C-prints fade into the light

An experimental process of the early 1990s is proving unstable

By Cristina Ruiz | From issue 212, April 2010
Published online 17 May 10 (Conservation)

This unfaded Gursky of 1987 has been kept out of bright light

This unfaded Gursky of 1987 has been kept out of bright light

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.

I have a few big problems with this and basically think there is a bit of scare scaremongering going on. Let me explain.

Now I am no expert, well actually I am, I have run my own lab way back then and basically had to ensure the best stability not just for my work, but also for others. I only sell C Type prints, and as long as the process is available I will continue to do so. The problem with the Gursky print fading was nothing to do with the longevity of the print and its process. C Types have been around for some time, since the 50's, and although these may have lost there punch, they have certainly not faded like a two year old ink jet.. Basically it was a chemical reaction with the bonding agent (in other words clue) which stuck the image to the Plexiglass (Perspex). This was found to 'eat away' at the prints emulsion after reacting with certain chemicals in the air. Admittedly it was probably a bit silly gluing a million dollar print to a bit of plastic. But as is common with new processes, it probably looked the business. Its no different to Damien Hurst and his rotting shark. That was more expensive, but at least the guy who bought it got a book deal out of it..

Gursky's dealer is totally right. If you look after a C Type print, it will last a lifetime. Just don't stick it onto some clear plastic. And of course as with any print old or new, keep it out of direct sunlight, like a dog or a new born baby...

Thats my take anyway..

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