Stopping the passage of time: Colour photography conservation

A new technique aims to prevent colour prints from fading—but is it legal?



All colour photographs fade. According to best estimates, the average colour print has a shelf life of about 200 years. Now, in Basel, Switzerland, the Cesar Foundation, chaired by Claudio Cesar, an American photography collector who runs a company that specialises in coloured glass is trying to reverse this deterioration. The foundation’s board of advisors includes the artist Tony Oursler and a number of scientists at the University of Basel whose expertise lies in image production.

The problem is that the materials of c-print colour photography, chemical reactants which create the image, are complex organic compounds which are unstable and decompose over a long period. Unlike the constituents of black and white photographs or oil paints, the ingredients of c-prints continue to undergo chemical reactions in perpetuity rather than stabilise.

Light, heat, and water in the atmosphere all accelerate the process. Digital prints tend to fade even more quickly, because they are often made on paper which has not been designed for the process, and because inkjet printer inks are especially unstable.

For video art, there are a set of related problems. First, the physical constituents of video tapes are unstable, and repeated play damages the ribbon. Second, the machines that play videos are becoming obsolete, as they are increasingly replaced by DVDs, which, in turn, will probably be replaced.

Current solutions to the problem of fading photographs do not address the central issue. Some museums, for example, have purchased two prints of a work: the first is exhibited, the second is stored. The stored print, however, will also fade. When it is finally displayed in lighter conditions it will deteriorate just as quickly as the first.

The Cesar Foundation is proposing a two-part solution. First, photographs should be stored in digital form, so that a new copy can be printed when the original fades. Second, the foundation’s scientists have invented a software programme and device that scans non-digital, “normal” colour photographs which have aged, and then prints off a version which restores the original colour. This process determines the restored colours from analysis of the chemical constituents of the print, point by point.

The key problem is copyright. For example, the owner of an Andreas Gursky photograph would not have the right to have a “fresh” print made 20 years from now; similarly, the owner of a work of video art does not have the right to transfer it to DVD. Indeed, the American 1976 Copyright Act gives protection against duplication “in any tangible medium of expression now known or later developed”. Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Mr Cesar says he aims to challenge the law: “Buying a print should really mean buying the entitlement to a good print”.


Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Stopping the passage of time'