Thursday, 14 May 2009 04:04

Keeping in Control

In the good ol’ days, serious photographers and especially artists, took pride in their print-making skills. Especially in black and white photography, it is in the darkroom that the tough guys distinguished themselves from the wannabies. Ansel Adams was the first to elevate the darkroom process to an artform, and countless others followed, refining the process throughout.

Today, everything has changed. Commercial labs have taken over the photographic printing business. I am not surprised by this, of course. This is all about economies of scale, and the fact that the photographic process has become more commercial than artistic, and it is not worth while for some photographers to do their own printing. It doesn’t pay, so they don’t do it, and rightly so. When I began my adventure in photography, I used to find the cheapest option to produce my prints, I used to order them from the UK or print them locally. I obviously had my reasons, which essentially was the fact that I wasn’t selling anything, so my actions were somehow justified.

Next up came the first exhibition. I realised this was now a totally different ball game. When participating in an exhibition, one has to produce something that is sellable, and that others will view as being of high enouh quality to buy. I realised that attention to detail and perfection were of the essence, and I needed as much control as possible on the final product. The simple fact is that I never got it. I spent days at the printer’s to try and get results which were identical to what I had designed originally,  but that never came. Having no alternative, I produced the best possible results I could achieve, and stuck to them. Thankfully the result was still pleasing and the exhibition was a success.

It was then that I realised that commercial laboratories would never be able to give me the results I needed. By this I do not mean that commercial labs are crap, but simply that the machines they use have their limitations in terms of resolution, and especially in terms of tonality depth. I wasn’t worried much about colour prints, because they can be reproduced relatively faithfully, but black and white is next to impossible to reproduce to a level which could rival hand-printed black and white.

It is now clear to me how important it is to have full control of the process, and the reason is very simple. In today’s world, photography is made of digital files. Negatives and slides are slowly fading away (and those that remain, still get scanned anyway). The raw file is not really tangible, and is certainly not something that can be purchased (in the sense of a unique entity, such as a negative). In painting, sculpture, etc, what you work on is what the client purchases, and it stops there. In photography, you work on something intangible, and then can only sell the “reproduction” of that work, which is the print. Therefore, the client, or viewer, is really only concerned with the final, tangible, sellable product, which is the print. It simply makes no sense to have full control over the entire process from capture to edit, and then relinquish it during the final stage, at the point where the intangible becomes tangible. This is where inkjet technology comes into play.

Today’s darkrooms have been converted into lightrooms, and the printing methodology has changed completely. I had already seen some work produced using fine art inkjet printers during the time spent helping my uncle set up his exhibition, and the results were astounding. Unfortunately, I had a very hard time finding somewhere or someone able to produce fine art inkjet (or, as I’ve seen it being mentioned, “pigment on paper”) prints, so I had to dig into my not-so-deep pockets and get myself a printer. Again, this turned out to be an incredible headache, as I had suspected. Very few companies import large format fine art printers here in Malta, since nobody had ever purchased them. I was initially looking towards the HP Z-Series, which gained very positive reviews and were only recently put on the market. These were way too expensive, though, and I could not afford the cost. I immediately ruled out the Epson printers, which at the time could only house either matte or glossy black, and one needed to swap inks at great cost and wastage. This issue has now been resolved with the next generation of printers, and I have read very positive reviews from pros that use them.

Finally, I opted for the Canon iPF6100 which had received very good reviews, and comes with the best support out of any of its competitors, here in Malta. I’ve been printing work on the printer for quite some time now, and I can say that it is brilliant. It takes experimentation to get things right, particularly for black and white, however now that I got used to it, I can say that it produces incredible results, with fantastic tonalities and incredible detail. Mind you, it has got its defects which are sometimes irritating and fustrating, however its good points definitely outweigh its bad ones.

I finally feel in control of the artistic process. I have the advantage of being able to print on a variety of papers, including fibre-based photo paper, art paper, cotton-rag, etc. The best papermills, such as Hahnemuehle and Museo, all produce a range of papers for fine art printing. These papers can be quite expensive, but they produce stunning results, and incredible light-fastness, which according to research institutes, can surpass that of traditional prints.

Today, most fine art photographers have moved into pigment-on-paper prints, since the technology has advanced enough to be able to compete with the results obtained through traditional darkroom printing. It is a natural match for the photographic artist working in the digital age, and it is well worth the trouble and cost it entails. I know I will never look back, because now I can stand firm by my work and say “I have produced these, from start to finish”.