The Changing Nature of Fine Art Photography
by Scott A. Williams
“With the new generation of large format printers, pigmented inks and digital fine art paper, we’re experiencing a defining moment in color photography.”
So says Rick Ehrlich, a California-based photographer whose striking images are finding an enthusiastic following among galleries, museums and fine art collectors. “Until now, museums and many serious collectors have been hesitant to buy color work because the prints fade in eight or nine years. Now, with archival quality inks and paper, they’ll last for generations.”
Among color images destined to last for generations are Ehrlich’s photographs of the desert in Namibia. When diamonds were discovered in the remote Namibian desert during the 1920’s, a town boomed in isolation. Grand homes were built with artistic flair. But when more diamonds were discovered elsewhere, the town was abandoned and the houses gradually fell victim to the desert.
Ehrlich captured images depicting human endeavor and its conflict with the relentless march of wind-blown sands. “If you went back every day for a year you’d have 365 different photographs because the sand comes in every day, covering and uncovering whatever’s in its path. I had the extreme good fortune to be there when it was raining, which almost never happens there. The rain made the red sand darker. Who knows when such an opportunity will happen again.”
The images were shot using a Contax 645 medium format camera and a Hasselblad Xpan camera, then digitally scanned and printed by Nash Editions with an Epson 9600 inkjet printer and pigmented inks. The most recent group of prints, prepared for a show at the Anne Reed Galley in Sun Valley, Idaho, was printed on Arches Infinity Smooth digital inkjet paper.
“Arches Infinity is superior quality paper for digital fine art photography,” says Ehrlich. “I absolutely love how the rich colors stand out. When my photographs are printed on Arches Infinity, they look more like paintings than like photographs. People ask me, ‘How do you paint that?’ and they are amazed to learn that it’s done with a camera.”
Ehrlich contends that the cameras used by fine art photographers will soon be exclusively digital. “It’s getting to the point that the larger megapixel cameras are better than film. I have an 11 megapixel camera that’s as good as film. It’s probably better and it’s vastly more convenient.”
Ehrlich gives much credit for his rapid climb to success to digital imaging pioneer Nash Editions. “I feel privileged to work with Nash Editions,” he says. “Mack Holbert, Nash’s master printmaker, is so highly regarded because each image is so beautifully printed.” Nash Editions has chosen Arches paper for years. Arches Watercolor paper, for example is the “original” digital imaging paper and still the preferred choice for use with the Iris printer.
When Arches approached Nash Editions about a new coated paper specifically for digital inkjet printing with pigmented inks, Holbert agreed to do beta testing and give his impression of the test papers. “Over a series of iterations,”Holbert explains, “Arches was able to come up with a good balance, and Arches Infinity has that balance. It’s an aesthetically pleasing paper. It’s a wide color gamut paper. It’s nice to have the choice of bright white or natural white, smooth or textured. Personally, I prefer the smooth. I love the color space and how well it holds an image. It has a wonderful dMax for a good solid black, which is the foundation of digital printmaking. It gives you a really punchy image with color that’s in your face.”
Holbert is quick to emphasize the critical importance of printer profiles in digital inkjet printmaking. “We used a GretagMacbeth SpectroScan and a Spectrolino and ProfileMaker 4.1 software to profile Arches Infinity.” Holbert says that in the past year the manufacture of high-end inkjet printers has become so precise that variance from the norm is too small for a human eye to see. “What that means,” he explains, “is now you really just have to profile for the paper and the ink set for a given printer model, not for every individual printer. That’s much easier.”
Given all these advances, Rick Ehrlich predicts a bright digital future for fine art photography. “With the printers, pigmented inks and museum-grade paper now available, my photographs capture a unique moment in time and then withstand the test of time.”
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