07 June 2012

Photography: Dealing with Albums & Glass

In my vast collection of family memorabilia, childhood arts & crafts projects, diaries and letters, I only have one or two of those photos. You know, the ones that have been under the same piece of glass for a hundred years and you are so afraid to touch it, but really need a copy for preservation purposes, but you just don't know what to do!

So, I asked.

I didn't ask an archivist, though I could have. I didn't ask a historian, another genealogist, or anybody who I would consider an expert in framing and glass. Perhaps I should have.

Instead, I asked a photographer.

Because the glass and the frame, though probably of some historical value, is secondary. If something has to be damaged, ruined, or left in disrepair in the process, I'd rather it be one of those. I want the photo.

Keep in mind, I have a personal connection with this particular person, and we've struck up numerous conversations relating to genealogy and photography, and how those intermix. See my previous post, with significant contributions by Mr. Mike Brown, Photography: Questioning the Scanner.

The question I posed to him was this:

"How do we deal with old photos that we inherit that are glued to a photo album, or have been in a frame for who knows how long? Do you take it apart or try to preserve as is?"

His response is worth a read. I picked up a trick or two, I hope you will also.

"Reproduce before you try anything. Then if what you try goes wrong you have a backup copy. [Great advice for just about anything, right?] I have had customers that brought in photos that were cut out of the album page and still had the page glued to the back of them, this works if there are no photos on the other side of the page.
Sometimes it is possible to find something that will soften or remove the glue without harming the photo, but I really do not like to experiment with important or irreplaceable photos. Album pages cab be reproduced as a whole or one can just do a single photo at a time, to me much better than trying to take it apart. 
As for removing photos from a frame, the same thing applies, reproduce before you try anything. [Again, refer back to the techniques he describes in the post above to take a picture of a picture.] Here you really need to know what you are looking at. The usual problem is that the photo was not framed correctly and it is in contact with the glass. Moisture has gotten in and caused the photo to stick to the glass. If it has been in there for a very long time it can be quite difficult to get it apart without doing damage to the photo. If it is a black and white photo, remove the frame and try soaking the glass and photo in a tray of room temperature water. This may take several hours and one has to be very careful when trying to peel them apart, but it sometimes works. 
Most importantly, if you are at all unsure about the original or the process, don't do it. Take it to an expert and get some advice one on one.  
Be forewarned, if the photo looks like it has been retouched or colored, do not try this as the water may very well remove the coloring. I have had people tell me that they have done this with color prints, however, I do not like to do so. 

[How do you know if its been "colored"? Take a look at the examples below for an idea. Although this example is a "full" colored image, not all images were done this way. At times, it was much more pastel, or only part of the image.] 

Original image, non-colored.
William W. Brown and sister, Bessie, 
Colfax County, Neb.
Private holdings of author.
Same portrait session as above,
but with coloring added.
William W. Brown, Colfax County, Neb.
Private holdings of author. 

There is a special situation that I should mention. I have had customers who had house fires and when the fire department got done putting out the fire, every photo hanging on the walls was soaked and starting to get stuck to the glass in the frames. The cure for something that has just gotten wet is not let it dry out. As soon as possible, submerge the entire thing in water (ever see a bathtub full of framed photos?), carefully separate the photo from the glass while its wet, then let the photos dry. The damage to the house was extensive, but the house was rebuilt, and when all was said and done, the same photos, in new frames, hung proudly on the walls." 

 This brings me to a couple of questions for all of you; the readers.

  • Have you found a product that works to remove photos from albums? I would especially like to find something that works on construction paper type surfaces, as I have a lot of those. 
  • Have you done this? Does anybody have a story of submerging a framed photo to separate it from the glass? Success or failure, I would love to hear about it. Leave a comment, or put the story in your own blog, and send me the link. So far, I've been to chicken to try. 

Always willing to take questions and input on the issue at hand, please leave a comment for myself or Mr. Brown below. Between the two of us, we'll try to get to it as soon as we can. 

With over 50 years of photographic experience, Mike Brown is now semi-retired from the everyday hustle and bustle of owning a photographic studio. He now splits his time between consulting, teaching and mentoring in the photographic world and trying to keep up with a whole herd of grandchildren (another of which was just born!)


  1. A couple years ago I was at my grandmother's house. My grandfather died in '86, and she always kept this picture of their wedding day in her living room. I didn't ask, just snapped a picture of it so I'd have it. I still need to ask what happened to everything since she's in a home.


  2. Good thing you snapped that picture! Heaven knows what happened to the original; you've always been an intuitive person!! Thanks for reading, and commenting, Merinda. ~Jen

  3. Replies
    1. Jana, as always, happy to help! (Or, at least think I'm helping!) Still wondering if anybody has a great "unstick" photo product, so hopefully someone will post about that. Thanks for reading, and thanks for commenting! ~Jen


Please comment! I would love to hear your thoughts!