“I’m a digital artist. All the images I have made in recent years are ‘virtual’".
I remember when photographic film manufacturers used the word “archival” when describing color film and prints. In the 1980’s and early 1990’s, after a quarter of a century the images many of us documented our lives with began fading beyond recognition. And the highly prized photographic work of renowned artists and photographers was in danger of becoming worthless. About the time color chemically produced prints began to show signs of degradation, digital printing devices began to hit the market. Although originally developed as proof printing devises for the printing industry, inkjet color laserwriters, and dye sublimation printers showed promise to be the saviors of artistic and photographic image printing. In the early 1990’s, with little concern about the composition of inks and the rag content of paper used by the printer manufacturers, digital printers could only hope for the same shelf life as the emulsion sensitized color prints that preceded them.
Digital Data Lifespan
It is highly advisable to store important images and digital information using multiple sources and to periodically transfer the data from old archive storage to new storage. Top manufacturers like Mitsui, Verbatim, Maxell, Memorex and TDK claim that premium compact discs, with protective coating and special dyes, will last from 50 to 200 years for CD-R’s and somewhat less for CD-RW’s, although I’ve had disks become unreadable after about ten years. Third generation flash memory is estimated to have a lifespan rating that is based on the number of erase/write cycles instead of a time span. The maximum number is approximately from 10,000 for multi-level cell (MLC) memory to 300,000 writes for single level cell (SLC) memory. The type used on the MacBook Air and the iPad is MLC. Magnetic platter hard drives, the drives in most computers, are estimated to last from 3 to 7 years, however treated well many drives that last longer than that. I recently booted up a hard drive that I mothballed in 1995.
It is also highly advisable to periodically open up older files in new updated versions of software and resave them. Regarding that data on that drive from 1995, I copied it and transferred it to my new Mac, which runs current versions of Adobe and Microsoft software. I found there were files that were simply too old to be recognized by current software. Know that the concept of universal upward compatibility was not always around, nor will it necessarily be around in the future.
“Never trust the technology. Always be prepared for the unexpected.”
There are two factors that determine whether digital prints are archival, the paper and the ink. Through testing projections, manufacturers try to predict the future permanence of their products. As digital image makers we rely on these products and those predictions.
For several years I have used an Epson Stylus Photo R1900 printer, which uses Epson UltraChrome Hi-Gloss pigmented ink with clear “gloss-optimizer”. It’s a 7 color pigmented inkjet system. I print on Epson Watercolor Paper Radiant White Matte coated fine art paper, as well as a number of different kinds of fine art 100% cotton rag papers. Wilhelm Imaging Research, Inc. rates the above combination with the Epson paper to have an archival longevity of 200 to 300 years. Resource: http://www.wilhelm-research.com/epson/R1900.html
“A digital print gives digital work a physical legacy and form of permanence”.
100% rag cotton fiber rag quality paper is estimated to remain stable for between 250 to 300 years. Seizing on an opportunity, paper manufacturers with hundreds of years of experience in making archival papers for the fine arts, decided to renovate their tried and true paper formulas for digital printing. Canson, who makes a variety of digital papers including BFK Rives and Arches, was founded in 1557. Both of those 100% rag papers are available for digital printing. Since 1584, Hahnemühle has been making superbly crafted, unique, beautiful papers. Their papers are available for digital output. Crane & Company, which began in the mid 18th century, the same company that supplies the paper used for US currency, makes the Museo line of papers for digital printing. These papers are acid free with 100% rag content. So some of the finest papers for digital printing are available for our use.
Ink color changes over time. The change can appear as a lightened washed out look or a flattening of brightness and contrast. Early producers of inkjet prints were astounded to discover that their prints faded within months. The environmental factors contributing to fading are light, temperature, humidity, etc. Museums and galleries place tremendous importance on carefully controlling light levels and humidity. With a digital print, the ink itself, the type of color dyes or pigments used, can also contribute to a lack of color stability.
Printing inks now come in two main forms, as dyes or as pigments. Just a few years ago, all inks for inkjet printers were dye based. Dyes make very rich colored prints but are susceptible to fading. Ink manufacturers have also developed archival dye-based inks that are now available. Archival dye inks are less expensive than pigment inks. Some are very hardwearing and appropriate for the needs of most consumers. If well taken care of, prints may last for several generations.
Over the past few years, ink manufacturers have made significant advances in combating fading by introducing pigment-based inks. Pigments are much more resistant to fading than dyes. Pigment is permanently colorfast, stable, and enduring, making it the superior choice for archival material. Archival pigment-based inks are more costly than dye-based inks. Governments print important documents with pigment-based inks to preserve them for the future.
The future may hold changes such as the addition of new file formatting options and the elimination of old ones. SCSI and PS2 cables have become history. Will USB, Firewire and other computer connectors also become obsolete? Because of this, it is important to establish a system for archiving and preserving your digital work, and to consider transitioning through changes in hardware equipment along with advances in software technology.