SLAGIAT: Using strong chemicals to clean photos

by Sally J.

in * How to PRESERVE Family History Treasures, Free Articles / Blog

SLAGIAT = “Seemed like a good idea at the time.”

In the past, conservators used poisons like cyanide and arsenic (!) to kill insects and other pests. Even though they didn’t always work. Eeeek. After apologizing for preaching to the converted, a conservator on a professional email list had this to say:

More than one of the chemicals that were considered safe early in my career have been discredited because many existing “approved” fumigation facilities were, in fact, unsafe, because the chemicals affected the chemistry of objects over time, or because there is continued off gassing from the treated object.

What seems like a good idea today may cause real harm in the long run.

This is precisely why I never recommend chemical solvents to clean prints or film. Even though professional photographers do this regularly. My argument is this: It might look better today, but what will happen 10, 50, 100 years from now? Better safe than sorry.

This is also why I urge you to wear cotton gloves when handling photographs. That fingerprint might not look so bad today, but it could start eating into the emulsion one day down the road.

Mary Cain Minton February 8, 2009 at 10:01 pm

I have missed your posts! Was your last one really in November? I want to refer my readers (both of them)
to The Practical Archivist, if you are still up and running.

Mary M

Chris October 8, 2007 at 11:02 pm

I think it’s more a case of you can get away with cleaning them once, rather than it being completely safe.

Sally J. October 8, 2007 at 8:58 pm


Thanks for that wonderful anectdote!

Professional photographers and professional labs have always used chemicals to clean prints and film. They are certain it’s OK, but as you know, I take a more cautious approach.

It’s hard to imagine how the first time treatment is completely safe while the second spells disaster.

Chris October 8, 2007 at 12:05 am

My girlfriend used to develop photos for a living. She says you can chemically clean films once, and the second time they’ll disintegrate. That sounds like a good argument against doing it ever for stuff you’d like to keep long-term.

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