For Joel Meyerowitz, inkjet printing offers a more faithful description of
the world than C-prints or dye transfers.
For most of my printing life I accepted that there was no alternative to what chemicals could do. I always thought the best match to a color negative was a C-print, or, when I could afford it, a dye-transfer print. The image that changed my mind is one I took in Tuscany, of a bleached-out dirt road receding into a clump of trees with cut fields on either side.
I had tried every inkjet printer that was supposed to be any good, and always found them wanting in one way or another. Though I used them to make prints for laying out book dummies or exhibitions, I never could sell their output as fine-art prints. The dealers wouldn't take it and most of the art world wouldn't accept it. "Inkjet prints?" they'd say. "I've got an inkjet printer too."
A few years ago, right after I'd finished my book on Tuscany, Inside the Light, an HP Designjet 130 printer came into the studio for us to test. The book's master prints had just come back from the press, so we decided to scan one of the Tuscany negatives and make a print on the HP for comparison. We didn't do anything special in terms of manipulating the image. I said, Let's not go crazy, let's just see what this printer does.
"The secret to my success with the Designjet 130 is HP Premium Plus Satin inkjet printing paper. It's an extraordinary invention. The paper has six layers, and the top layer incorporates some kind of nanotechnology that causes it to open up when a hot, wet droplet of ink hits it. The paper swallows the dye into a layer below the surface; that layer is shielded from the layer beneath it by a buffer. Beneath the buffer is a brilliant white layer that reflects light back through the ink. After the ink hits the paper's top layer, it seals up so that it's impermeable to atmospheric elements.
Pemium Plus Satin really looks like a traditional photographic paper in its surface properties. Among other things, it defeats bronzing, which for me has been the death knell of inkjet papers."
The digital print came out and I took it to our viewing station along with the C-print I'd made for the book -- a print that probably took me eight or nine tries to get right in the darkroom. And when I looked at the two prints side by side, I realized, something's happened here. On the day I took the picture, I wrote in my log that the field on the right side of the road was freshly cut -- I could smell it -- and the field on the left, being much yellower, had probably been cut a week or two before. Yet in the C-print, the right-hand field is swallowed in a kind of gold that's homogenous with the gold on the other side of the road. There wasn't the differentiation that I'd originally observed.
Throughout the print, in fact, the greens were being smothered by yellow. And even though the trees in the center of the scene were different -- a cypress, a pignoli, some other young tree -- they all had the same khaki green color in the C-print. Then I looked at the print from the Designjet 130, and each of those trees had individuality. The pignoli had its red needles and bows up underneath the green of the tree, the cypress had its own hue, and the young tree had the different green of its new leaves. There was also a visible difference between the golden field on the left side of the road and the freshly-cut field on the right; in the freshly cut field, green was mixed in with the gold. I started to see that the digital print gave me a gamut much closer to what's inherent in the negative.
Anyone who has spent time in the darkroom knows the struggles and the tradeoffs of traditional printing. I think that contemporary digital printing, together with Photoshop, gives you the opportunity to recast certain pictures that were at best a compromise -- prints where you had just a few seconds to move your hands in the light and, hopefully, open up some little corner that you were worried might go too dark. But there was never enough time.
This image of a lighted doorway on Cape Cod was one of those 8x10 negatives that I could never get a good print from. It had inherent flaws because of the long exposure and the fact that the light was coming at the camera. During the exposure the light had leached into dark areas of the scene, and I just couldn't burn and dodge in a way that was authoritative. To get rid of the halation I had to hold back the interior of the doorway while I burned in around it. It was always just a mess, too light here, too dark there. I basically gave up on that negative years ago, and yet I knew that from my memory that it could be an interesting image.