The State Of Inkjet

Naselle River, Washington State. © Tyler Boley. Eight ink blend from Cone Sepia, Warm Neutral, Selenium Peizotone and K7 Carbon sets- blended via hand mixing and in RIP blending.

My photographic print background is grounded in the high standards set by the acknowledged masters of the pre-digital era. Having been exposed to a wide variety of amazing prints, historical, contemporary, all the various methods from hand coated, west coast master silver, color processes, historical, etc… the concern is that those qualities and standards that make photography, and fine photographic prints, unique and amazing as a medium, and as objects of art, do not become lowered or even forgotten. As the technology we use moves from the hands of developers aware of long accepted high craft to a new business culture with no footing in that history, we see many examples of prints made today that just don’t seem to rise above, with that something extra a master managed to work from the available tools and materials.
The use of ink on a variety of papers, for B&W printing, has allowed me to create objects that meet my esthetic and the needs of my images in ways I could not previously achieve. This has required a lot of experimentation with materials and software over the years as the out of the box inkjet solutions have rarely allowed for a truly exceptional object, or one that comes close to the technical standards set by decades and decades of previously honed processes.

Inkjet printing is essentially a glorified complicated halftone process. This means continuous tone is “implied”, and optical clarity is defined by complicated mechanical patterns of dots. With photo surfaces, the ink sits on top of the paper, a different look than that created by emulsions and gelatin.

The prints that maintain the photographic qualities of the past without compromise and give me the options needed as a printmaker to bring an image to life, have been the multiple dilution monochromatic ink sets, available in a subtle variety of appealing hues, and controllable by use of physical mixing, or manipulation with software, on fine matte art papers. The complete lack of detectable underlying mechanical pattern or dots, ability to write fine detail to paper, the physical presence of the ink on a fine paper surface, give quality consistent with generations of fine photographic prints yet expand on those qualities without mimicking. In fact, between the ability to finesse tonality overall, and the extreme control at the ends of the scale, near white to white, and deep shadow detail down to ink black, and the unique beauty of ink on paper using these processes, the prints I make now I could only dream of in the past.

Elizabeth G #7. © Tyler Boley. Tritone black, light black, light light black inks, plus color inks as spot colors for selected tonal range tinting, Ultrachrome on Arches Cold Press Watercolor paper.

Other methods of photographic printmaking available with hardware, software, and materials now available are probably descendent from non-photographic printmaking methods, using different density or tints of inks for specific parts of the scale for subtle hue contrasts, split toning, looks either new or derived from darkroom traditions. Since the information driving that ink, spot color, or whatever one wants to call it, is derived from a part of the continuous tonal scale, rather than a “geographic” part of the image, the result in entirely photographic. One begins to visualize the print as different layers that can be created and manipulated rather than a light sensitive emulsion.  Interestingly, both people uniquely responsible for my education with ink for photography had strong printmaking backgrounds as well as photography, Jon Cone and Dan Culbertson. In those traditions, the complete tonality is built up one ink at a time. Any good press man with duo, tri, quad tone experience from B&W will visualize the same.

Unfortunately most print lovers have no idea what is capable with the best of the new print methods, because the ubiquitous “out of the box” result is what is assumed to represent the capabilities of inkjet, while the masterful has been crowded into a corner with a small number of niche developers like Jon Cone, and master printmakers quietly tucked away here and there, too busy working to evangelize. One must literally go out of their way to find what the current state of the art in photographic printing may look like.