How to Recognize and Treat Water Damage to Photographs

water damage to photographs

How to Recognize and Treat Water Damage to Photographs

You know the Allstate Mayhem commercials? We’re a big fan of them, and one of our favorites is the one about a cat and water damage. If you haven’t seen it, the “cat” turns on the upstairs bathroom sink faucet, the sink overflows, and the living room ceiling falls down. (You can see the commercial here.)

It’s a funny commercial — especially if you don’t have a destructive cat and haven’t suffered a serious water damage claim. If you have, then it probably isn’t so funny as it is traumatizing.

When water damage strikes, people don’t always think about their photographs, art, books, etc. because they’re focused on the house itself. Water damage can range from easy-to-handle (i.e. vacuum up the water and let a rug air dry outside) to serious (i.e. call in the remediation experts and say a prayer). The focus is on getting your home back to normal as quickly and painlessly as possible. 

By the time people even think of dealing with their photographs, it can be too late. 

Types of Water Damage 

Like your home, water damage to photographs can range from mild to irreversible. A photo can be impacted by water if:

  • A light spray of water comes in contact with a piece.
  • Moisture becomes trapped under glass.
  • The photograph or art lives in a humid environment.
  • Pieces are submerged underwater.

In some cases, people don’t realize that their photograph or art has suffered water damage because it isn’t always obvious. Spraying a frame with a glass cleaner that runs under a piece of glass isn’t easy to see. Hanging a picture in a bathroom doesn’t present immediate damage. It happens over time and can sneak up on a person. Mold creeping up the artwork from an exposed brick wall is sneaky. 

However, there are many times where the damage is immediately evident, and people still take their time to address it. If left untreated, water damage can cause:

There are times when water damage can be reversed by a professional, but most of the time, the damage is permanent.

Prevention and Treatment

The best treatment is prevention through removing moisture. Make sure that photographs and art are stored in a humidity controlled environment, usually a living space. Basements, attics, bathrooms, and kitchens are not ideal environments for photographs and art as they constantly change in temperature and humidity levels. Framing and display in these rooms should be planned with a true professional.

If you do have water damage, here are a few tips:

    • Remove photographs and art from water immediately. We have had clients bring us plastic tubs full of photos that were never properly handled after a water claim. They put it to the side and said, “I’ll deal with it later.” The difference in handling this immediately versus waiting can be hundreds of dollars. 
    • Be careful when drying. Most of us want to wipe away water with a cloth like we would a plate. Depending on the type of photograph you have, you could wipe away emulsion that cannot be replaced. Gently blot with a clean cloth or shake off the excess and air dry.
    • Wear gloves. When the emulsion is wet, photographs can be more absorbent than they usually are. Handling photos on the edges and wearing gloves can help ensure that your fingerprints do not cause more damage to the already fragile piece.
    • Lay flat to dry. Place photographs lightly on a towel to air dry, and replace the towel every 1 – 2 hours until dry. If you have a clean drying rack that will allow air to circulate around both sides, use it.
    • Do not force photos apart. If photos are stuck together and do not want to separate, leave them alone.
    • Call a professional. If you do not have the time to handle this, photos that are stuck together, or photos that have suffered damage, call a professional. A trained pro can often separate images with professional chemicals and restore photographs. Professionals offer free consultations and can help you work through a solution quickly and efficiently.

There are some people that recommend freezing photographs until you are ready to handle them and rinsing photos to help separate them. We do not recommend freezing or rinsing photographs as there are some types that cannot be frozen or rinsed without suffering further damage. When it comes to water damage to photographs, it is better to deal with the problem as quickly as possible.


To learn more about art and insurance, read out blog, “Fine Art and Valuable Photos: A Look at Scheduling Items for Insurance.”