In print a digital image there are a lot of processes that can be used and unlike the wet darkroom days. In my practice, I am using a number of printing methods, however, I would to focus on is pigment ink printers for the purposes of this discussion. When printing 17 by 22 I use an Epson 3880 printer, and print on hot press bright cotton paper (fine art paper). What I find interesting about pigment ink printers is the similarity it has to other forms of planographic and intaglio printmaking process where pigment inks and cotton papers are used. Unlike chromogenic prints or C-prints processes, the materiality of a pigment in print is quite different. There are two advantages to pigment ink printers, first, the surface is whiter than C-prints which tend to have a dull less sharp look, and second, the gamut or range of colours is greater.
The Painters World
The traditional triad-based colour wheel painters for mixing pigments is quite different from the pigment used in digital printing. Painters have a wide variety of paints to choose from which are created using a large variety of pigments. Orginally most pigments were ground-up organic materials, but over time synthetic pigment colours have been introduced. Two of these, cyan and magenta now form the fundamental basis of the digital printing process. The problem from a painter’s perspective is magenta is not technically red and when mixed according to the wheel with yellow it tends to acquire a brown hue, and of course, cyan is not blue and has similar issues.
Chromogenic Print Making
In the colour dark rooms of the 70s colour was done with up to three filters, as the light passed through the enlarger head your prints tended towards blue if it was a Fuji film or red if it was a Kodak. So your choice of paper had to be calibrated toward the filter colouring choices. This meant the gamut one could achieve in the darkroom was more limited than what digitally we can achieve today and much further away from what a painter could achieve.
You can see by comparing the two colour wheels that there is a difference in the colour one is working with. In the colour, darkroom blue is closer to purple and the red has an orange hue. So the colours that can be created this way are different and one has to be careful during the mixing process not to acquire too green a hue or too purple a hue. You are also working with cyan and Magenta.
The Digital Pigment Ink Prints
Digital printmaking now has a wider range of colours than traditional darkroom colour prints but this varies depending on your printer. In the common home printers, four pigments are used black, cyan, magenta and yellow.
In the Epson 3880 pigment printer, the palette is much broader, however magentas and cyans still dominate. As you look at larger Epson printed more pigments are available such as orange, greens and violets.
Keep in mind the whites of the image come from the paper and papers can vary widely in terms of how they produce a white, the white substrate does have an impact on the luminosity of the print and presentation of the pigments. I use the whitest hot press bright fine art paper which is cotton paper because of its bright white surface.
Print Pigments Painterly Quality
Digital printmaking has advanced technology by using more traditional fine art materials, such as pigments and fine art paper. This means more colour range and better blacks and whites opening up more creative choices. In so doing colour accuracy, which is critically important in most professions, for the artist moves them closer to the world of the painter in which colour accuracy is less important. It is now possible to use digital technology to print images, that look more like paintings than traditional photographs.
When you tell someone the image is a photograph people’s expectations of this media can cloud their perceptions idea of photography. These expectations can vary depending on their experience. Individuals who have been exposed extensively to chromogenic images may see the richer colours, deep blacks and bright whites as some sort of enhancement; leading them to think or ask if the image has been photoshopped, even if technically the print is accurate. Those who have been exposed to a lot of digital media where extensive colour grading as they do in TV shows like CSI: Miami may have a very different reaction.
Documentary versus Fine Art Printing
I am wondering if we need to consider a new way of referring to this form of printmaking, after all, it is a two-dimensional illusion a facsimile, like other forms of two-dimensional art. The difficulty with the word photograph is photography has been used extensively to document or accurately record events, represent evidence in courts, and record historical events in the press. Photography has as result been an instrument of reform as it shines a light on the darkest corners of our society. Accuracy is paramount when using photography for this purpose and photojournalists are not allowed to manipulate or enhance an image (although the act of framing can change the meaning of a photograph dramatically). This aversion to manipulation often influences how people look at photographs. The sciences when recording and analyzing microscopic worlds and galaxies also have a rigorous need for accuracy.
It is a complex process and the following flow charts give you some idea of the detail involved in getting an image to reflect the colour that was present when the image was taken.
How to Describe the Difference
If the word photography has this kind of influence on how people look at things called photographs even if they are present in a fine art venue, perhaps we need to find a new way of delineating the difference between fine art and documentary photography. In the fine arts world, accuracy is less important, it’s more about expression and the ability to evoke an emotional or conceptual reaction. Like a painter the making of a digital fine art print may need to have different tones harmonized, the intensity of certain colours adjusted, and the hues may need to be tweaked. All these decisions are decisions more akin to what a painter might consider than a documentary photographer.
It has been suggested to me that “digital-based image making” or “photo-based image making” might be a more accurate way to refer to this sort of photographic process. I tend to think the first term is more inclusive and less problematic. It seems a more accurate way of describing fine art image-making while distancing it from the documentary form of photography, at least until a better term evolves.