It's All About the Print

A framed, mat­ted, and dry-mounted print. It is miss­ing my sig­na­ture in the lower-right corner of the open­ing, because this is a work-in-progress print (the blacks are too deep for my liking).

Perhaps I am old-fashioned, but I think a phys­ical print, some­thing tan­gible, that you can put on a wall, gift to someone, handle, or just share with friends, is a more power­ful form of visual art than an eph­em­eral digital file, or a slide show. There is abso­lutely noth­ing wrong, inferior, or super­ior about digital pho­to­graphy, and I enjoy it very much. With tra­di­tional, ana­logue pho­to­graphy, the primary way to share a pho­to­graph has always been a print. I admire digital even more, when it has been prin­ted and presen­ted well. However, I feel that the art of simple, under­stated print present­a­tion is get­ting lost in the sea of gigantic prints, affixed to oddest sur­faces, rarely adding to the express­ive power of an image. I prefer the import­ant detail of a print to be in front of me, rather than stretched onto the sides, or even the backs, of a frame…

Not all tra­di­tional prints were equal. For hun­dred thou­sands of those made by 1-hour photo labs there were just a few lovely ones, often those slowly made by hand. While today’s digital pho­to­graphs seem bet­ter than the 1-hour photo ones, I don’t think we have yet any­thing that exceeds the qual­ity, and the sen­sual pres­ence, of a hand-made, silver-gelatin, black-and-white print. I guess I am biased.

A well-made silver-gelatin print has a subtly three-dimensional feel, even though it is not a 3D cre­ation. It it lus­cious, with juicy, deep blacks, that just have a hint of a tone. I like the faintest hint of a chocolate-plum, which sel­en­ium ton­ing offers for my present choice of paper. Unless really war­ran­ted, it is not a flat graph­ite black, or a dull grey, or even, good­ness for­bid, that green­ish blue that looks dif­fer­ent in dif­fer­ent light­ing, or from dif­fer­ent view­ing angles, that many inkjets pro­duce. I believe today’s digital inkjet (aka giclée) print­ing bene­fits the more for­giv­ing, full, sat­ur­ated col­our out­put, than the subtler black-and-white, where pre­ci­sion is paramount.

A fine print has all the tones it needs, with their con­trast, espe­cially in the middle val­ues, under the con­trol of the printer (a per­son). It does not look real, but it looks the way the spirit of the object, or of the place, that it por­trays, seemed to the pho­to­grapher. Unless heav­ily manip­u­lated to look arti­fi­cial, digital pic­tures can eas­ily look too real­istic, and per­haps that is one of the reas­ons why some digital prints bene­fit from an addi­tion of arti­fi­cial grain, tex­ture, or the very pop­u­lar vign­ette — side-effects, some­times unwanted, of tra­di­tional photography.

When I walk past a fine print, it brings a smile to my face. It feels like an afford­able treasure.

I feel pas­sion­ate about fine prints. I am on a per­sonal quest to reach that 0.0001% level of rare excel­lence in tra­di­tional print­mak­ing, and I real­ise the road ahead of me is a long one. At present, to get a reas­on­able work print (not a fine one), it takes me about 3 – 4 days of work in the dark­room. I like to mount it, over­mat it, and place it in a tem­por­ary frame (see pic­tures on the right) and I put it in my house, so that I try to live with it for a while, per­haps for a few weeks. If it still man­ages to impress, and it looks good, then I am ready to go back to the dark­room to improve it, based on the notes, and the feel­ings, that I have col­lec­ted over the weeks it sat on my mantlepiece. For example, the print you see above, did not pass the tests, the deep-black win­dow area needed light­en­ing. A few weeks later, and some 4 – 5 days of dark­room work, I emerge with a couple, maybe six prints, which I hope rep­res­ent the finest, at this stage of my pho­to­graphic devel­op­ment. Unfortunately, as I keep learn­ing, and work­ing on my craft, a time comes when I no longer think my older prints were fine enough, and I decide to reprint them again… Indeed, this is exactly what I am cur­rently doing with some of the (Be)Longing land­scapes which I exhib­ited last year. I am adding more ton­al­ity to them, lessen­ing some con­trasts, and gen­er­ally mak­ing them subtler — I hope.

Unframed print, with a bevel-cut over­mat, moun­ted. This is the form in which I prefer to sell my prints, so they only need to be framed by the buyer.

I yet have to see a bet­ter form of print present­a­tion than the time-tested, simple approach of dry-mounting it to a 4-ply (1.5 mm) acid-free, museum-quality neutral-white mount board. Dry mount­ing is a bit of a craft in itself, requir­ing some skill, and a bit of luck. It uses heat, delivered by a press, to bind a trimmed print to the mount board, by means of a dry-mounting tis­sue, a stable adhes­ive that melts in the press. All the mas­ters of pho­to­graphy used this tech­nique dec­ades ago, and it seems to be the most archival, with the dis­ad­vant­age — to some — of being rather per­man­ent: once moun­ted, the print can­not be removed from the mount­board eas­ily. That suits me, as I feel the print with the mount­board should be an insep­ar­able couple, designed and destined for each other, unless the buyer has made altern­at­ive present­a­tion arrange­ments. The mount makes the print per­fectly flat and pristine look­ing, while giv­ing it a pre-measured amount of breath­ing space around it.

Overmat is attached to the mount­board with acid-free, gummed linen tape, keep­ing the pack­age together.

My stamp, on the back of the mount­board, that shows on fin­ished prints.

To fin­ish a moun­ted print, I like to mat it with a bevel-cut (angled) open­ing win­dow mat, cut from the same stock as the mount board. The win­dow is slightly lar­ger than the print, so it is pos­sible to see the entire pho­to­graph, with no edges lost — some refer to this approach as float­ing a win­dow with a well around the print. Striving for a per­fect open­ing with no over­cuts, I have only recently star­ted cut­ting my own over­mats. It can still frus­trate me on occa­sion, but the present­a­tion is amaz­ing, when it comes together. The over­mat is attached to the mount­board with an acid-free, archival gummed linen tape, keep­ing the two together, ready for me to sign the over­mat, just under the print, and stamp it on the back. All that remains is to frame it, and to put it under a good glass, or acrylic, for addi­tional pro­tec­tion. I prefer to leave the fram­ing to the buyer, as it is per­sonal, and it needs to match the loc­a­tion, but I am happy to recom­mend simple, alu­minium pro­files, when in doubt, such as Nielsen pro­file 3, in col­ours 10 or 154.

So what is left at the end of the pro­cess? A pleas­ing, joy-bringing, hand-made object, that has an express­ive, lumin­ous qual­ity, and a very spe­cial pres­ence, wherever its home may be. It is a happy print, lucky in a way, as it made it into the real world, born out of a film neg­at­ive, and even luck­ier than the bil­lions of vir­tual, digital ones, which might only get an occa­sional glimpse, but which are con­fined to a life of never being touched, or seen, even from the very moment they have been taken.

I wish your pho­to­graphs have a chance to live a full life.

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4 Responses to It's All About the Print

  1. Carmen Pentek ·

    I am amazed how much you can write about prints.
    I love black and white photography, especially portraits and I like to frame them colorfully, as a contrast.
    However, I was so far not aware on the importance of the printing technique. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and insight!

    • Rafal Lukawiecki ·

      Dear Carmen, thank you for your comment. I think black and white can look good in many different settings and frames. Looking at your site, I can see that you like colour, a lot. I hope to meet you one day.

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