Will It Last?

Part One – The Image

Warhol’s Marilyn, Pisoletto’s mirror, Visitors, MOMA, New York.  Pigment Print 20x30 in.

Warhol’s Marilyn, Pisoletto’s mirror, Visitors, MOMA, New York. Pigment Print 20x30 in.

Art buyers, aware I print digitally, have asked me, “Will this image last?” This question is almost never asked of painters, watercolourists, mixed media artists or sculptors, only of photographers. The question of, “ Just how permanent is this?” has been with photographers ever since 1839 when John Herschel developed the first chemical “fixer” to halt the exposure and development of silver salts coated on paper, leaving a long-lasting image.

Some images from photography’s earliest decades remain in pristine condition, proving that photographs can be permanent. However, throughout the history of photography there have been instances where certain types of images have faded or degraded almost before our eyes. These instances include the instability of black and white prints on resin coated paper, the rapid fading of early C-prints and the fleeting nature of inkjet images produced with first generation printers that used dye inks rather than the more permanent pigment inks. Thus art buyers are justly wary when purchasing a photograph. Due to these past issues, photography’s image permanence has been the subject of more intense scientific scrutiny than any other medium. As a result, ironically, we have more data about the longevity of photographic materials than for any other media.

Since the inkjet papers and inks have only been on the market for a few years, how can we know what their image permanence characteristics will be? Photographic images deteriorate due to three main causes, cumulative exposure to light, exposure to atmospheric gases and pollutants and residual acids or other reactive chemicals in the paper or surface coating. To find out how images will perform over time imaging scientists use accelerated aging tests. Sample images consisting of calibrated color patches are exposed to intense light over a period of many months– as much light as the material might be exposed to if displayed for hundreds of years. Test samples are also exposed to ozone to check for fading due to atmospheric gases and pollutants, ozone being one of the most virulent.

The “gold standard” of photographic image permanence has long been the toned, silver, black and white print on fibre based paper. Tom Willock of Willock and Sax Gallery makes this kind of print. I make pigment prints, using an inkjet printer. Accelerated aging tests indicate some inkjet pigment prints are now approaching the permanence of toned silver prints, lasting last hundreds of years before noticeable fading occurs.  This is a truly revolutionary, historic, development. At the turn of the millennium few inkjet printing processes even matched the limited permanence of traditional color photography. Today the best colour inkjet pigment prints have life expectancies dramatically exceeding all traditional colour photographic processes including dye transfers, Ilfochromes and C-prints. For example a C-print on Fuji Crystal Archive paper has a rated display life of 40 years. The inks I use, Hewlett Packard’s Vivera pigment inks, have a life exceeding 275 years and black and white Vivera prints exceed 300 years. This is the time until just noticeable fading or yellowing occurs, so the image will, in fact, last much longer if some fading is tolerated. Inkjet pigment prints are now pushing into the permanence territory that was once the sole province of traditional pigment based media such as oils, watercolours and acrylics.

Accelerated aging tests have shown it isn’t just about the inks. The numbers I quote are for the Vivera z3200 inks on specific papers. There are other papers on which neither HP’s inks nor others are very permanent. So it is the ink set and the paper that need to be considered together.

How is a photographer or art buyer to sort out the good ink and paper combinations from the bad? Much of the science of photographic permanence has been developed by Henry Wilhelm and his colleagues at Wilhelm Imaging Research. Wilhelm makes his research results for ink and paper combinations freely available on his website. His work, ranging over several decades, has revolutionized our understanding of image permanence. He has highlighted the issues, provided widely adopted standards for viewing and storage conditions and has compelled manufactures to compete to produce more and more permanent pigments and papers. Museums, including the Smithsonian, archives and artists around the world depend upon the information he provides.

AsI LogoMore recently, Mark McCormik-Goodhart has established Aardenburg Imaging and Archives where he provides a double check on Wilhelm’s work and extends it with a tough, sophisticated test protocol. He also tests a more varied combination of pigments and papers. This is important to me because I can’t responsibly offer work to a buyer unless there is evidence showing the ink and paper combination is archival. Perhaps most important, Mark’s research provides clear data on what to avoid. As a member of Aardenburg Imaging and Archives, I can also submit combinations I’m interested in for his testing.

Artists now have the information they need to make good decisions about the type of materials they use and buyers can access information about the likely longevity of the work they acquire. My commitment to myself and to my collectors is to use only materials that are very, very highly rated for permanence.  In part this depends upon the choice of printer. Inks can’t be swapped among different brands of printers because the inks have to be so closely tuned to the mechanism that applies them. There are a few third party ink sets, but most of these are far inferior in permanence to OEM inks. The challenge for an artist is to select a printer that gives the desired aesthetic results and has highly permanent pigment inks. The work featured on this web site is now printed with a Hewlett Packard z3100 or z3200 printer using HPs Vivera inks. At the time I acquired these printers they had the best archival performance of any pigment printers on the papers I use. Excellent new printers from Epson and Canon are firmly in the same league as the z3100 and z3200.

Due to caution over past technical and permanence issues with inkjet printers, my policy is to be a late adopter, purchasing a printer only when it has had enough time in the market place for accelerated aging tests to confirm the quality of its inks and for other issues to show up and be corrected.  The goal is to focus my time on the art rather than solving the technical issues associated with just-on-the-market equipment. Thus I may not always have the most current machine, however I and my art buyers know I have well tested technology we can rely on.

Today the teething problems of the 1990s are over and the problems of inkjet image permanence have been substantially solved. Paper manufactures are providing a widening array of quality, long lasting surfaces to print on. I’m delighted with some new papers that mimic the wonderful surface quality and chemistry of traditional silver-based fibre papers. Never in the history of photography has there been such a finely nuanced array of materials to select among. Never before has it been possible for an individual artist to make truly long-lasting color images. What a great time to be an artist working with digital pigment images!

A note to buyers – it is entirely fair for you to ask the gallery owner or the artist about the permanence of materials used and to ask for specifics. With photography a thoughtful and scientifically supported answer should be expected. Some artists provide a conservation statement detailing all the materials used in making and framing the image. I do so upon request. With non-photographic media, where little or no testing exists, the only answer an artist may be able to give is something like, “I work with materials that are well respected in the marketplace.”

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One Response to “Will It Last?”

  1. admin says:

    zzyzx made the following comment earlier. It was lost during a bit of blog editing so I’ve inserted it here with my response:

    The Gold Standard may be the silver print but it should be the carbon print. Hand poured carbons do not degrade. They will last as long as the substrate holds up. Very simple to make though time consuming, they are a joy to look at with actual 3D relief. Next in line I would go with platinum/palladium prints. Then silver gelatin fits well.
    Don’t ignore the ‘alt process’ image in your information as to the expected life of prints, on display or in dark storage.

    Yes – both carbon prints and platinum and palladium prints have proved their longevity. Thank you for this addition.

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