Mold on old photographs (C) Daniel FriedmanHow to Clean Moldy Photographs
What works, what doesn't, what's dangerous

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Mold & mold stains on photographs or photographic prints on paper:

Suggestions for cleaning mold on photographic prints on paper: how to remove mold on photos, what mistakes to avoid. We include list of authoritative references about mold on photographs: cause, cure, and prevention.

This article series defines book & paper foxing - those reddish-brown stains found on some old books, papers, photographs, and other paper products. We explain the causes of foxing stains, the chemistry and mold components of foxing, and we describe what foxing looks like, how it is cleaned from books, papers, or photographs, and how foxing can best be prevented by book and paper restorers and paper conservators.

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How to Remove Mold on Photographs

Grandfather looking at birds ca 1950 northern U.S. (C) Daniel Friedman IAPQuestion: How do I remove mold from photographs - best & safest ways get mold off of photos

(Mar 10, 2016) Anonymous said:

How do I get mold off of photographs?

Mold contaminated photographs: images needed for this article. CONTACT us if you can provide images of moldy photographs that need cleaning & restoration.


The object of this moldy photo cleaning procedure is to remove as much mold from the photographs as we can without damaging the photo itself. The object is to remove the mold, not to kill it. To learn why "killing mold" is the wrong approach to mold problems see MOLD KILLING GUIDE.

Work on a flat surface in a clean, dry, well-ventilated area.

[Click to enlarge any image]

If the volume of moldy materials is significant enough that the worker could be exposed to harmful airborne mold spores, work outside in a clean dry, sheltered area and wear appropriate protective gear such as a HEPA-rated respirator, gloves, goggles. Professionals work under a hood or in a chamber with negative air pressure. If you have a large quantity of photos or other moldy documents that need cleaning, it's best to hire a professional.

First make sure that the surface of the photo actually has mold or other debris that can be gently wiped away.

In our photo of granddad with binoculars (above) we point out both mold on the lower area of the photograph (white arrow) that may respond to gentle cleaning and a water stain (blue arrow) that won't be removed by wiping. In general, deeper stains within the photograph emulsion or paper won't be removed by surface cleaning and deserve advice from a photograph conservator or a paper conservator. We cite some of these sources later in this article.

Avoid aggressive scrubbing that damages the photograph.

Commanding officer, Orly Airfield, France ca 1946(C) Daniel Friedman IAP

Above in the upper left of this photograph: "Commanding Officer (USAF), Orly Airfield, France in 1946" you can see some black smudges that may clean off easily (yellow arrows). But don't start scrubbing away at stains that actually in the paper or beneath the emulsion of the photograph or you'll simply damage or even ruin the photo.

For small areas of mold damage use a cotton swab. Try working first with dry swabs or wipes to remove all loose surface debris. Dampening the swab slightly with clean water may assist in surface cleaning. Take care not to damage the photograph itself. For larger areas you may need to use clean cotton cloth as a wipe.

Physically wipe gently to remove surface mold and debris without scratching the photos. Wipe from the center of the photo out towards its edges. Keep folding the wipe to use a clean surface at each wipe.

If you're not sure what mold looks like when it is growing on or in various materials, see MOLD GROWTH on SURFACES, PHOTOS.

Several species of mold on paper - perhaps the back of a photograph (C) Daniel Friedman

Note: several genera/species of mold and yeasts are growing on the paper surface shown at above/left A photograph whose back is in this condition would best be photo-documented itself as most likely cleaning it is not going to be feasible.

Technical note:

When I set up a field lab to test moldy photos and documents being removed from the basement of a historic NY property managed by the National Park Service I was troubled to find a rather uniform smear of mold over the surfaces of items that had been wiped. The lesson was that the "mold remediators" were using the same moldy-dirty rag to wipe each item. You need to think of wiping important surfaces clean as more of a "medical" procedure: use a clean wipe for each item; wipe, fold, wipe with a clean surface, fold, and continue until you need to change to a new wipe because your "clean" square is too small to be useful.

Watch out: do not put a mold-dirty finger in your eye or you might get an eye infection.

Watch out: Breathing high levels of many airborne mold spores including several genera/species commonly found on paper goods and photographs can be dangerous.

Watch out: while vacuum cleaners are often used as a stage in cleaning moldy paper documents, do not use a vacuum cleaner on old photographs as you're likely to scratch and damage the photo. And don't use a vacuum cleaner to clean up the work area either unless it's HEPA rated as you'll simply blow moldy dust around - a possible hazard to occupants and to yourself.

Watch out: Do not use cans of compressed air such as computer-keyboard cleaners to clean old moldy photographs: for the same reason you're not using a vacuum cleaner: you'll be blowing moldy dust around the workspace.

If the photos are kept dry mold growth won't resume but some stains in the paper will. If the photos are valuable I'd take them to a paper conservator for more expert treatment rather than trying the DIY bleach or stain removal techniques discussed above.

There are also special chemicals such as Pec-12 used to clean and restore negatives; other experts use 98% isopropanol (alcohol). These treatments are for negatives, not for paper-based old photographs; these are not generally designed to clean mold and may be ineffective or worse.

I would be careful to avoid using any liquids (particularly even mold solvents such as spray glass cleaner) on moldy paper prints / or photos as these too may damage the photograph.

Research on Archival Cleaning of Mold on Photographs

Light mold damage on an old family photograph (C) Daniel Friedman IAP


Continue reading at FOXING STAINS on BOOKS & PAPERS or select a topic from closely-related articles below, or see our complete INDEX to RELATED ARTICLES below.

Or see these

Art, Book, Document, Photogaph Foxing & Mold Articles

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