Suffice it to say that no one recommends putting treasured photographs – or anything of value, really – into raging floodwaters, filled as they are with whatever has been swept along in the current.
But many of the photographs spread out on tables in a workshop at the Winterthur Museum Research Building this month went through that kind of abuse during deadly flash floods that swept homes off their foundations, damaged bridges and roads, and cut a swath of destruction throughout Texas and Oklahoma during the 2015 Memorial Day weekend.
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The photographs arrived at Winterthur for treatment by graduate students in the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, under the expert guidance of Debra Hess Norris, Unidel Henry Francis du Pont Chair in Fine Arts and chair of UD's Department of Art Conservation. The competitive program is one of only four such programs in the nation.
All of the photographs had been rescued from the disaster that emerged in central Texas on May 24. About a foot of rain had fallen into the Blanco River watershed during the overnight hours Saturday into Sunday, and that rain followed a week of heavy downpours. The Blanco rose more than 27 feet above flood level, reaching heights upwards of 40 feet at Wimberley, Texas, before the gauge gave way.
Lives were lost as that sudden wall of water came through, including eight people who were in a house that was swept into the Blanco, hit a bridge and was destroyed.
Those losses are unfathomable and irretrievable.
But some treasures can be salvaged, and as recovery efforts began, Carolyn Manning, director of the Wimberley Village Library, invited people to bring whatever photographs they found in the floodwaters or debris to the library, where they would be spread out to dry and the rightful owners might be reconnected to their pictures.
Word spread quickly on Facebook and other social media networks and about 8,000 photographs arrived, Manning said. The library staff cleared out a room to spread them out on tables and on the floor where they could dry.
The University of Texas' School of Information in Austin offered preservation assistance and, along with the Archivists of Central Texas, later held community workshops to help people learn how to salvage the items. Volunteers helped to catalogue the photographs.
And 275 of those photographs were shipped to Norris and the first-year graduate students who were in a three-week photograph conservation class she teaches at Winterthur each January.
Last year, Norris' students taking the same class helped to stabilize and preserve a trove of family photographs damaged in a Christmas night blaze that killed a woman and her three grandsons in rural Ohio.
Flood damage is much different than fire damage, and both present enormous challenges. Special handling and equipment and a thorough understanding of the chemistry and materials involved are required to develop effective protocols. Norris has special expertise in disaster response and her work has received international acclaim.
Some of the photographs that showed up in Wimberley date to the 19th century, when egg whites were used to produce a photographic print. Others arrived in critical condition, split or scratched or so caked with mud and leaves it was impossible to know if any image remained beneath the surface.
How they made it to those tables at Winterthur from the raging river is anyone’s guess. But they all belong to someone, still bear the stories that someone knows, and Norris and her students are working to clean the surfaces and stabilize them to prevent further deterioration. That will allow some to be digitized.
"Nowadays, we have digital copies," Manning said, "but when you have paper copies and you're losing pictures of weddings and babies and all sorts of things – the people whose photos we did find here were so grateful. It made people feel good that though there was still so much upheaval they could at least find something that they could hold onto."
Digital imagery is not as peril-free as some believe, said Amy Bowman, a photograph archivist at the University of Texas who has worked closely with the Wimberley community.
"We had a man who came into the library," she said. "He had gathered photos from his family – lots of prints – and was in the process of digitizing everything. But his hard drive went down the river and was lost. The prints were what were found and he was coming into the library to pick them up."
The University of Texas instructors who led the Wimberley project – Karen Pavelka and Rebecca Elder – worked with Norris, whose conservation work is recognized around the world, to send a collection of especially damaged images to Winterthur for careful examination and stabilization.
Norris' students are in their first year of a graduate program that prepares them for work in all sorts of object conservation fields – furniture, textiles, photographs, paintings and many others. One undergraduate, Laura Mosco of New Hyde Park, New York, who is studying art conservation and art history, also has been part of the project.
The work has special meaning for two of the grad students, who knew Wimberley and its swimming holes and markets well and had family or friends who lived there.
They knew immediately the significance of the "bluebonnet" photograph that was among those shipped to Winterthur, for example. This one showed a young boy in the middle of a huge field of flowers. But these aren't just any flowers, said Diana Hartman of Arlington, Texas.
"It's the iconic bluebonnet photo," said Hartman. "It's something every parent in Texas makes every kid do."
Hartman had one taken and so did classmate Claire Taggart of California, who lived in Marfa, Texas, for a while and said parents will pull to the side of dangerous roadways if they spot a good place to take a bluebonnet photo.
Ellen Nigro of Hockessin, Delaware, had a photograph of a high school band in front of her, taken at the 11th annual Six Flags Over Texas Band Festival.
Such items are treasures and Hartman helped to spread the word in Wimberley that many photographs could be salvaged.
"I have been lucky enough to have studied disaster situations with Debbie in the past, so I've seen what could be done," she said. "I knew we could do something – and they belong to someone, so they're very important."
Preservation education, application
Working to help others learn how to care for photograph collections is important to Norris and her students and can help to prevent damage in future disasters.
"We treasure our heirlooms," said Kelsey Wingel of Hockessin, as she gently cleaned the surface of a photograph to remove embedded grime and mud. "To be part of this work is a personal and wonderful experience."
And it allows students to apply the concepts they have learned in class to a real-world problem.
Jackie Peterson of Syracuse, New York, plans to specialize in textile conservation. The work with photographs broadens her understanding of the tools and techniques needed to address fragile items. She worked with soft hake brushes, cotton swabs and ethanol mixtures to remove surface dirt. But a lot of the dirt was sandy, she said, and extra care was required to prevent scratching the images.
The skills learned in Norris' classes have been exported around the globe, as a map outside the workshop shows. That's because the program draws students from around the world who have demonstrated skills and want to study conservation at this high-level.
Ersang Ma, who grew up in Shanghai, China, and graduated from New York University in New York City, said she wants to do meaningful work and contribute something to the greater good. She considers conservation as part of that and sees print photographs as a kind of archaeological format that will be important to future generations, who might otherwise have access only to those captured digitally.
"Every family has photographs – it's what we connect with," she said. "They're kind of magical. It's a still image but you think about what happened around the time the photograph was taken."
Efforts to rescue damaged items are not prevalent in China, Ma said, but she hopes to be part of developing a preservation project there.
Mina Porell of Sofia, Bulgaria, said not all of the photographs can be saved, but it is worthwhile to save those that can be saved. As she looked at one image – a photograph of three young siblings – she thought of her own sons, ages 4 and 8. Another captured her because of the wistful look on a young bride's face.
"This hits home," she said. "I have children. And this [wedding] photo, when thinking of my own wedding, is one I would like to have."
Water damage can affect the dyes and substrates of photographs, problems that are further complicated if photos get stuck together and their elements intermingle. Conservators must discern whether the changes can be reversed or minimized, and must decide on the best way to approach them.
The work is exacting and students worked evenings and weekends to address as many photographs as possible before Norris' class ends Jan. 20.
The mission to educate the public on how to conserve and protect such family treasures will continue and Norris is willing to consult as need arises.
"It's so important for the public to know that these materials – however damaged – can be preserved for the enjoyment of future generations," she said. "The results have been pretty remarkable."
Such work contributes to cultural understanding, reconciliation, sustainability, and building mutual respect, she said.
And in Wimberley, it helps to soothe some of the pain.
"Tell all of them thank you," Manning, the library director there, said. "Whoever's pictures those are, I'm sure will be very grateful."
Norris can be reached for referrals or consultation requests at email@example.com.
Article by Beth Miller
Photos by Evan Krape
Video by Ashley Barnas.