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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

What Counts Is Description

by Carl Weese
Paul makes excellent points about working with a new medium. Play to its strengths, avoid its weaknesses. I see a lot of unsuccessful platinum prints, usually because the photographer tries to force platinum to look like silver. This doesn't work: the two media have different strengths and weaknesses, so imitating the look of silver plays to platinum's weakness and ignores its strength.

Monochrome inkjet prints are yet another medium, with different strengths and weaknesses. Instead of imitating silver or platinum, we need to see what makes the strongest ink-on-paper print. But some comparisons may help. At least for an inkjet print on a natural white cotton paper, it's pretty clear that it's not going to look much like a silver print on bright white baryta-coated glossy fiber-base paper. The base material is just too different. But that base material actually looks a lot like the sort of paper we use for platinum prints, so maybe the "inspiration" for how we handle an inkjet print should come from that medium.

The highlights of a platinum/palladium (Pt/Pd) print are nowhere near as bright as those of a silver print (as measured with a densitometer), yet highlight interpretation is probably the medium's greatest strength. The point is that, in a print, what counts is description, not absolute density. A shadow filled with clearly differentiated dark values is more convincing—seemingly darker—than an area of dmax that looks like a pool of spilled India ink. Same for highlights. Light values clearly separated from each other, describing subject information, are more convincing than areas of brilliant paper white. As Mike has mentioned, monochrome inkjet prints have trouble with the highlights, but taking a clue from platinum printing, one answer is simply, don't go there. I've learned to avoid allowing any values in the highest 10% of the histogram. Doesn't that make for muddy highlights? No, not as long as the bright values I do allow show clear separation and description of subject matter. A gray that describes a bright subject is more convincing than a brighter gray that carries no descriptive information.

This is a picture I made expressly for Pt/Pd printing (I wasn't doing "serious" inkjet in 2003):

Carl Weese, Van-Del, Dusk

It turns out that it also works really well as a monochrome inkjet print. Different from the Pt/Pd version, but equally interesting. A major difference is that the Pt/Pd print manages to convey more in the highlights. Even though the inkjet highlights are "all there"—and nowhere near paper white—the platinum conveys an extra richness that is very real even if it's nearly subliminal. However, the inkjet print separates shadow detail that I can't possibly retain in Pt/Pd. So, nice shadows and great highlights, or nice highlights and astounding shadows, take your pick. I've never been a believer in the single absolute interpretation, the "perfect print," so I'm delighted to have two different but equally strong ways to interpret the picture.

Posted by CARL WEESE


Blogger George Barr said...

Carl:very well said. I recently had a chance to view some photogravures of prints from Fox-Talbot to Dorothea Lange and inbetween - absolutely gorgeous - like silver - no - but beautiful in their own right.

11:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lovely photo.

7:25 AM  

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