In a new era when everyone can push a button and come up with an automatically focused, colourful snap and blow it up onscreen, no bother, the skills that go into transferring professionally photographed images on to paper are often forgotten. But they survive and they thrive. These art prints could never be produced by impersonal, more-or-less industrial processes, they depend on individual attention to detail by masters of the craft.
Black-and-White Hand Prints
In the 21st century, digital rules — in photographic printing as in so many areas of life. But it’s not the only way and it’s not necessarily the best, especially when it comes to making a unique connection between subject, photographer and viewer. When a craftsman/woman printer puts a B&W negative into an enlarger and starts to bring out the rich blacks, crisp whites and fine detail of light, shade and tonal range in a silver gelatin print he’s employing venerable skills of hand and eye. Evolved since the 1870s, this craft is as relevant as ever when the objective is quality rather than speed. Printed on high-gloss fibre-based paper, silver gelatins are the format favoured by museums because, given proper care, they can last well over a hundred years.
THE TECH IN BRIEF
The skills that produce silver gelatin prints date back to the early golden age of photography in the 19th century. The process brings out a great picture’s unique qualities of tonal range, light and shade — and, more practically, these prints are favoured by galleries and museums because of their remarkable durability.
CHROMOGENIC TYPE COLOUR PRINTING
New meets old and brings the best out of both? That’s Chromogenic — C-Type for short, when the job’s done by printers of the brilliant standard used by Ross Halfin. A C-Type is an image exposed and processed on photographic paper which can be made either from a negative or from a digital file, which suits Ross’s work as, naturally, he’s used both mediums over the years. The old “analog” printing method — as with the silver gelatin prints above — starts out a bit like a slide show, if you remember them, with the enlarger projecting the image on to photographic paper while the craftsman printer controls focus, intensity and duration until the picture is just right. No, it doesn’t always work. Trial and error is involved and vigorous cussing often assails the darkroom walls. Still does with “modern” C-Type— devised by Kodak in the 1940s. But at least digital mistakes are more easily put right without the exasperating return-to-square-one factor.
C-Type deals with this part of the process on a computer using a LED rather than the darkroom’s plain old light bulb. After that the human hand gets back in business again as more than button-pusher and mouse-manipulator because the traditional takes over: the paper is processed in a developer and finished with bleach fix and a wash to remove chemicals.
C-Type provides prints where the colour is both rich and faithful to the subject — especially when it comes to skin tones, which is great for Ross’s portraits and live action shots. It’s also a particularly effective process when it comes to enlargement without losing the detailed qualities of a photograph. All of Ross’s colour prints are produced via the C-Type process using a)] the Lightjet printers beloved of professional photographers down the decades b)] Fuji Crystal Archive paper, long renowned for its colour accuracy, brilliant base white and the] durable, light-fast qualities which make it ideal for display in gallery or living-room.
THE TECH IN BRIEF
Chromogenic printing happily marries ancient analog and new-fangled technologies to produce images from either traditional negatives or digital files. The process starts out on a computer, all beeps and pixels, and ends up with craftsman hand and eye doing the fine visual tuning just as nature intended —resulting in images which capture the true hues of the original subject. This is why Ross uses C-Type for all his fine-art colour prints, whether shot on film or digital cameras. Extremely light-fast too, so ideal for gallery or living-room display.
Lithography Hand Printing*
Lith printing is where photography almost meets painting, it’s so creative, the outcome so much in the hands of the craftsman printer that any number of widely different results can be achieved from the same negative. To put it crudely, it’s so hit-or-miss that, frequently, a negative simply will not work as a lith print so Ross selects photographs very carefully before approaching them this way. Even so, he’s very fond of lithography because the “hand-made” results can be outstanding when you pull it off. The trick is to heavily overexpose a black and white negative — usually by two or three stops — on to the right paper then partially develop it in very dilute lith developer.
The photographer and printer can give a lith print almost any tonal character they choose, warm or cold, soft and subtle or gritty and graphic. Some think of lith prints as “arty”, but Ross will have no truck with the silly word because it trivialises a process which, he enthuses, “will take your photographic creativity on to a new plane”.
THE TECH IN BRIEF:
Lithographic hand printing is comparable to remixing a record, a re-inventive art in itself and very hit-or-miss by nature. You can do almost anything with the original to bring out or tone down the blacks, whites, colours, lights and shades of the original. But… only sometimes. Many negatives won’t work with lithography so Ross carefully selects the archive images which will be suitable for this kind of very special treatment. When it works, though, Voilà! Creative magic…