United Kingdom

C-prints fade into the light

An experimental process of the early 1990s is proving unstable

london. All colour photographs fade, but some are fading more quickly than others. At a recent seminar for new photography collectors at the Photographers’ Gallery in London, audience members were warned of the risks of purchasing c-prints dating from the early 1990s by artists such as Andreas Gursky because of the works’ inherent instability.

Michael Wilson, the co-producer of the James Bond films and a major collector of photography, told the audience that some c-prints from this period have faded so dramatically that they have been reprinted and replaced.

“C-prints are unstable, especially [those dating] from the early 1990s. I recommend anyone [interested in collecting these] go to the big auctions to see the photographs from the early 90s that are being sold for a million pounds: the cyan [blue] is gone or is going fast.”

Wilson said that photographers such as Gursky and other contemporaries of his “experimented with [processes] that were not established”. He also questioned whether a new print of a photograph could be as authentic as the original edition.

“How do you replace something that’s supposed to have a history? Does it help to have a [new] print? It’s not the same as the earlier one. These are problems that come with experiments,” he said.

A student of Bernd and Hilla Becher in Düsseldorf, Gursky, 55, is known for his large-scale, digitally manipulated colour works that include panoramas of stock exchanges, hotels, raves and shop displays. He achieved critical and commercial success in the mid 1990s. In 1999 the annual growth rate for a Gursky image topped 3,000%.

Ben Burdett, the director of the Atlas Gallery in London, says the market hype was part of the problem. “Photography requires a lot of connoisseurship and understanding of the medium. With all those dollars being spent on Gursky four or five years ago, some of that went out of the window. People were buying it because it was a Gursky and it was the thing to have. Gursky took on a cult status, like Hirst,” said Burdett.

The materials of c-print—or chromogenic—colour photography are complex organic compounds, which are unstable. Unlike the constituents of black and white photographs, the ingredients of c-prints continue to undergo chemical reactions rather than stabilise. Light, heat, and water in the atmosphere all accelerate the process.

Gursky was one of the first artists to make oversized c-prints. “If you were going to make big colour prints in the early 1990s, you had to do it chromogenically,” says Wilson. “Inkjet printing was just not good enough then.” Because c-prints on this scale are relatively recent it is only now that collectors and conservators are starting to understand fully the challenges of maintaining such works.

Another issue with Gursky’s work is that each image is face-mounted; a layer of Plexiglass is placed on top of the image and, in effect, the picture is fused to it. Conservators say they do not yet know if this process, which gives photographs a slick, wet look, accelerates degradation. Plexiglass is also sensitive and scratches easily. Because the image is fused to it, it cannot be replaced the way a layer of glass would be.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York has a large collection of Gursky c-print photographs, several of them dating from the early 1990s. In an emailed statement Jim Coddington, its chief conservator, said: “MoMA is conducting long-term experiments and studies to better understand the fading of these works and appropriate display conditions for improved longevity. We are also doing research on care of the plexi-face mount, to prevent scratches and other disfigurements that might also necessitate replacement of the work.”

Another major Gursky collector is Eli Broad in Los Angeles. Joanne Heyler, chief curator at the Broad Art Foundation, said: “We have not noted any fading problems with the Gurskys in [our] collection. I’ve certainly seen some c-prints by various artists at auction over the years that appear to have spent too much time in bright light, and look very faded, so buyers of these works have to be careful.”

Gursky’s art dealer Monika Sprüth of Sprüth Magers said in an email: “A c-print stays in perfect condition if it is handled properly and if the conservation instructions are followed. In this regard I would like to refer to the forthcoming group show at K21 in Düsseldorf ‘Auswertung der Flugdaten’ [11 September to 30 January 2011].” As the concept of the exhibition is to show only vintage prints, Gursky reviewed all the works from this time in his possession for a final selection. “All works are in excellent condition and can be displayed,” said Sprüth.

Gursky started to work exclusively with the Diasec technique in the middle of the 1990s. Diasec is a special process to create a durable bond between a c-print and acrylic glass to provide protection against UV light, atmospheric conditions and chemical impurities in the air. “A Diasec sealed and handled properly guarantees an even longer duration because of the high protection standards. Nevertheless, manufacturing errors may occur, as with many other techniques. In this case, after excluding the possibility of the owner having disregarded the conservation instructions—often works are asked to be replaced after a long period of solar irradiation for example—works are reproduced by the artist,” said Sprüth.

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Comments

11 Sep 13
19:6 CET

ARMAND AGRESTI, EQUINUNK

I have fuji and kodak prints from the late 80,s Kodak is yellow fuji is white is that simple enough ,to understand,or are you looking further for a lie,the explanations above i am sad to say,sound like the priority challenged.

10 Jan 13
15:14 CET

ARMAND AGRESTI, EQUINUNK

Started using fuji ,as soon as it came out ,thank god.

5 Jan 12
15:30 CET

TIM WOLCOTT, BIG BEAR LAKE

We knew this even before we invented the carbon pigment process called "Evercolor" then later I helped design pigment inkjet processes and still these photographers and gallery decided to sell this very faceable C-Prints. This is the kind of thing that only hurts the photographic collector market. THis was the main reason Ansel Adams tried to invent it with Polaroid but we at Evercolor actually designed it. Many galleries loved the process and offered it right away while others decided to sell there inventory of C-prints and Cibachromes. Both of which are toxic and fade quickly. WE designed the pigment printing process to last 200-250 years on display and have been exclusively exhibiting only pigment prints for the last 20 years and the process is green. We are proud to say not only we invented the process but built the first green gallery in the world. WE also plan to build the first chain in the world in the very distant future. Tim Wolcott

28 Nov 11
16:52 CET

KENT BEUCHERT, LAND O LAKES

Of course, in the case of digital prints, longevity only applies to a copy and replacement is not much of an issue.

6 Jun 11
4:14 CET

CARL SAYTOR, NEW YORK

All C-Prints are not archivally equal. Some labs do not use a thorough water wash at the correct temperature. Cold water wash does not remove the chemicals. Residue of these chemicals accelerates fading. I have prints made in the early 90's that have not shown any signs of fading. Other prints made latter years on the same material have obvious fading. Prints I made at a rental darkroom in the mid to late 90's on the same material, even the same batch of materials exhibit fading depending on the day they were printed. As it turns out that photo lab had an issue with inconsistent wash water temperature within their automated color processor. How prints were processed, the materials used along with storage all contribute to fading.

12 Apr 11
23:8 CET

JIM MCHUGH, LOS ANGELES

Color archivalness in photography is a real issue. Especially older C prints. C prints, regardless of how they are stored or printed will fade. Putting UV protection on the surface, either sealing or simply under UV plex is not a perfect answer. Certainly dye transfers and other pin registered dye type prints from the past are far more archival. We are told Ink jet prints lasts much longer. However, the test are only estimates, as the medium is barely 10 to 15 years old. Cibachrome materials are very lasting as well. However, the writer makes a good point, works created in a specific era bring a history with them, to simply reprint takes away provenance. That does seem the only answer. There is something very wonderful about C prints, even as they age. The colors have an indefinable warmth to them.

19 Aug 10
21:6 CET

VINCENT OLIVER, CHISLEHURST

Light fade is not a new problem, most family albums will have picturres that have faded to some degree. I am surprised that the art market hasn't picked up on this earlier. Of course Silver prints (B/W) created by Ansel Adams, Cartier Bresson and others do not have the same problem, in fact B/W prints are very stable. I am surprised that Gursky hasn't produced his prints using Pigment based inkjet prints, these inks will last for 200+ years and are well protected against both light and gas fade (ozone). Epson, Canon and HP produce a good range of large format printers that should suit most artists needs. Vincent Oliver - editor of photo-i.co.uk and author/publisher of "a guide to digital printing & scanning" DVD

23 May 10
18:42 CET

A.G., LONDON

Sounds like a problem for mr Benjamin.

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