Photographic print permanence is a topic that is hard to escape from, but why is it considered so important by so many? I wonder if the true reason is much more to do with ourselves and what it means to be human.
In the world of silver gelatin B&W printing (aka darkroom prints), pretty well every printer knew about this topic. The techniques used to increase the lifespan of B&W photographs were in every book and magazine. They were also one of the first topics of conversation, when printers and photographers talked. In fact, photographers who could barely make a print worth looking at would discuss at length their fixing, washing and selenium toning routine. Being able to make ‘archival quality prints’ was a rite of passage for B&W photographers and printers. The problem was that it wasted inordinate amounts of time on images that frankly weren’t worth preserving. I wasn’t immune. I still have some early prints and most of them are fairly terrible. They were however well fixed, washed and toned, so evidence of my early inexperience will outlive me. Looking back, I wish I had spent that time just making more prints.
When digital photography came of age, archival quality prints became a big topic again. It is easy to understand why: dye based inkjet prints have awful fade resistance qualities and early pigment inks struggled to produce prints that wowed people. Understandably, this cutting edge technology was under the microscope. Photographers were desperate for a convenient method of printing photographs with excellent longevity and top notch image quality. Epson, HP and Canon now all have superb quality pigment inks that last at least as long as regular C-Type colour photographic prints (and in many cases much longer) on any paper you care to name. Archival permanence has therefore ceased to be such a topic. Inkjets made with pigment inks (or giclée prints as they are often known) now have superb fade resistance and are plenty good enough for discerning professionals and the art trade.
The question remains ‘so why do most photographers care?’
There tends to be little to no connection between how good the photographer is and how much he/she cares about print permanence. The photographer likely recognises his or her limitations, while still putting in that extra time to make the print last for generations. This suggests that it has nothing to do with the qualitative value of the photographs to future generations. Perhaps it has nothing to do with the photograph at all, at least not in direct terms. Is it not all about ourselves?
I just googled ‘why humans make art’ and clicked on a link to the website ‘Greater Good and the Science of a Meaningful life‘. It’s a berkeley.edu site and in the first paragraph on the linked page is the following section of text:
“[people make] art for fun and adventure; building bridges between themselves and the rest of humanity; reuniting and recording fragments of thought, feeling, and memory; and saying things that they can’t express in any other way.”
At this point, you might like to read an article I wrote last year about photography and the importance of meaningfulness. Anyway, if we take the above explanation (which I wholly agree with) and root it more firmly in an existential sense, we can now bring in a quote from Woody Allen’s 2011 movie Midnight in Paris. Gertrude Stein is played by Kathy Bates and the following line could not articulate my own thoughts any more perfectly:
“We all fear death and question our place in the universe. The artist’s job is not to succumb to despair, but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence.”
When you are selling a print for a significant sum of money, the need for decent archival qualities is easy to understand. However, for most people who are not selling prints and are just enjoying their work, perhaps it can be boiled down to three words? Solitude, mortality and connection. For me, these strike at the core of what it means to make art. We are all prisoners of our own consciousness and it takes a feat of human intellect to briefly escape our own singularity. Art is one of those bridges that allows us to connect our minds and experience a sense of deep existential connection. Only love transcends art in this regard.
Perhaps this is what archival print permanence is all about: a desire to leave a mark on the universe that reflects the essence of our being? To show that we really were here and to have that understood by others. Bridges, scientific break throughs and political legacies aren’t nearly as good at conjuring up the actual person behind the work as art is. Perhaps art is the truest evidence of who existed. After all, is it the historical legacy or the literature of Marcus Aurelius that brings the man back to life for countless generations?
One of the most moving experiences of my photography (and life generally) was working with heroin addicts in Afghanistan. ‘Shame’ and ‘honour’ are hugely important to Afghans: they’re everything. For an Afghan addict to be photographed in such a condition is not to be taken lightly and I regularly encountered a lot of skepticism and fear. When they got to know me, that fear abated and some addicts would actually request to be photographed. Naturally, I asked why they were seeking out an image that would capture their vulnerability and deep shame in the eyes of society and their faith. Their answer was always as clear as it was simple: ‘Your photograph will show that we lived’. It may just be the same for the photographer. To be connected in that way was a privilege I will never forget.