We fine art photographers, for a generation now, have been all a twitter about the archival quality of our prints. More recently, we've been just as concerned about the long-term storage of our digital images and the media they are stored on. I have some thoughts about this.
For just a moment, I'll set aside all those discussions about whether or not it's a good thing for our prints to be around for a while and just assume it is. I must admit, I have a difficult time taking all of this too seriously because my ego is just not large enough to think my work will be that important for generations to come. But, you never know, so . . .
I would propose that the concept of preservation is far more important than whether or not a print or digital file is archival. Perhaps I'd best illustrate what I mean by this.
Any medium we store them on is subject to degradation. Every medium — paper, magnetic media, optical media, and, yes, brain cells. There is no such thing as an archival medium. Period. Time to face facts. Everything deteriorates. It's not an if, but rather a when. Attention to the archival nature of our materials simply kicks the when can down the road a bit further.
If you want your work to be around for, well, at least your life and perhaps beyond, it's important that you develop a strategy of preservation in addition to the attention you give to the archival properties of the medium. Sure, we should use so-called archival materials, but materials alone will not ensure longevity of our artwork.
What is preservation? Well, it includes these ideas . . .
Any preservationist worth their salt will tell you that the most important characteristic of all, if you really want your work to survive into the long-term is . . . the number of copies there are in existence. Not the medium, but the volume. Doesn't this just make sense? If there is only one copy of something, it clings to existence by a thread. Have a hundred copies and there is a much greater chance that 100 or 500 years from now that one or more of them will still be floating around somewhere. To be unique is to be at great risk.
I have only one copy of each negative I've made. I worry about them. I have half-a-dozen copies of every digital file I've made (not an exaggeration). My working copy files are on a RAID 5 network area storage system that has real-time protection against hard drive failure. All master files (RAW files from the camera) are stored on a back-up hard drive in my office. They are also on CD or DVD optical media, also stored in my office. They are on another back-up hard drive I store offsite and update every month. And finally, every digital master file is stored as both RAW and DNG files that I store at an online backup service. I sleep comfortably at night. Safety in numbers.
When it comes to prints, I'm always amused by photographers who are fastidious about the archival properties of their materials in printing but at the same time limit their work to an edition of, say, five prints. What a ludicrous conflict of objectives. I'm serious about this. If you really want your work to survive, the best thing you can do is make lots and lots of prints and get them out into the world, in diverse places and in diverse hands. There is no better way to insulate against fire, natural disaster, indifferent caretakers, regional environments, or the whims of history. To work so hard to make archival prints and then limit them to a very small number of copies is only to stroke the ego of the owner/purchaser without really serving your needs, as the motivated maker, to preserve your work for the future. I cringe when I see the needs of marketing trump the value of wide-spread distribution.
Returning to digital files, isn't it obvious that storage media will continue to evolve? Remember 8" floppy discs? Remember magneto-optical drives? And then there are format changes, too. Remember the BMP format? DCS and EPS? JPEG 2000? (Come to think of it, I don't remember JPEG 2000, either.) Formats change about as often as physical media do. Today I'm using optical media (CD and DVD, somewhat fragile) and hard drive media (better, but still subject to breakdown) on which I store RAW, DNG, and finished PSD files. I have no doubt all of this will seem as quaint as floppy discs and the BMP format in a few short years when they are all replaced by something better. So, my preservation strategy will be to simply adapt and convert my files to the new media and the new formats when the time comes to do so. Just as I did when I converted and moved all my EPS files from ZIP drives to PSD files on CDs and then to DNG files on hard drives. There is no substitute for the attention that is required if we want something to be preserved — and that is true whether it's our digital files, our prints, or both after we are gone into — as Ansel Adams called it — the final wash. Or the Recycle Bin.
Just as important as Light Impressions boxes is the need for our own personal Berenice Abbot. Remember how she rescued Eugene Atgét's negatives from destruction? Luck plays a part in the future of our work. Similar stories infuse the biographies of Weegee, Lewis Hines, Robert Capa, and many others. If you and I — who are far less famous than any of these, ahem — have intentions that our negatives or digital files are preserved, we need to find someone, somewhere, who will accept the responsibility to do so as we have done during our four-score and ten. Without naming names, I personally know of a dozen offspring of famous and nearly-famous photographers who have sought for years for some institution or museum to take their dearly departed's archives — only to discover that others often balk at the gift because they don't have the money to care for the archives unless the family ponies up. Attention takes effort and materials, which requires money, of which fine art photographers, I hear, are prone to be lacking. Yes, indeed.
Which leads me to the vagaries of chance and the market. Personally, if I'm forced to bet on the future, I'd rather bet on the long-term survival of my prints in the hands of lots and lots of buyers than a few limited prints in the hands of my offspring. My kids are responsible adults, but why should I burden them with the challenge in my post mortem to find some benefactor for the care of dear old Dad's hobby? Part of my preservation strategy is related to my pricing strategy. The last thing I would wish for my work is to reside in the closet, carefully preserved in archival storage bins, until I'm room temperature — after which they will be sold in the estate sale for fifty cents. Per box. Yikes.
For artwork to live, it must be loved. It's hard to think of artwork being loved when it is jailed in a box in the closet. To be loved, it needs to be caressed, in the light, where it can be seen and appreciated every day. I'd rather have my work fade into oblivion on an admirer's wall than stay in perpetual fidelity in a cold, dark, temperature controlled and humidity regulated coffin-like vault in some desiccated museum. I prefer to see my artwork living in a relationship of passion in someone's home rather than preserved as a curiosity in some dusty institution.
And that sums it up for me. Preservation is about a caring relationship whereas being archival is about the wispy potential of a nebulous future.