Working with prints and paper presents perplexing challenges for photographers. How do I store paper? How do I store prints? Why did my paper turn yellow? How can I make a print “go flat”? In this new series, I’ll help you navigate the unique needs of preserving printing media in the digital age.
In a long-term set of articles like this, though, it’s important to provide an overview of all the issues we face—after all, it’s important to understand the basics before we go in-depth. Let’s explore the care and feeding of inkjet paper in proper form and order by starting with an overview of the conservation issues surrounding digital papers and prints.
Before I continue, I’ll say this up front: When you choose to purchase printing papers or archival materials from Hanhemühle, Red River, Epson, Canson or Moab, please do so using the links on this blog. Dick Blick Art Materials provides all the papers and materials listed except for Red River, which provides its paper direct. Whenever you purchase by clicking through from this blog to these sites, it helps pay for all the materials, ink, time and technology I need in order to provide you with these posts. Thanks in advance.
- Materials Issues
- Humidity Issues
- Heat Issues
- Handing Issues
- Pollution Issues
- Light Issues
Preservation of art is a challenge humanity has faced for millennia. As evidence, look at Tutankhamun’s tomb paintings; the boy-king’s funeral was rushed and the tomb sealed before the paint in the murals had dried, leading to the most notable example of art moisture damage on the planet (see Figure 01). Scientists have found that mold grew in the sealed environment as the paint outgassed (read: the chemical process of drying), and as the mold dried and died, it left the telltale marks we see in the tomb today. That’s on stone. We’re just printing on paper, so imagine the care we should take in storing our materials, as well as our prints themselves after emerging from the inkjet.
Many, many photographers make the mistake of assuming preservation is solely the job for curators, gallerists, and archivists, leading to the use of printing and preservation practices that simply don’t stand the test of time—sometimes even just months. I’ll use a personal illustration here. My 21-by-14-inch prints in low edition images (between 5 and 20) sell for a base of $1,150, and the clients who purchase them aren’t usually buying them because they match the wallpaper in the living room. In other words, at this level prints are expected to last a long, long time, and it’s only natural that we as photographers and printers should do all we can to ensure a lasting legacy for our work.
With that idea in mind, this new series will begin examining—in depth—key techniques for giving our images the life they deserve. While the current post will give a brief preview of each, look for following articles that will help you understand the process of making truly archival photographic work. I must also give credit where credit is due; both Wilhelm Imaging Research and the Image Permanence Institute have made profound contributions to our understanding of photographic preservation and archival life, and if you find yourself curious about these areas beyond what you’ll read here, these two institutes have a monumental amount of resources for perusal. I’d also like to thank Carol Boss and Hahnemühle USA for providing some of the material support in this new series. I continue to be amazed at their dedication to the field of photographic education.
In this article, we’ll look at six key areas of concern for digital prints (by digital prints, I use the IPI definition of inkjet, digital electrophotography, and dye sublimation):
- Materials issues
- Humidity issues
- Heat issues
- Handling issues
- Pollution issues
- Light issues
While it’s not possible to follow the rigorous standards set forth by the IPI in terms of how prints should be ideally stored (it would mean keeping your house dark, at 40 percent humidity, and 25° F at all times—not a great environment for having guests), you’ll have a better idea on what you can do to undertake steps to improve the life of your work. Let’s begin with materials.
I get this question very, very often in classes and workshops: “What makes a good print?” While that may seem like an impossible question, for most amateur photographers printing at home, the world of photo materials can be very daunting to learn. This boils down to two key areas: ink and paper.
Essentially, the choice of ink is dictated largely by the brand of printer you choose, and if you’re working with larger format prints, you’ll be limited to Epson, Canon, or HP. Each of the ink sets produced by these manufacturers are intended to last, and Wilhelm Imaging Research results have supported the quality of these inks over decades—in some cases, more than a century—and their resistance to fading or discoloration.
While we’ll look at ink choice in a later article, I need to impart this wisdom here: never refill your inks yourself with third-party materials if you’re printing for permanence. I realize there are myriad places you can do this, and some photographers feel they’ve had satisfactory results with these third-party inks. But the rub is that there is little to no research supporting the life of these inks over decades, in contrast to the high standards the manufacturers have followed with their OEM supplies. In fact, recent Wilhelm results have showed third-party refills result in prints with less than a year of fade-resistant life under 99 percent UV glass; the same print in using Epson ink on archival, acid-free paper has a life of over 80 years. Ouch.
*UPDATE: Reader Mark Savoia referred me to Aardenburg Imaging, a research lab with which I was not familar; I’ll look into this as a source supporting the archival quality of third-party inks. Thanks, Mark!
*One exception, though without data to back up the longevity of the ink, is the black-and-white-only Piezophotography, which uses a wider gamut of tonal inks and a custom printer profile system to produce very impressive prints. I haven’t used this system myself, but I have enough colleagues in the professional world who have raved about the system that I can’t completely dismiss it. George DeWolfe has unequivocally supported this system, and I place a great deal of trust in his endorsement (he’s one of the greats, and a fellow Santa Fe Workshops instructor); I still would like to test it for myself at some point.
So the case for OEM ink is easy from an archival standpoint, and frankly, paper can be, too. Essentially, your choice of paper should be based on the archival quality of the paper, which comes from the three “B” elements: base, buffering, and brighteners.
Base is the paper material, which is all cellulose (natural fiber); cotton, rice, and wood pulp are all examples. Cellulose, the longer, more resilient fibers in a plant, make up about 50 percent of a plant’s fibers, while lignin (the “glue” that holds the fibers together) and carbohydrates are the other 50 percent. Thus, a 100 percent alpha-cellulose paper may not be all cotton, but it is still high quality, and should be generally equal to any cotton paper in terms of longevity. Cotton is nearly 100% cellulose naturally, and it requires considerably less chemical processing than other types of cellulose, which means the fibers are less stressed before going into the paper itself. After refinement and weaving into rags, then refined again into paper, cotton creates the gold standard for paper quality.
Buffering means the stabilizers added to the paper to keep it at a nearly-neutral pH, as well as to counteract any of the chemicals used in the manufacturing process. This ensures the paper is a stable foundation for the image itself, and won’t cause discoloration or yellowing under the proper conditions.
Brighteners are the most controversial of the three B’s. Paper is not naturally bright white, so it requires some level of whitener to bring it closer to the brightness needed for photographic printing (snow is not appealing when yellow, for so many reasons). The issue with optical brighteners is that when they are exposed to ultraviolet light, they tend to yellow. Quickly. As a result, most often when printing for archival purposes, we avoid these types of paper as much as possible. I’ll discuss those light issues briefly later, but first, we need to understand humidity.
Humidity may be the most overlooked issue in print lifespan issues. The IPI has found as humidity rises, it can impact the overall quality of paper in as few as 7 days! Storing actual prints, not just paper stock, in such conditions can have disastrous results, leading to very quick degradation of your work.
This is why my own studio has a dehumidifier as a permanent resident, keeping the room at 50 percent relative humidity (in humid Nebraska, it’s tough to get it much lower during the summer). The IPI suggests 30—50 percent relative humidity is optimal.
The IPI recommends storing paper and photographs at 40° F or colder; it suggests frozen is the optimal state. Since none of us (except for penguins) are going to keep the studio at anything but room temperature, we have several considerations.
The first is to get a used refrigerator and store paper and prints in it. I’ve actually contemplated buying an additional unit for this purpose, but my wife’s look of “you’re a loony” stopped me from making the purchase. However, I do keep some prints in the spare refrigerator in my workshop, which is often sparsely filled, except for a few jugs of milk and beer (I get the top two shelves). The second consideration is more of an imperative: Keep papers and prints out of the car or in a non-climate-controlled environment for anything over a few hours. The excessive heat will quickly damage the paper and print materials. In short, handle your paper with care.
Another issue pinpointed by the IPI is handling, which can often result in scratched prints, dimpled surfaces, or bald print spots. Though this will be a long post in the future, there are a few things to keep in mind initially:
- Handle papers and prints with white gloves. You have oils, residue, and flaking skin on your hands, and these impact the paper and print surface immensely. Blick Art Supplies carries these; simply search for “cotton glove.”
- Use a soft anti-static, anti-residue brush like this one sold by Red River Paper to clean the paper surface before printing. Papers are not packed in a “clean room” environment, so there is no guarantee that the surface is free of residue when it comes out of the box.
- Never stack prints directly on top of each other, especially right after printing. Inkjet prints have an outgassing phase as they cure, and this is inhibited by enclosures or surface contact. If you do stack them after curing is completed, place them in protective clear polypropylene bags or place interleaving paper between them (get the bags and buffer paper at Blick—just search for “photo bags” and “interleaving paper” ). Store these bags in archival boxes like the one shown at the beginning of this article, offered by Hahnemühle, or ones from Blick, Light Impressions, or Archival Materials.
- Never roll your prints. This is a cardinal sin; even if you use interleaving paper, the substrate can scratch or crack after interacting with the ink. Just because the paper came on a roll doesn’t mean you should store your prints in the same manner. Use the bags or interleaving paper after the prints have cured, and as I noted above, put them in archival boxes. If you are having problems with curl (those who print on roll paper combat this), I’ll offer some easy solutions in one of these upcoming posts—it’s a $8 solution that works pretty consistently.
Frankly, handling is the cheapest and most necessary step we can take to ensure the quality of our photographs, and if wearing gloves, brushing off paper, and never stacking or rolling prints is all it takes on a basic level, that’s pretty low-impact. If only pollution were as easy.
This is a key challenge. There are lots of chemicals everywhere, such as paint fumes, ozone, and nitrogen dioxide, just to name a few. Framing does not protect against these forces, and aside from storing your work in the Smithsonian, it’s tough to avoid these kinds of damaging problems, which can result in fading, discoloration, or yellowing. There are a few ways to help protect against it, though:
- Store prints in clear, sealed poly bags (like the ones I listed above in the Handling Issues section, and pictured here).
- Store the bags in a sealed environment (like the used refrigerator I mentioned earlier, and make sure there’s not any food in there) in archival boxes.
- Never display prints in a newly-painted environment; galleries tend to paint the day before a new show hangs, and this can be disastrous. Ask them to paint 5 or more days before, and let the paint cure and the fumes disperse before hanging your work. As I showed in the introduction, even Tutankhamen’s wasn’t immune to this, and we still haven’t solved it after nearly 4,000 years.
I wish I could give you a longer set of suggestions for this, but the reality is that museums spend millions of dollars each year to protect against these problems, and unless you’re willing to do the same, the three precautions tend to be our only quickly available safeguards. Luckily for photographers, defending against light issues is easier.
In contrast to pollution, protecting against light damage is much simpler, and it boils down to 3 steps:
- Store unused paper in a dark place, and leave the boxes closed. This prevents any issues with yellowing or optical brighteners, if present.
- Store prints in poly bags in archival boxes in a dark place.
- Never display a print without UV protection, and never, ever, at any time in sunlight—even with protection. NO photographs get along with sunlight, just like Granny’s red and green flowered couch (ewww!) that has faded uncontrollably in the front room over the years. Good museum or conservation glass, or conservation low-glare acrylic is your best bet; see Figure 06 for two of TruVue’s options (the only brand I use in my frames).
See? Much easier on this front. Leave the prints out of sunlight, and give ’em sunglasses.
So, there we have it: a basic introduction to protecting your paper and prints. There’s a wide industry of science dedicated to these issues, and as this series continues, I’ll go much more in depth, but for the time being, you’ve made your first foray into giving your work a much longer, healthier life. And as always, I hope your next print, is your best print.
Questions? Comments? Please leave them below so everyone can learn from the conversation.