Is there a way I can inexpensively remove finger oils and fingerprints from photographic prints (we're not talking about slides or negatives here) without doing any damage to the photo? Or is a conservator my best bet?
It depends on what prints you have. My prints made from digital photos don't need cleaning. Some old which I made from analogue negative long long ago, do need.
- Old prints with gloss coating I've made using an hand-made gloss device: I use a mixture of
isopropyl alcohol(10%) and a dash of
Trilon B (Na2EDTA or (NaOOCCH2)2N(CH2)2N(CH2COONa)2).
- Old prints with mat(e) coating: the same mixture as above but without Trilon B.
Applying: put this mixture on your print using non-woven cloth, keep covered about 30-40 minutes, then remove accurately. Sometimes you have to use pure isopropyl alcohol to remove remains of mixture.
Be careful! Various kinds of photo paper have various properties. I've developed this method for certain kinds of soviet and chech photo paper I've use. For your prints this approach may be dangerous!!! First, try this on a small piece, wait for week or more to be sure all is OK.
Cleaning an old photo is risky if you can’t identify the print. Most old photos will be conventional prints on photo paper. I am talking about chemical based photo prints. As you said, these have oily finger prints. First try to wipe off the smudges using absorbent cloth like a “T” shirt. OK to be a bit aggressive. If this does not work, wet a Q tip and test one print that is relatively unimportant. You are testing to see if the dyes that make up the picture can tolerate being wet. If the print passes the Q tip test, soak in water; add a few drops of Dawn dish washing detergent. Scrub with your fingers, the soiled places. Rinse off with running water and lay the wet print on a towel and allow to air dry. Of course, test the print before you attempt such rigorous cleaning.
It is likely that you can overspray the print with clear lacquer. Most craft shops plus on line, purchase a can of Krylon clear spray paint. You can get gloss or matte. It is very likely that you can overspray the prints with Krylon and the spray coat will hide any and all oily finger prints. In other words no need to attempt to clean.