Horror Story Winners! | Archival Disasters

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Horror Story Contest Winners

After reading through the many submissions to Archival Methods’ Horror Story contest, the judges have made their selections. The themes that characterized many of these stories were water damage, non-archival materials used, negative issues, miscellaneous catastrophes, and near misses.

There are some real horror stories listed here, but the good news is that none of them need to be experienced again by their victims or by you. The moral of these stories is use the right archival materials, and never store your precious photographs, negatives, family artifacts, or collections in your basement, attic, garage, or outdoor storage facility. Keep them close and archivally preserved.

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First Place – $500 Archival Methods Gift Certificate

The Sheer Ferocity of Mother Nature Unbridled

By Ira L.

So, you really want to hear about damage and destruction? The loss of fifty years of photos, art work, sketchpads, portfolios, art supplies, mat board, framing tools, books, the usual files, bills, receipts, letters, recorded music, antique furniture, plus every pack-rat item that defines a complex, urban creative life.

Shortly after 8pm on Monday, October 29, 2012, Superstorm Sandy, aka “The Frankenstorm,” inundated our ground-level art and photo studio in the Southwestern corner of low-lying Hoboken, New Jersey — an enormous hurricane-driven surge of Atlantic brine, combined with the abnormally high tide, funneled into the Hudson harbor and delivered a brackish mix of river and seawater into our workspace!

Anticipating the coming storm creeping steadily north from the Caribbean, my partner Ann and I began moving all we could to our second-story living space and got everything left below off the floors and high up on shelves. It was an enormous task, made all the more difficult due to an inguinal hernia I was supposed to have repaired on October 30 — I was told to “take it easy” before the surgery, and NO heavy lifting.

About three feet of angry, swirling water burst open the studio doors, carelessly lifting anything that might float — a steamer trunk, a small refrigerator, file cabinets — knocking anything we thought would be high and dry into the funky soup. Box after box of silver gelatin and Cibachrome photo prints —years of valuable work — plopped into the drink and floated about. Notebooks, sketchbooks, books, books, books!

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Knowing there was nothing else we could do, we were advised to evacuate. After a week, when the waters receded and electricity returned, we arrived to the sheer nightmare that had once been a productive workspace and storage space for our combined creative lives. Fortunately, we managed to remove the vast majority of Ann’s framed oils and pastels to our upstairs living room. Nevertheless years of her correspondences, assorted works on paper and childhood art were drowned. Most of my original negatives and slides were safe upstairs but the loss of thousands of carefully rendered prints — 8x10s, 11x14s and 16x20s — was immeasurable. We tried in vain to pull apart the gloppy mess and air-dry what we could, but the filthy water had done its worst — it was hopeless! Days later, I actually found some of my photo prints that had washed down the street, crusted in sludge…what a surreal reminder!

We can only estimate the total amount of work that had to be black-bagged and hauled out to the street for daily trash collection. Yet we tried to rescue what we could. Ann doggedly laid out some of her most precious works on paper to dry in the autumn sun, while I carefully washed and dried the few negatives and slides that hadn’t escape disaster. As traumatized as we were, we had to reflect that we were still alive and well, and now would have to face the task of demolition and the eventual rebuilding of our studio.

But life goes on, and things slowly returned to normal. The horror of this tale wasn’t completely over, however, as there were the insurance adjusters, FEMA and the contractors — that’s a scary story in itself that’ll just have to wait for some future telling!

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Second Place – $100 Archival Methods Gift Certificate

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words – So This Will Be Short

by Kevin M.

My sainted mother loved having all her family photos with her. Everything from her childhood (c.1935) and adolescence, through my father’s experiments with his Brownie camera, to the photos of me and my siblings made with our Kodak Instamatics and all our school pictures. She had all the prints and negatives, including some Polaroids I had taken during my service in the Air Force. Everything.

As I took up photography more seriously, I came to realize there were many valuable materials sitting in her cardboard box that were probably deteriorating and needed care. One Christmas thirty years ago I sent her a consignment from Rochester containing some archival scrapbook materials – folders, paper, sheet protectors, adhesives – everything she needed to organize and preserve these old photos. I helped her create the first of three books so she understood what to do and, importantly, why she should do it. After about six months the project was complete, and we all marveled at the fine job she had done.

Fast-forward twenty-five years: Mom gave me the albums and left the rest of her belongings with my brother (not a photographer). Five years later, she passed. My siblings asked me to scan and digitize all these treasures for safekeeping, but before I could comply the storage unit I had the albums and other memorabilia stored in caught fire. What wasn’t burned was drenched. Bummer.

Although some of those treasured images were prints that could never be recovered, most were originally from negatives I knew my Mom had kept for years in boxes. I called my brother to get them in order to scan and re-print those that had been lost. To my utter horror he said:

“Oh, Mom threw those out years ago. After all, we have the pictures, right?”

Third Place – $50 Archival Methods Gift Certificate

Civil War Casualties

by Dan L.

I’ve long been a collector of coins and currency, and of particular interest to me is paper money from the 19th century. Part of this interest came from my grandfather, who had also collected currency all his life. He had told me many times of his uncirculated Civil War-era currency collection, yet for years I’d only heard of it and had never seen it. To my mind, it became something of a family legend.

As I grew up and my collection grew along with me, I learned the value of proper archival storage. I spent a considerable amount of money on all the best museum-grade sleeves, holders, and boxes for all of my pieces. After all, what’s the point of having a collection if it isn’t going to last long enough for my future children to enjoy? Knowing the importance of archival storage, when the next opportunity arose I asked my grandfather about his collection and how it was stored. He described the album in which the Civil War currency notes were housed, and assured me that they were safe. Since I’d never seen it for myself, I trusted his word.

I’m still not entirely sure why he never showed me the notes while he was still alive. Perhaps he was just overprotective of them and felt safer with them locked away. It’s ironic then that it wasn’t until after he had passed away earlier this year that I was finally shown—and given—his paper money collection. The near-mythical Civil War currency album and another small cardboard box of inexpensive foreign paper money were delivered to me, a somber but meaningful inheritance.

With his album of Civil War currency finally in my hands, I eagerly yet carefully opened it – and it was incredible. As he had always said, most pieces were perfectly uncirculated, uncreased, and the paper was still white. Although I had no intention to sell any of it, I knew there was considerable value there. Held onto the album’s black paper pages by adhesive photo-corners under sheets of mylar, I felt confident that they had been properly stored, as he had always told me.

A few days later I took the album to a respected and trusted currency dealer, and as he flipped through the pages he was quite stunned at the apparent quality of the notes. Lofty values were described to me, with individual notes quoted at hundreds of dollars each. Yet mounted (in corners) against the black paper pages, we couldn’t see the bills’ backsides. To assess their true grades and values, we began to carefully pull them out of the album.

What we saw made my heart sink. Though the front of the notes were as crisp and white as the day they were printed, the backs had dramatically yellowed, the inks had faded, and their shadows were “burned” into the black, acidic paper. Every note was ruined, and their values were slashed. The dealer re-evaluated many of them at less than one-tenth of what they should have been worth. Though the sentimental value is still strong, their monetary worth is almost non-existent.

I carefully put each note into archival holders, even though the damage was already done. It’s still my grandfather’s prized collection, but to me and only me.

The final irony came when I opened the small, beat-up cardboard box of inexpensive, common foreign notes. Though they were loose, tossed in the box without any of the loving care with which the Civil War album had been constructed, they were perfectly preserved, white and crisp without any hint of yellowing. Whatever the box was made of must have been quite archivally sound, and these notes, some worth less than a dollar each, had survived the decades unscathed.

Honorable Mention: “Water Damage” Category

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by Nancy O.

When an early winter snowstorm came rolling in a couple of years ago, it hit the east coast and my place pretty hard. We lost power, the lifeline for my house—and the sump pump—for a number of days. I live over an underground stream, and with all the rain (and frozen ground), the stream swelled and the water came into the basement and started filling it up. The only thing I could do was bail water. During this several-hour process I heard a splash, and looked over to see that all my photo albums had hit the water, falling off a box they had been propped on that had given way. There was no saving them. They were soaked. I spent the evening pulling all the wet pages apart so that the fronts of the images would not stick together. I laid them out all over the place to dry. I was able to do that with most of them but now was left with a stack of very curled photographs that I have done nothing with since. They are all out of order now, and stained. The original books are empty and moldy, with all the little black corners still stuck to the stained and faded pages. It is kind of sad. It is my family history.

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40 Years of Work, Gone in a Flash

by Whitey W.

There’s nothing more to say, it’s over! Water destroyed our many years of work and memories in a photographic flash, no pun intended. Over 10,000 photographs and records were lost.

As a photographic instructor for 40 years I would be very interested in making your readership aware of the enormous stress and heartache involved with seeing your life’s work wiped out, not to mention the economic cost. Everything filed from W through Z gone – including personal family photos.

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Attached is a full photographic documentation of the results of this disaster and my attempts to save what little I could, and how I did it. This could be used to help others avoid this tragedy and teach them how to save the most important items should they have a similar experience.

Cinderella and the Broken Water Pipe

by Donna H.

Photographs tell such a powerful story.

Photographs document historical records.

Photographs have been a passion of mine since early childhood. They record a timeline of family features, family fashion, and family culture.

My treasured childhood memory, captured in a photograph of me adorned in the Cinderella gown of my dreams on our elegant stairway entrance, was long preserved by my mother yet was destroyed by an unexpected water pipe break while on vacation.

Never to be viewed again.

The memory, however, will always linger in my head.

Since then I have committed all my family documents to the expert care of quality archival products. What a delight it is to be able to sort a diverse range of images and sizes into one binder. My adult son has recently told me that my best investments of time have been to chronicle my husband’s career upon his retirement; my gift of several volumes containing decades worth of heirlooms for a 40th birthday gift; and my current project building a travelogue of family adventures.

Honorable Mention: “Negative Issues” Category


My Photographic History Is Down In The Dumps

By Steve D.

When I was leaving Maine in 2013 to travel to Ecuador, I needed to leave all of my photographic materials with friends. I asked my friend David if he could hold on to a large archival box, measuring 14 x 18 x 3”. The box contained my entire collection of hand-processed black and white photographic negatives, stored carefully in archival sleeves and going back as far as 1975. He stored the box for me in his walk-out basement, which comprised the entire first floor of the house he was renting. Fourteen months later, and three weeks before I was due to arrive back in Maine to reclaim my negatives, my friend David asked a couple of his friends to help him clear out his basement while he was present to supervise them. Late in the day David got called away to handle an important matter, and his helpers were left on their own for ninety minutes. It was then that David’s helpers filled a pickup truck full of stuff, including the box containing all of my negatives, and drove it to the local trash dump. The next day David discovered what had happened, too late to save my box that had contained hundreds of 120mm and 35mm black and white negative strips that were now forever lost.

New Baby / No Film

by Regina S.

So this horror story goes back 27 years when we used a thing called “film.” I was pregnant with my first child and in labor. My husband and I were in the Labor Room waiting for the OR to open up because it was determined I was going to need to have a c-section. My husband was very disappointed because the anesthesiologist would not allow him to be in the OR. Hence he would not be able to see our daughter being born.

He begged the doctor to please take pictures for us. She agreed. He ran to the car to get the camera, as for some reason he didn’t bring it in when we arrived at the hospital, perhaps because he was too focused on the pain I was in. So he rushed to the car and rushed back inside and made it in time as I was being wheeled into the OR. I opted to be put out as I was a little frightened of the whole process.

Finally, I was awakened, brought into recovery and then to my room. The hospital staff wheeled in my beautiful daughter Cassandra. We were so excited that we just kept clicking away taking those “first moment” pictures. After a few days in the hospital, and now going home, we continued to click. But it got to the point where the number of shots on the frame counter was reading over 36. This was unusual, as film was limited to either 24 or 36 exposures. It was then that we realized that film was never put into the camera. The nice doctors who agreed to take pictures at our request did so, and as new parents we took those special shots in the hospital of our daughter’s first moments and days on this earth – only to be dismayed that there was no film in the camera.

Needless to say a lesson was learned.

Ruined Film (x2)

by Gregory D.

I travelled from Kentucky to Colorado for an artist residency and asked the security personnel at the airport to hand check my film to avoid X-ray exposure. This film was packaged as sheets in a sealed box. Despite the warning labels not to open the box in light, they went ahead and opened it, ruining 100 sheets of film. When I arrived in Colorado, I asked a friend to send my other box of film. It went to the city department in charge of the residency. They didn’t know what it was and ignored my name on the box. Even though it had the same “do not open in light” label as the one that went through airport security, they opened it and ruined another 100 sheets. By the time I finally got the film I needed I only had 2 days left in a 2-week residency.

Honorable Mention: “Miscellaneous” Category

Cat Photographs (the Bad Kind)

by Coletta C.

My sister had recently taken photos of my brother and had sent them to me when my brother died suddenly at the age of 39. Now, ALL of my photos are usually stored in archivally-safe pages, however at that time finances were a little thin and the photos were stacked/spread on my work table. Sadly, my kitty contracted a urinary tract infection. If anyone knows what kitties do when that happens…. Suffice to say, I no longer have those photographs. Need to order ahead.


Niagara Falls in Winter (with Eyelash)

by Valerie W.

For years I have wanted to go to Niagara Falls in the winter to get pictures of the Falls frozen over. A fellow photographer and I drove over 7 hours to get there and had planned to take beautiful sunrise pictures, having mapped out the location and the timing the night before.

We bundled up and headed out in the dark with equipment weighing us down, and while on the Canadian side we battled snow, snow plows, and other photographers.

The sun started rising and I started shooting until I saw something on the monitor. I decided after cleaning the lens and still seeing something that it was time to change the lens. Another snow plow drove by in the middle of this change but I didn’t move an inch. Now with the new lens I was shooting again, but wait—I still see something. It turns out I had an eyelash on the mirror and blowing into the dark with my mini blower just wouldn’t remove it. I missed the sunrise trying to get the eyelash out while my friend ended up with some great images. I finally gave up and just took pictures that now ALL include an eyelash. So, years of planning, a seven-plus hour drive, getting up in the dark, bundling up, standing in 10 degree weather for hours and I end up with an eyelash in EVERY shot. I’d do it all again, but without the eyelash of course.

Honorable Mention: “Near Misses” Category

Hope Floats

by Monica M.

We survived the 2015 Memorial Day Weekend flood in Wimberley, Texas, a catastrophic event that some are calling the fastest and highest-rising flash flood in the history of the United States. We’ve lived for 23 years on the banks of the Blanco River, high above the flood plain, accustomed to the river’s tendency to overflow its banks, but we never once imagined that it could possibly breach the security of our home. Until that night.

We didn’t remember for sure what exactly was in the memorabilia box, as it had been a while since we’d last looked inside. We only knew that it, like our patio furniture and the gas grill, the freezer, the pump house, and the wedding canoe, had washed downstream with the flood. To some, it might have seemed imprudent to store family treasures in a metal box in an outdoor shed, but this was no ordinary metal box. It was a heavy, vintage, army-surplus generator box with rubber gaskets and ten spring-loaded locking clamps designed to keep the army’s generators dry in the worst conditions.

Which is why when the big metal box washed up on someone’s property nineteen miles downstream in San Marcos, the contents—baby pictures, high school yearbooks, grade school report cards, travel journals, diplomas, prom pictures, and one rare photo of Rick in his army uniform with his arm around his grandmother—were all completely dry!

Our daughter, Amelia, alerted us to the Wimberley Flood Facebook page, a site that was helpful in reuniting lost items with their upstream owners. We didn’t hold out much hope. But one morning, a couple of days after the flood, we scanned the website postings and, lo and behold, recognized our box!

We called Amelia. Amelia called the woman who had posted the original message. That woman called her mom in San Marcos, and within twenty-four hours we had our precious box back. It had traveled 19 river miles riding the crest of the 500-year flood, bumped along by uprooted trees, houses, storage sheds, propane tanks, a grand piano, and whatever else the river’s fury had wrenched loose from the shore.

We’ve come to think of that box and it’s voyage as but the first of a host of small miracles that have graced our lives since the flood. That we got the box back at all seems almost impossible. That we got it back and the contents were perfectly dry is beyond comprehension, and yet no more or less remarkable than the countless other stories of incredible rescue and salvage that punctuate every conversation about the Memorial Day Weekend Flood.

Close Call (Check Your Computer’s Trash Can)

by Beth P.

My last horror episode to date: I was working in Lightroom and had just finished editing an entire photoshoot session when I selected all the files to export. When that was done, I thought I had deselected them. At that point I wanted to remove some images from the library that I didn’t like, so I selected “remove from disc,” only to realize that ALL the files were still selected and everything was gone – the entire folder. I broke down in tears and wondered how I was going to tell my client that I had to reshoot everything. Embarrassed and mortified, I was beginning to think that maybe I shouldn’t be doing this kind of work. After I composed myself I decided to check the recycle bin and they were all there. A number of editing steps were missing, but at least I had the original and final images. And yes, I do see the usual messages telling me that images were removed from the library and sent to the recycle bin, but it just didn’t click that day. At least my recycle bin wasn’t full!

A big thank you goes out to everyone who submitted to our Horror Story contest, and a tip of the hat to our winners and honorable mentions. We hope that these stories might help you to avoid the terrible fate suffered by our contest entrants, and we hope you will contact us with any presentation, preservation, or storage questions you may have. We’re always here to help!