If you've ever tried to capture a family photo with everyone smiling at the same time, you know the exquisite torture of group photography. Some wise-guy pulls the rabbit-ears trick at the last minute, or crosses his eyes, or yanks someone's hair. That's why I love those long tightly-rolled panorama photos often found cast aside in family collections. You can usually spot a goofy grin, a secret wink or a wayward hand. It's a second of social history captured by lens and film.
It's obvious that people don't quite know what to do with these old rolled photos. They resist exploration. When forced flat, the paper often cracks every few inches damaging the photograph. If you try to look at the photo a few inches at a time, carefully handling the paper as though you were reading an ancient scroll, it's hard to get the "big picture" of what's going on.
This 1929 black-and-white panorama photo is a classic example of what can happen when a brittle rolled photograph is forcibly flattened without first reconditioning the paper; the print is cracked at regular intervals across the entire image.
I inherited nearly a dozen long group photos from the 1920s through 1960s, most still rolled tight and in good condition. I really wanted to flatten the photos and examine them more closely for genealogical clues to my family history. If nothing else, I thought they would look great framed and hanging on the wall.
Fortunately, it's not difficult or expensive to relax, or re-humidify, a rolled photo or document. When I asked Sally Jacobs, The Practical Archivist, if there was a safe method to flatten those old photos, she directed me to the instructions and reassured m:
"Yes, It's Safe to Try This At Home"
So I did.
And it worked!
The cracked photo shown above was curled in a series of small waves looked like a photographic washboard. Because it was already damaged, I thought it would be a good item to use in my first experiment with the rehumidification process.
Since then, I have successfully rehumidified and flattened many panorama photos, and some curled and brittle snapshots. Sally says that the process is also safe with documents, not just photos. Museums and archives create a similar humidification chamber when working with old documents. You don't need any fancy equipment, just a few household items and a bit of common sense about working with your family keepsakes. Here's the recommended method I used with success:
Step-by-Step Instructions for Relaxing a Rolled Photograph
You Will Need:
- rolled or curled photograph
- plastic tub or container -- deep enough to hold your rack and leave space between the rack and tub lid
- rubber coated wire rack -- I used an expandable plate rack (you need a rack that is large enough to accommodate your item
- water -- room temperature
- archival blotting paper
- wax paper or parchment paper from your kitchen (optional)
Step 1. Select Your Photograph
For your first project, select a photo or document that is NOT a priceless heirloom. If you just want to practice this technique, you may be able to find an old rolled photo selling cheap at a thrift store. Most people throw them away (ouch) because they think they're past saving.
Tap the print with your fingernail. Does it sound hard, like dry pasta? It should feel and sound different when the paper is dehumidified.
Step 2. The Humidification Chamber
Place the tub on a towel or rug on your floor in an out-of-the-way spot where you can leave it for a few days. Make sure the rack will fit inside the container and extend long enough to support your photograph. The rolled photo will start needing only a few inches of space, but as it relaxes you may want to gently help it unroll.
Add about 2 inches of room temperature water. Do NOT use warm or hot water. You don't want condensation on the underside of the lid that might drip down on to your photo. Use room temperature water.
Place the rack inside the tub and place your photo on the rack. It will look lonely.
Step 3. Close the Chamber
Place the lid on the box and let it sit.
Step 4. Wait.
Let everything sit there for a few hours. Get on with your life. Read a new blog.
Step 5. Check for Condensation
After about an hour, open the container and check your photo. Make sure there is no moisture dripping on the photo. Feel the paper. Does it feel softer? It will probably need more time to absorb the moisture in the chamber.
What we are doing here is making moisture available to the paper, so that it can become limber and flexible once again. You don't want too much moisture, because that can damage the print. It could also encourage the growth of mold or mildew. If you notice beads of water on the inside of the cover that could drip down on your print, wipe them off and check your print. Notice the moisture aroung the side walls of the chamber in the next photo. That's okay.
Step 6. Check Again
After 4 or 5 hours, or overnight, check the paper again. Can you unroll it at all? You may need to do this a few times. Keep checking every few hours until the paper feels relaxed. Look at the difference between this photo and the tightly curled batons in the first step. You can feel the difference in the paper. Tap the print again with your fingernail. It should sound different; softer, more like. . . well, like paper.
Step 7. Remove Your Photo from the Chamber
When you think the photo feels softer and flexible remove it from the box supporting it with both hands and place it on the blotting paper. Gently ease open the rolled image. If it resists or starts to crack, it needs more moisture. Return it to the humidification chamber.
At some point the photo will have absorbed enough moisture to relax and allow you to unroll it. If the paper is still extremely brittle and hard you should probably stop and seek professional assistance. I have not experienced this situation.
At this point, your photo is relaxed. Now you need to allow it to dry as a flat print. If you have a sheet of kitchen wax paper or kitchen paper, you can place this over the surface of the photo before folding the blotting paper over the top. It's not absolutely necessary.
Step 8. Add Weight and Dry.
Finally, weight down the entire photo in the blotting paper so that it dries flat. I used a heavy wooden cutting board topped with both volumes of the Compact Oxford English Dictionary (the heaviest books on my shelves).
Step 9. Allow the Print to Completely Dry
It may take a few days for your photograph to dry out completely. Check it occasionally. Remove the parchment paper and let the blotting paper absorb more moisture. Give it enough time to become very very flat.
The result will be an heirloom group photograph you can scan, restore, share, frame, or use for further family history research.
In a forthcoming post I'll show you how I scan panorama group photos with the Flip-Pal Mobile Scanner and with the Epson Perfection V500 and use stitching software to recreate the original long image.
This DIY project worked for me; but I can't guarantee you will have the same results. Please use caution and good judgement, and try it at your own risk.