Archival life

White Painting (Three Panel) by Robert Rauschenberg, at SFMoMA

It’s a chromogenic print, meaning it’s of questionable longevity, and it’s “face-mounted to Plexiglas,” which is questionable from a conservation standpoint.

—Response to my comment on the Online Photographer

Continuing from where I left off previously

I can’t think of any other artistic medium where the conservation quality is considered to be part of the artistic merit of the piece. In fact, very few artists even consider how their work will age.* As a result, the question of how to preserve a piece is one of the most important debates you can have in art. Should a piece look its age? Should it always look brand new? Are previous conservation attempts worth preserving as part of the piece’s history? And this is just in the context of museums and academic art display. With personal collections, it’s even more confusing territory since each collector will think of the piece uniquely.**

*The photo accompanying this post is an example of a work where aging has been considered by the artist. Robert Rauschenberg has stated that his White Paintings are to be repainted periodically.

**Recommended reading: The Art Doctor by Rebecca Mead.

So why is photography singled out? The collector who bought Rhein II didn’t purchase it because of its life expectancy. That’s not why people collect art.

It is, however, why people take photographs.

The generally-accepted common usage of a photograph is to preserve a personal memory. The archival life for a memory should be as long as possible. This desire for permanence seeps into our concept of what a photograph is and how it’s to be used. As a result, we have a medium where longevity and ease of conservation is a large part of the value for many people.

This sense of memory preservation informs many other ways people observe photographs and also explains a lot of the concern about Photoshop. It’s difficult to not look at a photo without trying to put it in context. Sometimes, we’ll be struck by how modern an old photo looks. Other times, we’ll think a new photo looks like it could have been taken a century ago. But we’re always looking at who the photo is of* or for other period details that the photo reveals.**

*Something I’m always hyper-aware of in any portrait exhibition. e.g. my notes about Mapplethorpe.

**I’m one of the few who does this with old paintings and things too. and I know I’m one of the few since I pay attention to other museum goers who generally don’t look at the backgrounds of  the paintings they’re looking at.

With Photoshop, we feel betrayed as if we’re being lied to. People want photos to be true. Even if though we all know better. It’s all about the memory archive. Photos are supposed to last.

And tell us the truth about the past.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

6 thoughts on “Archival life”

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: