If you wander into a photographic
gallery these days chances are that you'll be seeing more and more
ink jet prints. I'm not talking about the collector galleries, where
quite expensive vintage silver prints by the likes of Weston, Adams, and
Strand might cost you the equivalent of a tricked-out SUV. The galleries
I refer to are those showing the work of up-and-coming photographers (read
live) who do not command the big ticket prices but whose work is viable,
challenging, and expressive nonetheless. And they may not even be "formal"
galleries. Venues include libraries, bank offices, and even snazzy restaurants.
Does printing with ink jet (or fancifully described as Giclee) make a
print any less valuable than if made on silver? If you talk with some
folks you'd think so, but printing is printing and a print is a
print. I've seen as many lousy prints on silver as I've seen
on ink jet, and while the two mediums have their distinguishing characteristics
it doesn't matter to me as long as the image and its rendition touches
me in some way. As I see it, the main difference is in how the image and
paper interact. With silver prints (black and white, anyway) the image
seems to emerge from the paper, while the ink jet print is always a bit
flatter, due to the fairly obvious fact that it's ink on paper,
and not silver coming up through and imbuing the emulsion on the paper.
Does this make ink jet inferior? No, it's just a different medium,
with different expectations and representation of the image.
When it comes to color I am hard pressed to differentiate between silver
and ink jet prints. Ink jet paper surfaces these days are so varied that
they easily outdo the offerings for traditional printing, and the surfaces
that are the same for the two mediums are hardly distinguishable. If you
get real close to a quality color print you might see some clue as to
whether it's ink jet or traditional, but from reasonable viewing
distances it's a tossup.
Of course the issue of archival quality, or expected longevity of the
paper surface and ink combination, is where silver printers might make
some claim of superiority. Some folks have noticed that early Giclee prints
have gone into the big fade much earlier than they hoped, or imagined.
And when buying a print you want to know that it will last long enough
to provide enjoyment for years to come. Unfortunately, "archival
life expectancy" in the ink jet medium is more speculative and subjective
than you might think. Although many rely on the good faith of manufacturers,
it's important to know that there's no industry standard in
There are independent as well as manufacturer standards, and sometimes
these clash. Check out www.wilhelmresearch.com
for an independent voice that some brand as controversial, and others
as the real deal. Whatever the case, most agree that certain combinations
rival and even outdo traditional silver print longevity, including prints
made with archival procedures--the double wash, hypo clear, selenium
tone route. I do emphasize "certain combinations of ink and paper,"
as that can have as much to do with longevity as environmental factors.
But all that aside, the main thing that excites me about seeing all those
ink jet prints is that the so-called digital darkroom has seemed to stir
up the creative juices of photographers and gotten them back into making
their own prints again. There's no question that the traditional
darkroom has its charms, many of which, I must confess, I have let go
in favor of a space-saving, less chemical-ridden desktop printer. I frankly
feel that the digital deal has spawned more creativity and more consciousness
about finalizing the moment the shutter is snapped through printing than
we've seen in many a year. And while we all love the look of a finely
crafted silver print, the new medium of ink jet printing will do what
traditional printing has always done--make the printer a better photographer,
which means more exciting images for us all to share.