A turtle made from sand on a beach.

Help! My Photos are Stuck to…

There is much advice on the internet regarding how to address prints stuck to stuff.  How one should proceed depends on the age of the photos, what they are stuck to, whether they are the only record, and how precious they are.  If they are stuck, they are already damaged.  The goal will be to minimize any further damage as they are separated from whatever they are attached to.

A client had photos stuck to each other (70), photos stuck to plastic film in an album (over 200), and a photo stuck to picture-frame glass.  Generally speaking, whatever caused a print to become stuck in the first place (moisture, heat) should be your first approach for separation.  Fortunately, that logic worked in each of the instances mentioned above.

…Each Other

When liquid touches printed photographs, the top layer is compromised.  It becomes wet, and when it dries, it will stick to whatever it is touching (such as another photographic print).  To separate the prints, you must apply moisture again.  I could not believe this when I first read it, but it works.  I found the best advice in a Real Simple article.  I elected to begin with a set of three prints that were stuck to each other, in case the technique did not work.

I used distilled water, room temperature.  I soaked the prints in an 8×8 Pyrex casserole dish. The prints needed more than 20 minutes.  I set a timer on my wristwatch so that I would not get distracted and leave the images soaking for too long.  I started with 20 minutes and then checked them every 10 minutes until I finally began separating them after 40 minutes.

On a brown towel: a watch with the timer set for 20 minutes, a bottle of distilled water, and a clear glass Pyrex dish with about 1/2" of distilled water in it.

Tools for loosening prints stuck to each other: a timer, distilled water (at room temperature), a glass Pyrex dish, and a towel.

It was a slow and tedious process.  I really had to pry them apart; they did not separate easily, even after exposure to the water.  I learned to limit my fingernails touching or rubbing against the prints, as the top layer is subject to scratching once it is wet.  I also found it easier to pry the prints apart with my thumbs while they were still submerged so that the water could penetrate as I carefully peeled them apart.

Three 4x6 prints soaking face down in distilled water in a clear glass Pyrex dish on a countertop.

Three 4×6 prints soaking in distilled water in a Pyrex dish.

Once you have started the separation process for a stack of stuck prints, you need to work continuously, carefully, and quickly.  You don’t want to soak the prints too long, but they may require continuous soaking as you peel away each print (as was the case with my client’s).  I had two sets of 30 prints stuck together.  I think the entire process took about 1.5 hours for each set.  Each situation will be unique and will depend on how many prints are compromised and how severely.

Once a single print was separated from the stack, I made sure to immediately place it, face up, on a towel for drying.  I used flatware to weigh the prints down.  Some were extremely curly.  I had to let 30 prints dry simultaneously, and flatware was the only thing I could think of that would apply sufficient weight (but not too much), be long enough to reach multiple corners, and not stick to the prints as they dried.

The finish on many of the prints was definitely compromised by whatever substance caused them to stick in the first place.  However, at least we can now see each image, which will enable us to either find the associated negatives and reprint, or to scan and then retouch the digital images.

…Plastic Film in a Photo Album

My client’s photo album had 50-60 pages, each with four sleeves per page (two front, two back).  The sleeves were a thin plastic film that was stuck to most of the photographs.  The album was approximately 15-20 years old.

Photos throughout the album were adhered to the film, some much worse than others.  There was no evidence of moisture, so I expect the culprit was heat.  I began trying to gently peel away the plastic film from the prints.  In most cases, that did not work.  The film was so thin that it would tear, with part of it coming off, but pieces of it remained stuck to the prints.

Next, I applied heat using a blow-dryer.  My  blow-dryer has two settings:  speed and temperature.  I found that the medium speed and medium temperature settings worked best for this task.  I applied heat and used my fingers to gently peel away the film; my fingers got uncomfortably hot at times.  I learned to take breaks and to only work on 10-12 prints at a time.  Patience is required.  For some prints, the film would come off in a single piece; for other prints, it would tear, requiring me to carefully use my fingernails to loosen an edge, apply heat, and begin to peel again.  On the short end, I could remove film in about 3 minutes; on the high end, it would take 20 minutes.  I learned to work the print from all angles; the film often came off easier at one corner versus another.

…Glass in a Picture Frame

There was one print stuck to glass from a 4×6 photo frame.  I first tried the freezer (see below), with no luck.  I ended up soaking the print and the glass in distilled water (as discussed above).  I was able to remove the print from the glass with some effort after soaking.  Fortunately, I also located the negative for this particular image (a wedding shot), so it can be reprinted if desired (or the negative can be scanned for a digital record).

What about the freezer?

Some online sources advise to try the freezer; that did not work for any of the situations I described above.  It might work if the items are still wet and just beginning to stick.  A freezer seems a fairly safe technique to try as a first step.  If the freezer does not work, try to assess whether the prints are stuck due to moisture or to heat.  If you can determine the culprit (heat or liquid) with some degree of certainty, then proceed by applying the same thing to enable separation, using the approaches described above.

In Summary

Remember any print stuck to something is already compromised; your goal should be to:

  • minimize any further damage
  • separate a print so that it can be digitized and retouched or so that a negative can be identified to scan or reprint it

When you are applying a technique for the first time, try to select a print that is relatively less valuable or meaningful, as a test case.  Any print, once separated, probably won’t be very useful in its altered state.  Always save, label, and protect your negatives!  Consider storing them separately from your prints so that they won’t be exposed to the same hazards.


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