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Enlighten Me: The science behind saving flood-damaged photos

Eli Chen/Delaware Public Media
Photos from Wimbereley, TX. Art conservator Debra Hess Norris says framed photos are almost impossible to save.

When a disaster hits, the main priority is getting you and your loved ones somewhere safe. There’s no stopping to dig out family heirlooms, let your kids grab their favorite stuffed animals -- you have no choice but to leave your material possessions behind.

But when that fire or flood is over, you start to take stock of what’s become lost and what can’t ever be replaced.

The flood that hit communities in south-central Texas last Memorial Day was a historic event. Some areas received as much as 10 inches of rain and a couple dozen people died. After the flood, there was a local effort in one town to salvage lost items -- especially photos. And some of these photos were sent to an art conservator based at the Winterthur Museum in Wilmington.



Bernice Brown Scott is an 82 year old resident of Wimberley, Texas, and she remembers what the Memorial Day flood was like for her family.


“We ran up the stairs," she said. "we watched it from the stairs. It came up one step every eight minutes and we didn’t know when it would stop.”

The water burst through locked doors, filling the house with so much water that the furniture was floating on it.


“And as soon as the water started going down," said Scott, "the furniture floated and was rushed towards the window and broke the windows out and went out completely. So we lost everything. I mean, everything. We stood up on the deck above on the second floor. And we watched our hot tub float away, a garden shed with a lawnmower inside, all of my husband’s tools, and 24 jars of fresh grape jams that I had just put up. It was just, you’re just stunned. You don’t know what to do. It was pitch black and the water was deep. All you can do is sit and watch. It just was horrifying.”  


Among her possessions were thousands of photographs that she’d collected over the years, of her children and grandchildren, family gatherings, vacations. Many of them were saved in a hard drive.  


“I took it to two or three different places that were qualified to restore things from a hard drive and they said they couldn’t get anything from mine because it was water damaged," said Scott. "It had been underwater and something fell on it.”

But what did manage to survive were a few photographs. Kind strangers helped return about a dozen photos to her. At least one of them ended up at the local Wimberley Village Library -- which set up a lost and found right after the flood.  


“I would have never thought this is something we would do," said Manning. "I think we were all caught by surprise with the flooding and the extent of what happened to homes and people, so when I got that call from a local volunteer, ‘Can the library be the point, the place of destination for people who find photos, can they bring them? I said, ‘Sure.’”

That’s Carolyn Manning, the director of the library. She says at one point so many photos came in that they had to use floor space. And while there was no official count of photos, she estimates people dropped off at least 5,000 photos.

Credit Eli Chen/Delaware Public Media

  As word got out about these flood-damaged photos, an art conservator reached out with an offer to help recover them. Debra Hess Norris, a University of Delaware professor, and her graduate students received 275 photos from Wimberley, including one that belonged to Bernice Brown Scott. The class worked on them for about three weeks in January at the Winterthur Museum in Wilmington, Delaware.


Norris is standing in a bright room that looks like an artist's studio and a chemistry lab meshed together. There are large hoses dangling from the ceiling, an eyewash station along a counter, and paintbrushes and art supplies piled in corners. She carefully removes the lids of a three beige boxes and takes out photos that are encased in transparent polyester sleeves.


“We have a range of photographs that are in color and black and white from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries," said Norris. "Representing digital photography as well, and they have been exposed to prolonged immersion and water during the floods.”  

When these photos arrived at Winterthur, they were covered in mud and other debris from the flood.    

“Our students then had to study each photograph to determine the extent of damage and what could be done to treat them," said Norris.

The first step is examining the photos with a microscope. The magnification allows the

Credit Eli Chen/Delaware Public Media
A laboratory in Winterthur where the students treated the photographs

   conservator to see if there are any flaking or scratches on the surface, and if any dirt has become embedded in the emulsion.


"After they had a better sense of the kinds of techniques that might work, they would typically start with dry techniques -- not using moisture of any kind," said Norris. "Moisture and water on these damaged photographs can be very dangerous. So we would typically start with very soft brushes to remove some of the loose dirt and grime. The problem with these photographs, however, is that many of  them were covered in mud, so in that case you had to use microspatulas to try and break up the mud and reduce its thickness."

Getting rid of the mud and silt takes time. Graduate student Diana Hartman, showed me a photo that she worked on for several hours.


“This is a studio portrait of a young girl," said Hartman. "It’s a silver gelatin image. Possibly done sometime in the 40s, but I’m not sure of the date of this picture. What took a little bit of a long time was doing my cleaning tests, so trying out different things, making sure nothing was sensitive.”

Credit Eli Chen/Delaware Public Media
Some of the materials the conservators use to get dirt and other debris off the surface of the photographs

  Hartman tested different solutions on the edges of the photo.


“I ended up cleaning the surface with a 1 to 1 mixture of deionized water and ethanol," she said. "And that worked really well. And rolling it off gently with cotton swabs.”  

When it comes to flood damage, Norris says that ironically, some of the older photos stood a better chance of surviving than more recent photos.


“Because those photographs are made of silver image materials that are suspended in albumen," said Norris.

In the earlier part of the 19th century, photographs were bound with collodion or albumen -- better known as egg white. Then in the 1870s, the gelatin silver process was introduced and photos afterward were usually bound with gelatin. It proved to be more convenient to use because it requires shorter exposure times. But as it turns out, gelatin is more reactive to moisture.


“So when these photographs that are comprised of gelatin are immersed in water they tend to swell, they get tacky and sticky," said Norris.

Tami Clare is a chemistry professor at Portland State University who focuses on art 


  conservation. She says this swelling happens because gelatin is made up of a protein called collagen, which has a similar composition to water.


“If we were to anthropomorphize collagen, we’d say that when collagen sees water, it sees a molecule that looks like itself,  and so those two molecules, collagen and water, can interact very nicely," said Clare.

And also to the detriment of the photograph.

If this collection of photos were sent to a professional art conservator, Norris estimates that the work would have probably cost $45,000. But since this provided a learning experience for her students, the university picked up the tab on the supplies and the work was done for free.

Norris says that art conservators have helped communities recover their belongings after disasters for decades. But the museum community got involved in these efforts rather recently -- most notably in the aftermath of the Great Flood of 1993 that impacted the Midwest.


She believes that as scientists predict more natural disasters in the future, the role of art conservators will become more important.


“There’s no doubt as you watch the news worldwide, the extent of disasters, the impact of disasters natural and manmade are so significant and seem to be increasing," said Norris. "Our focus is to make sure museums, libraries, archives and other cultural heritage collections are well prepared for disasters, with disaster plans in place.”

The 275 photos were shipped back to Texas in mid-February to be reunited with their owners.

The photo returning to Bernice Brown Scott displays her grandson standing in a yard, wearing denim blue overalls and holding a brown bottle to his mouth. Though it’s only one of many photos she’s kept of her grandchildren, she’s eager to have it back home.


“It was just too many things [I lost]," said Scott. "You don’t remember what’s lost until you reach for it, and it’s not there.”

And even though the photo will still carry some permanent marks from the flood, she’s says something is better than nothing.