B&W Fine Art Collectors Guide
To Archival Permanence, Print Care, and Handling
The topic of archival permanence and image stability of fine art photographic prints surfaces amongst professional collectors from time to time, so I wanted to provide a guide on these matters and offer my perspective and first-hand experience for my art buyers and collectors.
Before I share specific details about archival permanence and print care, I want to start with a simple and profound statement.
The only artwork that is proven to be archival are cave paintings.
Everything else will have to proven over the coming decades and centuries.
They may sound funny or strange, but it is true.
Remember, it is easy to make claims when all parties involved will not be living to ensure the claims are true and accurate. I personally am suspect of the claims of contemporary photography manufacturers that claim hundreds of years of archival permanence. I think this is a lot of marketing propaganda used as a sales tool.
I encourage people to buy new art because they love it and take some extra steps which I outline below to make sure the artist is transparent with you in regards to materials used and expectations regarding archival permanence.
The vast majority of people purchase art because they love it or it has a special meaning to them, not because it may last for centuries.
If you are truly only concerned with archival permanence as your sole purchasing criteria, then you should purchase platinum prints exclusively. While we only have history of platinum prints dating back to the mid 19th century, in theory, they can last as long as the cotton paper they are printed on. We know from other paper documents in history that could be a very long time. You can review my Platinum Collectors Guide if you want more details.
THE BOTTOM LINE FOR MY ART BUYERS & COLLECTORS
There are two key factors concerning image stability and archival permanence of fine art prints on any type of substrate (i.e., cotton, fiber, resin coated).
First, the photographer must follow proper archival procedures which directly relates to the removal of unwanted by-products from the silver or platinum processes. These undesirable by-products interact with the atmosphere and can have unwanted impacts to prints.
The second and one of the largest influencers of how long any type of photographic art will last are the storage and display conditions (i.e., temperature, humidity, light and handling), and that is why I include a section on this information below.
For maximum permanence, I suggest having a professional frame shop dry mount your fine art print following the proper heating and pressure guidelines of the mounting tissue. Long-term tests indicate dry-mounted prints fare better than prints that are hinge or corner mounted because the dry mount tissue acts as a barrier to pollutants that can be absorbed by the mount board and then transferred to the print.
For smaller prints, up to 16x20, I dry mount before shipping to my buyers. For larger artwork, I roll the prints between two acid and lignin free tissues and carefully place in an oversized tube for shipment.
I take a very simple and clear position with my black and white fine art prints.
When a collector buys one of my limited edition fine art prints, on any type of substrate, I guarantee that print to look like the day they purchased it for the rest of their life so long as they follow my handling and care guidelines.
Any claims beyond this is marketing propaganda.
I take every known and reasonable care during the image creation process to ensure the long-term performance of my artwork. Once the art leaves my studio, the environment in which it is displayed and/or stored becomes the more important determinant of the artwork permanence.
For my silver gelatin prints, I follow museum archival standards very closely to include proper fixing procedures, archival washing, selenium toning, and I go the extra mile with a final Sistan treatment which helps with unwanted oxidation.
For my platinum and palladium prints, I follow the relevant museum archival standards to include proper clearing and archival washing methods. Platinum prints are only subject to issues associated with their paper base when properly processed because platinum and to a slightly less degree, palladium, is effectively impervious to oxidation and environmental contaminants.
I use the worlds best materials and I executive a very specific and detailed archival workflow that I share with any art buyer and collector that wants to review it.
FIRST HAND EXPERIENCE
I started making silver gelatin prints in the darkroom in 1977. My first prints were made from copy negatives that I created from some vintage family prints dating back to the 19th century.
I still have those very first silver gelatin RC prints hanging in my home after all these decades and at the time of this article in 2021, I pulled the prints from their frames to inspect them again, and they continue to look like the day I printed them in 1977.
I share this because I can comment on the condition of these prints with first hand knowledge and I know the entire history from printing to current state.
I can assure you these prints were not always stored or displayed in optimal conditions as I prescribe to my collectors. They have made every move across the country with me, sit in storage units, and hung on my walls for decades.
The key takeaways from my first silver gelatin RC prints from 1977 are as follows:
1 - We know the condition of the prints continue to be in an ideal state after four decades, even though there were not optimally processed or stored in ideal conditions.
2 - I was a young boy just starting to learn how to make silver gelatin prints, so it is fair to say that I wasn't following archival standards like I do today.
3 - With all the care that I take today with my black and white fine art prints along with the guidance that I share with my collectors, I am absolutely 100% confident that any limited edition silver gelatin print that I sell today, will last my collector their entire life and probably even longer.
In 2019, Ilford released the 5th generation RC silver gelatin papers in all the normal finishes and in 2021, they released a new 5th generation portfolio RC heavyweight paper. In both cases, I have found an improvement over the previous 4th generation papers in separation of highlights and mid tones and increased richness in the blacks and shadows. I also believe the new generation paper provides even sharper images.
For the collectors that typically want fiber silver gelatin prints, I challenge your mindset and I believe the new 5th generation Ilford silver gelatin RC papers have completely dispelled any lingering concerns with RC paper permanence dating back to the 60's and 70's. Simply put, I completely trust my best silver gelatin images on the new 5th generation Ilford RC paper. Additionally, I treat all of my silver gelatin prints with Sistan as described in the section below. I have complete confidence that my RC silver gelatin prints will last for at least an entire lifetime and probably much longer if handled and presented as I describe in the sections below.
WHAT IS PRINT PERMANENCE?
Print permanence refers to the longevity of printed material and preservation issues. Over time, the optical density, color balance, luster, and other qualities of a print can and will degrade. The rate at which deterioration occurs depends primarily on two main factors: the print itself, that is, the colorants used to form the image and the medium on which image resides, and the type of environment the print is exposed to.
To achieve a long lifespan, analog silver-based prints must be thoroughly fixed and washed at a bare minimum. Besides rendering the image insensitive to further light exposure, fixer converts undeveloped silver salts in the emulsion into products that can easily be washed away. Effective fixing and washing removes all unexposed silver salts and leaves only a small amount of residual fixer. Any significant quantity of fixer (thiosulphate) left in the print after washing will cause the image to deteriorate over time.
Many other factors play a critical role in the long-term stability of silver prints. The temperature and relative humidity of the storage environment, and the air pollutants to which a silver image is exposed are three important factors.
Toning can increase the longevity of silver-based prints by replacing or coating the metallic silver with more inert metals such as gold, silver sulfide or selenium.
ARCHIVAL PROCESSING PROCEDURES MATTER
From a collectors point of view, you want to make sure your analog silver gelatin prints follow the time-proven darkroom processing methods that are well documented by Ansel Adams in his book "The Negative" and at a minimum, selenium toned.
I go one additional step for my collectors to protect my silver gelatin prints with Sistan as the final step in my workflow to help combat environmental pollutants.
The archival process is time-consuming and must be followed closely in order for the artwork to fully benefit from a permanence standpoint. I take this process seriously and perform every step of the process myself. I do not outsource any part of my fine art print workflow, so I know first hand each step in the process is executed with precision.
The reason why using Sistan is so important to me and my collectors is because Sistan prevents silver from migrating through the print and it employs a protective barrier at the point of attack. Sistan's active ingredient is potassium thiocyanate. If any of the soluble silver salts form in the print emulsion, potassium thiocyanate will immediately react to form silver thiocyanate which amazingly precipitates back onto the silver particle being attacked. Sistan is effectively insensitive to light and resists oxidation.
Bottom line, I use the exact same time-proven permanence methods for every one of my prints and I go the extra mile to ensure you will enjoy your beautiful print for your lifetime.
For platinum and palladium archival processing, I follow the same time-proven methods for clearing and archival washing that have been documented from the mid 19th century. Because platinum and palladium are highly stable noble metals, the real risk is environmental issues related to the paper. As described above, I strongly suggest dry-mounting all prints because the dry mount tissue acts as a barrier to pollutants that can be absorbed by the mount board.
CARE & HANDLING GUIDELINES
To achieve museum-quality standards, it is much more than using the right paper. I follow the same time-proven methods as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston to ensure each of my silver gelatin limited edition prints meet this very strict criterion.
For artwork up to 16x20, I dry mount the print on a 100% cotton, acid, and lignin-free mounting board with a window mat that is hinge-taped using archival linen tape. I title, date, and sign the window mat to complete your artwork.
For larger prints, I roll the prints between two acid and lignin free tissues and carefully place in an oversized tube for shipment. Upon receipt of the new artwork, I recommend taking the new artwork to a professional frame shop and having them dry mount the print to the same type of mount board as described above this paragraph and then following the additional suggestions included below.
To help resist environmental hazards associated with displaying your new artwork, a UV protective glass or plexiglass glazing should be used, often referred to as museum glass.
If you choose to store your prints versus displaying them, maintaining relative humidity between 30% and 50% is advisable and room temperature should not exceed 85F/29C.
I certify all of my limited edition fine art prints are masterfully handmade by me in my darkroom and no part of the process is outsourced to any other party. I only use the highest quality materials meeting museum quality standards and I take great care to follow the time-proven archival methods dating back to the 19th century.
PRINT CARE, DISPLAY, & HANDLING TIPS