After a storm such as a hurricane, tornado or flood, keeping a part of your “life before” is very important to the recovery process. Finding a photo, slides or negatives of a loved one or of a time, place or event can bring excitement and relief that at least something in your life didn’t just vanish with the wind & water. Sadly, people often don’t realize that dirty, soggy photographs and other photographic materials can be salvaged if action is taken quickly to mitigate further damage. If you have found your photographs, slides or negatives, they are most likely covered with mud, grime or debris and are wet and soggy, or dry and stuck together, inside a frame or photo album page, or stuck to the glass or plastic page.

Most people do not realize that these precious memories are covered by homeowners’ insurance policies under the contents sections. It will generally cover some, if not all, of the costs of salvage or restoration for these items. One should review the policy for specific exclusions, but these are as important to many people as their household furnishings and are a part of them. However, these must be included at the same time, on the same claim for this to occur. Insurance companies like to settle claims fast & cheaply, and will not pay later for an event that caused damages to items. Be sure to check with the insurance company or adjuster to see that a claim can remain “open” until you get all the estimates in place for all your belongings.

Reputable photographic restorers will work with the client to give free written estimates for these services. It depends upon the quality of the service received as to the costs. In this case, “you get what you pay for” is a generally correct. Some companies will give quick service at a low price, with less than satisfactory results, or may damage the photographic materials even more because they are not qualified archivists or restorers. It takes a specialty service to rescue storm, smoke, or otherwise damaged photographic materials. If you decide to seek professional help & restoration/salvage, be sure to ask about the qualifications of the person(s) doing the work, experience level, types of situations they have worked with, and samples of work previously done for other clients. If you are not satisfied with the answers, check elsewhere.

NOW is the time to do the best salvage work to keep the memories of your life and those lives of family members from disappearing. PhotoArts Imaging Labs offers these directions to individuals affected by disaster for taking care of those prints, slides & negatives until you can seek a professional assessment or help.

PLEASE NOTE: Professionals work with these types of situations & are trained in these methods which are lengthy processes to complete. Further damage is possible & likely if wet or dry photographic materials are mishandled or carelessly cleaned. PhotoArts Imaging Labs offers this information as a public service to storm victims and cannot guarantee any results created by the use of such information. PhotoArts Imaging Labs & its personnel are not responsible for the use or misuse of this information.


Prints (Photographs) that are wet and stuck together slightly:

(a) These must be very carefully separated & gently cleaned. If professional help is not available, or you cannot afford professional help, some photographic materials can be placed into a shallow pan or a bowl of filtered, clean tap water & agitated VERY gently to remove the excess mud and/or debris. Never rub or wipe a photograph or negative with your hand, cloth or any other cleaning material! Never pull apart photographic materials that have ANY resistance; the emulsion will stretch &/or tear!

NOTE: This is the most crucial & delicate process. Photographic prints & negatives can receive deep scratches from rough over-agitation & fingernails or with sand or grit that may be in the water or surrounding area. Cleaning photographic materials requires a lot of time & a deft touch by someone who understands the materials involved.

(b) Do NOT leave them to soak for over 10-15 minutes without checking the saturation of the materials! Over soaking may also damage the emulsion as it swells in water. Over soaking modern photographs can cause the "picture" to loosen from the "paper" support & simply float off. If this has happened due to the flood waters, please consider calling a professional immediately.

NEVER attempt to separate photographs, slides, or negatives if ANY resistance is felt!

Change water often to keep clean fluid on the materials and to get rid of dirt, mud, or grit.

NEVER touch the emulsion (picture area) of photographic materials; handle everything by the edges or risk damage to the fragile, wet emulsion.

(c) Once separated, the prints &/or negatives should be laid out separately to dry in a clean, dust-free area as possible. Be very sure the emulsion faces up to prevent sticking to any surface as it dries (picture side on photos, backward reading side for negatives/slides). Clean, lintless paper towels or other paper works well to protect the surface & keep area clean.

(d) Make sure to dry materials away from any direct heat source and strong light or sunlight. These can cause the emulsion to dry at an uneven rate & crack, burn the photos, or fade the image. Current temperatures in our area should allow the materials to dry within a few hours at low humidity. NEVER use a hairdryer or heat lamp for this process!

(e) When the materials are completely dry, put them into an acid-free, clean envelope or other type of acid-free paper/sleeve for safekeeping. Again, touch only the edges of the materials to keep finger oils & finger prints from ruining all the work put in up to this time. Putting the materials into safe photographic envelopes, glassine envelopes, or sleeves and carefully storing them will allow time for the cleaned emulsion to “cure” and continue to harden (hopefully) to its original state. This is not guaranteed, but helps a professional to get a better chance to help restore the images with less cost at a later time, should you decide to use one.

(f) When life becomes more stable, one can review the materials for damage, seek professional advice or help, or put them into acid-free, archival covers & boxes for proper storage. Such types of pages, albums, or boxes are made by PrintFile, Clear File, and other archival photographic materials manufacturers for long term storage. Consult a trusted photographic supply person who will answer your questions & help one choose the best product for the particular situation.


Photographs, slides, or negatives that have dried together and are stuck fast:

Photographic materials that are stuck together should NEVER be pulled on while dry. This will cause almost irreparable damage to the emulsions and be very expensive to repair or restore! The best plan is to put them into an envelope and seek professional help or advice. Most professional archivists, conservators and restorers can safely separate the materials, if they get them as soon as possible or within a reasonable time after the damage has occurred.

At this time, DO NOT throw away anything that may have even a remote possibility of being salvaged! Even if one cannot consider restoration of the images, having something to view is better than throwing away part of your family history & life. We have seen folks regret the loss of images after realizing they could still have them; and we have seen some really badly damaged materials.

If you wish to attempt the separation & cleaning of these materials by yourself, PhotoArts Imaging Labs offers some guidelines to help you understand the process:

(a) Photos or negatives should be soaked in filtered, cool tap or clean water and very gently agitated until they come apart easily, which is not guaranteed. If the emulsion is dry, it will stick to the back of the ones on top of it or to the glass or in the plastic cover of an album page. Be sure to soak these a few hours BEFORE any attempt is made to separate the materials. (See procedure for wet prints above.)

(b) You may have to change the water as it becomes dirty; this is normal and good to clean excess mud, grit and debris from the photos or negatives. If you are really lucky, the materials may actually float apart during this part of the procedure. Although it happens, we do not recommend that you count on it.

(c) While the photos or negatives are soaking, be sure the water begins to seep between them to soften the dried, stuck together emulsions. This is an Extremely Delicate process and one can (& often does) cause damage to the photographic materials by scratches, tears or stretching the emulsion or film/paper.

(d) DO NOT simply put these into a pan or bowl of water and leave them. These are delicate & have sustained damage, so they do not need any more “wet” time or soaking than is absolutely needed for careful separations. Modern photographs are often printed on what is called RC papers. If left to soak for extended lengths of time, the "picture" or emulsion can separate and simply float off the paper! If this has already happened to some of your images due to flood waters, please consider calling a professional immediately.

(e) DO NOT use any soap or other common household chemicals or cleansers!! Photographs, slides, or negatives all require different, special solutions to correctly archival clean and decontaminate them. Professional restorers and archivists know which solutions clean each type of emulsion and use them to preserve photographic materials. These can be purchased through reputable photography supply dealers whose personnel (or literature) will give instructions on the proper use & handling precautions of the cleaning solutions and materials.

(f) Just getting these photos or negatives apart, cleaned & dried is a major step toward salvaging your memories. (See steps in procedure listed previously.) When life becomes more stable for you and your family, seek professional help & advice for your images.

For specific information or questions about salvaging photographic materials, PhotoArts Imaging Labs restorers & archivists will answer emails & letters or take phone calls. Send specific questions and a detailed description to

A voice mail can be left for us at 1-866-ART-FOTO (1-866-278-3686) or the local Hattiesburg, MS phone, 601-582-FOTO (582-3686). The best time to speak to one of of our professionals is between the hours of 11 a.m. - 5 p.m., Tuesday - Thursday, Central Time. If you leave a message, please let us know the best time to call, as we do return calls during other days & after what is considered "business hours" when it comes to answering your questions about photo salvage. Our fax line: 601-544-1920. Address for mail: PhotoArts Imaging Labs, Attn: Photo Salvage, 1402 Mamie Street, Hattiesburg, MS 39401-6207.

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