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Articles by Chris A. Paschke, CPF GCF

"Photographs: Taming the Substrate"

October 1997

Numerous articles have been written about mounting sensitive and unknown projects including color copies, giclées, computer generated art, and yes, photographs. There are many types of contemporary photographs that may be brought in for framing, most commonly RC (resin coated), followed by fiber based and Ilfochrome Classics (Cibachrome).

So, how exactly is a fiber based photo different from an Ilfochrome or RC photo? Without getting into the technical aspects of photographic film and developing materials, and staying strictly from a layman's point of view, a Cibachrome is 100% polyester; a fiber based is photo emulsion atop a multiple ply paper core; and an RC is developing paper with resin coating both sides and emulsion on top. Very simplified yes, but now let's look at each of these independently in relation to mounting.

Ilfochromes in Review

In the February 1997 issue of PFM I explained a mounting alternative for Ilfochrome images called "static mounting". The nature of the polyester material the image is printed on easily creates the necessary static to hold it in place against a statically charged acrylic sheet. Unfortunately this 100% reversible and totally noninvasive static method will not work when paper (even resin coated paper) is the base for the photo image rather than polyester.

Ilfochromes should never be placed into a heat mounting system. If the customer were to insist on mounting solidly to a substrate then cold mounting options such as p-s film adhesives or static mounting would better maintain the dignity of the original image. Even low heat for a short period of time in a press can relax the polyester base material so it conforms to the contours of the selected substrate (diagram 1).

199710_D1A smooth Ilfochrome Classic hinged or static mounted to smooth acrylic maintains the dignity of the photo

Even lower pressure cold mounting applications using wet, spray, and pressure-sensitive (p-s) adhesives can create the unsightly rippling of "orange peel" (diagram 2). Heat can relax the photo polyester, but simply the amount of pressure applied during a cold mounting can result in unwanted visual surface texture. If a cold vacuum frame or hand roller is used during application, aggressive pressure can still be substantial enough to create surface texture invading the original beauty of an Ilfochrome. Whether hinged, secured with edge strips, or static mounted, Ilfochromes are best presented as a non-secured mount.

199710_D2An Ilfochrome loosely hinged to a lumpy substrate will not take on the visual appearance of the board.

199710_D3Heat relaxed the polyester base allowing it to contour to the orange peel of the substrate. Cold mounting with a roller will force the image into the highs and lows as well.

The Difference with Fiber Based

Fiber based photos used to be found mostly as family studio prints from years ago. Today, fine art photographers are once again exploring the artistic merits of black and white photography and fiber based images are becoming quite popular. Where they were often antique originals before, they may be one of a recent series today.

The multiple ply developing paper of a fiber based image is softer, or more pliable, than its RC counterpart. The thicker paper base acts as almost a cushion that better contours to the irregularities of the selected mounting substrate under it, while allowing the emulsion on the top to remain almost entirely flat (diagram 3).

199710_D4A fiber base photo is more cushioned by its soft, thick base allowing for the paper to conform to an uneven substrate while the surface emulsion remains flat after mounting.

Whether wet, spray, pressure-sensitive mounted or dry mounted, orange peel does not have to be an issue when mounting. The most important point when dealing with fiber based photos is determining their antique value. If it is an irreplaceable image (antique value or not), it should be conservation mounted using only approved alternative methods, as with any original.

The Biggest Issue with RC

As with the Cibachrome print, RC photos are often victim of the dreaded orange peel problem (diagram 4). The resin coated paper will readily conform to any distortions of the substrate during dry heat mounting as well as with higher pressures during cold mounting. A lighter touch during hand application when using wet, spray and pressure-sensitive adhesives will often give a relatively smooth end product with no visual distortion.

199710_D5Like a Cibachrome, an RC photo will take on the contour of the substrate.

199710_D6Mounting on smoother substrates will reduce the visible texture.

The substrate chosen for the job will most effect the degree of orange peel. Grey chipboard, textured mat board, and many standard mount boards will feel lumpy when lightly touched with the tips of your fingers. This is orange peel waiting to happen. Shiny surfaced clay coated foam boards are probably the smoothest and best paper surface available for mounting.

Backyard Prints to Fine Art Prints

But dealing with lumpy orange peel is really only half the question. What about the conservation issue of mounting photographs at all?

The backyard barbecue, the family trip to the Grand Canyon, or the candids from last week's garden wedding are all open game for solid mounting. These are RC prints that have most likely been developed by the corner discount store or honoree developer. The customer has the negatives, and generally wants these photos framed beautifully, flat, and as inexpensively as possible. Sound familiar?

Conservation is probably not an issue here, and mounting them is fine. Select the smoothest substrate possible to match the chosen process in an attempt to minimize orange peel. Though any process will work, often p-s and dry methods may be most long term.

Mounting studio portraits or fine art photography is also fine, but there is more to consider with them. It isn't just the mounting of these photos or orange peel that is the issue as much as light, humidity, and environmental damage, along with buffering agents that can complicate the process. Fine art photographic prints are not considered originals as long as a negative or slide is still in existence to make additional prints. Technically they are mountable.

About half of the photo conservators believe as Ansel Adams did, that mounting a photo will best preserve it from damage over the years. The other half believe they may all become the final "original" remaining over time and should be conservationally handled right from the beginning.

Photographs by their very nature are inherently slightly acidic. Buffered mat boards are slightly alkaline. Matting (acidic) colored RC photographs with alkaline (buffered) boards, in direct contact with the surface emulsion, can accelerate damage and color shift.

Once a color RC photograph (with an existing negative) has been selected for framing it is considered a "display" photo. This is one that is expected to eventually fade and deteriorate. The reason it is acceptable to frame a color wedding portrait with colored buffered boards is the acceptance of the gradual deterioration from the other elements.

Fine Art Photo Issues to Consider

Studio images can be Ilfochromes, standard RC, or RC Cibachromes. RC Cibachromes are developed from a slide rather than a negative onto resin coated paper using Cibachrome materials. The colors are more vivid and the images sometimes clearer, but otherwise they may be handled and mounted using any process just as any RC photo.

When framing photos that have reprint potential any mounting method is acceptable, but pay attention to technique and materials. If orange peel is not an issue, mount at any tolerable standard temperature and time (180ºF, 2-4 minutes) in a press and simply deal with the orange peel that might occur.

Basic Understanding First, Then Judgement

There is always a lot to consider. What to do and when is the biggest problem. You are the professional who needs to select the best materials and technique for every framing project completed. Mounting may be the scariest because of the potential for mistakes and damage. Time may be money, but so is having to replace a botched photograph. Set your standards then be consistent.

Learning about all of the basic mounting techniques is only half the battle when handling photographs. You also need to truly understand the relationships of time, temperature, pressure and moisture to the materials, and their effect on those mounting techniques. And then also know before anything is ever mounted how you anticipate it will look when done. This is knowing the process. Mounting should be predictable. Orange peel, emulsion reactions to excessive heat, and trapped air bubbles due to nonporous applications may all be handled and controlled, but first they need to be understood.

Photographs can be a bear, but that bear can easily be tamed with an understanding of wet, spray, p-s, and dry mounting adhesives, substrates, and techniques. Lions may need a whip and a chair, but bears only need a leash and understanding.

Copyright © 1997 Chris A Paschke

For more articles on mounting basics look under the mounting section in Articles by Subject.
Additional information on all types of mounting is found in:
The Mounting and Laminating Handbook, Second Edition, 2002,
The Mounting And Laminating Handbook, Third Edition, 2008 and
Creative Mounting, Wrapping, And Laminating, 2000 will teach you everything you need to know about getting the most from your dry mount equipment and materials as an innovative frame designer.

All books are available from Designs Ink Publishing through this website.

Chris A Paschke, CPF GCF
Designs Ink
Designs Ink Publishing
785 Tucker Road, Suite G-183
Tehachapi, CA 93561
P 661-821-2188