Archival Processing

(Some information paraphrased from Carson Graves' The Elements of Black and White Printing, Boston:  Focal Press, 1993.  See this text for more thorough descriptions of these techniques.)


Before you start:


Photographs are fragile.  This is an indisputable fact of the medium in which you have chosen to work.  Attempts to simplify the processes and procedures of processing prints for permanence usually, eventually, result in disappointment.  If you are printing work for a portfolio or for exhibition or sale, you have little choice but to approach the process with rigor and patience.  There may be much about the way you used to process prints that you will have to ³un-learn².


Things to keep in mind:

Always leave at least a 1² border around the entire print, and never trim this border.  When and if contaminants attack the print, it usually starts at the edges.  With a border youıll have a ³safety zone² that could give you time to discover and correct the contamination. 


Avoid toners (with the exception of selenium), hand coloring, or mounting processes that will weaken or jeopardize the printıs permanence.  If a particular manipulation after printing is a necessary part of your visual statement, you will be forced to weigh your options and decide which is most important in the work:  permanence or the manipulation.  It makes little sense to archivally process work with which you are not satisfied.  Conversely, there may be a tenable compromise to a manipulation you have come to regard as essential to your process that will not threaten the life expectancy of the print.



Fiber-based papers are the only ones to take seriously for archival processing.  Galleries, museums, and collectors donıt purchase RC prints for a reason:  they do not last more than a few years‹especially when exhibited under bright lights.


To date, you have probably only ever used Ilford or Kodak multi-contrast paper.  There are, however, countless options at your disposal.  RC and Fiber-based are the two paper bases available.  Whereas both are available in a range of surfaces (glossy, matte, pearl, semi-matte, etc.), fiber comes in different weights.  These include:  single-wight, double-weight, and museum or premium weight (effectively triple-weight).  Tonal quality also differs quite a bit from paper to paper.  Your standard Ilford papers are fairly cold-toned papers.  Other brands and varieties have other colors or tones.  For example, Kodak Polycontrast tends to be a warm reddish tone, while Agfa Brovira has a cool bluish color.  Forte makes a warm-tone poly-contrast paper with a bright white paper base.  Luminos makes a version of the same paper, but with a cream-colored base.  Also, the ratio of chromium to bromide in the paperıs emulsion can make a huge difference in what happens to the paperıs color when it is toned in selenium.  The overall print color can radically affect the way a print is read.  It is, therefore, up to you to determine which paper (and what size) is most appropriate to the meaning you wish to convey.



Donıt bother spending the time to process an image to archival standards if it isnıt perfectly exposed and developed.  You must use fresh developer to produce a full range of tones from highlights to shadows.  Keep track of how many prints go through the solution and change it as often as necessary, according to the manufacturerıs specifications.  (I usually cut the manufacturerıs recommendation in half‹especially Kodakıs.)  In general, you can count on being able to develop about 25  8 x 10² prints in an 11 x 14² tray of developer at a depth of no less than 1.5².  Remember:  test strips count, too.  Further, development times for different papers varies.  Most fiber paper requires at least two full minutes to be fully developed in the shadow areas.  Some papers, such as Forte Elegance Polywarmtone must be developed from 3 to 5 minutes for full effect.  If you are coming in to the lab to process archivally and the developer has been sitting out, dump it and re-mix.


Stop Bath:

Stop bath contains acetic acid which is used to neutralize the alkalinity of the developer, thus ³stopping² the development action.  Not only is it important to make sure that the stop bath is fresh to maintain consistent development, but if the stop is weak the fixer must act as the neutralizer.  This will cause unpredictable development and, usually, staining.  Also‹always drain your prints well from one chemical bath to the next to maintain freshness as long as possible.



Although sodium thiosulfate is the basis of classic fixing formulas since photographyıs invention, most ³rapid fixers² today use ammonium thiosulfate, which works much faster but is a bit harsher.  The most amazing thing about the process of fixing is that it is still not technically completely understood.  Most think that fixer simply dissolves undeveloped silver from the paper.  This is only part of what happens.  The silver actually undergoes three separate and complex chemical changes before it becomes silver disodium, which is water-soluble and is released into the fix.  Fixing a print would be easy if converting the undeveloped silver to silver disodium were the only thing at stake.  Unfortunately, if you over-fix a print you lose highlight details.  Further, residual fixer left in the print will slowly (sometimes not-so-slowly) destroy the print.


Our archival fixing process will go like this: 


1.   Prepare two separate trays of working-strength non-hardening fix.

2.   Fix the print in the first tray for exactly three minutes.

3.   Rinse the print in a tray of water (you can use this tray as a holding bath until you have several prints to agitate in the second fixing bath).  Empty and re-fill the holding tray with fresh water every half hour.

4.   Transfer the print to the second fixing bath for exactly three minutes.

Important:  always maintain constant, gentle agitation.  Do not place the prints in the fix and move on to the next print.  This is not Photo 1.


Washing Aid:

After fixing, wash the print in 70° running water for at least 5 minutes.  This makes the washing aidıs job much easier.  Now place the print in the wash aid (PermaWash) for a minimum of 2 minutes but not more than 5.  Agitate continuously and do not leave a print unattended in this bath.  PermaWash can stain if a print is left over 5 minutes.  PermaWash is a formulation of salts that promotes an ion exchange with the thiosulfate compounds to make them more water-soluble.  It does not replace the final wash, but is a necessary prerequisite to it.


Final Wash:

Hereıs where we find out how serious you are.  There are two main variables that determine how long you must wash a print for archival processing.  They are:

Water Temperature

The warmer the water, the more effective (and therefore shorter) the final wash.  Water that is too warm, however, will damage the print.  It can also cause reticulation (excessive grain clumping) in paper and can even cause the emulsion to separate from the paper base.  It is kinda cool to see, but it is a real drag if it is your work.  Keep the temp between 68° and 80° for best results.

Water Flow

Most people assume the greater the volume of water washing over the print, the more effective the washing.  Actually, water passing over a print too quickly doesnıt allow sufficient time for the residual chemicals to pass from the paper fibers into the wash solution.  Therefore, you should aim for a flow rate that will allow the container (in our case the Plexiglas archival washer) to fill completely every five minutes.  Best way to determine this, obviously, is to empty it and time how long it takes to fill up.



In addition to producing a mild deepening of shadows and a more pleasant tone (usually), selenium provides protection by coating the silver in the image with a more stable metal, rendering it more archival.  To tone a print for permanence:

1.   Prepare two trays of  half working-strength PermaWash. 

2.   Add 40ml of toner concentrate per liter of solution to the second tray.

3.   Agitate the print for 3 minutes in the first tray, then transfer it to the second tray.

4.   Agitate the print in the second tray, watching very carefully for the beginning of a color change in the shadows (warming).  Donıt try this in the darkroom!  You need a bright light directly over the tray to make this evaluation.  Pull the print before the color change is more than you want.

5.   Wash in cool water.  Water hotter than 85° will completely remove the selenium.

6.   Air-dry the print on very clean fiberglass screens.  Heat will drastically alter the color of the selenium.



The saddest thing to watch is the student who will carefully, painstakingly process their prints only to place them on contaminated drying screens or in a (gasp!) blotter book.  Prints should be gingerly squeegeed and placed face down on screens that you are sure are completely clean of fixer and other contaminates.  Of course, in a communal facility such as ours, the only way to know for sure if a screen is clean is to clean it yourself.  To clean a screen about which you feel dubious, mix up a bucket of half-working strength PermaWash and get a new sponge and go to it.  Rinse well with warm water and then dry the screen.  Now youıre ready to place your precious archival print on it to dry.


Handling and Presentation:

Because the oils in your skin can damage the print as much as anything, you should always avoid touching the print surface.  If you must handle the print (i.e. for spotting or matting), you should wear Kodak cotton gloves.

Never mount a print that has been processed archivally.  There is no mounting method that you can afford that is truly archival.  Cold-mounting a sandwich of Sintra and Plexiglas, although technically archival, still doesnıt really cut it.  Not only would it cost several hundred dollars per print, but if the mounting substrate or superstrate is damaged, the print is ruined.  A properly hinge-matted print can be usually rescued even if the frame and mat are damaged.

Carefully select matboards to insure they are archival.  If it isnıt called museum board, it probably is not archival.  Museum board is 100% rag and does not contain harmful chemicals.  It is always the same material throughout.  Laminated or colored boards are definitely not archival.  Check the edge to determine if it is the same material through-and-through.

Remember never to let the print come into contact with any surfaces that could contain contaminates.  These include:  photographic paper boxes (studentsı favorite storage container), tables in the lab, etc.


Signing and Documentation:

Only sign a print at the very bottom of the border and then only in a soft-lead pencil.  Best to only sign a print on the back.  The telltale mark of an amateur is a big flourish of a signature prominently on the surface of a print.  An edition is usually signed on the bottom of the back like this:















Title, Date                      1/X                       Signature


Once you achieve a perfect final print, you may choose to make more than one so that you donıt have to replicate the time-consuming process from scratch later.  Printing several of the same final print is called printing an ³edition².  One of the benefits of photography is that an image can be reproduced an infinite number of times.  In terms of value to the collector, this can be seen as a drawback.  Printing a limited edition theoretically reduces the number of times an image can be reproduced, thus raising its value in the eyes of collectors.  A photographer may, for instance, produce an edition of ten.  Each photograph will have a number denoting its place, chronologically, in the edition.  1/10 means that is the first print of 10 produced.  10/10 means that is the last print made in the edition.  Once a print edition is sold out, there are no more copies of the photo, with the exception of Artistıs Proofs and Work Prints.  This is where it gets a little confusing.  A print marked A/P means that, while it is not officially a part of the edition, it is a final print of the same negative that is typically not for sale (until the artist is long dead‹at which time anything goes).  A print marked W/P is a print from the same negative made before the final print was arrived at and may be slightly different from the edition prints.  A/P and W/P are typically not worth as much as actual edition prints.  The system is obviously based on a specific economic system and on the art object as a commodity.  Not all photographers choose to work this way.  Many artists produce photographs as part of a time and/or site-specific installation and thus a one-of-a-kind piece.  It is important to know about editions, though, because if you ever get work accepted by a gallery (and you all, of course, will), it will be information youıll be asked to provide.  The most important thing to know about edition prints, though, is that they must all be exactly the same.  All dodging, burning, flashing, toning, etc., must be consistent from print to print.



Prints can also be contaminated by acids and sulfur compounds found in most paper products.  Light Impressions is one of the most trustworthy vendors of archival storage solutions.  Donıt place archival prints in a non-archival storage box.  Never store archival prints with non-archivally processed prints.  Place archival acid-free slip-sheets between prints to be stacked if they are signed to prevent the pencil marks from being transferred to the surface of a facing print.  Fit prints as tightly as possible in the box to prevent them from slamming against the sides when transported.  Donıt store mounted or matted prints with un-mounted or un-matted ones.



Always make perfect slides of any print that represents a portfolio edition.  Although there are varying conventions as to in what order or according to what layout the information below appears on the slide labels, it should all be included:

Users of Microsoft Word 2001 for Mac and Word 2000 for Windows will find it helpful to purchase Avery Return Address Labels #5267, as this format can be found under "Envelopes and Labels", and the self-adhesive labels fit perfectly on standard mounts. You can also find clear plastic labels, but don't bother using these with an ink-jet printer, as the ink will smear badly.

Red "carousel position indicator" dots can be purchased separately (Avery makes them, too), or can actually be found pre-printed on some labels. You can also just carefully make a dot with a fat-tipped permanent red marker. This dot always goes in the lower left corner of the slide to indicate its orientation for projecting. This means you should rotate all your slides so that they appear the way you want them to (portrait or landscape orientation), then place the dots. Many people mistakenly label an entire box of mounts beforehand to save time. This is wicked silly, since you don't know until the slide is mounted which way it is supposed to go.

Remember not to label all copies of your dupes, as some galleries/graduate schools/grant applications specifically do not accept adhesive labels (really cheap ones tend to jam projectors). For these instances, you'll want an Ultra Fine Sharpie permanent marker, a .05 Staedtler Pigment Liner, or some other such pen (with pigment-based archival ink) and a very steady hand. Never submit original slides. Especially for this project, as I will not be returning those that you turn in to me. Similarly, a little extra money spent on high-quality dupes is usualy worth it, and you should never go more than one "generation", or remove, from the original slide. It is not uncommon to gain a lot of contrast and grain and for color to shift (subtly or drastically, depending on where you get them done) in a duplicate, so you should never make dupes of dupes. If you find a lab that makes duplicate slides that you are happy with--don't change. I recommend Bokland Custom Visuals or McGreevy Photo in Albany or Duggal Color Projects, Baboo, Spectra, or Hong Color in NYC.

You may also be asked to number your slides and provide a slide list. Leave some space on the label for additional information to be added later. Much easier than trying to get that tape goo off.

If you expect your slides to be handled frequently (and I hope you do), or if you must crop a slide before having dupes made, you will probably want to replace those crappy cardboard mounts that tend to crop your image unpredictably with high-quality plastic mounts. Many different types exist, but the cheapest of acceptable quality that I know of are Pakon. Metallic slide-masking tape (made by both 3M and Scotch) is available at most photo supply stores, or from Light Impressions.

If you are presenting the slides in a clear polypropylene slide-page, be sure to label it, as well. It doesn't hurt to insure that your pages are all of the same type and configuration, and to replace them when they get torn, snagged, stained, etc.

Most important of all: the image on the slide must be perfect. Slides are still, unfortunately, the unofficial currency of the art world. They signify your work. Arguments as to photography's relative veracity notwithstanding, slides should resemble as closely as possible the work they stand for. Under- or overexposed slides should be thrown out to discourage you from including them in a last-minute package when you get low on dupes. You should strive to make your slide look better than the work it documents. While this is usually logically impossible, if you maintain very high standards in your documentation you'll be better able to focus on stressing over some other excuse for being rejected.