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KNOWLEDGE: Archival Landscape Prints [Article]


How long will your prints last? It might surprise you to know that many prints produced with conventional film and chemical processing had a relatively limited life, from 15 to 30 years. Even Ilfochrome (originally called Cibachrome) had a pretty short life (17 years according to some experts), despite advertising claiming the prints lasted 100 or even 200 years.

Yet Ilfochrome was once the paper of choice for landscape photographers. It allowed you to print directly from transparencies (a positive to positive process), it had a high gloss finish and it produced rich, luxurious colours and tones.
But it doesn't last a lifetime if it is hung in a home or office for all to see. It fades.
All prints fade and when inkjet printing first arrived, inkjet prints faded in as little as two months! However, the original inkjet prints were only designed to be used as 'proofs', not final artworks.
Inkjet printing matured along with digital photography and one unfair expectation placed on inkjet printing was for inkjet prints to last a lifetime, even though the existing chemical prints didn't. Today, inkjet prints made with high quality inks and paper can last one hundred to several hundred years. Digital photography and printing now eclipse film and chemical printing in every way. Even black and white prints which are touted as being 'archival' will last longer as inkjet prints.
Nevertheless, photographers continue to sell prints made on chemical prints (Ken Duncan and Peter Lik, for instance). The chemical paper chosen by most landscape photographers today appears to be Fujifilm which has an incredible gloss and great colour. It is also claimed to have a life of 60 to 80 years which, while not as good as an inkjet print, is more than enough for the people buying the print for a 'lifetime'.

Your Materials

There are three main elements to a print, assuming it is framed: the print itself, the matte behind which the print is presented, and the frame.
When producing the print, it's essential to use the best quality materials and processing. If having a chemical print made by a lab, you want to ensure it has been processed and washed properly with fresh solutions and sufficient water (depending on the process of course). For an inkjet printer, you should use pigment-based inks on archival quality paper.
Personally, I use the Epson Stylus Pro 9900 with Ultrachrome HDR pigment inks. I print on either Epson or Canson papers – including Epson Watercolor Radiant White and Canson Photographique.
Assuming you're selling the matte and frame as well, ensure you use acid-free materials. These will be more expensive, but it means you're less likely to have discolouring as the print gets older – the print can give off chemicals which can react with poor quality matte boards, and atmospheric pollutants and mould can also thrive.
Generally speaking, use a white or a black matte for a simple and elegant presentation. While coloured mattes can work, generally they don't!
Finally, you need a smart, good quality frame. Don't skimp on the frame because this is the packaging that can really give your print a lift. An ornate gold frame with floral corners isn't necessarily a good idea as you don’t want the frame to overpower the print either! However, rules are made to be broken and we'll leave the fine art of matching frames with prints for another time.

Display Conditions

Ken Duncan is keenly aware of the issues of longevity, some of which are quite surprising.
“Around ten years ago, a client returned a print that was 15 years old. It was a Cibachrome and it had a milky haze all over it. We were perplexed, so we sent the print off to Ciba Geigy and its lab did an analysis. The result? The milky haze was a combination of human skin, cooking oils, salt spray and carbon monoxide. We discovered that the print was hung in a house near a road by the sea – and not too far from the kitchen! The question was, how could this happen when the print was framed and taped behind glass!”
Explained Ken, a framed print creates convection currents inside. The largest cavity in a framed print is the space above the print and it is from here that air is ‘inhaled and exhaled’ – along with a myriad of airborne pollutants. People have been aware of mould and mildew growing on prints in humid conditions, but household factors are equally problematic.
“Surface deposits are the main cause of print degradation. Everyone talks about ‘archival’ life and how long a print will last before fading, but this is just one part of the problem.
“People don’t want to buy photographs that have to be stored in a safe and pulled out with white gloves to view. They want something they can enjoy and so this is why we came up with Archival Gold.”
Archival Gold is a mounting process developed by Ken, starting with a specially treated aluminium base which, along with the print, is enveloped in a special Mylar coating.
“The print is completely sealed and any surface deposits can be easily wiped off with a special cloth.”
Ken says the process is suitable for both conventional photographic prints and inkjet media. “You can’t leave inkjet prints unprotected because they are like giant blotters which, over time, can be destroyed by humidity and surface deposits.” The image itself might still be there, but to see it clearly you have to remove the surface deposits and this can’t be done without damaging the image itself, Ken added.
“I now offer Archival Gold as an option. When clients come in, we explain that this is the best we can produce with the technology available. The difference in pricing is probably a couple of hundred dollars, depending on size, but it’s not a lot when you’re spending $1000 for the print. It’s a way to future protect the investment.”
So, can you offer prints without this level of archival protection? “Of course. It’s up to the market to choose what it requires, but by offering options like this you’re showing a professional attitude to your art work.
“If you’re selling inkjet prints, at the very least I believe you should spray them”, said Ken, referring to a protective overcoat spray that can be applied to inket prints. “The spray needs to be applied in three directions to ensure proper protection, bonding the ink to the paper and preventing paper fibres from coming off.”
For framing, Ken offers a variety of moulds and colours, but instead of glass likes to use Shinkalite, a high quality optical acrylic. It’s not cheap, he says, but it’s light (so he can ship large prints all around the world and they will arrive in one piece) and it’s beautiful to look through.
“The good thing about acrylic is it has 95 percent UV protection, so added to Archival Gold, it’s doing the best job possible to ensure a print lasts. I want my prints to be around long after I’m gone.”
In terms of archival mounting, Ken thinks the idea of floating or hinging prints under a window matt is unsuitable for his type – and size – of work. “You simply can’t hinge mount large pictures because you’ll end up with big ripples in the surface which look revolting when hung on a wall. Hinge mounting might be suitable for small black and whites, but it doesn’t work for large prints.
“And hinge mounting doesn’t deal with the problem of surface deposits. Galleries ask for mounts that will survive in museum conditions, but this doesn’t mean they are suitable for real-world displays. It’s interesting to think the valuable Hockney prints made on RA4 paper will only last 20 years. This isn’t particularly archival and I think photographers need to tell the galleries what’s required."

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