The issues surrounding the
archival keeping qualities of photographic materials have always dogged
us. During the development of the photographic process in the 19th century
the problem was not capturing a moment but keeping it from fading once
it was again exposed to light when viewed. Only when "hypo"
was discovered could the undeveloped silver halides be removed from the
light sensitive emulsion, making the image somewhat impervious to further
deterioration. That discovery made photography possible. But other matters
contributed to the keeping problems with photographs--the tarnishing
of silver, the fading of dyes used in creating color, the poor base support
materials, and the increasing effects of pollution, which attack both
paper and image layers in the print. Indeed, even high temperature and
humidity became a storage issue, as did the album pages and containers
in which photographs were held, which could emit harmful gases.
While some black and white photographs have withstood the test of time,
color has its own particular issues. Anyone who used color film in the
1950s, '60s, and even the '70s knows what this is about. Of
all the color slide films only Kodachromes seem to have done well, given
they were stored properly. My father made photographs of my older brother
in the early '50s on Kodachrome 4x5, and they still hold color and
density as if they just came out of the lab. The same goes for black and
white prints on fiber paper I made in the early '70s. I was a stickler
then (and now) about archival processing procedures, and those extra steps
have paid off.
Now nothing lasts forever, but at least I'd like photographs I have
made in my lifetime to last as long as I do, whatever the good Lord figures
that out to be. But sadly, that's not the case. We have seen some
major improvements and awareness about archival quality materials from
manufacturers, and that's good and has resulted in some amazingly
durable films and papers. The same goes for storage materials, and today
we have a number of firms offering nothing but archival quality albums,
pages, boxes, and slide storage pages. But the fact remains that many
of the images made in the not too distant past will fade and disappear,
many before we even have a chance to relive those memories in our old
Along comes digital and a whole new set of problems...and solutions.
On the good side, digital can help us rescue old photos with ease. Get
yourself a scanner, some Applied Science Fiction (now Kodak) software
in the scanner for removing minor cracks and surface defects and restoring
color, and you can get all those old photos out and spend a few weekends
making the old photos new again. In the old days you'd have to set
up a copy stand or send the work out to an expensive studio for copy and
On the bad side, the archival side of digital is a still an open question.
How long do CDs last? What about DVDs? Are all digital printers and ink
and paper combinations equal? Will your back-up systems be able to be
read 20 years from now? These are issues we'll be exploring in the
Which brings us to what I consider a very important article in this month's
issue, our interview with Henry Wilhelm on digital print archival quality.
Wilhelm is considered one of the top people in the field of archival and
conservation research. His efforts have opened many eyes into what has
to be done to ensure that our precious memories are available for those
who come after us. He is a true friend to photographers and everyone who
values the image. I encourage you to read the article and to visit Wilhelm's
website at www.wilhelm-research.com.