Friday, November 7, 2008

Confessions of a soul-snatching C-printer

I received my Krolick print from 20 x 200 last week. It's sitting in front of me as I write this. The print quality is...well, it's about what one might expect from a $20 photo printed in an edition of 200. Although the colors seem honest and vibrant, the overall texture of the print has that slightly mushy digital quality that lets the whole thing down. The image area is roughly 8 x 8. There's no excuse for a print that size not to hum with sharpness, but this one doesn't. I guess I shouldn't be disappointed. You get what you pay for. But still it's not quite what I'd expected.

The good news is that now I have a better idea what to expect, both from 20 x 200 and from mass produced inkjets in general. I don't mean to disparage the whole medium. I have seen some dynamite inkjet prints. I think that when printed by the artist under carefully controlled conditions spectacular results are possible. Difficult, but possible. But under certain other conditions, which in today's market may mean most conditions, this type of printing doesn't succeed.

I've actually been thinking about this for about the past year as I've tried to make good color inkjet prints with about the same level of success as 20 x 200. I am able to make a print with roughly the same print quality as the Krolick with not much effort, and if I wanted to I could push a button and print 200 of them. But what would be the point? None of them would live up to its potential. I might as well spend my energy building 200 suburban McMansions. In terms of production value there's no difference. In terms of adding something of value to civilization both efforts are futile.

Contrast this situation to the color darkroom. I've had limited experience there, probably less than a week total. But from the very start, any C-print I've made has stunned me with its clarity and richness. They're the type of prints I keep looking at because I can't figure out how they seem so magical. They're the reason I keep shooting color film even though it's a hassle in many ways. As Michael David Murphy has articulated so well it's expensive, logistically problematic, and unrepeatable, but it seems to produce better results.

All of which has really brought up the question for me What Is A Print For? Why would someone buy one? What makes one more valuable than another? Why pay $20 for a Krolick print in the first place? I can only answer for myself. The reason I buy (or more often, trade for) a print is that I am a soul-snatcher. When I buy a print I expect it to have a little piece of the photographer's soul in it. I don't really care if it has fingerprints or lightleaks or if the signature runs through the border. To me these add more soul. All that matters is that when I lay the image in front of me I have to feel the photographer's presence. For me the old-fashioned darkroom prints are usually successful at that. Not only can I feel the photographer at the scene of exposure, many personality quirks come through in how a person prints an image. Some are anal, some loose, some dark, some light, some perfect, some beautifully not so perfect. It's the difference between handwriting and word processing. Yes a word processed document may be more legible but in the art world who gives a shit? A person's presence is ALWAYS expressed more strongly in handwriting than word processing.

I have to say I don't feel much of Krolick's presence in the 20 x 200 print, which is perhaps as it should be. There's no way an edition of 200 could be hand-printed and still sell for $20 apiece. No one should be under any pretense that 20 x 200 is selling fine art. And yet, I sense the line blurring, helped along both by 20 x 200 and by similar production methods I see in galleries. Low quality digital art is so ubiquitous that people do take it for fine art. They'll pay $400 for a print which looks like crap and not know the difference. I probably sound like a nose in the air snob when I say this, but there IS a difference. For $20 you're going to get a $20 print. If you want a piece of someone else's soul, chances are it will cost more.


fabulous muscles said...

Darkroom printing wastes not only time and money and would never recommend it to anyone interested in getting their images onto something physically larger than 6 x 7.

On flickr I had difficult giving darkroom prints away for free (20 x 24 inch) but cant think of anything more satisfying than taking home something that you felt was right rather than what a PC told you looked good

gastronaut said...

Any idea what sort of paper it is printed on?

I have been *extremely* please with the results I'm getting printing with an Epson R2400 on Museo Silver Rag paper.

Blake Andrews said...

I don't know the type of paper. It's a nice thick stock with a semi-satin sheen. Anway I'm not sure it would make a great difference. In my experience paper seems to have more effect on color management than on the specific pixel quality.

Darkroom printing indeed takes more time and money, but I would argue that it isn't wasted. Invested may be a better word.

wolf said...

Nice post Blake, you are standing up against a trendy, popular program that is cheapening the craft of photo printing. Photography is following in the footsteps of American food a generation ago--why make a home-cooked meal when you can have a tv dinner?

As inkjet papers go, the museo silver rag is nice---because it's base looks basically like a warm tone glossy fiber b&w paper. Carl de Keyzer and Hiroshi Watanabe both use it.

I used it, and it did not make the process of inkjet printing any easier or cost-effective. In fact, to keep the analogy going, I'd say that digital printing and photography is much like using a microwave instead of a stove. What's wrong with a stove? Does food really need to be heated from the inside out?

To Fabulous Muscles: inkjet printing is exponentially more wasteful of time and money, if a beautiful final print is desired. Any time you would like to have a printing challenge with me, to see what can be done for say, $50 of materials and 2 hours of time, let blake know and he'll hook us up! I have printed plenty of optical C-prints as 30x40s with absolutely no problem of sharpness or richness of color, for $40-$50 each.

Blake, you might like to know that large editions can be done by hand--in fact, this summer I printed 2 editions of 200 8x10s each (one of mine and one of Laura Valenti's) for photolucida. They cost less than $2 each and went for far less than $20---we gave them all away to Critical Mass reviewers. Not to toot my own horn, but they looked way better than the previous years' thank-you prints which were lifeless inkjets.

Blake Andrews said...

Of course some people disdain the stove AND microwave and just eat raw vegetables, which just goes to show...I'm not sure what but I like the analogy.

Sign me up for one of those $2 C-prints.

Ben said...

I'm a sucker for this discussion and I'm not trying to change anybody's mind (;-D) but if you had seen Pete Turner's show at Eastman House last year (the show traveled around some) at least when it comes to color, I can't see that the process is more important than the artist/photographer/printer. I'm not in love with Turner's work, but there is no question about his color bona fides and the quality of his inkjet prints.

The inkjet paper you mention sounds like Epson Exhibition Fiber designed for their K3 printers.

alkos said...

McMansions... hmmm... each time I print a photograph I repeat the whole process from the very start - scanning, then manipulation, then printing... Especially when it comes to colour stuff, it is virtually impossible to recreate each picture the same way... Having no time/money/space for real wet workshop and really liking R2400 on Innova Fibaprint results, I like to think about my prints as unique ones...

Blake Andrews said...

I think some comments misinterpreted my post. I did not say that it's impossible to make good inkjet prints. Under controlled conditions it is doable, as Pete Turner, de Keyzer, and Watanabe all make clear in their work. As I said in the post, don't mean to disparage the entire process.

The analogy to Suburban McMansions was aimed at 20 x 200 style large editions which in their mass production seem to lack soul.

If given the choice between a C-print and inkjet of the same image, both printed by the artist, I would almost always prefer the C-print.

alkos said...

What I meant was that one can speak about mcmansionnism even in case of 2 prints made from the same digital file... and the technical quality of the outcome does not matter here, the repetition does... my way to avoid it is to create the digital file from scratch (a negative) each time for each material print, allowing it to "humanize" with subtle or not-so-sublte differences and errors.. without looking at the previously made file/print. If you call 200 prints souless because they are identical, mine have the ghost added to the machine... ;-)

Dalton said...

Hi Blake,
I just wanted to drop a line because I thought this was a great post on an interesting topic. At the moment, my main printing process is platinum/palladium, so I understand the joy that comes from a hand-crafted print. Not every artist has the skill or inclination to print their own work with such attention, though, which means that 20x200 is probably better off with a centralized, mass production model instead. Wolf's experience aside, I think it would be difficult, and certainly more expensive, to replicate this kind of effort for such a large edition two to three times a week, every week. I know they do experiment with different papers and processes from time to time, I have seen a few digital c-prints and at least one edition that was an honest to goodness contact c-print.

I have several 20x200 prints now, some better than others, but on the whole, I am happy with what I get for $20.

Olivia said...

I love the 20x200 business model. As a professional art dealer for 30 years I can think of no better way to get imagery out there to people who can't afford or won't afford to buy something that has original object quality. If you want the artist's soul, spend some money damnit. For $20 you can have two to three glasses of wine. Or buy a subway pass or have this nice image for 60 or more years. Anyone who has been a serious gallerist or has tried to sell their own work and who puts their nose up at the quality of these prints should start selling their better prints from the darkroom at $20 so we can own the better quality print you are talking about. Oh - and build a website and marketing strategy to get the work out there as well, because 20x200 is getting way more press than most artists I know. Buyer be informed, artists...put up or shut up.