Q. I recently moved and discovered some of my photos are practically glued together. Can I unstick them without destroying them?
A. Yes, give them a (gentle) bath. Resist the temptation to separate photographs by hand. Doing so will most likely rip them. Instead, water—yes, water—is the answer.
Photos stick together because the gelatin coating acts like glue when exposed to moisture. They can be separated again only by adding moisture and softening the gelatin, says Peter Mustardo, a New York City–based photo conservator who has worked for the National Archives, in Washington, D.C.
The following technique can be risky, so save it for everyday snapshots, not wedding photos! Place stuck pictures in room-temperature distilled water (sold at grocery stores) for 20 to 30 minutes image-side up, so you can monitor them. (A long exposure to water may cause distortion.) Remove, then gently pull apart with your fingers, or slide a thin silicone spatula between them. Shake off the excess water, place each picture image-side up on a stack of paper towels, and weigh down the edges to prevent curling.
If a photo has stuck to a frame’s glass, things get a bit, well, stickier. First, scan the image through the glass so you’ll have a (less sharp) computer backup. Next, use the soaking method, putting the frame and photo image-side up in the bath.
For photos taken professionally or those of great sentimental value (or if you prefer to skip the soaking method), find a conservator near you through the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (conservation-us.org). He can determine if the photos are salvageable and, if so, can separate them.
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