For those of us in the business of imaging, whether as professional photographers or as artists, how long our images will last is a complex issue. This is even more so for consumers who often do not have any real technical understanding of the issues.
Anyone who sells their images in printed form should have a concern for just how long the images will last in a good state. None of us want to be sued by an angry customer whose family portrait has faded in five years.
How long an image lasts is a very complex question to answer because it comes down to a lot more than the ink and paper used. While the printer manufacturers have made great progress in their inks and their own branded papers, they have no control over what is done to an image after it is printed. In reality, print longevity is hugely affected by the end use, display conditions and other applied treatments.
Print longevity tests are done at certain temperatures, humidity levels, light levels and color spectrum, etc. The real world never matches this in any way except in the most climate-controlled circumstances of a museum. If the humidity in your home varies from close to 100% to close to 0% at different times of the year, what effect is that going to have on the absolute longevity of a print? We do not know.
It gets even more complex when you consider what else we do to a print. We add spray, liquid or laminated coatings. We frame the print in many different ways, even using adhesives to bond prints to metal or front bond to Perspex sheets, a process that greatly concerns me since the glue is in direct contact with the ink. We hang prints in places with varying lighting, both natural and artificial, with varying temperature and humidity.
Since framing never completely hermetically seals the print, we also expose prints to varying atmospheric gas combinations, with fumes coming from the outside, fumes leaking from furniture, carpets, wall paint, construction materials and much more. Some fumes may even be trapped in the frame from the framing materials. We expose prints to varying levels of background radiation, from the local environment, clay bricks and even radon gas leaking out of the ground in some locations. In such situations how can anyone be sure how long an image will last?
The end user of your images will add further levels of torture. The frame and glass will be cleaned with a whole range of cleaning products. Insect sprays may be used on or around them. Or prints will be moved around and perhaps stored for long periods in basements or attics.
Now of course artists often do not worry about the archival and longevity qualities of the products they use. Since the 1950s contemporary artists have been using a whole range of materials of highly questionable archival qualities, a habit that is keeping art conservators in business looking after modern art that is rapidly proving to be more of a problem than 500-year-old classics.
When it comes to the other products we apply to our images and the framing methods we use I would recommend following the advice available to artists in sources like Mark Gottsegen’s excellent Painter’s Handbook and on the Art Materials Information and Education Network website and discussion forums, www.amien.org.
So what should we do when it comes to providing any guarantee of the longevity of our prints? Well, my advice is to either not predict an absolute life for them or simply offer a replacement guarantee for a certain period of time. Use the best materials you can at the time and check resources such as the Art Materials website mentioned above to keep abreast of how materials are behaving.
Think carefully about how you frame images and follow good archival and conservation processes. Provide your buyers with an information sheet that tells them how to look after their image. Make sure this includes cleaning advice. This way you are at least covering yourself.
The world is a fundamentally chaotic place and so it is very hard to make any long-term predictions. Don’t let this stop you making and selling great images.