This paper addresses two complimentary ideas. First, it is an example of the evolution of a photographic project and the cumulative effect of decisions made along the way. Second, it is an example of critical technical practices and how in-depth knowledge and uncompromising application can lead to a superior result. Taken as a whole, I trust it will illustrate the necessary synergy of the two.
The project examined here was photographed in 1995 using an old 11×14 Folmer & Schwing camera with a 10×12 back, a 14” Goerz Blue Dot Trigor, and 10”x12” Super XX film. I purchased the equipment with the notation of doing alternative process contact prints. It did not suit my shooting needs at the time and sat for many years. When I embarked on this studio project it seemed the perfect choice for the images I wanted to make. Super XX had long since been discontinued but a test proved that my supply, though less than perfect, was usable. Palladio, a manufactured palladium/platinum paper was available at the time and, since my enthusiasm for hand-coating paper had dimmed, it seemed a perfect choice. The paper proved capable of producing beautiful prints. Ultimately, I made a print set for the model and one for me. The project was then put away for a long time, never really resolved to my satisfaction.
The work initiated from a desire to expand my experience as an artist into areas I did not have well formed conclusions. I wanted to work outside my comfort zone. There is not much figure study photographic work that resonates with me and I was uncomfortable anticipating what the process might be like. However, I have always loved the work of Ruth Bernhard and felt there was potential. In addition to the camera and film I had my own studio and lighting equipment to use, all of these incidentals contributed to how the project moved forward, it made sense to utilize all the available assets.
Elizabeth Green worked a few doors down, was taking acting classes and trying to get more comfortable with whatever loss of inhibition is required for that work. She volunteered for much of my film testing to get used to being scrutinized by the lens. After some time, having no subject for my project and dissatisfied with the “life models” approach, I mentioned it to her and she agreed to give it a try. Unsure of how to proceed, we did a general setup. She just relaxed and I moved around and shot a lot of 35mm film for several sessions, evolving into more directed poses. Hours of editing lead me to several compositions and a lighting look I could pursue with the large camera. I eventually had a definitive setup.
Each final shot took at least a half-day. As the first few came in, I’d revisit the 35mm proofs and alter course a bit. None of this was intellectually or ideologically driven; it was all pretty instinctual. The work ran its course fairly quickly. After making around a dozen images and some Palladio prints I liked, additional images seemed forced. I stopped; it was done.
Later, Palladio disappeared from the marketplace and I could not print without re-entering the world of hand-coated papers. Silver was not an option as the bravado of big density and shiny surface killed the feel of the images. The more I lived with the prints, the more I became dissatisfied with them as a group. The film was so old that densities were far from ideal and the prints that excelled pointed out the lesser quality of those that did not.
In early 2008, after 10+ years of intense learning and experimenting with film scanning and specialized digital ink printing, I returned to the work to see if I could make the prints the images seemed to demand.
These images require the highest of photographic technical print aesthetics to work as intended. Absolute optical clarity and extremely continuous tone down to the smallest and most subtle variation is necessary. They exist in a limited density range but every tonal nuance must be fully realized. I applied everything I had learned to each and every step of the process, sparing no compromise. Even though few, if any, of these considerations may be visible it was assumed in total they would add up to the desired goal.
The 10”x12” negatives were scanned with a Howtek 4500 drum scanner, fluid mounted; the negatives barely fitting on the drum. They were scanned as raw positives, uninverted or altered with the scanning software in any way. Regarding scan ppi, my thought was to maintain an un-interpolated path from the optical native resolution of the scanner to the native resolution of the final printer; this to avoid any driver or RIP scaling.
After several test scans and prints the images felt best enlarged just a bit. The final scans were then made at 100% scale at 1000 ppi (one of the native optical resolutions of the scanner). In Photoshop the images were resized without re-sampling to about 13.5 x 16.5 inches at 720 ppi (the native resolution of the final printer setup).
This gave rise to the thought of redefining the concept of the contact print for the digital workflow. Rather than image-to-image/material-to-material/same size print we can have a direct native optical resolution, pixel-to-printer driver, native resolution ppi. This provides an imagine path for original pixel data to printer dither with no rescale smearing of info across pixel boundaries. There is no presumption that an image pixel translates to a dot of ink, only that there is no change made at input by the RIP. The idea is to create and maintain the “cleanest” path for the data to flow through the system.
The original lighting was quite darkish, with some directional highlighting to define the compositions. I wanted to bring out areas of natural skin texture I knew the large film would so accurately describe. I wanted the unobstructed sense of physical presence that only photography can provide, brought to life with a beautiful process and choice of materials in the final print.
I also wanted to toss out all preconceived notions about where the work should go. I made a variety of test prints: high key, low key, full tonal scale; a wide variety. The ink and paper choices were narrowed down. Seeing these options made real in the materials was key. Some combinations have sweet spots or tonal palettes that don’t come to life. Ideally, everything should fall into place: the content imagery, how it was photographed, tonal palette, print hue, surface, and ink/paper performance. Knowledge accumulates with experience and the only way to arrive at these conclusions is to see them. This project in particular would not be complete until all possibilities were explored.
I decided the images worked best in a tonal area that was muted by conventional standards (very little if anything above traditional zones 5 or 6, and down to black). I needed total continuous tone with very few actual black pixels. I wanted to create the impression that every level of tonality is revealed, even the “near blacks”. When gradations disappeared into black the shape and roundness disappear as well as feeling the light. An intense black (or dMax) in the print seemed to destroy the stillness that the imagery required. The ink/paper combination I chose took care of that; it simply could not get that black.
All tonal editing in Photoshop was done in 16 bit with no rotations or resizing. Great care was taken with the order of tonal edits to insure there would be no visible loss of any tones. Even with high bit depth and resolution, working with such a limited scale and so many delicate near blacks, the editing was challenging. This reaffirmed an important issue for me: one must try to avoid any editing that compresses then expands levels. These prints would reveal any loss of continuous tone. Much attention has to be focused on overlapping adjustment layer masks and what each adjustment is doing. This is particularly important for single channel grayscale files (where combined information from other color channels with differing levels loss at different values will not help mask the edits).
Another contributing factor was selective focus in the images. High ppi nearly grainless areas with gradating tone and no focused image texture reveals file posterization, levels loss, or printer setup banding very quickly. Describing the tonal editing of each image would be a diversion, but each was inverted in Photoshop and saved. All tonal edits were done with curves adjustment layers on an 8 bit version. I would use these for the bulk of my initial proofing then in the final stages drag the adjustment layers to the 16 bit original, flatten, and save as a final.
Since even a well calibrated and profiled monitor can only show us so much and give limited information about how a particular material combination (surface etc.) will present the images, a lot of test prints are done along the way. All issues are being worked at the same time. Paper, ink mix, RIP ink setups, individual image edits, etc move forward at once. An ink mix test can be done using the most recent edits on the files to see progress with both, etc.. Test prints were done on what would be the final paper, 17”x22” sheets of Museo Portfolio Rag, starting with clusters of small images, sometimes multiple version of the same, getting progressively larger as things fell into place.
The idea was to retain as much information, optical and tonal with minimal destruction, from film through to the paper. Lastly the edges were cleaned up with a final crop to 12.972” x 16.235”.
Many kinds of prints have been tried of these images over the years, from silver to platinum, to various ink sets and methods on Epson printers. The highest continuous tone and resolution I have seen delivered to fine paper is with Jon Cone’s K7 systems. These use seven varying densities of gray/black inks, available in a variety of hues.
The value of this approach, the nature of how the densities are utilized etc, is an article in itself. At the time I was working hard on a viable StudioPrint ink setup in an Epson 7800 using Jon Cones new Selenium K7 MPS ink set, it includes a black, six additional shades of various densities of selenium hued grays from very dark to very light, and what is called a gloss optimizer. This is a clear fluid that acts like a topcoat, essentially marrying the ink image to the paper surface to eliminate the obvious look of ink sitting on top of a shiny surface, gloss differential, and bronzing. It’s generally referred to as GO.
The inkset also works beautifully on matte fine art papers, no GO is required, it fits into the family of other K7 inksets of varying hue that are designed to print on matte papers. Despite very promising results and a flurry of samples going out into the world, I could interest no one in having me print gloss B&W prints for them, even with this unique and beautiful process. To this day I print little to no gloss B&W for anyone, two or three jobs total in nearly a decade.
My personal work is matte and I knew this printer would be changed back to OEM ink for gloss color at some point. Before that happened, I wanted to nail this project, and this ink is beautiful on matte. After testing several papers I settled on Museo Portfolio Rag, a paper I don’t normally use. It has to be very carefully limited to avoid problems, tends toward a weaker dmax than other papers I use, but holds an extremely tight dot when setup right. I knew it would faithfully describe the detail in the files.
When the ink setup was properly limited for the paper, the less intense dmax was perfect for the feel of the images requiring no further compression to avoid hard black in the prints. Most importantly, it really brought this particular range of tones with this inkset to life in a very sumptuous velvety but subtle way, with an extraordinary sense of optical photographic sharpness. So ink and paper decisions are made, to a point.
StudioPrint has a dpi option for this Epson and some others, a setting 2880×2880. It’s touchy, extremely slow, worthless for most work, generally used for attempting to mimic the dither patterns of lower resolution printing devices, proofing, etc.. But clearly this would utilized the highest capability of the device, putting down the smallest dot size in every available position it possibly can if called upon to do so. At this point there’s no way to know how much visual difference this might make, but I began to test in that mode.
Since dots of seven different shades of black and gray ink are printing at high percentages packed extremely tight, on a paper that misbehaves with too much ink, the ink setup, individual and overall limiting, and linearization process took considerable time and effort, going through many alterations. The final setup prints so slowly, placing so many micro dots of all these inks so precisely, that my 12.972 x 16.235” images on 17×22 paper take almost an hour to print… each. This work was progressing as files were being edited, all proofed together, and things were finalizing. There are no dots at all, even under a loupe I’m not sure if I’m seeing ink dots or SuperXX film grain, ink coverage is total almost like a wash, completely smooth, and tone feels infinitely continuous. No breaks, banding, or posterizing.
One thing I particularly liked, the darker tones remained primarily image-based rather than paper. We all love paper, surface, everything about it, that’s one reason we make prints. But the Palladio prints of these particular images had a surface quality in the darker values that detracted from describing primarily photographic image, and brought attention to surface quality. In many cases this is beautiful and why we select certain papers, I did not prefer it in this case. But the complete coverage of ink with this setup, the way Portfolio Rag “presents” ink, and a very subtle unobtrusive tooth, lets the image predominate. The paper is present, the surface very appealing and subtle, but it very clearly presents the image without distraction, it all works together.
Now comes the serendipitous and fun part. We are not just technicians or obsessive tinkerers; we are artists. Do I like what I’m seeing on paper? Technical issues are falling into place, what if I could create a little more roundness of form, and sumptuousness tone, by introducing more warmth into one part of the scale?
Not an obvious split tone, just a bit of hue deviation one might not even really notice as such, that adds some three dimensional quality. One thing I love about the Palladio prints is a gorgeous warmth unique to palladium and platinum/palladium prints.
Keep in mind I have an unused 8th ink tank, currently filled with GO. I’m not sure which of the 7 inks are the perfect part of the scale with the current individual limits, and current linearization, and with these darkish files, would benefit most by adding some warmth. So leaving the exact setup in place, I make some small test prints from the files swapping the ink assignments in the RIP of each of the likely shades with the GO tank, one at a time.
I can easily now see where that particular ink is contributing to the tonality of the images as it now prints clear, and make my decision, I ordered some Shade 4 Sepia K7 ink to mix in. I also noticed some interesting things about the tests with GO; they look goofy because the one tonal area is posterized out, but something interesting is happening because of the presence of GO, even though it’s not designed to do anything in particular with matte paper.
When the Sepia ink arrives I simply begin tossing some into the Selenium Shade 4 tank, there’s no science to this part, I just want to love something I see. A little too far, it’s too obvious, and some Selenium is mixed back in. Now I don’t know exactly what the mix is. But I have plenty of it, I’m going to print a small edition, and never revisit this work again. Everything about the process was custom for these images, for these prints, and after years of stewing over this body of work, I want it perfected, finished, and exorcized from my brain… I don’t care if I can’t repeat this later.
The last test reminded me of the presence of the unused GO tank in the setup, something was happening in the areas to which it was applied where it overlapped a bit with adjacent shades. It made the ink feel a bit different “in” the paper or receptor coating. Determined to explore any possibility, no matter how unlikely, I wanted to see if more roundness and depth could be achieved by combining the GO channel with one of the existing ink channels. After much testing I determined that the GO combined with shade 3 makes a very subtle but noticeable difference.
The final ink setup now is- shades 1, 2, 5, 6, and 7 are Selenium, shade 3 is Selenium and GO combined in the RIP, shade 4 is Selenium with some Sepia physically tossed in. Now more iterative linearizations are done. At this point, given dry times of these goofy ink densities, the time gone into the scans, file editing, RIP ink setups, paper tests, fun with ink mixing, work to make a living, actual living, etc etc… I’m months into this.
As others working with gloss setups are discovering, including Jon Cone, using the GO as a second pass over the printed ink image, rather than putting it down with the ink in the initial conventional pass, works extremely well for gloss ink printing. The concept of double pass with a secondary treatment is becoming part of my thinking.
What would these look like with a second pass of GO? Not for gloss, we’ve all sprayed matte ink prints with various gloss sprays, they go into the paper and coating and don’t turn the surface glossy. But what might it do? OK then what might two passes do? I already have a bit of GO in the low tones with shade 3.
It turns out it does indeed do something I like, but two coats look bad. One coat seems to enrichen the tone, deepen and cool it just a bit, and raise dmax just a touch. But mainly, before any GO, the ink has a slight powdery look on the surface, hard to describe. After GO, some very slight amount of translucence seems to have been imparted to that very top layer, bringing the ink and surface together with a feel of slightly more depth. It’s really mostly noticeable by comparison, without GO they were nice, with GO side by side, I like the GO prints better. I lost a touch of warmth overall, but presence of the sepia is slightly more revealed in that one tonal area. A final series of iterative linearizations are done, the ink pass sits overnight before doing the 2nd GO pass which also has to sit or be dried before measuring each chart. This takes some time. I now really start to live with the print tests as the final edits are being done to suit the final ink setup. I’m happy and I’m left wondering if I should feel this happy about my own efforts, humility and all that…
Finals then are made until the ink mix runs out or I run out of credit cards for more Portfolio Rag. Each print takes an hour for the ink image pass, then hangs over night, then has it’s GO pass, hangs again, and is done. As many as can hang up along with other work going on are made each day. There are many failures, either a tiny flake, an ink pressure inconsistency for a pass or two, or slight brief nozzle drop out, even perhaps during the GO pass that creates a subtle band.
The setup is too dependent on perfect and precise fluid delivery, far more than normal. In the end I have four complete pristine sets of eight images each, and several other individual prints of various images. Later the issues of boxes, accompanying text, and getting them out there will be addressed. Seven months have past since I seriously dove in.
Artistically, the evolution of this project is informative. At various points, even at inception, there is considerable lack of conscious intention, mostly curiosity. What moments of certainty there are tend to be based on instinct informed by years of photographic effort rather than intellect or ideology, I’ve always suspected far more artists are like this than will admit.
But many of us are hampered, feeling we need the “Big Idea”. I recall a presentation by Jerry Uelsmann many years ago describing the evolution of one year’s worth of trial and error. It did more for my artistic confidence than any other experience. Intent and concept seemed to drip off his prints like mystical syrup… yet he was just as unsure of himself and unclear of intent in the beginning stages of an image as I was as a beginner.
A remarkable coincidence about the quiet low key visual impact of the prints occurred recently. My friend and author of Mastering Digital Black And White, Amadou Diallo, visited me and I sheepishly brought out the prints. I’m paranoid a cool response will vaporize my delusions about these results but they remain intact for now.
He began walking around the shop with a couple of the prints, and remarked that with less or even low light they appeared more luminous, almost lit from within. About a month later at a printmakers gathering in Atlanta hosted by John Dean, as Walker Blackwell prepared to show us his offerings he dimmed the viewing lights quite low. His first print was a K7 selenium print utilizing a tonal scale from maybe middle gray down to a gorgeous black, with full tonal representation throughout. It did indeed seem to glow in the low viewing light. Perhaps different intent, different imagery, different reasons for selecting this palette, but very interesting that both Amadou and Walker recognized the unusual life the similar tones and materials have when viewed in a particular manner. It never occurred to me to view these like that, and I know I’m done when I’m perfectly happy to let others view them however they like.
The technical gymnastics and musings throughout the project are difficult to conclude. As our successful traditional light sensitive processes disappear from the marketplace we are left to retain photographic craftsmanship at the same level pretty much on our own. The process are new, often don’t work well or are unreliable, and are being developed for us by a community uninformed of previous fine art photography standards.
Despite the effort all of this took, I’m not convinced adherence to any one of these practices is vital or made a difference. But the tradition of photography I was taught before digital was relentlessly demanding. Every step of the process was diligently perfected and carefully implemented. So though I’m not sure of some of these steps, my satisfaction with the results tell me that a similar high standard of expertise must apply still in this digital age.
My preferred conclusion is that each carefully applied implementation was a small part of a final sum that resulted in some of the best work I have produced, my hard won techniques all contributed to some synergistic whole. But in reality, what probably is at play is the frame of mind, the decision to compromise nothing, try everything, drop preconceptions, learn new techniques, stay lose and have fun, honor and bring all accumulated knowledge to the table, cut no corner, that results in superior work.
Unfortunately it’s very difficult to make that commitment to everything we produce, often we can’t. At every turn I had to remind myself take the more difficult or time consuming turn or force myself to explore a newly revealed possibility. In fact most of those we admire in any endeavor commit in the same way, and their results are what draw us to them.
Though the digital age has made it easier for anyone and everyone to be a photographer, it’s still quite possible to have your work rise above the din with a commitment to excellence. Things really haven’t changed.