The specificity of the photograph as work of art is its dual nature as physical object and conceptual image. Artists can shine at all points of that craft - meaning spectrum. The modern trend of conceptual photographers who print very large chose their process mainly to enable such large outputs. In the opposite corner of the photographic art scene, some fine art photographers will patiently craft 8x10 contact prints from their large format camera using manual coating of rare papers using expensive metals such as gold, platinum and palladium. For collectors, a small print from an inkjet printer is probably the least desirable output you can offer today, even though the result can be beautiful. Here's a quick tour of alternative methods of printing worth knowing about both to understand photograph listings (for example, in an auction catalog) and, possibly, to use yourself for your own prints.
Why bother with long chemical processes today? Is it just a retro feel-good vibe, a snobbish attempt at differentiation or something that can really change how your prints look? Long story short: inkjet uses unevenly spaced dots to simulate tones that aren't available directly as an ink. Whereas the processes described below use density or thickness of matter, meaning more continuous tones and a great sense of depth. Besides, the use of some of the most stable elements known in nature guarantees archival properties that no other process can match. Finally, more man-made appearance compared to the geometrically perfect output of a digital print appeals to many.
A king of processes from the early beginnings of photography (1870s) and still very much in vogue in the first quarter of the 20th century. It is still used today for the finest b&w exhibition prints.
Instead of the silver salts usually found in darkroom printing, this uses platinum or palladium. Because of the great chemical stability of these metals, the archival properties of those prints are exceptional. If displayed and cared for properly, the lifespan of a platinum/palladium print is theoretically measured not just in centuries but, possibly, milennia.
No ready-coated paper exist on the market today so printers using this labour intensive process prepare their solution then manually coat their paper of choice, let it dry, then expose it for long periods (8-10 minutes) to UV light through the negative of the image, before rincing the final image. The tonal subtlety of those prints can be absolutely superb. And the ratio of platinum to palladium you use in the coating formula determines how cold/neutral/warm and how low/high contrast the final print will be.
The negative used usually comes from a large format camera, which contributes to the extrardinary feel of the print. But it is possible to have negative printed from digital files (or to do so yourself, for that matter). Piezography is excellent for that purpose. It requires great technique and post processing to get close to the feel of the large format camera negatives, but it is possible and many artists do so on a regular basis. For a deep, fascinating, dive into this complete process, watch the video below (thank you to Noel McCombe for sending me this link 🙂 )
Though there are probably many more, I am only aware of two excellent commercial outlets that will print platinum prints for you: Hidden Light LLC, in Flagstaff, AZ and 31 Studio, in London, UK (if you've seen Sebastiao Salgado's Genesis exhibition, you've seen their work). It appears Cone also provide platinum printing services but I've never had feeback from anyone. Make sure to chose your best negatives, a smallish final print will set you back the best part of 500 $/€/£ 🙂 It's a labour intensive process that uses rare/precious materials.
Three more videos can be found on this page.
Verdict: The 3 loonies at Top Gear / The Grand Tour always said that you are not a petrolhead until you've owned at least one Alfa Romeo. Let me venture you're not a real photographer until you've had at least one platinum/palladium print made of one of your photographs. But that's just me. Try to see some before jumping in. The variety of possible tonal ranges and paper types means you will adore some and really dislike others. Do your homework first or it will be an expensive entry into that elite club 😉
Kallitype, vandyke brown and argyrotype are iron-silver printing processes that differ principally in the sensitive chemical they use (ferric oxalate in kallitype and and erric ammonium citrate in vandyke and argyrotype), the former allowing deeper shadows and better control of contrast.
As in the platinum process, the kallitype requires the printer to coat a paper with a sensitive mix, dry it, expose it to UV light through a negative, developed, clear, toned, fix and wash it. I've never seen a kallitype close up but all reputable experts agree that they are indistiguishable visually from platinum/palladium prints. The main advantage is low chemical costs, because the process uses 80% less metal (which is also an environmental win) and toning is only done after the print has been deemed good enough to keep. The kallitype process also allows more options for toning. So, although platinum/palladium printing has a reputation for being the king of processes, kallity could actually be prefered. It's only drawback is the need for very thorough rincing for the best archival properties (because the noble and super stable metals used at the end of the process actually replace some less noble/stable ones, midway through development, so any trace of the old metal can compromise archival).
Collotype is an analogue printing process similar to photolithography but uses a glass plate rather than stone. The plate is covered in bichromated gelatin, exposed to light through the photo negative and washed. Once dry, the plate can be inked and is used to print with both fine detail and a lovely gradation of tones. It gives photographs a old look, which is interesting to convey an atmosphere. To my knowledge, only Benrido, in Kyoto, still provide this service and have developped a digital negative technique to enable users of digital cameras to print collotypes. Below is an example of a 2006 photo by Nobuyoshi Araki printing using this collotype process by Benrito. It is a really lovely print.
Here's another challenger for the title of most noble chemical printing process. Carbon printing is considered by many the most beautiful you can do. As for kallitypes and platinum/palladium prints, you have to mix your chemicals and coat your paper yourself. Unlike those, you can enlarge onto this rather than be limited to a contact print (although with the advent of digital negatives, I'm not sure that's so much of a concern these days). As in Collotype, gelatin and carbo (or some other stable pigment) is used for the coating. Unlike collotype, the paper is coated, not glass a transfer plate. The paper is then exposed to light through the negative, as with pd/pt and kallitype. The main difference with those is that the exposed paper is then squeezed hard again a second paper on which the final image is revealed.
The great benefits of this process are long archival (depending on the pigment used, carbo being good for over 400 years), a very long and linear tonal range, deep shadows, a great variety of toning, and the possibility of printing on a wide varity of surfaces. Instead of spacing ink dots to create the impression of grey shades, as in an inkjet print, the carbon print process varies the thickness of gelatin to create truly continuous tone and finer detail.
Don't want to tackle this yourself ? Calvin Grier of The Wet Print offers commercial services. Being so labour intensive, prints are costly. But if you feel one of your photos deserves this special treatment, you owe it to yourself to get the very best tonal range out of it 🙂
You can see for yourself how beautiful those images can be in the video below.
So, archival, glorious tone and deep shadows. But that's not all ... By replicating the process using negatives expsosed through R G B filters you can expose three different carbon images and transfer the lot onto a final print in sequence to create a colour print. I can only imagine the difficulty of registering the three properly but final images are said to be extraordinary. In fact, for those who lament the death of dye transfer, tri-color carbro is the better ancestor, and is still very much alive! I once read that tri-carbro is to dye transfer what dye transfer is to inkjet. Who else is extraordinarily tempted ?
Here is another video that walks you through the tri-colour process and shows you the strong colour and 3D effect from the layers of gelatin. Unmistakable.
Not all processes can fint in this traditional / digital dichotomy. Some straddle the two, such as Lambda C-Type. I have placed it in this category because you can print directly from a digital file, whereas "traditional" processes require a negative (which can be created in camera or from a digital file).
Inkjet has evolved from the early ugly days and a well-made print using good inks and good paper can look stunning. Technically, all the processes below except lambda are a form of inkjet printing. However, the lure of the inkjet as easy and high-quality is a lie. Setting up a true worflow from scene to camera to paper takes a lot of deliberate effort and thinking. Use of cheap papers, printers or inks will often come in the way of one of the qualifying for a fine art print: colour fidelity, tonal smoothness, excellent archival properties. Save pennies knowingly.
Strictly speaking, a giclee print is just an inkjet print. The name comes from the French word for squirting (ink on paper). However, Iris Graphics introduced high quality inkjet printers far out of reach of amateur pockets said to produce very high quality results. The Giclee name came associated to Iris. So a Giclee print usually means a very high quality inkjet print made on an Iris Graphics machine.
However, caveat 1: other printers have used the term, so it is no longer a guarantee of high quality. Iris Giclee is now the trademark for the high quality version (though other printers may actually bbe making high quality inkjet prints as well. Cunfused enough? 😉 ) Caveat 2: mainstream inkjet printing has made great progress, so I have no hands on experience of the superiority of old Iris Giclee prints over well made inkjet prints from top of the line Canon, Epson, Hp ... printers. Anyone with such experience please speak up? 🙂 Today, Iris no longer make printers. My understanding is that Giclee today uses a 12 ink pigment inkset called LUCIA on high end Canon machines. Used on archival paper, the pigment inks are reported to give a print longevity of 75-100 years. How well they compare to something from a high amateur printer such as my Canon Pro 1000 is something I'm currently investigating.
Anyway, Iris Print offer very affordable printing services to all, so it's easy enough to try for yourself. The name is very reassuring to gallerists and collectors. If you print in colour, you might want to take a look for yourself :)
Lambda is the odd one out here. I've placed it in this group because, technically, lambda prints directly from digital files. However, unlike inkjet printing in which tiny dots of ink are sprayed on paper, lambda shines red, green and blue lasers on traditional silver halide papers, which are then processed in traditional chemical baths. This gives you the look of old tech printing / papers with the convenience of digital files.
Not all c-Type prints are created equal. Some printers use leds rather than lasers and don't achieve the same level of fine detail. Giclee gives you a more modern appearance with colours that can be very saturated while Lambda is better for the more traditional look and continuous tone of analog years.
Piezography is a set of monochrome inks that replaces OEM inks in some Epson printers. In their printers, Epson (and others) dedicate one, two or three inks to black and grey. For very pale tones, normal grey dots are used sparcely so as to reproduce a tone that is lighter than the ink itself. In Piezography 7 or more inks are devoted to the various tones from pure black to light grey. This means that a lot less dithering is required and tones are more continuous and subtle. It also means that the reflectance differences between the ink and the paper are minimised because almost all the paper is covered in ink (rather than receiving only a few dots of darker ink).
Pieozgraphy inksets come in multiple formulas. Historically, you could buy a set for neutral tones, one for warm tones and one for colder tones. All piezography inks are carbon based, making them both very durable (with excellent archival properties if the paper itself has good archival properties) and naturally warm. So the neutral and cold versions actually mix in a little blue pigment to compensate. Piezography pro, pro2 and pro3 systems are now availabble for some Epson printers which provide all in one toning and very fine tonal gradation.
So much for the theory. In the hand, compared to a very good monochrome print from my Canon Pro 1000, the pieozgraphy carbon (warm) looks like it has more depth to it. It's like the ink isn't on the surface but in a volume. The print feels a little bit smoother, denser and more alive. It's not a big difference, but it's there.
Verdict: I recommend it very highly, with the following caveats. First, I wouldn't go to the trouble of setting up a piezo printer at home as playing around with drivers is my idea of hell. But many have, and very successfully. Instead, I use Pictoonline, a pro service that does a remarkable job for a very affrodable price. Secondly, it's worth experimenting in small sizes with a variety of papers. I was extremely disappointed with some gorgeous japanese papers that didn't match my photos (or vice versa, rather) but loved Hahnemühle Baryta. Your disappointment/joy will be greatly influenced by the quality of the paper.
Film camera users usually employed an enlarger to create medium or large prints from their tiny 24mm x 36mm negatives, or even from medium format 56x56mm, or 56x72mm or 56x90mm negatives. Large format camera users, however, had negatives ranging from 4 x 5 inches to 20 x 24 inches, which are large enough to produce a final image without any enlarging. So, some photographers directly exposed photographic paper to light through the negative to obtain an image of the same size as the negative. Because the negative wasn't enlarged, there was a great tonal delicacy and very fine detail in the final print.
Today, the sensors from our digital cameras produce digital files that can be displayed on a screen or used to pilot an inkjet or Lambda printer. But traditional processes require a negative. So it is now possible to print a (inverted tone) digital file onto a transparent substrate to obtain what looks like a camera negative of whatever size you wish. Of course, the inkjet printer used to print the negative cannot match the tone smoothness of true 'analog' negatives. But the chemical process involved downstream in most of the traditional processes (carbro, kallitype, platinum / palladium) tend to "smear" this down and go along way towards briding the gap.
Most of the traditional processes are still alive today. The digital printer doesn't have to be the end of your photographic journey. If you really want to explore the conceptual image + physical object dual dimension of artistic photography, it can be very rewarding to explore the look of and even, dare I say, the philosophy behind, some of those processes to see how they complement your approach.
Most of the traditional processes described above may seem complex, particularly to some one borne into the digital age. But, trust me, if you've survived the frustrations in fine tuning a really good camera-to-computer-to-print system, mixing a few chemical will probably feel quite a bit more satsifying (though not any simpler 😉 ).
- Pascal Jappy. August 2019.