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Common Photo Damage: Smoke Damage to Photos

smoke damage to photos

Common Photo Damage: Smoke Damage to Photos

There are several types of photo damage, but environmental deterioration has to be one of the most heartbreaking. Why? Because it can almost always be prevented. Variable factors that cause damage like humidity, temperature, storage, and more can be controlled to at least some degree if not eliminated entirely. That being said, one common type of environmental photo damage that cannot always be prevented is smoke.

When people think of smoke damage to photos, their first thought goes to a house fire. That isn’t always the case. In fact, smoke damage can come from a number of sources including:

  • Outdoor fires
  • House fires
  • Fire places
  • Cigarettes, Cigars, etc.
  • Furnace and appliance malfunctions
  • And more

Photographs, documents, and art are impacted by the environment around them. They absorb the elements that surround them, and an element like smoke can do more damage than make a piece dirty. Fire and smoke can cause dirt and grime as well as discoloration, crazing, photos stuck together, physical damage, and more. 

It’s easy to look at the damage and immediately despair, but take a minute to breathe. Smoke damaged photos may look and smell terrible, but there are ways to restore and preserve what you have.

How to Handle Smoke Damage to Photos

Your first impulse with any and all smoke damage is to clean. Resist the urge. If you start cleaning without knowing what type of photo you have or how to clean it, you run the risk of damaging the piece further. Here are a few tips for cleaning from FEMA:

  • Wear protective latex gloves and masks (everyone should have these by now). Gloves will protect the photos from the oils on your hands, and the masks will protect you from breathing in hazardous materials.
  • “Do not use water—or any other cleaning solution! Water will drive soot and ash further into the surface of your item, and they will become impossible to remove.”
  • Do not brush soot off an object, but you can vacuum without the brush attachment and on a low setting. You also run the risk of wiping off pieces of the image, especially if the photo is a crayon portrait. The Library of Congress suggests putting a flexible screen, like a window screen, on top of documents to protect them and make it easier to vacuum.
  • Be careful in your handling, stabilize your pieces, and call a conservator. Your pieces could be fragile and will need to be reviewed by a conservator. 

If your photos have damage caused by a fire, then they may have additional water damage. If this is the case, you will need to move quickly to save your photos. If they are wet, gently blot or shake off the excess moisture, and lay them flat to dry. If the photos have already dried and become stuck together, do not force them apart. A professional can often separate images with professional chemicals and restore images. If the photos are forced apart or become ripped in the process, it becomes harder if not impossible to separate the images.

How to Remove the Smoke Smell from Photographs

We’ve had clients bring in photos and art that have been in the home of a major smoker, and the pieces can have varying levels of smoke smell. Mild smoke smells can sometimes be eliminated by letting the piece air out for a while. In severe cases, the photo or document may need more treatment. You can put the piece in a closed container with activated charcoal or baking soda to absorb the smell (Library of Congress). ALA.org suggests changing the baking soda every 30 days as recommended on the box and every two months for activated charcoal.

If you have a painting, other artwork, or photos/documents that have value, contact a conservator to clean and treat your piece. There are conservation methods and resources that they use to clean, stabilize, and restore photographs and artwork. There are many sites that claim to have the “easiest/best/cheapest/professional/whatever” method to cleaning smoke damaged photos and art, but you need to ask yourself, “Is it worth the risk?” If it is, go for it. If you hesitate, even for a second, call a professional. 

To learn more about the common types of photo damage, visit our guide to photo restoration.