Gimme that old time feeling
This winter I have been shooting with a combination of plastic Diana lenses, single element optic lenses, and my prized Zeiss Distagon 21mm ƒ2.8.
Shooting with a diana lens makes me feel a bit nostalgic for my photographic education. Even though I owned a Leica M5 and a decent Pentax with interchangeable lenses I had to spend my first year at Ohio University shooting with a plastic Diana camera. On the first day of intro photography we were all offered a stick of chewing gum. We used it to plug up as many light leaks as we could find by peering through the back of the camera at a strong light source. I thought “you’re kidding, right?”
The plastic lens of a Diana camera may be the world’s worst optic. It can barely focus, has terrible aberration, and vignettes like crazy. Yet, these are the same qualities which makes these cameras so sought after and valuable now. I have been shooting with both a long and a wide Diana lens adapted directly to my Canon 5D MKII. They are now redly available. Probably, I love the aberration best. The 110ml is one of my favorite “primes”.
As I began printing my images this week, I decided I wanted to replicate a “memory” of vintage photography. Not a specific vintage photography. Perhaps it is a combination of vintage photographs that I have seen and loved over the years. But, I wasn’t referencing anything in particular. I wanted some bromide staining. Green was going to have to get in there somehow. I wanted warmth, of course. But, I wanted the warmth that comes only by contrast with something cool. I wanted a dynamic range that felt aged. I wanted the softness of lenses from long ago.
Even though these images are peculiarly vintage, I feel I am exploring something new.
The Starting Point
This photo below is typical for a Diana. If the day had been more contrasty, the aberration would have been even worse (or better if you like the effect). I love the red, yellow and blue color fringing against the black of the old birch. You have to click on the image to enlarge it to see what I am referring to. Diana abberation is to photography what the drip is to abstract expressionist painting.
The single optic lens I use reminds me of the photographs my mother used to take with her Zeiss fold-out camera. They’re sharp and have a good color contrast. But, they have their own limitations and are not particularly sharp at the edges. For me, they are deliciously unsharp at the edges. This is typical of a single glass optic:
And the 21mm Zeiss Distagon I use may be one of the world’s sharpest wide angle lenses. It amazes me that by just stopping down two clicks the entire frame is razor sharp from corner to corner. The Zeiss below, hand held in very low light has remarkable color contrast, a lack of distortion, and sharpness from edge to edge. I want to be buried with this lens when my time comes.
By just switching between these lenses, I can choose between detail and lack of detail, distortion or lack of distortion. It reminds me of Jon with glasses and Jon without glasses and Jon struggling with glasses. These three totally different ways of looking at my woods have been challenging me all winter.
I’ve been working with a handmade Japanese paper since 2006. Gregory Colbert introduced me to this sheet and asked me to make him a printing process for it and to print his exhibitions. It is extremely thick. I’ve probably printed more on this paper than any other human being. I’ve printed on nearly 200 sheets of this paper in a size that is 8 feet by 14 feet, and countless sheets that are 44×84. On a 110″ Roland printer outfitted with 11 monochromatic inks, a single image takes 16 hours to complete at the grand scale. Because it is unsized and without an inkjet coating, the printer can not pause for any auto-cleaning cycles, lest a drying line be left behind.
This triple thick kozo/cotton blend is much too thick for Epson printers, and even too thick for Roland printers. But, I am able to remove the head plate, the capping stations, and the cleaning stations on my Roland printer, and modify them to raise the height (about two pennies thickness.) This paper is about 2.5mm thick by cross section, and has an extremely rough texture which can cause the paper to be 3.0 – 3.5mm thick in some places. Then of course the stray fibers, the natural bends and dips. The print head has to be way up high or expensive disasters “strike”.
The deckles are quite beautiful in the full sheets. It is exceedingly expensive. A single sheet of 8ft x 14ft weights nearly 15 lbs and costs $5,000. The smaller 44×84 sheets cost more than $300 each. But, I have several clients for whom I print their works on this paper. It is special order and has to be made by hand each time. So, I tack on a small supply of sheets for myself at the same time as I order for my clients. It can take two months to arrive. It’s always exciting. While my clients print one image at a time on a sheet, I tend to cut the sheet into may smaller pieces. I print small for myself. Still, it is scary making a test on even a $20 piece of paper.
Incidentally, I have decided to have some sheets made in the 32×44″ size and also a 44×66, so that I can introduce it to a wider range of photographers.
The main problem with printing on uncoated paper like this is that the inks spread and therefore can’t build density, nor sharpness, nor a wide color gamut like inks do on an inkjet receptor coating. Coating the handmade with ink-aid or some other similar material defeats the whole purpose. The ink would sit on top of the coating. It would look like traditional inkjet, but on an expensive sheet of paper. I’m not attracted to printmaking like that.
For me, to solve the problems of printing on uncoated paper is to find a way that uses the paper for its soft and sumptuous quality that it imparts in and of itself. I don’t want to see ink sitting on top. I want to see paper impregnated with tone and color. That is what interests me. This paper’s surface is one of the most interesting in the world. It’s made by an ancient mill in Japan. It is history unto itself. It’s substantial in a way that both Western and Eastern papermaking have never previously aspired to.
The maximum density I have been able to attain is 1.42 using two blacks and pre-heating the paper to 50 c which is about 122 f. The Ashes and Snow prints that I produced were waxed by hand afterwards. That process increased the dMax considerably nearer to the 1.65 point. But, it adds a patina which I am not interested in my own work.
The Custom Inks and Process
Instead, I am using a new, very rich, dense, black ink that absorbs more light and produces quite a bit more dMax. The difference is about 2-3 stops gain in dMax from another black ink that I use for Kozo. At 100 megalux of testing, the new black is extraordinarily lightfast even though it is not 100% pigment.
For the tones I wanted to play with, I am using three shades of PiezoTone Carbon Sepia (light, medium and dark.) My cooling agent is JonCone Studio SP1. My warming agent is orange pigment ink from the new ConeColor HDR set. If this sounds like I am using color inks with my black & white and you think I should be using something easier like ‘ABW’…get that thought out of your head – that would be like asking me to heat up a TV dinner. Totally uninteresting to me, and it could not possibly reproduce the effect of using monochromatic inks (even if the inks are toned or colored.) It is not about ink mixing through dithering to try and approximate something else.
For me it is about printing black & white photographs in a way that produces a visual quality that is aesthetically historical. While the world of black and white photography is moving every generation of printer closer to the world of color photography, I will exercise my rights to remain “old school”.
I was once critiqued by a lithography professor at Ohio University. Actually, he was head of the department and he had a serious distaste for my enthusiasm for silkscreening. He told me that “lithography is the marriage of ink and paper and that silkscreening is the sh*tting of ink onto paper.” Although that was intended to rip me from my interest in silkscreen, it actually sent the rebel in me on a path on which I eventually made extraordinary new gains in silkscreening. The screenprints produced by Cone Editions Press for Wolf Kahn and Lester Johnson in the 1980s were hand-drawn and painted continuous tone prints, as sublime as any lithograph. And unlike lithography which required drawing in revere, these were generated from drawing directly on the screens with materials and resists of my own invention.
Any printmaking can be the marriage of ink to paper – provided the intent is there – and the willingness to execute the process in a way that realizes that most beautiful concept. And I am not necessarily married to the idea that the ink has to be into the paper. I published a suite of Lester Johnson woodcuts in 1984 that had ink so thick it was raised off of the kitikata paper in a thickness that was 100 times the thickness of the kitikata. In this case, the ink had ‘meaning’ that went well beyond being in the paper or on the paper. I am peculiarly interested in ink, always have been since University when I made my first monochromatic silkscreen inks with ground graphite.
On the Roland printer I use StudioPrint RIP to linearize the new black and the three PiezoTones into one long “black”. I use StudioPrint because it allows me to assign any ink to any print head position. My Roland has 12 individually assignable ink slots. I don’t even give up a choice of photo black or matte black. It allows me to dream of any ink configuration I choose.
So I linearized the SP1 (which is a very cool toned gray) to a specific limited density. I did the same to the orange. I have to use these two inks as Spot colors. StudioPrint, does not give me any way in which to combine all of these inks into something that makes sense with which I can simply print the grayscale and get the result I visualize. It will print my grayscale as the long black, not quite as smooth as my Piezography K7 curves, but much more than adequate. But, it has no mechanism for replacing some of the tone with some of the SPI and some of the Orange. I should say, it has no easy way of doing that and will also allow me to keep my sanity.
Instead, I must separate the inks with Photoshop into three layers of information. The RGB grayscale, and two Spot channels. I choose what goes where by constructing curves. The results are printed as the black and the two spot colors from StudioPrint. They will need to be linearized into a cohesive whole and I must do that outside of both Photoshop and StudioPrint.
I have an Eye-1 spectrophotometer connected to a spreadsheet that I built to linearize multiple inks. The math is a little daunting. But, my first year at University of Miami was spent as a math major until I got a scholarship to attend Ohio University School of Art. I retain just enough math to be dangerous. I use this spreadsheet linearization system to manage the three ink “families” into a cohesive whole. It spits out 16 points for each of the three Photoshop curves I must make to generate the correct amount of ink density from the three grayscale layers (RGB grayscale, Spot 1 and Spot 2).
If you can imagine suddenly injecting some dark toned blue gray ink into a K7 print…it would get very dark. If you injected that tone only in the shadows, they would be too dark. If you put some orange under it in some places, and some orange further up the tonal scale – it would also add density and things would begin to get lumpy. This system I built lets me control inks that are used together to form linearizations. It is very similar in thought and concept apparently, to the TrueBW RIP that I am building master curves for the Canon Piezography system. So this particular ink set I fashioned this week could become an option for the Piezography for Canon system. And in truth, it would be a whole lot easier than to do it the way I am presently.
What is missing for me right now as I work with my Roland and all these custom inks is a visual interface. – I can make a softproof for each output method I construct. But, a softproof is not useful if I am varying the intensities of the toning agents. I would need to make a softproof each time to see what it looks like on my display. My method of working lends itself to pre-visualization rather than a visual interface. If you were trained in the zone system to pre-visualize your images – then you get the idea of what I am trying to express. Pre-visualization in printmaking is not much different when one estimates what inks might do later on under a sequence of other inks. Both of these are my background.
I do not need to see the grayscale in its final color on my display to know what it will look like printed. I can tell when designing these triple split-tones, what specific gray values will be what specific colors in the final print. If I wish to move the tone or color, I simply move the gray values. I could easily construct a K7 ink system that would imitate this effect, but that would mean committing to an ink formulation that only makes this effect. Instead, by keeping all of these toning agents (I formulate several for my own work and for custom print clients), I can make a simple six ink system do many things.
Of course, I think a special K7 or K6 ink set like this could be of interest to some people who would like to produce vintage looking photographs on coated fine art inkjet paper. So that remains a viable potential in my development schedule. But, it would not have as many color variations options as I have with my process. It would have only one varied of course by paper choice.
That’s all technical stuff that I get interested in. The week was actually spent more in a creative manner. True, the technique is also part of my “medium”…my “process”. But, I let it go transparently this week and concentrated on printing images. This has been warm-up week to tackling the next 5 days of ink design and curves architecture for the TrueBW RIP. That particular RIP does not have a curves creation interface. I plan to use it for Piezography for Canon and I will have to be responsible for generating the initial curves architecture. However, the user can plug an Eye-One spectro into it and linearize the master curves.