World’s Best Prints
by Galen Rowell
Outdoor Photographer Feature Article, June 1999

In the late sixties, a few years before committing to the life of freelancer, I felt honored to join an inner circle of published writers and photographers who met every week at a waterfront bar in San Francisco. I listened for insights that might guide me down a similar rosy pathway to success, but mainly heard gripes about publishers, editors, and the evils of new technology.

When I made the mistake of showing off my new Nikon FTN with the lame excuse that I didn't dare leave it in my car, two pony-tailed graybeards (a bit younger than I am now) turned to their drinks and proclaimed the impending doom of automated photography. After agreeing that all great art must come from simple tools guided by hand and eye and that every camera setting is potentially creative, they concluded that real men shouldn't be caught dead using through-the-lens meters, much less shooting color and not processing it themselves.

My translation was that the more time you spent diddling with that extra meter or fiddling in your darkroom, the more your somber black and whites might be worth when you were dead. I was more concerned with spending as much time as possible in the wilds doing the things that gave my life meaning. The experience came first. Where technology could aid my ability to share my passions through images and words, I readily embraced it, but where it might interfere, I opted for simplicity.

I wasn't cut out to be a studio photographer doing indoor set-ups of subjects dictated by my clients. My best pictures resulted from a passionate, participatory involvement with the natural scene before my lens. None were purely based on technical expertise or automated equipment. Here, I found myself on common ground with the graybeards, who suggested that even though I had the latest Nikon, whenever anyone asked what camera I used, I should blithely reply: "Asking a photographer what model of camera he uses is like asking a writer what model of typewriter he uses."

That formerly popular repartee, once known to every pro, hasn't been heard since new technology deposed the typewriter and political correctness banished the masculine pronoun as general descriptor. To say, "What model of computer he or she uses" just doesn't have the same meaning or ring. Besides, today's real men and women no longer brag about avoiding technology as they reach for their cell phone or surf the web. They take for granted that word processing makes for faster and more consistent writing and that automated features make for faster and more consistent photographs. Despite worship of traditional ways by a few, most of today's successful writers and photographers are now highly computerized.

Fine-art photographic prints are one of the last bastions of resistance. Black-and-whites by dead guys with darkrooms are indeed the ultimate limited edition. That they command the highest prices has more to do with scarcity than image quality. In the minds of most fine-art collectors, mere mention of the use of Adobe Photoshop to create an exhibit print of a natural scene would be tantamount to blasphemy. It would register as art forgery somewhat less creative than a classic Botticelli imitation more in the realm of a Chevrolet Blazer veritably walking on water atop an ocean wave.

The use of Photoshop to fine-tune the most accurate and truthful photographic prints in history is hard for many traditionalists to accept. Not so long ago, all digital renditions of nature were predictably awful. Today, the gamut extends skyward to include every magazine, book, and poster reproduction as well as digitally enlarged true photographic prints that exceed analog enlargements by every measure of sharpness, tonality, color rendition, and aesthetic appeal.

We have grown so accustomed to the disparities of analog optical enlargements that we accept them without question. Of course big prints will never look as sharp as our original transparencies; edges are softened by optical diffusion. Of course colors and contrast will fall off with increasing size; video on a big screen always looks flat compared to on a small monitor. Of course prints made at different times with different paper and chemistry will never look quite the same. What do you expect, a miracle?

My miraculous conversion literally happened overnight. Federal Express delivered 50-inch prints outputted from my digital files that held all the saturation of my original 35mm transparencies with even better tonal separation and the apparent sharpness of medium format. Though color prints used to be written off as not archival enough to be collectible, independent testing shows these prints on Fuji Crystal Archive paper to have a display life of up to 71 years before noticeable fade, compared to Kodak's best of 16 to 20 years. Their stability also exceeds that of Ilfochrome materials, which have the added complication of color dyes less closely matched to those of either Fuji or Kodak transparencies.

Though seeing was believing, it took a bit more time to become convinced that state-of-the-art color profiling could guarantee future perfect prints with my precise aesthetic choices out of any properly calibrated output device, from my $299 Epson ink-jet proofing printer to the $250,000 Cymbolic Sciences LightJet 5000 digital enlarger that uses color lasers to expose my exhibit prints. In the future, these same digital files will reproduce my carefully selected values for direct computer-to-plate book printing, replacing the judgment call of a Hong Kong scanner operator working against a deadline.

Though we have created a template in our minds about how analog photographic prints represent the natural world, digital enlargements can negate many of the introduced shortcomings that we take for granted. Color and contrast fall off as they are spread ever thinner in traditional enlargements, but the same digital information for rich color and contrast can be fed to the output lasers that scan photographic paper grain by grain for either a 5-inch print or a 50-inch print. Film grain can be selectively defocused into obscurity in continuous-toned skies, while all the inherent edge sharpness of the main subject can be retained through unsharp masking.

As our Mountain Light Gallery began to hang its first full show of digitally enlarged prints in 1998, all was not wine and roses. I sensed sixties deja vu as an earnest gentleman began asking with a tone of alarm, "You mean every print will look exactly the same?" "They come out of a computerized machine?" "You don't print them?" "Do you use PhotoShop?" "Are they manipulated?"

I explained how I had spent hundreds of hours over the period of a year making the creative decisions for just 45 prints. I also made a comparison between the way my creative decisions for an original transparency are completed before the film is processed, with the way that those for a digital print are completed before the file is sent for output. If he was concerned about too many "automated" prints being in circulation, some of my classic images are only available in limited editions at slightly higher prices. If he was concerned about over manipulation, we would be glad to show him the original transparency of any print he was considering purchasing. I considered absolute repeatability to be a gift from heaven empowering me to deliver prints to my customers that always hold my chosen artistic and interpretive choices.

I further described my belief that nature photographers have a sacred trust to print no more or less than what was actually before their lens, unless the image is disclosed as digitally altered or described as digital art. This doesn't mean that prints need to show introduced artifacts that weren't before the lens, such as scratches, emulsion flaws, enlarged grain, or inaccurate color shifts. Ethical use of Photoshop can eliminate or reduce these introduced flaws. I spend from two to twenty hours per image making creative decisions before scanning and during later image management, working with a highly experienced imaging consultant, who then spends hours more prepping each image for flaws and profiling it for the LightJet 5000. The results are far more accurate renditions of what I've witnessed and recorded on film than any traditional analog enlargements I've ever seen.

The two opening receptions for our Veridical Visions show of 70 Crystal Archive LightJet photographs at our Mountain Light Gallery drew more than 500 people. Half of the photographs were by Bill Atkinson and many people came to see the work of this digital-guru-turned-nature-photographer who had introduced me to his process and mentored me for a year. Almost everyone expressed amazement at the aesthetic and technical quality of the prints, but a few Silicon Valley invitees took delight in pressing their faces against the five 50-inch murals from 35mm to search out slightly brighter borders beside sharpened edges or normal film grain within subjects apart from the continuous-tone areas where more obvious grain had been selectively defocused. Notably, I never overhead comments about whether they liked the photograph or not.

When I asked Bill about this confusion of the medium and the message, he shrugged and said that searching for grain in a digital print to validate it as photography is like listening for tape hiss in a CD to validate it as music. The noise is apart from the artistic signal, and to listen for it is not to hear the music. Similarly, some photographers delight in putting down other's work by recognizing and pointing out techniques they themselves use, as if they can defuse the emotional power of the visual message by explaining away how it was created. For me, the opposite is more often true. The more I know about the medium of any creative endeavor, the more I am impressed by the message of those who do it well.

Bill Atkinson is a prime example. A long-time amateur photographer, Bill retired early from the computer industry to devote full time to creating the finest digitally enlarged photographic prints. The only one to appear twice in his high school class portrait, he anticipated how the shutter of the panoramic camera would slowly scan the bleachers, then ran from one end to the other during the exposure. Graduate work in neuroscience gave him a deep understanding of human perception before he turned to computer science to create a digital tour through the human brain in the days before personal computers. Steve Jobs hired him as one of Apple's first thirty employees to head the elite team that designed the revolutionary Macintosh operating system to have a highly visual and interactive user interface. Bill invented the Mac's pull-down windows, wrote much of its software, and attached the first mouse onto a commercially available computer.

Later, when Bill began turning all his considerable talents and the technology he knew so intimately to create photographic prints, he found plenty of imaging hardware on the market, but a paucity of suitable software. From the start, Bill realized that until the adjustments he made on his computer monitor would closely match what he got in finished prints, he would be shooting in the dark. He wouldn't be able to consistently make prints that expressively conveyed his intentions or technically matched the color and tones of his transparencies.

After developing action scripts to guide him through a consistent series of options for each image, Bill created "soft proofs" which could adjust the full-gamut scan that would normally be displayed to have the same color and contrast constraints as his chosen final output device. For example, his monitor could show a non-reproducible saturated yellow to match the full scan, a clean but slightly less intense yellow to match the inks of his non-archival Iris printer, or a more orange and less saturated yellow to match the dyes in Fuji Crystal Archive photographic paper. If you only view a full-gamut scan on your monitor, you're setting yourself up to be disappointed by prints that have a different dye set and hold less shadow detail.

Bill uses an expensive spectrophotometer to obtain numbers representing precise tonality and color from his monitor and his output devices to plug into an Apple ColorSync digital profile. He makes test proofs on his Fujix Pictrography 4000 that that uses a true photographic process to transfer dyes onto continuous-tone prints up to 12 x 18 inches. The file he sends out for LightJet 5000 prints includes an Apple ColorSync digital profile to match one created for the machine in a similar way at the other end. He not only gets photographic prints to match his monitor, but also publishes greeting cards that look amazingly close to those fine prints by taking his gadgetry to his local printer and using Apple ColorSync to profile their proofing device to help them match traditional inks on press. Someday soon, he'll be profiling direct computer-to-plate printing, but as of this writing the results available in the United States are still well below the level of fine traditional printing.

Knowing the hyperevolution of the digital kingdom, Bill modestly places his techniques about two or three years ahead of the pack. Translation: much of what he does today will become standard practice by top labs and individual photographers within three years. Today, the great majority of labs and individuals doing digital photographic prints do not use Apple ColorSync to guarantee consistent color and tonality from device to device. They may be able to make decent prints in house by trial and error, as they did in a traditional darkroom, but not perfect prints on the first try from someone else's digital file. Bill believes that many of those who choose to stay away from ColorSync profiling may be not be in business in three years' time, unless something better comes along. By then it should be standard fare to have scanners, monitors, proofing devices, and high-resolution laser enlargers create images that look startlingly the same.

To anyone who has tried and failed to make their own perfectly synched digital prints, or to have an unsynched lab do it, Bill's advanced techniques are indeed a miracle. When I first saw them in the fall of 1997, I wasn't sure that I was ready to commit the necessary time and money to make it happen for myself. Bill invited me to bring a few of my favorite originals, including those most difficult to print, to his home high over Silicon Valley. He escorted me into a basement imaging room powered by a Macintosh workstation that seemed to have enough memory to store the Library of Congress. It took us all day to clean and dismount a dozen of my slides, mount them on the drum of his Heidelberg TANGO scanner, adjust prescans with LinoColor software viewed on a calibrated Radius PressView monitor, scan them at 96 megabytes, clean up and sharpen them in Adobe Photoshop, and print them out on either his 20 x 30 Iris ink-jet printer or his Fujix Pictrography printer. We still weren't ready to send any image for a final print on a LightJet 5000 digital enlarger, because it was clear that with the investment of more time and a hard proof or two, I could make a final digital file that held more accurate color and tonality than I had ever imagined possible.

As I drove home, the thought occurred to me to say thanks but no thanks. To heck with the finest prints, I want to be out there in the wilderness with my sleeping bag and camera instead of in a basement in the dark looking at a computer screen. I was wowed by the process, but it wasn't the life I envisioned when I became a nature photographer. I didn't have the time, the money, the inclination, or the expertise to do what Bill was doing, so who was I fooling?

But I had set another date with Bill, and when I returned we made Fujix Pictrography proofs that surpassed the best photographic prints I'd ever seen. I also needed five 50-inch color murals for a San Francisco show that was opening soon. Bill sent digital files with appropriate sizing and profiling to EverColor Fine Art in Massachusetts, which used the trademarked name Luminage for what were then the only LightJet 5000 prints with Apple ColorSync profiling. Three days later, Federal Express delivered those huge prints that knocked my socks off.

Bill kindly proposed that I could scan more images with him for awhile and spend about $12,000 on hardware and software to do my own image management somewhat more slowly at a fiftieth of his investment. After we bought the equipment, and Bill saw that I didn't have the time to master the full learning curve, he suggested hiring an experienced digital imaging consultant to work hands on with my creative oversight, which we did.

Beginning with some of my most critical transparencies that were damaged by age and handling, we ended up with LightJet prints that were far better than the best analog prints I had made even when the slides were new. These files can be outputted as low-end ink-jet prints, high-end photographs, fine-art Iris prints on watercolor paper, transparencies again, or separations for printing books and posters. Today, EverColor no longer has the only Apple ColorSynced LightJet 5000 digital enlarger. Both Bill and I now use Calypso of Santa Clara (800-794-2755) to output identical Crystal Archive prints without the Luminage name.

Casual gallery viewers usually don't care about the process by which prints have been made. Their gut emotional response comes first. Only then do they consider the price, the process, or the archival stability. They may not be aware how much of their emotional reaction to a fine original print depends on the excellence of the medium until they see a less satisfactory inexpensive print or poster reproduction.

A variation on this theme happened to me when I first had a chance to stand alone and contemplate the full gallery of Bill's and my own images printed by exactly the same process. The technical aspect vanished as the fidelity of the reproductions made the essential differences in our styles emerge for all to see. With the printing process identical, the artistry, rather than simply the craftsmanship, stood out in bold relief.

Though Bill's work and my own appear clearly different in style, our intentions and ethics are much the same. I use exclusively 35mm film to select and interpret evanescent moments when natural light and forms come together into an image that may never repeat itself. Bill mainly uses medium or large format to create images that deliver experiences of more enduring entities„impeccably detailed visions that make people feel as if they've stepped inside a flower or into a quiet forest. Yet at the most basic creative level, we are both attempting to internalize what is before us into a vision that communicates our human intention as much as it describes the flowers, rocks, trees, and water before our lens.

For us, the chosen values of the final print are as important as the chosen subject in a way that merges them into a new way of seeing the world. Photography is not art until it goes beyond mere representation to communicate emotionally and spiritually. A photograph in a textbook operates as a surrogate object, a somewhat deficient substitute for looking at a real moon, a real flower, or a real person. In its highest form, nature photography as art uses imagery to directly communicate emotional response from one mind to another far more quickly, more powerfully, and more completely than the written word. The images become something more than they appear to depict, rather than being inferior copies of nature.

My writing was published before my photography, and though I have become better known for my images, I continue to express my feelings about the natural world in both mediums. With a similar bent, one of the century's truly great nature writers, Barry Lopez, began a budding career as a landscape photographer, but gave it up because the reproductions of the time couldn't match his intentions. His 1998 book, About This Life, eloquently describes the final straw: "In the summer of 1976 my mother was dying of cancer. To ease her burden and to brighten the sterile room where she lay dying, I made a set of large Cibachrome prints from some of my 35mm Kodachrome images."

He describes them and goes on to say, "It was the only set of prints I would ever make. As good as they were, the change in color balance and the loss of transparency and contrast when compared with the originals, the reduction in sharpness, created a deep doubting about ever wanting to do such a thing again. I hung the images in a few shows, then put them away. . . . I realized that just as the distance between what I saw and what I was able to record was huge, so was that between what I recorded and what people saw."

Digital enlarging allows me to create prints that come closer to what I saw without embellishing an image with something that wasn't really there„by accident or intention. I want to draw honest attention to what really drew my eye„key moments in the natural world that are most special for me.

All perception operates by comparison. No photograph moves us unless it triggers the memory of a pattern or form that we have seen before. If an image is made up entirely of original, unfamiliar subject matter, we simply do not comprehend it and so pass it by. On the other hand, if an image is so entirely comprehensible at first glance that it lacks all sense of mystery, we often find it boring. The power of photography to captivate our senses, to teach us something new, to hold a sense of mystery that intrigues us is contained in the way its balance of the familiar and unfamiliar forces us to extrapolate beyond what we already know.

LightJet Crystal Archive photographs not only offer the ultimate fidelity in color, sharpness, tonal range, and archival stability currently available on any photographic paper, but also further the process of personal discovery for both the artist and the viewer. I'm continually amazed at fine prints that literally appear to have been taken with medium format instead of 35mm that I get from either last week's shoot on Fuji Velvia or 30-year-old Kodachromes.

For me, shooting 35mm has never looked so good. What Bill has demonstrated is that digital imaging can complement nature and editorial photography rather than compete with it. When the day comes that a small digital camera can do a better job of recording the emotional experience of the natural world than my Nikon, I'll be ready. The medium may not be the message, but it sure can make a big difference.

Galen’s columns are reproduced on our web site courtesy Outdoor Photographer.
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