Any other shut-ins watch Midsomer Murders last night? (Picture of Innocence, screened on Prime, 7/3/09.) I admit the opening sequence of a Rolleiflex TLR being used, along with a Weston Master V meter and Invercone, hooked me in. The old bloke photographing a tree with said gear was annoyed when a rival photographer jumped in front of him brandishing a Nikon D2x digital SLR with a large flash attached. The shot of the tree was ruined and an argument ensued.
The nameless town in the TV programme had two camera shops: one was full of film cameras, wooden tripods, packets of photographic paper, and had a darkroom in the cellar. A hand-written sign near the door read No Digital Cameras Sold Here. The other shop, Quik Pix, did not even sell film. Jack Sprat and his wife spring to mind. And, of course, there had to be a murder. The camera club doyen was garrotted with the braided strap of his own light meter. Ouch.
It was the portrayal of film-using photographers as fuddy-duddies and digital photographers as a bunch of yobs that prompted me to write this post tonight, (while also trying to watch Top Gear). I imagine that feuds like that portrayed in Pictures of Innocence are going on in camera clubs all over Britain, New Zealand and elsewhere. It is also a debate in art circles, and in galleries that show photography.
You will notice the title of this post is Analogue and Digital, not versus. In my view, there is not a competition or a feud of any kind; the two streams co-exist. I continue to slaver over fine prints produced in the darkroom by the likes of Laurence Aberhart, Mark Adams and Andrew Ross. But of course a print doesn’t achieve fineness by dint of coming from a darkroom. Less than a decade ago, most black & white prints were still made in the darkroom, with various levels of skill, and most were never intended or destined for the walls of a gallery; it was a simple, cheap way to print one’s work. (And it still is, although materials and chemicals are becoming somewhat harder to source. Somewhat ironically, the internet is a necessity if you still want to work in the darkroom.)
No, fine printmaking is a craft, and, funnily enough, some of the same people who were making fine prints in the darkroom are now making fine prints digitally. It also holds that people who were crap in the darkroom are never really going to make good digital prints, because digital printing is also a craft.
Dr Nick Bradford, a fine photograher based in Taupo, sent me a pigment print last week. I had asked him about making further darkroom prints as I have now sold most of the stock of his work. He said that while that was still possible, he had moved to using an Epson printer and Epson Traditional paper. I have to admit that the new Epson print had a lovely tonal range, near-enough identical to Nick’s earlier silver-gelatin darkroom print on fibre-based paper. The glossy surface and the sheer whiteness of the paper are qualities I have yet to adjust to, but I was impressed.
http://www.northlight- images.co.uk/reviews/paper/epson_TPP_EFP.html for a review of the paper.
Wellington photographer Julian Ward, a lifelong Leica shooter, has been printing digitally for some time, after investing in a Nikon film scanner to convert his 35mm negatives to digital files. He also shoots with a compact digital camera, more often now, apparently. Peter Black has recently dismantled his darkroom and replaced it with a ‘Lightroom’. Along with the Adobe software, he has been working with a top of the range Epson printer and Hannemulhe paper. He has also been photographing digitally. Having been frustrated in the past with wet-process colour printing, he now has full control of every aspect of his photographic quality; a greater degree of control than the darkroom ever allowed him, he says. When I first heard of his move to digital, I jokingly accused him of ‘going over to the dark side.’ He replied, ‘No, you’re on the dark side. I am on the light side.’ Photospace Gallery will show Peter Black’s latest colour digital work in April.
The first digital inkjet prints shown at Photospace gallery were Leigh Mitchell-Anyon’s ‘Tiki Tour’ series, in May, 2002. http://www.photospace.co.nz/expo055.htm Admittedly these prints were not archival, with an estimated life of 30 years before noticeable colour shift. They were priced accordingly, with the option of purchasing a second print at a lesser price to keep in storage. I was very happy with the appearance of the images; the velvety blacks and over-saturated hues gave the photographs that extra degree of removal from reality, a hint at kitschness in keeping with their subject matter. ‘Night Sites’ in mid-2003 played upon the same qualities. http://www.photospace.co.nz/expo068.htm
Yvonne Westra’s ‘Staged’ in September 2003 http://www.photospace.co.nz/expo068.htm was the first exhibition of archival pigment prints shown at Photospace. She used Quad-tone pigments on rag paper to print her surreal composite images. Yvonne has another exhibition at Photospace gallery in March, ’Magic Realism’ - http://www.photospace.co.nz/expo140.htm
These exhibitions and others have sat alongside traditional analogue works for the last seven years, (and most of the colour works shown were digitally printed onto C-type photographic paper, even if captured on film). There is really no problem with it; no competition, no feuds, no yobs, no fuddy-duddies.
At least not among the exhibitors. When it comes to selling prints to serious collectors of photography, there still seems to be a bit of resistance to pigment prints.
Well, the problem is no longer one of longevity of the print. A properly processed silver-gelatin print will last a century at least, with adequate protection from the environment. In the digital world, the high quality papers now available from Iflord, Epson, Hannemulhe and other manufacturers are chemically highly stable and more than adequate in the archival department. So now are the pigment inks, black & white and colour. If you don’t believe me, check out the world authority in the field - Wilhelm Research: http://www.wilhelm-research.com/ The lasting quality of a colour inkjet print now far exceeds Cibachrome or any other type of wet-process photographic colour print. And the tonal quality of the inkjet-type print is now almost indistinguishable from a wet-process print. Though not inferior, the surface quality is the main point of difference, and that’s hard to pick when the print is framed under glass.
The problem lies with the perception of how the photographic artist’s pigment print is made. It’s simple - everyone’s done one - you just get the photo into some sort of software, tweak it up a bit (a one-button process in the likes of Picasa) and hit the Print button. You could rattle off a hundred prints in no time.
Wrong. For a start, good quality paper ranges up from about $15.00 per A3 sheet, and there’s inevitable wastage. The pigments are pricey, and even the printing machine will render itself obsolete after a few years (if you’re lucky), so will need replacing. Weighing that against a few dollars a sheet for darkroom paper and the decades of lifespan of the average enlarger, and that puts the cost of inkjet printing upwards of 5x more than darkroom printing.
Time-wise, I’d say about the same, or maye a bit more for pigment printing. Once you get the hang of the darkroom, making good prints isn’t really that difficult, (although making great prints is still a talent confined to but a few individuals). Yet, making good quality prints using a computer and pigment printer still requires dedication, patience and a lot of research. Photographers can be heard discussing the merits of the various paper brands and types and the various new inks and printers with the same enthusiasm as they once did darkroom materials and processes. That’s not to mention the ongoing nightmare of screen calibration. When you decide to start to print digitally, you are stepping onto the bottom end of a long, steep learning curve; one that never ends, because of constant innovations hitting the market.
Of course, once you have your software and printer profiles in place, your test prints made and your finished image file saved, there’s nothing to stop you hitting the Print button as many times as you can afford to. Except the market, of course; are there buyers for your 99 prints? Most photographers only make as many prints as will satisfy their immediate needs, and those will be the vintage prints. Later prints will still look different because of ever-evolving technology and materials, among other factors.
I feel now, though, that there is a good case for photographers revisiting the idea of (small) limited editions in printing. This is because of the perception of lesser value of digital inkjet prints, compared to silver-gelatin prints, coming from potential buyers and collectors. It may now be preferable for photographers to declare limited editions in the range of 3 to 10, with no more than 1 or 2 Artist’s Proofs. This takes into consideration the size of the market for NZ fine art photographs. My position (and that of some other galleries) of preference for open editions with serial numbered and dated prints may have to take a back seat, at least for a few years or until the practise of digital print making beds down.
Digital pigment prints on high quality paper will soon be the prevalent medium for exhibiting photography, so the photography buyers and galleries will have to adjust to it. From what I have learned from practitioners, there is as much skill, time and effort going into making fine pigment prints as there was with darkroom prints, and the production costs are significantly greater, so the pigment prints should have at least the same value. However, it is necessary to limit the print editions to ensure scarcity in order for the art market to adapt to and accept this change of medium and technique.
by james | 8 March, 2009