Will color negatives and chromes stand the "test of time"?

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I am aware of the stability of electronic images, but what are your thoughts on films?

My work has almost always been in black and white, and I have always done my best to produce the most archival work that I can. The process is not that difficult in black and white photography. Now I am wondering about color...

Using a standard pro-lab for processing, what is the expected life of the popular color films in use today? How long before colors begin to shift or fade? Is there a chemical process I can put the film through to prolong the image? Do negatives preserve better than chromes?

Along the same lines, watching Hollywood movies from the 50s and 60s you don't have to be an expert to see that that the films done with Kodak are fading fast, while the films done in Technicolor are still rich and vibrant in color.

-- Dave Richhart (pritprat@erinet.com), August 22, 2000


There is no more definitive source on this subject than Henry Wilhelm's "Preservation and Care of Color Photographs." You should be able to get a copy from Amazon, Light Impressions, etc.

The book was published a while ago, 1993 if memory serves, and it lacks data on some color emulsions introduced since then. When I had concerns on this subject a few years back, attempts to contact Wilhelm failed. I did correspond with Ctein concerning the then recently revised Reala, asking him whether he could use his influence with Henry to pry out updated test results for newer films. Ctein responded that Henry had been concentrating on print media testing since the book was released, not film, and that there were no new data to be had. He also lamented that the manufacturers had become ever more closed lipped on this subject, even to him, and speculated that the best we could hope for was no degradation in new products' processed stability compared to those Wilhelm had reported on.

-- Sal Santamaura (bc_hill@qwestinternet.net), August 22, 2000.

The issue of stability has been covered over and over. I started shooting medium format when Kodachrome 64 was made in 120 size. Now it is gone.

As far as transparencies are concerned wouldn't it be a good idea to contact print any important images on Cibachrome? And negatives on Fuji's super grade "paper."

Of course the way technology is changing now, very archival processes may be just a few years in the future and just about any image that will last, say, 20 years in dark storage will be able to be archived in a much better medium with the new technology that will very likely be available by then.

-- Bob Eskridge (rfesk@yahoo.com), August 22, 2000.

From what I did read in Wilhelms book the outlook is bleak... even in cool dark storage fading begins in about one year...and slowly continues...However, as mentioned above, the book is not quite the source I had hoped for... I did read about how all the JFK chrome film was destroyed about 7 years after it was shot... images were preserved by taking pictures of the prints that existed... Hopefully CD's will be better after scanning...

-- Bill Glickman (bglick@pclv.com), August 22, 2000.

Unfortunately there are no really good answers.

Henry Wilhelm's book is a good reference but unfortunately is now rather dated.

OK, so let's look to the past; the color materials that are still in good shape over decades are Kodachrome and dye transfer materials. E-3 has mostly faded away and E-4 is fading. C-22 is probably all gone, and perhaps early C-41 films are in sad shape. While this almost certainly doesn't directly translate to expected longevity of modern materials I think it should provide some clues.

One thing that was commonly done with those "must preserve" color images was to have separation negs made and store the seps in a vault. I doubt anyone's making optical seps these days but it could certainly be done via electronic means. The idea isn't to preserve the color originals but to preserve the b&w seps, which have the same life expectancy as ordinary b&w negs.

Aside from vermin and light, the worst things for color materials are heat and humidity; conversely the best storage is dry and cold. A common recommendation is to seal color materials in an airtight container with a dessicant and store the container in a freezer.

-- John Hicks (jbh@magicnet.net), August 22, 2000.

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