I'm preparing to give a talk about collecting photography (for the Montreal lecture series Conversations on Art), so I've been asking new collectors what types of questions they want answered. Nobody had any questions at all about conservation -- which means, of course, that I REALLY need to talk about conservation!
If you have old Polaroid snapshots from your childhood, you already know that color pictures fade over time. Few collectors realize that the same thing can happen with expensive prints bought in art galleries.
Since the 1980s, photographers and artists who "use photography" (i.e., hire someone else to operate the camera) have been making large digital images instead of conventional darkroom-produced C prints. That can make a lot of difference in the longevity of a photo. C-prints are extremely stable -- they're expected to keep their colors for 100+ years. With digital prints, however, longevity varies. Some photographer/artists were careful about their papers and inks, some weren't. Some expensive pieces from the 1980s already have conservation problems.
What's a collector to do? One owner told me that the photographer had promised to make her a new print if her print faded. Great, but will it be as valuable? In the market for older, vintage photography, a print made decades after the picture was taken is worth substantially less than a photo made at the time of the shot (a strange prejudice -- we'll discuss that in another post). And what if something happens to the photographer? Posthumous photos made by an assistant or professional printer are worth MUCH less.
The best thing you can do if you're interested in buying digital photography is ask the dealer how long the photo is expected to keep its colors and how you can best conserve it. Don't plunk your photo in front of a window or shine one of those clip-on picture lights over it.
A museum conservator I spoke to collects 1980s photographs despite the challenges, because she loves them. She keeps them in her closet.