We see it on our boxes of paper, in advertisements for both ink and paper, and on photography forums everywhere. Archival permanence is a concept that has stricken fear in anyone who has ever sold a print. It’s a question I hear phrased in many different ways: “How long will my prints last?” “Is this paper Archival?” “Are these inks going to fade?” “Does this print have Archival permanence?”
Archival permanence is a huge topic. I can’t think of any single issue in photography that concerns people more, nor has a wider variety of answers.
Ask a group of photographers what “archival” means to them and their answers are all over the place. Anywhere from five years to twenty-five years to over three hundred years. The most comfortable answer seems to be “a day longer than I am alive.”
Some people say that it means their prints will last longer than normal. That would imply that there is an established “normal” lifetime of a print. Of all the photographers I have asked, there has never been a consensus, but none of this really answers the question.
So what does the word “archival” really mean?”
The reality is that there is no consistently established industry standard for the use of the word “archival.”
Let’s let that sink in a moment…
There isn’t. Really. There isn’t. This is a somewhat made-up term and it is fairly meaningless, especially if we don’t even know what it means. We’ve been deceived, repeatedly.
There is a photo paper with the words “Crystal Archive” in its name. Sounds impressive, but there is nothing “archival” about this resin coated paper. It’s used to make C-prints, or Chromogenic prints, and we know that they will fade and change colors within a few decades.
Resin coated, or RC papers, which are layers of plastic, can say “archival” on the box, but we know that plastic breaks down over time. Optical Brighteners, or OBAs, will fade over time, yet we see papers called “Bright White,” which we know have OBAs, being called “archival.”
There are charts that show how many years a print will last when combined with a brand name ink and paper. Some of those results show longevity with papers that we know will fade. If some of these test results are scientifically questionable, then can we trust all of that organization’s test results?
What do those results really mean? What if the test is done on a paper that yellows over time and they are primarily testing the yellow inks? If test results say that a print will fade in 125 years, does that mean that in 125 years and one day the image disappears completely? Is it just the ink fading? What happens when the optical brighteners eat the paper over time?
These tests usually pertain to how much light the prints are exposed to. Will your print be exposed to the same amount of light for the same amount of time? Knowing how the tests are done, it is fairly certain that not many prints will be exposed the same way.
While we can certainly see if a product fails, how can we honestly gauge its success? We have blindly believed in this testing and the fancy marketing terms that have persuaded us to believe in a word with no standard.
I have spent quite some time asking questions and researching this topic with industry experts and this is my common sense take on the topic.
The website Aardenburg-Imaging, founded by Mark McCormick-Goodhart, is the best resource I’ve found from someone who has asked the right questions and done a considerable amount of scientific research. In his very informative podcast, he discusses the topic in a very down-to-earth and realistic way.
I’ve found a substantial amount of insight from my mentor Eric Joseph. He takes on the topic as a challenge: “There was a time when photographic images weren’t permanent. Folks who were experimenting with the medium at the time hadn’t gotten that far yet and it wasn’t until Sir John Herschel found that by immersing the print in Sodium Hyposulphate, thus the word Hypo (and now called Sodium Thiosulphate or our generic term “fixer”), the image would become permanent.
"It is part of our culture to discuss this and focus on it as a way to justify how long our work will last compared to artists who work in other media. For some, the word archival pertains to actual or perceived value. It could be actual cash value or personal value. It also carries the concept of a certain level of quality. This is really the issue! Our perceptions and preconceived notions have nothing to do with reality.”
So what is the reality of this topic? If there are no standards and it’s mostly a made-up term, should we even care? Yes, absolutely, but only to a certain point.
After all of these questions, the best answer I’ve found is “our best chance for success.”
“Archival” can be defined as a combination of factors that lead to our best chance for success.
What is success? The general consensus for success is the print looking as close to it did the day it was printed. That means a lack of fading of the ink and no change in color, brightness, and/or degradation of the paper.
That sounds really straightforward to me. And important.
Here is a combination of factors, based on science, that will lead to our best chance for success:
This represents the best-case scenario aside from hiding the print in a dark box in a climate-controlled room.
For help with framing focused on archival permanence I highly recommend the family-owned business The Levin Company.
I have found that the environment is the single most important factor to take into consideration when talking about archival permanence. There is a difference between preservation and conservation. How long a print will last in a laboratory has no bearing on how long it will last in the real world.
An archival print attached to a matte board that has been attacked by mold is no longer a print that has longevity. A print left on the dashboard of your car in the summer will not fare as well as a framed print out of direct sunlight in your home.
Listening to experts argue about this topic has given me pause to really think about the real-world implications of achievability.
In reality, I think it comes down to this: your photographs, whether they be of people, events, your family, street photography, nature, distinguishable or indistinguishable objects, are images of a fleeting moment.
Regardless of what we photograph, there is a piece of the photographer in every capture. It could be through intentional storytelling or merely passive unintentional point of view.
Please don’t discount the merit of your photographs. Even if you don't value them or you think the next generation won’t value them, why give up on the opportunity for your photographic voice to be heard for generations to come? Print your work in a way that they have a chance of lasting. Your photographs are important.
While waiting for it to be safe to travel so we can film my comprehensive Inkjet Printing class at the Pro Edu studios, I am working on a website filled with information on printing. It takes a deep dive into topics such as color management, printers, inks, inkjet papers, archival permanence, technical information, common questions, and so much more.
With no corporate sponsors, the information is free from bias and based on real-world experience and science. Best of all, technical science is interpreted for real-world understanding. Feel free to sign up and we will let you know when the site is ready. PerfectPrintClub.com
Over the next 90 days we are going to be working with some top artists to explore recommendations giving you solutions to problems we have all gone through. We are paying the writers a really fair wage for every original article, and we are writing about things that aren’t sponsored by any brand. There is no one but our opinion behind it. We would love it if you do use our affiliate links here so we can continue to keep writing awesome articles that you can trust.
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