You have worked hard and/or paid a premium to create a fine photograph. What now? Photographs deserve to be treated the same as any other important artwork on paper — with the protection of archival storage and presentation. In this essay, and the video below, I discuss the latest materials and conservation techniques available to the digital printer.
How we do it: Video Tutorial
What is an “archival print?” Simply, it is an image — for the sake of this essay, a photographic one — that has been produced according to accepted archival standards with acid free, pH neutral materials, guaranteeing maximum permanence.
Historically, that meant photographs printed on archival quality media, using silver gelatin/albumin, platinum/palladium, etc. emulsions, fixed and washed properly, often with further protection by treatment with inert selenium, sulfide (sepia) or gold toners. We still have beautiful examples of such prints, more than 150-years after they were made. There has been a recent renaissance in the use of “traditional” photographic processes.
Today, aside from aforementioned retro-resurgence, most prints are made digitally, using inkjet printers. Once subject to premature fading and unable to reproduce the subtle gradations of tone available by traditional methods, even today’s desktop printers can produce fine prints that will last generations.
This article can’t cover the raft of media, printers, inks and combinations available to photographers. Whether printing yourself (and you should) or farming out the final interpretation of your vision, it is “best practice” to know your options.
The best pigment inks from Epson, HP and Canon, for instance, are extremely stable, or lightfast.
The list of papers made for top printer manufacturers and independent offerings from such companies as Canson (in the business for 450-years!), Hahnemühle, Moab, and Ilford are nearly limitless. The finest are made from acid and lignin free 100% rag fibres. Lignin, the bonding element found in wood fibre, degrades over time That’s why old newspapers turn brittle and yellow.
Recently, Epson has announced a new line of “Legacy” photographic papers, in 4 versions: Platine, Fibre, Baryta and Etching. All but the Baryta are made from 100% rag fibres and free of optical brighteners, which can fade over time. Though Epson say they had the new line produced by the best European mill, to my knowledge they haven’t revealed the name of that renowned manufacturer. Is it a coincidence that the Legacy papers have the same names as the Canson Infinity line?
Epson — in cooperation with Wilhelm Imaging Research — is claiming extraordinary lightfast ratings for these papers, using their UltraChrome HDX inks: 200-years dark storage for colour and 400 for black and white, utilizing Epson’s proprietary “Advanced Black & White” process (which I use to great satisfaction with the Epson Stylus Pro 4900 printer). I wonder if these will replace or complement Epson’s “Signature Worthy” papers?
I print my limited editions on 100% rag papers, sans optical brighteners. Printing digitally these days, I turn to pigment inks with permanence ratings that guarantee prints will long outlast their creator. So it stands to reason that I would protect these works with materials that boast similar archival properties.
Archival storage & presentation
After the printing stage, I sign prints, stamp the back with title and edition number, then add my logo in the margin with an embossing tool. Prints are stored in Crystal Clear BagsⓇ and archival folders, ready for sale, or spend 24-hours in an archival (acid free) “curing” box in preparation for matting and framing.
Pigment inks dry instantaneously on the paper surface, but it’s a good idea to let them off-gas, or “breathe” before they go under glass. Never display a print in contact with glass. Always use a mat. See next point.
Rising Museum Board is my first choice for matting. It is 100% rag, acid-free, with a Neutral pH and buffered with calcium carbonate. Rising also make a “Photomount” board, minus the calcium carbonate, for mounting traditional photographic prints — e.g. silver gelatin or platinum — which I’ve used for more than thirty-years.
My preferred process for matting consists of a 2-ply base board, with a hinged 4-ply window-mat on top, using “butterfly” hinges to secure the print. I learned this process more than 30-years-ago from a little booklet promoting Ilford Galerie silver printing paper, a method also used by my first photography mentor, Gerry Duncan of Action Reprographics, a specialty B&W lab and gallery in Vancouver.
Tape is cut into thin strips (six is usual). Half are glued to the back/top margin of the print, adhesive-up. These are then secured to the base mount by the rest of the strips, applied crosswise, like “wings.” This method is preferred by archivists and fine-art conservators, because it is reversible and non-destructive.
I generally prefer a plain white board, as do all prestigious galleries. The tone should closely match that of the printing paper. In my opinion, a minimum 3-inch border looks best. Smaller prints can benefit from a comparatively large mat. Try displaying a small — say, 6″x 6″ — image with a 5-inch border on the sides, to fit in a 16×20 standard frame or custom 16X16 square. Top and bottom can be equal or weighted.
I’ve seen 6×6 cm, medium-format contact prints displayed to great effect with comparatively huge mats. The effect draws the viewer in to examine the print at close range. Experiment with portrait or landscape presentation. My personal preference leans towards weighting the mat border on the bottom. Fat, 6- and 8-ply board is also available, providing a luxurious finish for larger works, not to mention extra rigidity and protection. Cutting thicker mats requires a sturdy cutter and an experienced hand.
All other materials should meet conservation standards. I’ve recently switched from gummed linen tape, which requires wetting of the adhesive, to hinging tape with peel-off release paper. It is more expensive, but saves a lot of hassle. If you prefer to use the former, I recommend applying (distilled) water to the back of the tape with a flat artist’s brush.
Once the image is positioned and attached to the base mount (I like to drive myself crazy by leaving a quarter- to half-inch border between the image edge and the mat window — more at the bottom to accommodate signature) acid-free glue or double-sided tape is used to fix the position of the top mat. This is imperative when the aforementioned border technique is used.
Other tools and supplies
It goes without saying that a mat cutter and skill to operate it is a prerequisite. Don’t bother trying to cut a mat with ruler and Exacto knife. You’ll waste a lot of time and expensive board trying to cut a 45° bevel. For better or worse, I use a Logan Simplex 750. See video above for instructions.
A good brush will be appreciated to banish dust, the bane of conservators — they don’t call them dust devils for nothing! A burnishing bone will come in handy to smooth out corners and edges of the window, scissors for cutting tape. You’ll use a pencil to mark mat board margins for cutting. Save the Exacto knife for teasing the release paper off tape. Use clean cotton gloves to handle prints, mat board and glass.
Depending on your choice of frames, you may need screwdrivers, framer’s points, etc. Most frames require hanging wire.
Frames come in as many styles as one can imagine. My preference, for most photographs, leans toward a simple, contemporary profile. Aluminum extrusions work well, are relatively economical, and simple to assemble. Black and white photographs are complemented by a black frame. Still, experiment. Your images may look better in something more unconventional. Larger images benefit from a deeper profile frame.
The option of homebuilt picture frames is outside the purview of this post, but building your own can be a very satisfying endeavour, given the right materials and skills.
Choose from regular glass (3mm minimum), acrylic, or various UV-blocking glazing options. The latter will filter up to 90% of ultra-violet light, saving your work from potential fading.
Be careful handling glass. Though usually buffed after cutting, sharp edges can remain. Blood on white mats doesn’t cut it.
Clean glass carefully, checking under a good light. Use an ammonia-free cleaner.
Matting and framing fine art is a job that requires scrupulous cleanliness, concentration and calm in the face of inevitable screw-ups and demonic forces. Meeting its challenges is satisfying. On completion of framing, I apply a label to the back of the frame, with title and number — either artist’s proof or edition — copied from the back of the print. Make note of that before matting the print.
I keep track of edition numbers in a notebook, ticking them off when sold.
If you’re preparing a themed show, I think standardized matting and framing is essential. Though quality archival framing sets off any image, ultimately you want your photographs to be the stars, not the presentation.
My limited edition prints are available through the sales gallery.