Printing Isn't an Island - Part 3 How Permanent is Permanent?

Many years ago, I prepared some black and white photos for a time capsule to be opened in 100 years. I had to fix them archivally using two baths of hypo and washing them for a longer length of time than usual.

However, I never remember purchasing a photograph, a silk screen, a batik, or a print either from a store, a gallery, or from a booth at a fair and asking how light stable it was or whether it was created with dye or pigment inks (if inks were used). Yet this has been a big topic of controversy in the computer arena.

Some key words in this controversy are:

  • acid free paper
  • dye based inks
  • pigment based inks
  • archival inks vs non-archival inks
  • specific paper-ink combinations
  • longevity of different types of paper, etc.

While there are custom printers such as Glicée and Iris printers, many people want to be able to print from their studio or from their home. Epson has filled this market with printers from the dye based 870/1270/1280 models to the pigment or shall I say non-dye based inks of the 2000P and 2200. These models were all geared toward the home market. The dye based models boasted a longevity with matte paper under good conditions of about 20 years. The 2000P boasted well over 100 with certain papers and the 2200 boasts less but has a wider color gamut. This information is only necessary to set the stage.

Aside from these native manufacturer inks, there are third party archival inks, both dye and pigment for the Epson printers (as well as for some other printers) that can be used on different substrates and will give different longevities as well as different color gamuts. Archival black inks in shades of grey are also available for the printing of black and white prints. This column will ignore the artistic attributes of the inks and focus on the question of permanence and how important it really is or how it really should be.

I have worked with a number of media through the years and have belonged to many art leagues where artists used many types of media including pen and ink, and no one ever questioned the longevity of the piece of art work. Why then has it become so controversial in the graphic fine arts field? I have prints that have been upon my wall for over eight years now that have been printed on paper that was not archival with inks that were not archival and they have not faded. Why? Because like any art print I have not subjected them to direct sunlight and I have put them under glass or Plexiglas. In other word, I have treated them as I would any other piece of art work that I own.

Right now I am in the process of experimenting using different papers and coating them with different substrates. No matter what ink I use, I cannot tell how it will react to the different substrate in time. If I were putting together a multimedia collage using photos, glue, magazine pictures, etc., no one would question me. Does that mean I should not do this using the computer? In any other medium I wouldn't even think of this question, but the longevity of graphic prints has become an area of controversy.