A Dealer's Perspective

Fading Away

Like most anyone would be, I was rather impressed when I entered the exquisite luxury condominium many stories up in one of Dallas' finest high-rise addresses. To go with the view and the interior surroundings was the wonderful art amassed over the years by the collector who was interested in my selling some of his art work. Interspersed among pieces by Motherwell, Lichtenstein, Stella and others was a Mapplethorpe, some Berenice Abbotts, two Sandy Skoglunds and many more fine photographs.

When I stepped into one room, its walls displayed nothing but photography. Standing out in my mind were two Mark Cohens, a William Eggleston, a Len Jenshel and two Dan Rodans. Unfortunately, what was making an impression on me was the degree to which these prints were faded*. Their color was gone, and so was any monetary value they might have had for this collector. Granted, most of these were receiving ample outside light, but the two Rodans were in a rather dark "protected" area. (Incidentally, I do not think the Eggleston was a dye transfer print.)

All these prints were bought from a prominent New York art dealer (not a photographic gallery) in 1979 and 1980, thus most had faded extensively in under 20 years. What these photographs had in common was that they all appeared to be ordinary Kodak Ektacolor prints. In the same residence were a number of Cibachromes and two Fresson prints, none of which had faded a bit.

Here in one place I was eye witness to what I think is the biggest problem with collecting color photography: some prints will quickly fade away on you. For a collector concerned about his art investment, these prints not only will not increase in value, they will not even hold their value! If you are not concerned with investment potential, you will still be rather irritated when a treasured piece of art begins to disappear.

I do not mind selling an Ektacolor** print for a low price, one where a buyer would feel that it's worth a twenty year life, but some photographers are asking bundles for these prints. One nationally known photographer I know is asking several thousand dollars for prints in a new series of large Ektacolors. I would love to show his work here, but upon informing my clients of their life span, I don't think I could sell a single one. I am sure many people who work in galleries are not aware of this problem and so don't mention it to clients. And sometimes buyers are left to their own devices, as in buying from an auction house, for example. I used to cringe when I saw color photo collages by David Hockney going for tens of thousands of dollars (he now uses better material).

Some of the photographers who use Ektacolor paper claim (though I don't believe it) that it produces richer color than, say, Fuji paper, which lasts longer. But it seems to me it would be more important that a print exhibits richer color for a longer period, not just the first few years after it is printed. Photographers who shoot negative film not only can use Fuji's excellent Type 5 paper, but they can now use the new Fuji Crystal Archive paper or Fujiflex paper, which has the same glossy richness of Ilfochrome. We photography dealers along with collectors of color photography can only hope that now more color photographers will switch to these fade-resistant processes. (April 29, 1998)

*Keep in mind that these prints were made decades ago and does not at all mean more recent prints by these photographers would meet similar fates. Many photographers have switched to more durable papers.
** I have a report from a photographer that a Kodak sales representative claimed that their Supra Ektacolor papers (and there is now a new Supra III) outlast Fuji papers. Perhaps this is true, but I can't confirm this claim. On its web site Kodak presents an interesting article at http://www.kodak.com/cluster/global/en/consumer/education/imageStability.shtml saying prints will last for generations, but I cannot find anything on the site that clearly refutes Henry Wilhelm's findings at http://www.wilhelm-research.com/. (April 8, 2000)

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