Some photographs ought not to last. I’ve made my share. How convenient it would be if they slowly faded away to nothingness. I’m in good company: when Edward Weston decided that he didn’t like some formerly-loved images, he scraped the emulsion off the negatives and turned them into windowpanes. I bet he wanted the prints back, too.
Nevertheless, for the most part we want our art to be permanent. If you’re a photographer, maybe you’d like your work to be message to the future, or a piece of you that will go on long after you’re dead. If you own photographs, you’d certainly like your collection to last your lifetime, and it might make you feel good to imagine it being cherished by generations to come.
Photographic permanence comes in two forms. Collectors and the photographers who sell to them are interested in the longevity of their prints. Photographers and archivists are also interested in the longevity of intermediate photographic objects that can be used to produce prints: traditionally, these are negatives.
We’ve been blessed with long-lived photographs since the beginning of the medium. The very first published photographic process, the Daguerreotype, although mechanically fragile and light-sensitive, produced images that can still be enjoyed today. The silver gelatin prints on paper that form the core of today’s black and white photographic market were introduced in the 1870s. Silver negatives on glass are exceedingly stable, and silver negatives on most other materials are as stable as their base. By the latter half of the twentieth century we’d gotten archival black and white processing, mounting, and storage down to a science, and anyone who wanted to learn the steps and took the care to execute them carefully could produce long-lasting work.
The advent of modern color photography in the 1930s brought a huge step backwards in permanence compared to black & white. Early color negatives showed noticeable fading in a decade, and color prints weren’t much better in dim lighting, and far worse in bright conditions. Over the years diligent and clever chemists have greatly improved the longevity of both negatives and prints, but they’re still a far cry from where black and white has been for a hundred years.
When the computer entered the photographic picture in the 1980s, history repeated itself, and longevity of prints took a setback (Longevity of intermediate forms in the age of the computer is a complex issue, and one best discussed in a later column). The early high-quality photographic computer printers weren’t intended for artistic use; they were meant as proofing devices for documents intended to be printed on presses. In that application, the print just had to last until the presses stopped running. A few artists saw the potential of these devices in spite of their image-stability problems; receiving little support from the printer manufacturers, they started mixing their own longer-lived inks. Soon, small companies supplied lightfast ink commercially. After a while, the printer vendors realized that the market for photographs in general was potentially much larger than the market for proofs for offset lithography, and that many of their new customers cared passionately about permanence, so they called in the chemists and jumped on the image-stability bandwagon.
The progress has been astonishing. In the past ten years, the longevity of the best computer photographic color output has gone from much worse than a standard C print to much better, and the pace of progress is increasing. No one knows where it will all end, but it appears likely that color prints lasting several human lifetimes can be attained. In addition to improved longevity, computer-based photographic output offers a dizzying array of options. Ink-jet printers allow the artist to print on a wide range of papers, and well as silk, canvas, and other materials. Prints too big for most labs to produce conventionally can be easily made in fairly small spaces. If you work in color, you owe it to yourself to explore some of the new options.