#202. Talking with master photographers : Michael A. Smith and Paula Chamlee on fine art printing and books

By pascaljappy | Interview

Feb 22

This is the second part of my interview with Michael A. Smith and Paula Chamlee. The first part dealt with their views on “seeing” and how they apply that to their own photography. This part is about other things they do in the world of photography that I think will interest you, particularly printing technology and book editing.

This is not a 2 minute glance at pictures and leave post. If you are a lover of high quality printing, you will be in heaven here.

[Pascal] In addition to being photographers, you both make a number of other contributions to the world of photography. I know you publish beautiful photography books under the Lodima Press imprint. Let’s start with that. How did Lodima Press come about?

[Michael] In this interview I will be answering for Paula as well as for myself, since we are involved jointly with all of the activities below.

My first book, Landscapes 1975–1979, evolved into its two-volume form quite unexpectedly. At the end of 1974 I stopped teaching photography (mostly private classes), which was how I had been supporting myself from 1967 through 1974. At the beginning of 1975 I decided to devote myself full-time to my own photography and to try to make a living from the sale of my photographs as art. I vowed to do no commercial work and also not to teach. This was at a time when there were few galleries, so it was a stuggle for a few years.

In 1979 I decided that I needed a book. By that time I had completed three major photographing trips to the western United States and Canada, trips in which I primarily photographed the western landscape.

Since I was about to begin photographing in American cities I thought that a book would mark an appropriate closure to the landscape period. I also thought that the only way I would be recognized by a wider public, thereby making print sales easier, would be to publish a book.

I asked a number of photographers about their experiences with publishers. Their responses ran the gamut from disappointed to bitter. That wasn’t a spectrum I wanted to be on, so I determined to publish the book myself. I thought that I should publish a high-quality book, one that would sell for, say, $40, which was about what the finest photography books were selling for at that time.

But who would buy such a book by a completely unknown photographer? And how would I get it published? I had no money. Worse, I was deeply in debt. I thought that people might buy a book of photographs that cost $14.95 or $19.95 (remember, this was 1979), but I realized that a book of photographs costing so little could not possibly have the high-quality reproductions of which I would be proud.

I decided to make a high-quality book, one that would need a selling price of $100. I figured that those who were buying my photographs would be willing to pay $100 for a fine book. As for the others: if they wouldn’t buy a book for $40, they probably wouldn’t buy one for $100, so I would not lose those buyers I never had in the first place. I then determined to produce 1,000 copies, all signed and numbered. I talked to printers and bookbinders and discovered that the book I wanted would cost a great deal.

I went to my local bank and received the last loan I could get. I paid off most of my existing debts, and then, armed with a couple hundred dollars I set off to raise the money for this proposed book. I wrote a letter offering the book at the ridiculously low pre-publication price of $50. This offer was contingent upon the purchaser buying at least one photograph. I wanted to make an offer that couldn’t be refused and offered my prints at half-price—only $100 for an 8×10-inch contact print and $200 for an 8×20-inch contact print.

As time went on and the book got more and more elaborate, I increased the pre-publication price for the book to $100 and finally to $150. Instead of doing a mailing to the prospective purchasers, I had learned from previous experience that if something like this was going to succeed I would have to see them in person.

So, in early 1979, I set out on my third long photographing trip to the West, and along the way I stopped and met with any possible buyers I could find—curators and collectors I already knew, plus anyone these people could lead me to.

One skeptical collector told me, “Michael, I’ve done this before with others. The books never come out, but good luck.” The following year I made a similar trip, minus the photographing part. Fortunately, many of those I met with realized that my offer of any print they wanted at half price was such a good deal that they bought more than one photograph. Several people bought ten or twenty. In about a year, by the middle of 1980, I had raised $100,000, which almost covered the cost of the book. And here’s why it ended up being so expensive.

During this period, the cost of the book had gone up precipitously. I had begun working with an 8×20 view camera in 1978. By 1979 I had made many 8×20-inch negatives and photographs. Instead of one volume of full-size reproductions from my 8×10-inch photographs with a few foldouts for my 8x20s, I realized I would need a separate book for my 8x20s. That increased the estimated cost significantly—it doubled.

Because of the 11″ x 13″ page size I insisted on for the 8x10s, the sheet size for the signature that was needed for printing 11″ x 13″ was too large for the small press the printers were using. The printers suggested that I print the reproductions “four up” on a small sheet and then cut them out and tip them in by hand. This seemed like an elegant idea, so I decided to do that. Then a friend suggested that since I was going to tip in the photographs, I could have the text printed in letterpress. A normal reaction would have been, “Great idea, I’ll see what it will cost,” but I was young and irrepressible. I realized that letterpress text would make the book more elegant and so I said, “Great idea, I’ll do it that way.” Only then did I research what the book would cost. The final estimate to publish both volumes came in at over $100,000.

To justify the final selling price of $325 for this two-volume limited edition book with letterpress text and hand-tipped plates, I realized that I would have to do something additional, so I included an original silver chloride contact print, printed by myself and tipped in as the frontispiece in Volume I.

An advance copy of the book came out in the spring of 1981. A friend took it to the Rencontres International de la Photographie in Arles, France, where, much to my surprise it was awarded the best photography book of the year award, the Grand Prix du Livre. At the time, the Swiss publication, Print Letter commented, “For the first time in the eleven years of the festival a deserving book has won the prize.” Giving my life to this book for almost two years had been worth it after all.

Michael A Smith Landscapes

A photograph of the cover of the book “Landscapes 1975 – 1979” by Michael A Smith

Landscapes 1975 - 1979, Vol II by Michael A Smith

Landscapes 1975 – 1979, Vol II by Michael A Smith

Of the 1,000 copies of this two-volume set, only 600 were finished. At the bindery, 400 sets of the letterpress text were irreparably damaged. Those were the days when letterpress was set with lead slugs, and it would have been too expensive to have the text pages reprinted. The last set of Landscapes 1975–1979 sold in 2007 for $3,500. I have been able to buy back one set since that time, so this single set remains for sale.

That was the beginning of Lodima Press—and I thought that would also be the end of it.

[Pascal] So what revived Lodima Press after your first book? By the way, “Lodima” is a rather unusual name. What made you chose it?

[Michael] Yes, there is a special significance to Lodima (pronounced low-DEEM-uh). It is Amidol spelled backwards. Amidol is the type of print developer we use.

A decade later, in 1992, I was honored with a twenty-five year retrospective exhibition at the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, and at that time several publishers were interested in publishing the retrospective book, Michael A. Smith: A Visual Journey—Photographs from Twenty-Five Years. However, trade publishers wanted us (I married the photographer Paula Chamlee in 1990, and Lodima Press became our partnership) to put up the money for production costs, which we did not have. A University Press, well-known for their photography books, told us that although we did not have to put up any money, they needed the essay eight months previously. This for a publication that needed to be out in ten months! Paula and I decided to resuscitate Lodima Press and publish the book ourselves.

Faced with having to raise significant money for a book yet again and still not having any, and not having much time, I decided that in order to raise the money we would produce a “Special Limited Edition” book that would come with an original photograph.

A Special Limited Edition book with an accompanying photograph is something that Ansel Adams pioneered back in 1974. His large book, Images 1923–1974, was offered with one of his unknown photographs in an edition of 500 copies. The book and print combination was offered at a price substantially higher than the book itself, but substantially lower than the print alone would cost if purchased separately. Adams’s Special Limited Edition soon sold out. In subsequent years, a number of other photographers picked up on Adams’s concept and some expanded on it, offering the purchaser a choice of one of four pre-selected original prints that they printed in editions of 50 or 100.

For my Special Limited Edition book, I wanted the purchasers to have their choice of any 8×20-inch photograph that was reproduced in the book, along with a signed, numbered, slip-cased copy of the book, and at a price significantly less than the prints alone had been selling for. It turned out that purchasers were thrilled to have their choice from a large number of prints, and within a month of the publication of A Visual Journey, over 100 Special Limited Editions were sold. Between those sales and the sales of the regular hardcover edition, the $100,000 (again!) in bills for printing and binding were paid within two months.

Michael A Smith - A Visual Journey

Michael A Smith – A Visual Journey

[Pascal] So these experiences gave you the desire to continue in that direction.

[Michael] Well, in 1994 when it came time to publish Paula’s first book, Natural Connections, there was no question that Lodima Press would be the publisher. We offered a Special Limited Edition with Natural Connections in the same way we had with A Visual Journey, and again we were successful. Offering these Special Limited Editions is the primary way we have financed all of our own books.

The printing in Natural Connections is unique among all our other published books. After getting proofs from several printers, we chose Gardner Lithograph in Los Angeles to print A Visual Journey. Knowing Gardner’s high standards in printing with his excellent Fultone® process, we did not ask for pre-press proofs for Natural Connections.

One day, however, a set of proofs was delivered to us with no explanation. A few days later Dave Gardner called us asking which set we liked best. When we told him he said, “Let me tell you about that one.” He said he had been working for twenty years to perfect a tritone printing method that used silver ink as the third color. He told us that silver ink is very hard to control in the dot, and though he had made a few posters using it, he had never attempted a book, but he now felt ready to do so. Then he added that of course printing in “Laser Silver-Lit Tones,” as he called his new trademarked process, would cost significantly more than duotone printing.

Although we have never had any spare money, we are always interested in the reproduction method that gives the closest fidelity to our original prints, so there was no question that we would print the book with Laser Silver-Lit Tones and somehow raise the money. To date we do not believe that Gardner has printed another book using this process. It is just too expensive.

Cover of Paula Chamlee, Natural Connections

Paula Chamlee, Natural Connections

The success of Natural Connections led to two other books by Paula. The first, High Plains Farm in 1996, is a book of photographs about the farm where Paula grew up on the High Plains of the Texas Panhandle, a place where her parents, then in their late eighties were still farming 1,100 acres all by themselves. (High Plains Farm became a traveling exhibition to ten museums and a PBS film about Paula doing this work.) Paula’s next book, San Francisco: Twenty Corner Markets and One in the Middle of the Block, was published in 1997. Published in an edition of only 500 copies, it sold out relatively quickly and used copies are very rare.

Cover of Paula Chamlee's High Plains Farm

Paula Chamlee, High Plains Farm

Cover of Paula Chamlee, Twenty Corner Markets and One in the Middle of the Block

Paula Chamlee, Twenty Corner Markets and One in the Middle of the Block

Over the years we have been approached by a number of photographers asking us to publish their books, and Paula and I had long talked about doing that.

We told the photographers who approached us that they would have to pay for full production costs, as we did not even have the capital to publish our own books, and that it was our Special Limited Edition offer of prints that financed our books.

Most photographers stopped the discussions right there. But in 1999 we were hired as consultants by Richard Copeland Miller to help him put together Passage: Europe. He came to our home/studio with his photographs and after two days, during which time we had sequenced the book, he said, “This has been the most exciting two days of my life. Would you consider overseeing the production of the book?” After we told him that we would be happy to do that for him, he asked if we would also be the publisher. In the fall of 2000, Passage: Europe was the first book we published by another photographer.

We have always sought the top printers in the world for our books. We never want to make apologies for the reproductions in any book we publish. Beginning with Michael’s The Students of Deep Springs College in 2000, which we printed at the same time as Miller’s Passage: Europe, we have printed our books with Salto, a small, specialized printer in Belgium who is perhaps the finest printer in the world. All of our books with Salto are printed in 600-line screen quadtone. Because of this superior reproduction quality we considered expanding our publishing ventures—and two new book series resulted.

Cover of the book Michael A Smith, The Students of Deep Springs College

Michael A Smith, The Students of Deep Springs College

Richard Copeland Miller, Passage : Europe

Richard Copeland Miller, Passage : Europe

One is a nineteen-volume series of the Portfolios of Brett Weston. Each volume consists of the photographs from one of Brett’s portfolios of original prints. If any text pages are included in the portfolio, we reproduce them in facsimile. To date, we have published the first ten books in this series.

The other is a series of books we call “Lodima Press Portfolio Books.” This is a stionseries of small, affordable books by leading and emerging contemporary photographers presenting previously unpublished work. The photographers we have published to date in the Lodima Press Portfolio Book series include: Robert Adams, Hans Bol, Marilyn Bridges, Paul Caponigro, Keith Carter, Carl Chiarenza, Linda Connor, Larry Fink, Eric Lindbloom, D.W. Mellor, Arno Minkkinen, Nicholas Nixon, George Tice, and Arthur Tress.

To date, we have published over forty books—eleven of our own, with three more on the way this spring, and a number by other photographers, some very well-known such as Edward Weston, and some whose names probably none of your readers would recognize, such as Alejandro Haro de Lopez R., a Venezuelan photographer.

About the reproductions in our book Edward Weston: Life Work: Salto printed in 600-line screen quadtone plus a fifth color on matte paper to match the color and paper surface exactly of Weston’s early photographs that were printed on matte paper. That had never been done before in reproducing Weston’s photographs.

For Weston’s glossy prints we used a suitable glossy paper. So there are two paper surfaces in the book. Some of the reproductions in Edward Weston: Life Work are of very well-known photographs and some have never been reproduced before.

One quick story: We know the collector who owns Edward’s personal copy of Pepper #30. Edward had considered it the best print he made from that negative. When we showed the collector Edward Weston: Life Work, he brought out the print and placed it next to the reproduction. We looked very carefully at the print and the reproduction, trying to find differences. After a few minutes of intense looking, the collector’s wife said, “You know, I think I like the reproduction better.”

Edward Weston, Life Work. Lodima Press

Edward Weston, Life Work. Lodima Press

[Pascal] I am fortunate to own a set of the books you published in the Portfolios of Brett Weston series and can honestly say that the reproductions are the best that I have ever seen. Absolutely stunnnig.

[Michael] Thank you!

[Pascal] Books aside, I know you are active in other departments as well. You have told me that you had a new silver photographic paper made in the last few years. In this time of declining interest in analog, why take the risk?

[Michael] Well, we still work with film and make prints in the darkroom. I mostly use an 8×20-inch view camera and Paula uses an 8×10. And we make contact prints on silver chloride contact printing paper.

Enlarging paper is either silver bromide or chloro-bromide. Silver chloride paper has deeper blacks and a longer gray scale than enlarging paper, and therefore the prints have a particularly beautiful quality, with more depth and “presence” than prints from the same negative printed on enlarging paper.

All of Edward Weston’s prints were made on silver chloride paper, as were Ansel Adams’s contact prints from the late 1930s and early 1940s. When I started making contact prints back in 1967 I did not know the difference between these types of papers and made my prints on enlarging paper. Later, in 1975 when I realized that although my prints were very good (and had been collected by a number of museums), I wanted them to be better, and I resolved to learn how to print on Kodak’s Azo, which was the last of the silver chloride contact printing papers.

When I eventually reprinted my earlier negatives onto Azo, the results were so much better that some of the prints almost looked like they had been made from different negatives.

Some years later, Kodak wanted to discontinue Azo. Paula and I contacted them and showed them how much more beautiful contact prints on Azo were than prints from the same negative printed on Kodak’s best enlarging paper. At that point, Kodak offered us a limited dealership to distribute Azo.

Because we are first of all photographers and not paper sellers we turned them down. They said that “someone has to step up and order certain minimum quantities” or the paper would be discontinued. They suggested that we contact a particular camera store, and the store decided to make the commitment to order the minimum quantities, which were substantial.

I mentioned this store in my article “How to Print on 100-Year Old Paper: The Azo and Amidol Story,” which was published in View Camera magazine in 1996. Azo sales, I was told, were brisk, but about six months later we received a call from the store asking us to buy all of the remaining inventory of Azo, as they no longer wanted to handle it.

To save the paper we immediately called Kodak and became distributors of Azo. We had to save the paper for ourselves first, and then for the other photographers who were making black and white contact prints.

In 2004 Kodak announced discontinuation of all black and white papers, including Azo. By that time we had accumulated enough stock of Azo for ourselves, but what about the other photographers who wanted to make beautiful contact prints? So we began a six-year odyssey fraught with enormous stumbling blocks and finally had a beautiful new silver chloride paper made.

Paula suggested the name “Amazo” which I liked very much as the paper really is amazing and it incorporated Azo in the name. But then she said she was kidding and wouldn’t allow it. A friend suggested that we call the paper “Lodima,” as we already had a reputation for producing the most beautiful photography books—and here we were having a paper made that we think is the most beautiful photographic paper made since the 1940s.

[Pascal]I know you are also involved in archival processes. Can you explain?
[Michael] The things we do have evolved as a function of our own photography-related needs, which is why we are also handling a line of the finest mat board and storage materials. In 2000, I learned about ArtCare mat board—a product that has billions of micro chambers in it designed to actively trap pre-acidic gases and other pollutants. ArtCare mat board makes other 100% acid-free all-rag mat board obsolete. I wrote an article for View Camera magazine (LINK) in which I interviewed the inventor of this board. Artists in other mediums had known about ArtCare mat board, but few photographers had heard of it. I suggested to a friend who had a guillotine for his book binding business that he get a computerized mat cutter and offer ArtCare board to photographers. He did so and was very successful, but then his book binding business demanded more of his time. Since we were the largest users of ArtCare board for ourselves, our assistant began commuting to the bindery in Philadelphia and did all the work cutting our mat board there. After a while I suggested to the bindery that we move everything to our home/studio and take over the business since we were such large users of the mat board. And thus we became Lodima Archival Materials. http://www.lodimaarchivalmaterials.com/lam/index.html

[Pascal] Anything else?

[Michael] In 2006 both Paula and I began making some of our photographs in color, using 8×10-inch negatives.

At first I had chromogenic prints made by a student of ours. But then he became unavailable and we realized we needed to make the prints ourselves—in digital form. So we acquired drum scanners and printers to make our own ink-jet prints in color and prints larger than contact prints in black and white.

Paula and I still work with analog methods and materials; we would be unable to even spot a print in PhotoShop.

But our assistant has become a master at digital methods and he does all of the digital processing under our supervision. Since we now have this high-end equipment, we are offering our scanning and printing services to other photographers and artists, so we are also Lodima Digital. (LINK).

All of these things we do—Lodima Press, Lodima Silver Chloride Contact Printing Paper, Lodima Archival Materials, and Lodima Digital—are things that are an extension of our needs for our own work. We would have done none of these things just to make money, and there is very little profit in these activities (though we are always hopeful there will be more eventually, as we do need to support ourselves), but we want to offer these things as a way of giving something back to the greater photographic community.

This concludes our series of Interviews with Michael A. Smith and Paula Chamlee. I am very grateful for the considerable time and effort they put into the process. I hope you enjoyed the series as much as me.

If so, please consider sharing it 🙂