Musings on Photography

Sea Change

Posted in digital printing, process, traditional materials by Paul Butzi on April 14, 2007

Two years ago, I wrote (going off) The Silver Standard.  In that article, I advanced the notion that, at long last, the art photography world was teetering on the brink of an upheaval, leaving the tradition of gelatin silver printing behind and moving to newer technology and materials.  Everyone was all in arms about how inkjet prints weren’t really photographs.  Fauxtographs, they sneeringly called them. 

So it’s with some amusement that I read Doug Plummer’s report from the front lines.  Plummer is at one of the big portfolio review events.  As part of the proceedings, he got to view about half of the portfolios at the event, and reports

My highly unscientific poll of the print types yielded this. Of the 80 or so portfolios I saw (or more accurately, glanced at), about a third to a half were black and white. I sussed out one silver print portfolio in that group, one ambriotype, and a half dozen platinum/palladium portfolios. The rest were digital prints.Among the color, 90% or better were inkjet prints, way up from two years ago. The small pool of C-print portfolios were more likely to have been printed with a digital C-print machine (LightJet or Lambda) than in a color darkroom.

It’s just five sentences, but it heralds a major shift in the world of photography.  Out of some 27-40 monochrome portfolios that Doug looked at, only one was printed using the Silver Standard of gelatin silver.  There were more pt/pd portfolios than there were gelatin silver.  Gelatin silver printing is now an alternative process, less popular than the most prominent alt process (pt/pd).  (I’d observe that the odds are good that a fair fraction of the half dozen pt/pd portfolios were done using digitally produced contact printing negatives, and those contact negs were probably made on (wait for it…) inkjet printers.)

And in the color world, Doug is reporting that 90% of the color portfolios were inkjet, and the C-41 prints were more likely to have been made digitally than made traditionally.

As delightful as all this is from “I told you so” point of view, the most stunning thing in Doug’s post was this:

Regardless of mono- or multi-chrome, most people appear to be inkjet printing on matte papers.

Matte papers.  Matte papers. It sounds to me like fine art photographers are enthusiastically embracing the amazing slew of wonderful new papers that have come out to meet the demand in the inkjet printing world.  All of my musing about the HP Z3100 and its built in profiling has me dreaming about all sorts of surfaces every night.  It’s not just glossy or matte anymore; there’s hot press watercolor and cold press watercolor and velvet and… well, the list just goes on and on. 

It’s an exciting time to be a photographer, when so many amazing possibilities are opening up all at once – bigger prints,  different surfaces, printing materials which have fundamentally different rendering properties from the traditional materials.  I think, I hope, I pray that this explosion of possibilities will be embraced by photographers rather than cause them to dig their heels in in some sort of Luddite response.  Now, more than ever before, we can invest in pushing against the new limits of our chosen form and find ourselves in new territory.

As Ariel sang

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

Traditional printing is fading, but there’s no cause for alarm.  As it fades, it will undergo a sea change, and we can already see that it is turning into something rich and strange.  That’s a Good Thing.

8 Responses

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  1. Mike O'Donoghue said, on April 14, 2007 at 11:21 pm

    I’ve got prints on my walls that are over 20 years old. They still look as good as the day they came out of the wash. And as far as I can tell no one’s proven that this inkjet stuff will last that long. The question begs itself: do we always have to change processes just because some maunfacturers come up with a new gimmick? I see this as a fight for the image market — computers vs. optics. I don’t mind the demise of the carbon copy, but the end of “real” photos is unsettling. See The Online Phtographer Blog April 10th on “Detrich Resigns” for another taste of the digital malaise. And why should photographers have to “upgrade” (read “change/buy again”) software and hardware with every new generation — remember floppies and DAT? I’ve negatives in archival sleeves that have outlasted all the computers I’ve ever worked with/owned. This isn’t terminal luddite-ism here. I just feel we’re all being taken for a ride here.

  2. Mike O'Donoghue said, on April 14, 2007 at 11:22 pm

    I’ve got prints on my walls that are over 20 years old. They still look as good as the day they came out of the wash. And as far as I can tell no one’s proven that this inkjet stuff will last that long. The question begs itself: do we always have to change processes just because some manufacturers come up with a new gimmick? I see this as a fight for the image market — computers vs. optics. I don’t mind the demise of the carbon copy, but the end of “real” photos is unsettling. See The Online Photographer Blog April 10th on “Detrich Resigns” for another taste of the digital malaise. And why should photographers have to “upgrade” (read “change/buy again”) software and hardware with every new generation — remember floppies and DAT? I’ve negatives in archival sleeves that have outlasted all the computers I’ve ever worked with/owned. This isn’t terminal luddite-ism here. I just feel we’re all being taken for a ride here.

  3. Mike O'Donoghue said, on April 14, 2007 at 11:33 pm

    ‘Scuse the double post — typos!

  4. tim atherton said, on April 15, 2007 at 11:23 am

    The question begs itself: do we always have to change processes just because some maunfacturers come up with a new gimmick? I see this as a fight for the image market — computers vs. optics. I don’t mind the demise of the carbon copy, but the end of “real” photos is unsettling.

    why?

    in many cases inkjet (and other digital) photographs can produce prints that are often not only different in their own unique and appealing way, but are in many cases better as well.

    The daguerreotype was very quickly replaced by the calotype and so on down through the history of photography.

    As for the “Detrich Resigns” thing – photographers have always “faked” photos in one way or another and always will

    and the end of “real” photos? – what’s a “real” photo…?

  5. Kjell said, on April 15, 2007 at 10:16 pm

    I guess that for most people that worries about new ways, the “real thing” is assosiated with the way it was when they first became aware of it. For most photographer that has been in the business for more than 10 years, it is film and silver prints. A photographer starting today will embrace inkjet printing, and when the next big thing happen in a couple of years (wall paper computer screens?), they will be equally outraged and worried about the future. I think the main problem for many is the feeling that all their training and experience in mastering a medium is wasted when some new technology appears.

    I’m not worried about changes, but I hope the current way of doing things will remain for a while so I can get the most out of my investment in learning.

    Oh, and about that print hanging on the wall. Mike haven’t seen any evidence that an inkjet print wil last as long as 20 years. I honestly thought that just about everyone that cared to do a simple search on the net, would discover the independent researches that has been going on for a long time now. Good inkjet prints are more or less equal to B&W silver, and will outlast traditional color with several life spans.

  6. Mike O'Donoghue said, on April 16, 2007 at 1:22 am

    Research is fine and good, but time will tell, Kjell. Good point on the “waste of training and experience”.

    “Real” for me is the exposure is made and the negative is printed. No removing or adding bits. Dodging and burning are fine with me, but cloning, deleting, changing colors isn’t what photography means to me. That’s painting. So those who feel the need should go get a brush.

  7. Brandon J. Scott said, on April 16, 2007 at 4:22 am

    I don’t really understand the need to debate which is better. Both methods of printing are different means to different ends in the same way that platinum/paliadium and tintypes are different means to different ends. An artist should choose the method he or she is most comfortable working with. I prefer working with large format cameras, silver negatives, and silver prints. Some artists prefer a fully digital workflow, and some artists prefer a hybrid approach (digital negs and silver prints or analog negs and digital prints.) In the end, the work is just as valid as long as the artist is embracing the methods he or she chooses.

    I believe it is a mistake to compare ink on paper to silver prints. These are differnt mediums with their own unique characteristics and should be judged as such.

    my $.02

    Brandon

  8. Ricardo Thomas said, on July 9, 2007 at 1:48 pm

    As someone just starting out in photography, I am becoming more confused (with each new article I read), should I learn the fundamentals with traditional material, or jump right into the Digital world? What would I lose by not learning to process film and printing with an enlarger? Any advise would be welcome.

    Ricardo


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