“There are relatively few things I truly despise: beets, liver, Karl Rove and RC paper, in that order. RC breaks my heart. It’s to those who print on matte rag paper yet remember silver gelatin before the Hunt brothers cornered the market on silver in the late 1970’s that I address.”
Pulling a perfect print from the wash was one of the great joys in life for a photographer. While still wet the image glowed supernaturally, tones luminous and rich. Judging how much it would dry down was one of many subtle skills gained in a darkroom. Working all night with a bottle of scotch and Miles playing, we were ecstatic in our solitude.
The small miracle of a silver gelatin print yielding its hidden image in the developer and the joy of the process was unequaled for me in the digital realm until recently. With the introduction of inkjet paper that emulates the look and feel of silver paper a rather larger miracle has been produced.
A whole generation has grown up thinking expensive, delicate rag type paper such as watercolor or other less costly types of matte papers are what you use to make prints. To them, this paper is photography. Better this then plastic, resin-coated stock. For those who embraced RC paper in the darkroom, or it’s evil mutant digital version, I can’t help you, hasta le vista. There are relatively few things I truly despise: beets, liver Karl Rove and RC paper, in that order. RC breaks my heart. It’s those who print on matte rag paper yet remember silver gelatin before the Hunt brothers cornered the market on silver in the late 1970’s that I address.
It’s true many in my generation have embraced rag papers as I did, at first because the alternative was the horrific sheen of plastic. What choice did we have in the early days of digital? Good rag papers are an important link to art and the history of printmaking, and can deliver stunningly beautiful prints for the right images. I grew up using it for etching and lithography, not photography. But over time, every generation of digital printmakers has grown to just accept matte paper as the norm.
The difference for me is simple: matte paper absorbs light and looks flat. A traditional silver paper of the type I grew up like Kodak Polycontrast F, famous as Ansel Adams favorite, or Agfa’s Portriga Rapid or the orginal Ilford, had a “supercoating” of a hardened gelatin giving it what was called a semi-gloss surface. It wasn’t glossy like RC paper, but it had a sheen that reflected light and gave depth to the blacks. And that difference was its power.
After a speech at RIT four years ago where I lamented the lack of an inkjet substrate equaling the look, feel, and tonal range of long-ago papers I was approached Eric Kunsman of Booksmart, a talented local digital printer and bookbinder in Rochester. He told me my wait was over. He was testing a brand new paper from a new company called Innova.
The company was formed by a band of Hanemuhle rebels who left when the parent company refused to fund their dream of making and distributing a paper that rivaled silver gelatin for inkjet printing. There was a story about an eccentric German scientist who also missed silver paper laboring to solve the technical challenges involved in getting a silver gelatin-like emulsion on a cotton paper base. Innova got a hold of this guy and set the goal of producing a fibre based baryta paper that no one could tell from silver.
Until that moment, no major manufacturer appeared to be interested in this idea. I’d spoken to Epson and others and was told that it was technically too difficult and expensive to produce, and there was essentially no demand. Yet here came this little company with the crazy idea that there were photographers who remembered and missed the silver print. They also felt there were plenty of people still printing away on silver paper that might be tempted into digital printing.
With the invention of Innova FibaGloss paper the doors opened and Hanemuhle, Ilford, Epson and others got the religion and all today now distribute similar papers, creating choices and competition. I’m mentioning Innova because they were first, remain my favorite and now thankfully sponsor my projects. But I do this also from pure self-interest: I hope photographers will buy this extraordinary paper so I get to keep printing with it.
For a long time I did not even realize how I was missing silver paper. I was caught up in learning to master inkjet printing, especially the amazing color possibilities. I woke up in 2003 while comparing a black and white silver print I had made of men in vats of agave juice making tequila from my book “Heaven, Earth, Tequila” to a rag print. The first thing I noticed was the true continuous tone, the rich blacks and overall luminosity made me feel I could almost fall into the print. The rag paper had its lovely texture and handmade feel, but the image lost some impact. I felt separated from the content by the paper. And then I really noticed the limits of ink jet. While it was much easier to use Photoshop to dodge and burn I started to see where the lower gray tones were blocking up, the upper grays jumped to white and subtle banding I’d ignored somehow. Measuring the d-max showed the silver print to have deeper blacks as well.
Knowing there was no such thing as a semi-gloss silver type paper on the market at that time, I began to further explore image processing and printing with the goal of getting as close to continuous tone as possible. RIPs and processing techniques for digital converting color files to bw from Greg Gorman and other tips from Seth Resnick helped. And overall, there has been tremendous progress in inkjet printing. But even so, I grew to miss the look and feel of my old paper more and more.
In the late 1980’s I was experimenting with digital printing on rag and other papers, printing on wax printers at Adobe, where I was documenting the engineers, and later at Electronics for Imaging, where they were developing what later became the Fiery RIP. Around late 1992 I printed a portfolio on an early version of Supermac’s dye sublimation printer, a breakthrough on price and color. It had what was essentially continuous tone, far more similar to silver than what I could get from inkjet, with its dithered ink droplets. But the trade off was that the paper was resin based and it also faded quickly. I turned to Iris printers and lush watercolor papers. Those papers quickly became available on the much, much cheaper Epsons, so I joined the hunt to make beautiful prints with inkjet.
And that was all good until my wake up call. Sometimes we forget what we truly love and what defines us. Now my long nightmare is over. For me a big quest in digital is to find and implement metaphors for what I had in analog. Now I’m pulling prints out of my inkjet printer with that same rush as I had pulling them from the wash. They glow.
So the challenge is lessened but is essentially the same: to make prints that move us emotionally. It’s about the image, but also the print as object, as a beautiful delivery system for the subject matter. The choice of substrate says as much about the photographer as the content of the work and can affect our perception of the photograph as subconscious filters. To each their own of course, but I finally found mine; the look and feel of silver. Can’t beat that.