold is removed from a flood-damaged photo.

Wet photographs: In many cases, wet photographs may be salvaged by very carefully separating them (if they appear stuck together, do not attempt to separate them since they may tear or pull emulsion from the support). Place pieces of wax paper (slightly bigger than the largest photo) between each photograph, put the stack of photos into a zip-lock bag and freeze the entire package until you can put in the hands of a trained photograph restoration specialist.

Soiled photographs or negatives: Brush soiled photographs carefully with a clean, soft brush. Proceed from the center of the photograph outward toward the edges. Do not attempt to clean photographs with water-based or solvent-based cleaners, such as window cleaner or film cleaner. Improper cleaning of photographic materials can cause serious and often irreversible damage such as permanent staining, abrasion, alteration or loss of binder and image.

Photographs or negatives adhered to enclosure: High-humidity environments or direct exposure to liquids can cause photographs to adhere to frame glass or enclosure materials. This is a very difficult problem to resolve and great care must be taken to reduce the possibility of further damage. If a photograph becomes attached to adjacent materials, consult a photographic materials conservator before attempting to remove the adhered materials.

Deteriorated negatives: Chemical instability is a major factor in the deterioration of early film-based materials. If film-based negatives are brittle, discolored, sticky or appear wavy and full of air bubbles, separate the negatives from the rest of the collection and consult a photographic materials conservator or photograph restoration specialist. A conservator can provide photo restoration and will be able to help identify these materials and make recommendations for their safe storage or duplication.

Broken Ambrotypes (old photo negatives on glass): Carefully place broken glass negative pieces in archival paper enclosures. Use a separate, clearly marked enclosure for each piece to reduce the possibility of scratching or further damaging the negative. Consult a photographic materials conservator or photograph restoration specialist for assistance.

In case you missed it: Part 1 – Caring for and displaying your keepsake photos

This blog is part of a continuing series offering advice on preserving, displaying and caring for art objects in your home. Additional information is available at the author’s website. See your local, independent insurance agent for advice on coverage to protect fine art and other items of value.

© Copyright 2016 Doug Eisele; used by permission.


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