Printing your Photographs? Why bother?
"Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart"
Although Wordsworth was talking about poetry when he said "Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart", I think this is such a great way to think about photographs. If you were to be cast away on a desert island, and had to choose a few possessions you could take with you, what would you choose? I bet many of us would choose our photo collection - and it probably wouldn't be our transient digital collection from Facebook or iPhone but those old photos from the shoebox in the attic or under the stairs. Our connection to our roots, to the people we love and to the places, art and history that make up who we are, is through images and the stories they bring with them; those little bits of paper and ink are so much more than the sum of their parts.
I confess I am no better than anyone else at printing my own family photographs and yet some of the oldies I found at my parents house (in an drawer in the wardrobe!) are wonderful. My Dad in his first, Douglas tartan kilt age 9! My grandfather the violinist who I never met but have heard endless stories about. And, my grandparents wedding, that fabulous flapper style dress and funny headdress my grandmother is wearing with him looking like a cross between Dracula and the Penguin from batman! I wasn't there but I can imagine being in the photographer's studio with them with all the excitement of posing and staging going on. These images connect me to my people and my history so it is important to keep these photos and my own more recent pictures for my children and their families and not just as a digital copy. My hard drive could fail, we could all convert to some new digital system and all those pretty Facebook images on 'the cloud' could just evaporate in an instant but paper has been around since the Egyptians and barring fire or flood that shoebox is going nowhere, unless I end up on that desert island!
Why bother? Who cares about the paper anyway?
Several years ago just as I was getting into printing, I was having work framed up by a local printer. I noticed he was framing up several prints by some rather well known Scottish artists and he was selling them at a relatively low price. As I knew what it took to get my own work printed with the cost of the paper, ink, the test runs, the printer, the transport etc, not to speak of the time I invest, I was surprised he could do it so cheaply. He told me the prints are available in a catalogue, he just browses through and picks what he wants and they are so cheap they make up very little of his overall cost. He showed me the prints and I am sorry to say that the paper quality was very poor, it was flimsy, looked as if it would tear easily. We discussed my framing and he was admiring my prints, telling me that the paper I was using was the best he had seen, even for my posters I was using papers that were so much better than many other artists. He said he had noticed that even after being in his window in bright sun the colours in my work didn't fade while the price sticker and tags he had put on it had. I explained that the papers I use along with the inks are a combination that are designed to last a lifetime without fading. That it was really important to me that my clients got something they could keep in the family and hand down. I notice that these days we don't seem to have that many family heirlooms, everything seems to be so disposable, but a a high quality print that will last a lifetime makes a lovely present or keepsake.
“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”
If you think about the world's greatest artists and they way they were obsessed about their work you just know that the paper, the canvas, the stone or clay they used was something they went crazy about. They had to have exactly this texture or that colour, they would go to distant places and spend every penny in their pocket to get exactly the kind of materials they needed. I don't imagine that Michaelangelo just picked up a bit of stone at the local market and thought, "This is cheap, I'm sure it will do". In fact, Michaelangelo went to extraordinary lengths and cost to get the right stone from the Carrera quarries. For the facade of the Church of San Lorenzo in Florence he spent 18 months organising the stone cutting and shipment and travelled 19 times to the quarry to oversee the work. He produced dozens of drawings depicting exactly how each block was to be cut and shaped. As for David, he inherited the block of marble from earlier sculptors but he then spent two years creating his masterpiece and the very nature of the marble was what dictated how the final piece appeared. He is quoted as saying, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free”. The medium we use is just so important to the final work, it is the tangible evidence and something we can use in our home to connect us to our family, places we have been or want to go to, to our dreams and to our inner soul.
Canson, paper with a history!
I have always used lovely papers for my work and been very pleased with the results so far but some papers are hard to source. At a printing course run by my guru Mike McNamee I was recently introduced to a wonderful alternative, Canson. I had heard of Canson for drawing and painting but didn't realise they had developed papers specifically for printing photographs, Canson Infinity. When I delved into the history of Canson I was sold! Canson produce their paper at the Arches paper mills in France where they have been making paper for artists for over 450 years! The paper has a wonderful story behind it so I feel that every print I produce is now part of that story. You can read more on the Canson website about their history and the artists that used their paper but here is a little teaser trailer...........
The paper dynasty was originally started by Jean Montgolfier and the story goes that he had been captured by the Turks during the crusades and forced to work on their paper mills in Damascus. When he was freed he returned to his home in the Beaujolais region of France, bringing all that knowledge with him, and he worked with family friends the Vidalons to set up the Vidalon Paper Mills. Eventually the families joined forces and Montgolfier sons married the Vidalon daughters founding a dynasty that lasted since the time of Marie Antoinette. The Montgolfier brothers were born into a family of 16 children and they excelled in invention so the mills rapidly became successful and expanded with numerous advances along the way.
A duck, a rooster and a sheep called Montauciel!
We have all heard of the Montgolfier brothers and their hot air balloon but did you know it was made with paper? In 1782 Joseph-Michel Montgolfier (number 12 in the family) noticed how laundry drying over a fire billowed up and made his first experiments with small box models of taffeta and cord. The first open air experiment was so successful that the balloon travelled over two kilometres and was lost. Once the general principal was established, the brothers quickly scaled up to large balloons and on September 19, 1783, in Versailles, in front of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and the French court the Montgolfier brothers' hot air balloon carrying a sheep called Montauciel ("Climb-to-the-sky") a rooster, and a duck flew for eight minutes astounding the onlookers. The flight was quickly followed by manned flights and the race to the sky had begun. The result of their efforts was the prestigious appointment of their mills to Manufacture Royale in 1784. And do your imagine that the paper they sent up on such a prestigious occasion was blank? What an opportunity for an artist: in collaboration with Réveillon, the famous Parisian wallpaper manufacturer, who decorated the rooms of Marie Antoinette with her favourite papier bleu d'Angleterre, the balloon was painted a wonderful shade of sky blue and decorated with bright golden flourishes, signs of the zodiac and suns. And to help envisage what it all must have looked like take a look at these images below, a picture speaks a thousand words! The excitement of the crowds, the fabulous costumes and the drama are all there in these wonderful images which have lasted several lifetimes!
Buying art, what are you really getting for your money?
These days anyone can print a picture just as anyone can take a photograph. A click of the button and hey presto, a print appears. But what about the quality? If you buy a print from a large store you don't know much about the paper that was used, even if you pay quite a bit of money. Did you know that a lot of work is produced on printers that use only four inks? You don't know if it is a good rendition of the original or whether it will fade after a few years on the wall.
Most photographers do not print their own work either, they ship out the electronic file to have it printed 'professionally', so, it may be super quality or it may not, you as the buyer, will never know, for several years anyway. For these reasons I am passionate about printing my own work. I control what is printed, how it looks and I make all the decisions about what paper and ink I use. I quality check the prints and only ship them when I am satisfied I can do no more to improve them. The ultimate satisfaction I get is knowing that my prints will last for a long time looking just the way I want them to look.
Canson have a very eloquent summary of the artists that have used their papers over the long history of their manufacture so I suggest taking a look at the Canson website for more details on all the history but here is what I have learned and what makes me so enthusiastic.
Canson worked with the artists to design the paper they wanted. Ingres, for example, wanted "a paper with a sharp memory, preserving the slightest nuance of the pencil or pigments". Canson created a laid drawing paper thereafter named Ingres paper. Laid paper is slightly ribbed and textured.
Degas, a close friend of Ingres, subsequently chose the Montgolfier vellum paper for his pastel ballet dancers' series.
Montval paper, which was designed by the painter Gaspard Maillol was used extensively by Picasso for 289 pieces of work.
Delacroix, Van Gogh, Degas, Matisse, Picasso, Dali, Warhol, Jean-Michel Alberola, Toguo, Philippe Starck, Yan Pei-Ming...the list of artists who chose Canson paper goes on.
And when it comes to paper for photography it is no surprise that Canson were there at the beginning, working with photographers to develop and supply the types of paper best suited to the new techniques. They developed the Canson Infinity range of papers and canvases which have a variety of textures from ultra smooth to highly textured and tones ranging from natural white to ultra white. Read more about the nuances of these papers in this article by Mark Dubovoy. I am rather excited now about all the possibilities for my work using these lovely materials so hope to post more on this subject in future.
Paper versus digital?
So, why did I invest a huge amount of money in a printer the size of a sofa which takes inks costing a small fortune? Why do I invest in the finest papers I can find? Because for me the final print in your hand is the artwork not the digital file. The texture of the paper, the hue and saturation are vital to the final piece. I often print an image several times before I am happy that I have captured the 'profile' for that piece. Along with my papers and canvases I use the fabulous range of EpsonUltraChrome K3 Ink with Vivid Magenta, inks with a broad colour gamut that suits my images. The nine colour ink set includes three blacks that allow for rendition on various types of paper.
For me it is all about the final print, a piece of art that people want to have in their homes and hand down as a family heirloom. By working with the highest quality paper and inks I can find I can confidently sign my work and know that it will last a lifetime!