What to Do When You Find a Damaged Family Photo

By Maureen A. Taylor

In 2005 Lois O’Malley visited an elderly cousin in South Carolina to talk about family history. On the visit, she discovered he owned a large photo. As soon as she saw its condition, she took photos of it to make sure she had a copy.

Storage in fluctuating temperature and humidity had taken a toll on this crayon portrait. This type of image is a photograph enhanced with charcoal pencil.

The thin paper was worn away in places and there’s evidence of mold and insect damage. O’Malley did the right thing. Her camera documented the exact day she took the image.

So what do you do with a picture in this condition?

  • Photograph or scan it immediately. This type of deterioration will continue to progress if it isn’t moved to a stable environment.
  • Try to convince your relative of the importance of the image.
  • Find a good storage spot. Ideally, a windowless interior closet in a living area of the home (not an attic, garage or basement).
  • Place the item in an acid- and lignin-free folder and a reinforced-corner box. Here are some online suppliers where you can get these storage materials.
  • Obtain an estimate from a photo conservation expert for stabilizing the picture. You can find a conservator in your area on the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works website.
  • Separate moldy photos from other items. Mold spreads quite easily and you don’t want to end up with more than one problem.

It’s a good thing that Lois photographed the picture. When she went back to visit her cousin a few years later, he couldn’t find it.

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