Increasingly, It’s Inkjet For B&W

We recently had another scare about black and white printing papers and supplies, what with the recent rumor that Ilford would be closing shop in the US and Canada. It was just that--a rumor, based on the fact that a consumer electronics distribution firm would now be handling the distribution of their fine line of papers. And, we have been assured that a knowledgeable tech staff for Ilford products will be active on these shores as well. But our first reaction was to believe that false rumor, what with all the recent news about the discontinuance of traditional black and white papers and supplies, especially coming on the heels of Kodak's withdrawal from the black and white paper market and Agfa's overall demise. It's just a sign of the times.

It is a pleasure to put such rumors to rest, but one can't help but wonder whether the future of traditional black and white will be in "boutique" papers and that the future for black and white printmakers will be inkjet, specifically with pigmented inks. The range of paper surfaces available for inkjet printers is wider than ever, even more than was ever available in silver-based papers. Why pigmented inks over dye based? They are more water-resistant, show greater fade resistance and depth of gray scale intensity. When used with the right paper surface, pigmented ink has proven itself to have more fidelity than dye-based types.

But can even the new and improved inkjet inks and papers match the intense visual experience of a finely crafted silver black and white print? It's an apples and oranges thing, I believe. In traditional prints on fiber paper the image seems to emerge from the paper with a glow and resonance unmatched by any printing process. Inkjet prints are created by laying ink down onto the paper, and while pigmented inks do blend somewhat more with paper fibers they simply are not a match for a brilliant silver print. There's no question that detail and resolution in a digital print can match any projection print, but it's in the surface of the image, that intangible window through which we view the image, that inkjet shows its differences and where silver is unmatched.

All I can say is that an inkjet print is different in the same way that a platinum or salted paper print is different from a gelatin silver print. True, one can emulate the look of any photographic process with the digital/inkjet process, be it cyanotype, ambrotype, collodion, or any other hand- or photomechanical printmaking technique. And when reproduced in a book or magazine, where all surface and texture is flattened, the differences are moot. But hold a print made with those processes in your hand next to an emulation (digital) print and the differences are clear.

Market forces have clearly created the situation we face today, and without the commitment of highly-industrialized coating companies to continue making silver printing paper we will see less and less of the material available. Some think that silver printmaking will become a craft and someday be another chapter in those "personal processes" books that teach you how to make cyanotypes or gum bichromates. In the last few years I have witnessed schools dropping their traditional printing classes and closing their wet darkrooms. And without those institutions and their teachers helping to carry on the craft, future generations might come to view silver printing as just another archaic process.

I for one mourn this development, not from nostalgia but from an appreciation of how rewarding silver printing can be. And while a new generation of printers raised on digital will show us new insights into the potential of the medium, I can't help but feel that those who have not seen a print emerge from the developer or shaped light with their hands in the amber-lit environment of the darkroom have somehow missed out on something magical in photography.