Silver Or Ink Jet, It's Still A Print

Editor's Notes

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 this regard.

There are independent as well as manufacturer standards, and sometimes these clash. Check out 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.