By Martin Jürgens

In the early 1980s my high school acquired its first computers, and I remember distinctly that the computer classes were poorly attended, attracting only the uncool. Little did we know that we were already in the midst of a decades-old development that would carry us into an age in which computers would become essential and omnipresent.

One goal from that era, a paperless society, has yet to be achieved, despite great advances in digital technologies and communication systems, such as the Internet. The opposite may even be true: dealing with digital files has created a number of unanticipated problems, such as the permanence of file formats and storage media and the obsolescence of software and hardware. The simple combination of ink on paper—an old but still very effective way of presenting and preserving information—maintains its position in today's world. Online news articles and the depiction of artworks in curated collections of images that are available through Internet portals (virtual museums) are commonplace, but the majority of Internet users still print out longer text passages to read them, since paper is kinder to the eye than the screen.

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The advancement of printing technologies cannot be viewed apart from the evolution of office copying devices or apart from the evolving electronic information systems that have developed into present-day computers. The output of digital information to a material substrate, more simply designated digital printing, is now such an integral part of our lives that we often fail to notice it. It is used in many organizations that rely on paper documents, such as archives, businesses, public administration, hospitals, advertising agencies, and many other sectors. An increasing range of graphic documents is generated digitally, including books, letters, prints, journals, office documents, labels, and product packaging. The origins of digital printing can be traced back to the 1950s, but the past twenty years in particular have brought a great acceleration and proliferation in applications and technology, making it difficult to keep up with the newest trends. Inkjet, for example, has been the fastest-growing technology since the early 1980s, and it is now being used not only for printing text and images on paper but also in many industrial applications, such as the microfabrication of three-dimensional objects with minute droplets of polymer inks. The characteristics of the processes and materials of digital printing pose a great challenge to museums, since the many new inks, substrates, and surface coatings bring along their own sensitivities. Conservators will need to play a more active role in the acquisition, storage, handling, and exhibition of works of art produced through digital printing.

Computers, Copiers, and Art

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Artists have followed the evolution of digital machines and photocopying devices from the start, but early attempts at connecting the technicalities of the computer world and the world of art received mixed reviews from critics, ranging from simple indifference to outright contempt. Artists were often hindered in using computers: the devices were rare, very expensive, and mostly accessible to governmental technicians, academics, scientists, space travel organizations, and the military. Early computers were also large and immobile and required programmers to manipulate them. Thus, artists needed technical assistants (essentially translators), a fact that necessarily would have impeded a personal and direct approach to their own work.

In the 1970s and 1980s, personal computers were introduced, and with them came software that was increasingly easier to use. The number of artists using computers grew steadily, and a recognizable community was producing what was collectively termed computer art. The use of commercially available software also meant a shift in the artists' personae: one no longer had to be a mathematician or programmer to create graphics; the new painting software enabled essentially anyone to draw lines or fill in boxes and circles. In addition, newcomers had less fear that the computer would impose control over their creativity, an argument that critics had long used against computer art. Another criticism—that much of the computer art looked alike—was surely a result of the limited number of computers and programs available throughout the 1960s and until the mid-1970s.

The efforts of programmers, technicians, scientists, and (later) animators for television graphics, video games, and animated movies advanced the graphic capabilities of computer hardware and software. At the same time, however, these efforts contributed to the confusion and criticism often associated with computer art. Today, however, the trend is often to hide the involvement of computer manipulations in a work; this tendency is best exemplified by the field of contemporary photography, in which, following heated debates on digital manipulation in the 1990s, the question is no longer even addressed. While many artists are fascinated with the concepts of mathematics and calculation in working with a computer, the machine's capability of producing random events and chaos have been equally compelling. Performance art, video, Internet, film, and conceptual art have all been influenced by computer art.

The late 1970s saw the start of the copy art movement, in which photocopiers were used (or perhaps misused) for the creation of artworks that were anything but simple copies. Artists exploited the fact that these machines, designed to make faithful copies of original documents, possessed their own aesthetic, distinct from that of the original source image. Through experimental manipulations, unique prints were being made on devices originally intended to create identical multiples. Although not termed digital prints at the time, photocopies and laser prints technically fall under the umbrella term electrophotography, which is considered today to be a digital print process. Copy art tends to be a dirty process—fixing a jammed photocopier exposes you to finely powdered toner dust. The opposite was the case for the various paint software packages introduced in the 1980s, which were thus named because they simulated actual painting: paintbrushes or airbrushes of various sizes could be chosen, colors could be picked, and the creation of a brushstroke could be correlated directly to the movement of an input device, such as a mouse. However, since digital printers of the mid-1980s were not capable of rendering highly saturated color images on paper, images generated in Paintbox (or similar software) were often simply photographed from the screen, a process that resulted in a distinctly technical appearance.


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Vastly improved software, such as Adobe Photoshop (introduced in 1990), and new input techniques, such as desktop scanners, helped digital photography and digital imaging surge in the 1990s. Among the visual arts, photography has undergone the greatest technical evolution over the past fifteen years. Most amateur and professional photographers have already switched from film-based applications to digital cameras and printers. Indeed, a new generation of photographers is growing up who will never have loaded film into a camera. The concept of a negative is dated and, ultimately, doomed. Although the initial use of computers in artistic production tended to create its own aesthetics, today's digital systems are often considered tools that have no apparent impact on the end result. However, a more careful look shows this view to be simplistic. For example, since digital retouching is done frequently, the age-old task of retouching by hand to remove unwanted specks on prints is almost obsolete. As a result, digital prints often possess an almost uncanny technical perfection, untouched by any marks such as those created by manual spotting with a brush.

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Inkjet printing has captured a large portion of the photographic printing market. Inkjet printers, first developed in the 1940s and 1950s, evolved for practical use alongside computer technologies from the 1960s onward. In the 1970s two technologies emerged as the most promising: continuous inkjet and piezoelectric drop-on-demand (DOD) inkjet. The continuous inkjet process, used in a voltage signal recorder invented in 1963, involved the selective electrostatic charging and subsequent deflection of ink droplets in midflight. The droplets hit the paper surface and formed tiny dots. This mechanism is found in all subsequent continuous inkjet printers, among them the famous IRIS Graphics printer. This device was originally developed for the printing industry, but because of its capability of printing in high resolution on a great number of different materials, it was adopted by photographers in the early 1990s. Printing a color image of high quality with inkjet on a fine-art, watercolor-type paper was a novelty, and it soon became a profitable business. Prints made on IRIS printers may be found in many museum collections. It is important to identify them as IRIS prints, since they were made with inks that contain dyes (as opposed to prints from other, more modern inkjet printers that may contain pigments) and are thus quite sensitive to light, atmospheric humidity, and water. Special consideration must be given to IRIS prints during transport and exhibition.

Large DOD inkjet printers of the 1970s were able to print only black-and-white images—a capability that, for text applications, was sufficient. Hewlett-Packard launched its ThinkJet printer in 1984, which was innovative in that it used disposable cartridges that contained the printheads, a milestone in the ensuing rapid spread of inkjet printers. The DeskJet printer, introduced in 1987/88, made the desktop printing of office documents reliable and set a standard for single-sheet paper feed mechanisms. New competitors in the market introduced new printers at a rapid pace: every two years in the late 1980s and at ever-shorter intervals from the 1990s onward. Printing in color became a major area of research: Canon's 1984 Bubble Jet printers had four printheads with twenty-four nozzles each for cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (CMYK) inks. The jump from office-application printing to large-format printing was made in 1992, with the Encad NovaJet wide-format color printer. This series of printers used four colors and roll-fed paper to produce large images, creating a class of its own—wide- or large-format inkjet—that today serves the important advertising and fine-art printing market sectors.

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In the mid 1990s, the terms photo quality and photorealistic became buzzwords in inkjet advertisements. The printing industry realized that if shares were to be gained in the profitable amateur photographic market, it had to produce prints that not only looked like photographic prints, in terms of color and image quality, but also felt like photographs. Thus, glossy, resin coated (RC) papers, typical photographic papers of the time, were introduced for inkjet applications. Soon, however, a major deficit in the new inkjet prints became apparent: inks were fading too fast and coatings were simply not stable enough to withstand the physical demands of amateur use. Hanging a print on the side of a refrigerator is still a pretty good test for survival amid harsh conditions: the print is subjected to handling (fingerprints, dirt, abrasion), fluctuating humidity and temperature (steam from cooking), volatile organic solvents (vapors from cleaning liquids), vibration, and prolonged light exposure.

As the inkjet market grew and as the number of manufacturers and resellers increased, so did the quest for print permanence. The common chromogenic color print, never a shining example of color stability itself, became the new benchmark for image permanence that inkjet prints had to live up to. Today, with the use of advanced dyes, pigments, and complex surface coatings, many inkjet systems have overtaken photographic materials with regard to image stability under light exposure as well as long-term dark storage. Accelerated aging tests are the most common methods of evaluating these prints; because of their complexity, however, an International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standard on the testing procedures has yet to be published, and the results are often open to discussion.

In addition to inkjet, other processes are used for outputting images. One process exposes photographic paper to a laser or an array of light-emitting diodes (LEDS); the paper is then processed conventionally. Dye sublimation printers are common in photo stores and in the photographic printing industry. A number of thermal processes are available, including direct thermal, thermal transfer, and photothermographic transfer; each technique has a range of applications, image qualities, and aesthetic characteristics. Artists in particular, of course, have been experimenting with these new printing techniques, and their work will often end up in a museum or private collection.

Terminology, Identification, and Conservation

Because digital prints, both in art and in business and industrial usage, constitute a major part of our current and future social and cultural heritage, it is important to understand their structure, materials, and long-term stability issues. The first step is the identification of processes, which is a prerequisite for all decisions on preservation. For example, if the substrate of a print can be identified as one prone to rapid deterioration, then different archival environments, housing, or exhibition parameters might be chosen by the conservator than if the print were on a very stable material. Although not yet standardized, practical recommendations for storage and exhibition have been compiled for each process. * These guidelines indicate that most digital prints should basically be handled as complex paper objects; their individual sensitivities to heat, light, abrasion, and moisture may vary.

With a technology that is evolving as rapidly as digital printing, it is easy to lose track of the many processes and of the many variables contained in each process. For this reason, it is essential to establish a categorized hierarchy of processes, structures, and materials. This approach also relieves conservators of the otherwise continuous necessity of updating their knowledge whenever a new printer appears on the market. It also avoids proprietary terms and simplifies decisions regarding exhibition and long-term preservation issues. In order to facilitate communication between conservators and manufacturers, the terminology used by the industry has been adopted. However, some terms have not been easily accepted, such as the use of print media as a generic term for anything that is being printed on. There has also been much discussion about the industry's current use of the term photograph for any print that looks or feels like a traditional black-and-white or color photograph. Critics in the conservation community point out that the word photograph indicates the action of light in the production of the print; its use for other prints, such as high-resolution inkjet prints on glossy RC papers, is thus inaccurate. Although it is desirable to be able to communicate with amateurs and manufacturers in a common language, it is equally important to the conservation community to use a highly accurate language that relates primarily to the materials involved and thus to their preservation.

An accurate, common terminology also plays an important role in the internal registration systems of museums. Information pertaining to acquired artworks is entered into a database, and it is common to use standardized terminology. Not only does this standardization allow for efficient searching within the museum collection, but, in the case of loans, it also facilitates communication among curators, registrars, and conservators of different museums. A consistent set of terms is also recommended for gallery labeling, which at present is very confusing; a great range of different, often proprietary terms is currently used in exhibitions.

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With an established system based on accurate and common terminology, museums will occupy a more authoritative position in relation to the artists from whom they are currently buying digital prints. It has been common in the past for a collection to acquire digital prints from artists or photographers without obtaining information about the materials used. Over the years, a number of questionnaires have been developed at different institutions, and ideally, such a questionnaire will be filled out by the artist for an acquisition of a digital print. It addresses information on the printer, the ink or toner, the print media, the finishing techniques, and mounting or framing. As much detail as possible is requested, since the more information one has on a print, the more informed will be the decisions pertaining to the print's ultimate exhibition, storage, and possible treatment.


In recent decades, three trends may be observed in the conservation community: the erosion of traditional boundaries between the individual specialized fields, in view of the complexities of contemporary art; the growing inclusion of scientists and professionals from the industry in conservation research; and the ease of communication and collaboration among international conservators in research and teaching, thanks to modern technology. Archives were among the first to realize that the nature of the documents entering their vaults was changing. In the museum world, the conservation specialty for contemporary art and modern media developed (although with a certain delay) parallel to the evolution of digital applications. Conservators, curators, museum registrars, and related professionals are still grappling with issues associated with the acquisition, preservation, and conservation of digital prints. Museum personnel are, for the most part, used to dealing with artists' techniques that are not subject to continuous change; it is precisely this characteristic of the digital world, however, that has delayed the conservation field from tackling the preservation issues of digital prints—some of them of fundamental novelty to the field.

A number of collaborative projects have been carried out that cross the boundaries between the conservation specialties, particularly between the fields of photography, painting, the graphic arts, and contemporary installation art. For example, a current German thesis project on discolored Scanachrome inkjet prints on canvas is being supervised by a paintings and a photograph conservator. Similarly, by including the research and development departments of major manufacturers of digital printing materials, conservation research projects have benefited greatly. Ilford Imaging Switzerland, for example, is currently involved in research at the Hochschule der Künste in Bern, Switzerland, that is examining stability issues of photographs and inkjet prints mounted to acrylic sheets (a finishing technique widely employed by contemporary photographers). Also of great advantage was the ready acceptance of the importance of print stability by manufacturers in their quest for improving their products.

Being able to identify specific digital printing processes is a very valuable skill in conservation practice. To assist professionals to simplify and improve this skill, a guide to identification has been developed; it will become available in an upcoming Getty Publications book on the conservation and identification of digital prints. This tool allows the user to follow a yes/no decision tree that is illustrated with photomicrographs of the various print processes—the comparison of magnified screen patterns, for example, is helpful in identification. The use of a flowchart-type guide, however, may give its user a false sense of security, since there are many exceptions to the necessarily simplified guidelines that this format allows. Thus, it is important to build an in-depth understanding of the printing processes and materials before undertaking treatment of digital prints. Various methods of scrutiny—including the preparation of cross sections, different lighting techniques, and microscopic examination—have proven to be very helpful in the characterization process.

Over the past five years, consciousness has been raised in archives and museums regarding digital prints, and many conservators, with the help of sample collections, have been able to develop their own connoisseurship in the examination and evaluation of prints. As interest in seminars and publications on the topic grows, it is hoped that we will develop a wider and more profound understanding of both the challenges that digital prints pose and the best ways to address those challenges.

Martin Jürgens is a photograph conservator in Hamburg, Germany. The recommendations in this article will be available in an updated and expanded version in an upcoming book on the conservation and identification of digital prints, by this author from Getty Publications, anticipated in 2009.

*Martin Jürgens, Preservação de cópias digitais em arquivos e coleções de imagens, in Cadernos técnicos de conservação fotográfica, vol. 5 (Rio de Janiero: Fundação Nacional de Arte, 2004), 3–15.