Do you make prints?
Is it part of your workflow?
When I was getting into photography in the early 1990s, the print always was the final part of the process. We shot on film, edited our contact sheets or slides, and then the best photos were blown up to share with the world.
Let me wax nostalgic about the process in the darkroom so I can lay the groundwork for why I still love the print today.
The darkroom was a sacred space to immerse yourself in the process of creating a photograph. It was an incredibly tactile experience—you turned off all the lights, felt around for the paper, and once you found it, checked to make sure you laid it emulsion side up.
The enlarger was like a huge camera on a crane. You dialed in f-stops on the lens and shutter speeds for the time, and you used filters to bring more or less contrast to the ISO of your paper. And then the magic happened. Nothing will ever beat the feeling of seeing the latent image start to appear after agitating the print in the developer. It was a very hands-on experience. It generally took 30 to 60 minutes to perfect the print. A minimal commitment to the darkroom was at least a three-hour session.
The ultimate challenge was making a mural print—something bigger than 20x24 inches. I had the good fortune to study this technique. It was saved for a large negative and the absolute best images in your portfolio. The 8x10 mural enlarger could project against the wall or onto a table underneath. You’d use roll paper and tape it down flat. And here’s the fun part: Troughs held all the chemicals, and in order to spread them evenly over the 6x3-foot paper you would roll and reverse-roll the paper back and forth.
The end result of your time in the darkroom was hopefully a portfolio image or a print ready to be matted and framed.
Let’s flash back (forward) to the modern process. I flipped to Lightroom for good about eight years ago, and the process can be just as immersive, but without taking up as much space and of course no chemicals!
While it is still a deliberate process, I do miss the hands-on aspect that made you really “work your negative” to figure out what you could pull from it. Everything was a physical and tactile task. Through that experience I feel there was a deeper understanding of what we were trying to create.
While there is so much more we can do with software, are we experiencing and understanding the image as much as we used to? I have to wonder: Is our goal the same? Are we processing to print or just going straight to publishing on the World Wide Web?
Sharing has taken on a whole new meaning in this digital world. You can be everywhere instantaneously but then gone in a moment.
Where is your work? Where does it live for someone to pore over?
Is it just going on your Instagram profile page? Or is your gallery of work on 500px, or Flickr, or Squarespace?
As much faith as I have in Facebook for forever storing my memories, I want a better archive than that. Remember all the family albums that we’d flip through or that were passed down to us? These memories are even more precious than the portfolio!
The digital solution to this conundrum is easy, and I hope you are at least doing this: Make books.
Every year I put together a family year-in-review. I like the small, 6x8 keepsake books. My wife makes calendars full of last year’s escapes and escapades. Both are excellent solutions to ensure you have a physical archive that will live on.
Perfecting the Print
If your goal is to create high-quality art, then go beyond publishing your images online. If you want to up your printing game, learn from a master printer. Here is how I did it:
I had been printing in the darkroom for 14 years, and pretty confidently for the last 10 of those. Then I took a darkroom course with one of the master printers of our era, George Tice. If you have never seen his image “Petit’s Mobil Station,” then spend some time soaking in the perfect balance and rich tonality in this masterpiece. And by the way, your screen is not doing justice to the tonal range of highlights and shadows that are showcased in his print.
George taught our whole class to print with a purpose, and he taught us to try to pull out a full tonal range. I was a high-contrast printer at the time and my shadows were level-1 black. By using lower contrast gels I could massage multiple levels of blacks and whites and extend that tonal range. That experience with George Tice elevated my approach to printmaking.
I was lucky enough that year to also snap a shot of George with another master printer and icon of photography: Paul Caponigro. Get one of their books and lose yourself in it.
Want to level up your digital printing? Well, the Caponigro family strikes again. John Paul Caponigro took what he learned from his father and applied it to Photoshop pretty much since the software’s inception. He is a true master printer of our digital age.
I took JP’s “B&W Mastery” class last year and he “George Ticed” me! He spent a whole day on the different ways that we can “output sharpen” to create the finest print. We also spent time talking about the process and immersing ourselves in photo books and our own prints
The highlight of the week, however, was visiting his dad’s studio and having him sharing his work. We spent at least two hours asking Paul about the experience of seeing as well as his process of pulling out ever iota of detail.
I returned home from that workshop reinvigorated and with a deeper focus on working those digital files for inkjet prints.
Showing Your Work
Ask yourself: What is your goal with your images? How do you celebrate your work?
For two of our workshops this year, we were thrilled to host gallery shows that could be shared with thousands of visitors to those parks. And just a few weeks ago we finished our workshop at Sloss Furnaces and they were so impressed with our students’ work that they offered to have a gallery show at their visitor center!
Why not finish your project, or showcase your body of work, with an exhibit? It doesn’t have to be in a gallery—plenty of cafés, restaurants and businesses are always looking for artists. Of course, there are your own walls as well. Curate your home, invite people over to really take in your work. Hanging a print on the wall is the ultimate respect you can give to your photography.
To close this out, I want to share my favorite image that I created in 2018.
I’m taking my own advice and making a print with Bay Photo Lab. Their new Xpozer system has this slick spring assembly in the back that lets the print float off the wall. And because it’s so easy to mount and dismount them, I can order more Xpozer Xchange prints and just swap out the assembly. If you’ve been to my house in New York City, you’ve seen the limited wall space I have, so this will inspire me to keep fresh work rotating in.
Seize the Print!
My Favorite Printing Resources
Simply no excuse not to make a photo book: Snapfish
Arty matte soft/hardcover books: Artifact Uprising
Portfolio style books: Bay Photo Lab
Best lab/style of print: Metal is so three years ago. We really love Bay Photo’s Xpozer floating print system. Choose from 22 sizes, from 16x16 to 40x80. The Vivid Satin finish could be the perfect gloss/matte combination.
Next week we will continue the printing theme by taking a deep dive into the Print module in Lightroom. Stay tuned!