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Dead medium: Unstable Photographs
From: jackr@axess.com (Jack Ruttan)

Source(s): article by Simon de Bruxelles in The Times of London, in "Britain Newsfeatures," July 11, 1998

"Fading memories: fight to save the family album

"Modern colour photographs are decaying quicker than Victorian black-and-whites, writes Simon de Bruxelles

"Why the past is looking just a little too rosy

"Photographs taken as recently as 30 years ago are already fading in the nation's family albums.

"Millions of images taken since the invention of modern colour photography are changing because of the way their dyes break down. Just as the 19th century is now viewed in shades of sepia, so future generations may look back on the last three decades of the 20th as the era of purple lawns and red skies.

"Kate Rouse, archivist for the Royal Photographic Society in Bath, said: 'After about 30 years, you begin to see a degradation of the image. The three dyes which make up the picture fade at different rates and there is a shift in colour. Eventually, the image is just going to fade away. We are reaching the point where the first ones have started to degrade and people are beginning to notice.'

"The short life of colour photographs is a headache for gallery and museum curators and archivists from 21 countries who are gathering in York later this month to discuss ways to slow the ageing process, as part of the Arts Council's Year of Photography.

"But it is a more personal disaster for generations whose most cherished moments are proving far more fleeting than they ever imagined. The 21st century may inherit a better record of Victorian ancestors posing sternly in black and white than of the present generation.

"Kodak invented the Instamatic camera in 1963, and began the mass marketing of colour film. Until then, virtually all photographs had been in black and white. In the early 1970s, sales of colour outstripped black and white and today it accounts for all but a tiny percentage of the 96 million films sold in Britain each year.

"There have been refinements since, but the principle of using layers of cyan, magenta and yellow dye to produce a colour image has remained the same. Ken Rogerson, technical manager for Fuji, said: 'Organic dyes are inherently liable to fade, and they all fade at different rates. I don't want it to sound like a Doomsday scenario, but ultimately they will break down into a colourless compound. Whites in a print may also turn yellow with time. Black and white is a metal image and has far greater stability.'"

"The fading may be only gradual, but, as each dye breaks down, the colour of the image distorts. Skin tones can turn a deathly blue. The conditions in which the print is kept determine which dyes go first. Light, heat and humidity are the death of a colour photograph."

(...)

"Works of art are also affected. Many of the most recent works in the Victoria and Albert Museum's vast collection are unlikely to outlast original prints made by the great Victorian photographers, such as Julia Margaret Cameron and David Octavius Hill."

(...)

"The artist David Hockney keeps his work in a cold store in Los Angeles. He acknowledges that much of it has a limited life span. In the introduction to a recent exhibition of his work in Bradford, he wrote: 'Colour is fugitive in life, like it is in pictures. Colour is the most fugitive element in all pictures, a great deal more than line. The piece of paper is beautiful, it will slowly change like everything else.'

"Sadly, the change is not always for the better. Lydia Cresswell-Jones, photograph specialist at Sotheby's, said: 'We see prints from Hockney's Sonnabend Portfolio, taken in New York in 1976, and they are almost always brown and therefore quite hard to sell.

"'It is difficult to value them when they have degraded like that. I think the last one we sold made L260. This is one reason why, for many collectors, black and white is still the colour of photography.'"

(...)

"With collectors prepared to pay as much as L55,000 for a single print by a contemporary photographer such as Cindy Sherman, the lifespan of the work becomes a matter of economic as well as artistic importance. How much would a Rembrandt etching now be worth if it had begun to fade after 30 years?

"Some manufacturers such as Fuji have begun producing 'archival' photographic papers, but they are unlikely to be used by high-street film processors and are not guaranteed to be fade free for more than 50 years.

(...)

"Film is now giving way to the digital image, according to Doug Nishimura, a research scientist at the Image Permanence Institute in Rochester, New York.

"However, he advises thinking twice before rushing out to transfer all your photographs on to CD-Rom. Mr Nishimura said: 'You have to be prepared to refresh the images every five to ten years as the hardware evolves. Otherwise, all you will have in the attic for your grandchildren is a rather nice frisbee.'"

Jack Ruttan (jackr@axcess.com)