by Jeffrey Grunthaner
More than any other medium, photography is a misunderstood genre. Often associated with wedding photos, polaroids, and unimpressive portraits, the context, and techniques that make photographs great are generally ignored by all but specialists. Along with this, the various ways in which photographs can be presented, the different materials on which they can be printed, is even less known. But for anyone looking to amass a respectable art collection without having to break the bank, prints can be a pragmatically inexpensive alternative to the acquisition of more tactile media like paintings or sculptures. Along with the desire to develop a respectable art collection, the versatility of different printing techniques must be known.
Similar to the global impact of the printing press, the dawning of photography changed how we view the world and revolutionized humanity’s understanding of art. As Susan Sontag writes in On Photography, “photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire. Photographs, which fiddle with the scale of the world, themselves get reduced, blown up, cropped, retouched, doctored, tricked out. They age, plagued by the usual ills of paper objects; they disappear; they become valuable, and get bought and sold.” As we will see, not all photographs are on paper, and their value varies with the printing process they’re subject to. Here, we will examine some of the printing techniques that have taken the art of photography beyond the borders of the store-bought frame.
Archival Pigment Prints
The term archival pigment printing refers to a process whereby non-degradable and ultra-resistant pigment particles are used to make an image that will be resistant to erosion and other environmental factors. In short, archival pigments ensure the longevity of an image. And while archival pigments have been in use since the 19th century, today the range of pigments available has been vastly enriched, and formerly difficult-to-render shades of orange, pink, and green can be easily printed.
Archival pigment prints are perfect for artists who want to make work on demand, rather than committing to a mass-produced series. The reproduction of a stored digital image is quite inexpensive as compared with the production of a run of prints.
Rather than being absorbed into the ﬁbers of paper, as happens with molecularly soluble dyes, archival pigments utilize tiny particles which, when placed on paper, are large enough to remain on the paper’s surface. This process allows pigment prints to retain their color over a longer period of time, as the pigment will not be broken apart by absorption, and then intertwined into ﬁbers, fading, or shifting colors.
Digital Prints on Aluminium
Digital prints on aluminum are not really printed on the metal directly. Rather, a print is infused into a coating applied to the metal. This is a dye-based process, rather than an inkjet process. The silver color of the aluminum plate provides a shimmering image, which looks like metallic inks have been used in the photo, even though an aluminum substrate actually provides the entire sheen.
Digital prints on aluminum are scratch resistant and rigid, requiring no glass or framing prior to hanging. This modifies the conventions of photo presentation and provides a more intimate and informal viewing experience.
The Magna Chrome website described their technique as follows: “Special dyes are printed onto a transfer paper and then infused into a patented coating under pressure and heat.” The images are rigid, durable, and waterproof. No glass or frame is necessary, so glare is reduced. Furthermore, the depth of the patented coating gives a luminous quality to the photos and brilliance to the colors. The image will seem to float within its coating.
Photographs on Fine Art Paper
Fine art printing is the term often used to refer to professional photographs printed on very high-quality paper. This designation, which is by no means a universal label, meets certain quality criteria, with regard to the paper in particular, which are sought after by many photographers and printers.
Fine art paper allows you to emphasize the composition of the image while providing the ideal support for intense colors and marked contrasts, while also enabling a wide range of grey tones.
The difference between fine art paper and normal photo paper lies in the composition of the paper itself. As there are different kinds of fine art paper, the process will vary depending on the material used. As a matter of fact, natural fibers (usually cotton or alpha cellulose) must be included within the composition of fine art paper. Because fine art paper is intended for the printing of high-quality photographs, its quality must be ideally suited to receiving inks and pigments. The composition of the surface layer must allow the ink to adhere well over time while offering a neutral pH to ensure that the paper also stands the test of time.
Photographic Print on Metal
It used to be that if you wanted to print on metal you’d have to make a tintype or, even earlier, go see Louis Daguerre. But in recent years, there’s been a resurgence in metallic printing options, some of which are actually printed on sheets of real metal, while others are just metallic-looking photo papers that impart a metallic look.
It takes a long time before the images on metallic prints start to fade. What’s more, the printed graphics and text cannot get scratched or peeled off. Metal prints can look as modern or traditional as you wish.
There are two ways to make metal prints. Either an inferior quality “direct print” onto an aluminum sheet, or a much higher quality “dye sublimation” process. During the latter process, dyes get transferred beneath the aluminum’s exterior coating, which ensures that the finished product is more durable than conventional paper and canvas prints.
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Giclée printing came into existence in the wake of computer technologies becoming more and more readily available to artists. Graham Nash (of the rock band Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young) was one of the first to successfully utilize computer printers for his printing business. Giclée prints are often an inexpensive alternative for digital artists who wish to make reproductions of their original two-dimensional artwork while preserving the original rendering for themselves.
Giclee printing tends to hold its colors for far longer than standard prints. In fact, giclee prints are thought to last up to two hundred years before starting to fade. What’s more, there is no issue with the ‘photocopy of a photocopy’ that plagues other printing methods, and the results are often just as good as the originals. It’s also worth pointing out that giclée reproductions look just as good on other materials. Artists can use giclee print onto canvas, for example.
Similar to archival prints, giclée printing is a process that uses fade-resistant, archival inks and archival substrates to print on large format printers. However, not all inkjet printers produce giclee prints. It all boils down to these four elements: resolution, ink, paper, and printer type. Giclee printing is priced per sq. ft and includes color matching in the product price. The best way to provide the most accurate reproductions is for clients to mail the original artwork to an office where such products are printed.
The Essentials of Printing
The expansion of printing technology has created a bridge between fine art and commercial art. Today, the way a photographic print is made is often just as important as the composition of the original photograph. Knowing how different printed surface alter the appearance of a photograph will often help connoisseurs and collectors alike to distinguish the technical abilities of the photographer from the quality of the image presented. As we have seen, different printing processes will emphasize different aspects of a photograph, which makes these processes fall into the realm of post-production. At the same time, many photographers try to create an aesthetic whole where an image feels at one with the surface its printed on. In this case, the kind of print used will be essential to how the photograph appears.
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Jeffrey Grunthaner is a writer based in New York. You can find his work in BOMB, artnet News, The Clauduis App, Archinect, Imperial Matters, Folder, or Hyperallergic. He curates a reading series on contemporary poetics at Hauser & Wirth, West 22nd Street.