State of the art

October 6th, 2010

Photographers and traditional artists needing reproductions-prints-of their work are living in a golden age of the craft. I’ll continue here talking as a photographer first, because that’s my background, and address facets of printing that appear to appeal more to artists later on. Oh, and while I specify photographers and other artists in our promotional material, it gets cumbersome to do so all the time and I’ll refer to photographers and artists. So no emails needed to protest that photographers are artists, too. OK?

Think back 400-600 years (or imagine it, if you’re too young to remember those dim days) when the average peasant may have seen a stained glass window in church or a bit of tile work and been wowed by the experience. Such brilliant color was not much a part of daily life around the hovel and the rare experience of it seemed rather glorious and special, assuming the daily grind of keeping food on the table and avoiding plague, pestilence and war didn’t inure you to such a vision. Gradually, the illuminated manuscript, a printed page, crude black and white renderings, or line art accompanying new-fangled typeface produced books and other advancing forms of reproduction brought us at least the semblance of art, existing outside of the church and the hands of collectors who could commission such original pieces.

View from the Window at Le Gras, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce.jpg

The early 1800s saw the invention of photography as well as lithography and before long the reproduction of images, at least in black and white, took off. Well, I don’t intend to recapitulate the entire history of printing, but suffice it to say that these days it’s possible for the average person to do a pretty darn good job of printing pictures in black and white and in color that are of a quality that would knock the Argyles off the feet of all those early experimenters.

Barely a decade to go, most photographs were printed in the darkroom. Although I have been involved in digital imaging since 1985 (remember the Amiga?) and high end inkjet printing since the late 1900s, it wasn’t until Epson introduced their x600 line of pigment printers that the shift really accelerated at a professional level. By 2005, digital cameras of a relatively affordable price were equalling 35mm film quality. Here at The LightRoom, I could graph the switch just by looking at the Income columns of my bookkeeping software. Our Ilfochrome lab was dying and although by the end of 2005 it still accounted for 20% of the income, there wasn’t enough throughput for the chemistry in the processing machine to stay fresh and we closed it down, shortly before moving into our current space and going 100% digital. Film scanning continued to be popular, but a similar graph could be made of the decline of that service. Curiously enough, I’ve lately seen an upswing in scanning, not necessarily for immediate printing, but a lot of photographers seem to be taking their best film work and archiving high resolution scans for future use.

Photographers can be a crusty bunch of reprobates and certainly there was resistance to the move to pixels, but overall, I’d say most (not all) of my customers and acquaintances have made the transition and are happier for it, after seeing what good gear and printing can do. Of course, if you look at all the photographs taken, printed or put on the web, it’s easy to find mounds of tripe and garish stuff that might have impressed earlier practitioners of the art, but not in a good way. At the same time, though, I’ve seen a lot of incredibly talented photographer’s web sites, inspirational and daunting at the same time.

The same timeline of innovation and progress can also be seen for artists, those wanting reproductions of existing pieces and for those wanting to use a print for the furtherance of their work-to continue painting on or as an element in a collage.

With pigment inkjet printing we have a choice in materials that is exciting to embrace. While artists have always been appreciative of the variety of media open to sketching, painting, printing on, photographers for the last few generations have been conditioned to think of glossy and matte as the only available choices, with the super glossy look of Ilfochrome or papers with a slight luster as about the extent of the variations. With the exception of a super glossy material suitable for pigment inks, there certainly exists now a wider range of surfaces-glossy, luster, matte, textured, natural white, bright white-than we’ve seen since the beginning of printing from film, when photographers coated their own art papers with emulsions, much as have those working with platinum and palladium continue to do. Add metallic surfaces, Japanese rice paper, fabric or wallpaper, among a few, and it’s easy to become dazed ad confused by it all. Of course, no one has to contemplate such a list for every single print, but a little experimentation can be enlightening. The world of printing requires something to print on and that has an impact of the emotional response to the printed image. Approach it with a little forethought and it’s a liberating experience.

All of this brings us to an interesting place. Today’s equipment makes possible a level of printing that produces a quality, and by that I mean the ability to render with fidelity of detail, color accuracy and dynamic range, the original film or digital file, than we have ever had before. As owner of a professional printing studio, my goal has always been to get the best print possible by whatever means, at a price affordable to the widest audience. I think pigment inkjet printing is now that method.

It’s actually not too hard today to get prints off a home printer, from a digital camera, that rival the best a custom lab could do in the darkroom days, especially from color film. But that quality of printing-high end darkroom quality-has been superseded by what can be produced at a professional level from digital cameras and printing and a thorough knowledge of imaging programs like Adobe Photoshop.

You can buy the equipment to make good prints today with not much more than the push of a button, for about as much money as it would have cost you to install a decent color darkroom in your basement 15 years ago. But if you want to make great prints with these tools, you must jump in and master this art, just as always, or employ the services of a studio like The LightRoom to take your work to that level.

Another way to look at it is that we are less limited by our equipment today. Cameras and printers give us capabilities only dreamed just a few years ago, let alone to the generations of photographers in whose footsteps we follow. Now it falls more on our shoulders as artists, to have a vision worthy of the great tools at our disposal.

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"Things are more like they are now than they ever were before."
-Dwight D. Eisenhower

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