Putting Away the Silver Prints
(some thoughts prompted by my conversion to digital printing)
A while ago, as I cleaned up my studio/workspace, I looked at the table with all the boxes of gelatin-silver prints in them. Silver prints cascaded off the boxes in stacks. All over the studio, silver prints floated around, some of them next to piles of digital prints, some of them just in piles that I was looking through. I'm not particularly tidy, so I often retrieve prints from boxes, and the prints never seem to rejoin their mates in the right box.
But this weekend, a strange thing happened. I took all those prints, and I sorted them out, stuffed them into boxes, and put them away in storage. Not in storage as in "in storage under the table, where I can reach them in seconds", but more like "In boxes, in the cabinet, in the other room, where it will take me more like half an hour to find a specific print" storage.
Why? Because it's been a while since I've felt a need to look at those prints. When I started doing my printing digitally, I often got out the latest silver print of that image to use as a reference. But as my digital printing progresses, I'm more interested in printing things fresh, and less interested in comparing to silver prints.
Does this mean you won't ever print silver again?
Maybe. As I spent some time boxing up the prints, I also spent the time looking at them. There are lots of things I like about them:
I like the surface quality of fiber based air dried glossy paper. I've looked for a match among the papers available for digital printing, and if there's such a material, I haven't found it.
I like the somewhat heavier paper stock.
Naturally, there are things I don't like, as well.
Despite all my care and hewing to archival processing, some prints have stains. Whence cometh these stains? I don't have a clue. But it's scary, isn't it? For what it's worth, all the stained prints are on Ilford MGIV FB paper.
Some of those prints just aren't very good. It's not a comment on silver printing, per se, but I have some thoughts about it below.
Gosh, these prints (mostly approximate image size 10" x 12.5" on 11x14 paper) seem small. This is interesting given that most of the time when I print something digitally, I seem to be printing it roughly the same size. It's just that I've made relatively few silver prints larger than 11x14, and thus something like 98% of all the large prints I've made are digital.
It's interesting to note that the things I like about gelatin silver prints are properties of the silver print as an object - that is, I like how the surface looks, I like how it feels in my hand.
Likewise, it's interesting that the things I don't like (processing problems, print quality, size) are properties of gelatin-silver printing as a process - that is, the complicated process of getting the image to appear on the paper the way you want.
So, What's with the Print Quality Thing?
It's hard to know what to make of the fact that I don't think that the quality of the silver prints is uniformly good.
Some of them are less than stellar but are hanging around because unlike a less than perfect digital print (which I just tear up and throw out) I find it hard to discard silver prints.
Some of them are less than stellar because, although they aren't as good as I'd like, they're the best I could do in silver. Looking over printing notes I have for silver prints, I can see now that often the printing plan consisted of getting the exposure and contrast right, doing a little burning/dodging to balance the print, and that's it. No adjusting the overall tonal arrangement (which is routine for digital prints). Lots of struggle getting highlights just so - something easily done, literally almost by the numbers, digitally.
But beyond that, I can see some real changes in how I print things digitally as opposed to printing on gelatin silver - fundamental changes in how my prints look. I'm printing a bit harder, now, perhaps because it's easier to get good separation close to the paper base, and down near the Dmax when you print digitally.
And then there's the problem of adjusting small areas in a print. Digitally, I'm happy to spend half an hour doing subtle dodging on every tree in a line of distant trees, just to make the look a bit 'rounder'. That half an hour is nothing amortized over all the prints I'll make. But if I had to put in half an hour of burning time, or dodging, or bleaching PER PRINT, I'd never do it. I just wouldn't.
Beyond that, though, I think I'm finding that the further you go with a print, the more you can see to do, not just with that print, but with others. That is, when it's a challenge to just get the print to have the right midtone density, you don't see it when a print has the wrong overall contrast. But when you start to adjust contrast, you rapidly learn to judge that aspect. When you start burning and dodging for 'balance', you rapidly develop your sense of balance in the print.
And when you spend half an hour dodging and burning trees on one image, you realize that it can make quite a difference - one you hadn't been looking for before.
The Bottom Line
I like digital printing. It feels, well, sort of frictionless compared to silver printing. That's not necessarily a good thing, or a bad thing, but for where I am photographically right now, it's a good thing. I need to make more images, I need to make more prints, I need to develop my compositional and printing judgment. Digital printing is a natural for that.
Will I look for ways to get silver prints? Sure. I'm thinking hard along the lines of digital negatives and contact printing. It's a lot of process control issues but I've already gone down the process control path with VC paper - see my article on calibrating dichroic color heads for VC paper.
And I'll also look for other papers for my digital printer. I've seen some lovely digital prints on 'art' paper - a matte finish, which I've always hated, but the prints have a very nice set of 'object' properties.
There are lots of paths to take from here. But none of them look much like going back to straightforward projection printing on VC paper.