19 July 2010

The Real Revolution, Part 2

LensWork editor Brooks Jensen is a bit garrulous and imposes a strict editorial vision on his journal. There is a even a certain LensWork aesthetic, which I myself love, but which some believe unduly influences the work of aspiring photographers who are highly motivated to be featured. Brooks Jensen is also opinionated. He's lit some fires with his arguments that art photography is often overpriced, and recently a similarly provocative 2007 editorial (Issue #73) caught my eye.

The real revolution in photography, says Jensen, mostly unnoticed and unremarked, is in the quality of lithographic printing. The development of technologies like computer-to-plate printing and stochastic screening, and other general advances, have pushed print quality up and prices down dramatically in just a couple of decades.

Two measures of print quality are maximum black density (d-max) and the fineness and quality of dot structure. By dot quality, I refer to the fact that traditional halftone printing screens dots in a fixed geometric pattern, like a computer screen, and just varies the size of the dots to produce tone, whereas silver-based films and prints have a fixed dot size (grain) but a pattern that varies in placement and density (darker tones are more dense). This looks more natural to our eyes, and stochastic screening replicates this film quality in lithographic printing.

To demonstrate the revolution in print quality, Jensen evaluated the d-max and dots of (1) a 1968 art photo book of the highest quality for its day (Paul Strand's Tir a'Mhurain); (2) a likewise state-of-the-art 1989 volume, Ansel Adams' Yosemite and the Range of Light; (3) an original art-quality silver print, Wynn Bullock's Child in Forest, 1951; and (4) a test lithograph of that same silver print using excellent but less-than-top-of-the-line current print processes.

Strand's 1968 book has a d-max of 1.79 and was printed at 175 lpi (traditional screening). Jensen says, visually, those reproductions look perhaps 65% as good as the original silver prints. Adams' 1989 book has a d-max of 1.92 and was printed at 300 lpi (traditional screening). It looks perhaps 85% as good as the original prints. The print Child in Forest has a d-max of 2.07 with a fine film grain (=stochastic pattern). Of course it rates 100%.

Finally, the lithograph of the print has a d-max of 2.25 and was printed tritone with a 20-micron stochastic screen. This is close to the standard LensWork duotone printing spec. And if money were no object, the press is capable of twice that resolution, roughly equivalent to a 1000 lpi screen, with even more tones. As it was, compared to the original gelatin silver print:

    the blacks in the offset print were a deeper black than the gelatin silver photograph; the whites were whiter; the detail was sharper; that indefinable presence that is characterized by a certain glow, a certain three-dimensionality, a certain indefinable magic, was more present in the offset as a lithographically printed image than in the gelatin silver. And, this was not just my opinion but the universal opinion of virtually everyone I've shown this image to, even in some controlled, blind tests.

The result is that "the issue of LensWork you hold in your hands has a finer dot structure and blacker maximum density—in a $10 magazine—than Ansel Adams was able to achieve in his $125 state-of-the-art museum quality monograph less than 20 years ago." That alone is something to shout about. But the ability to reproduce quite inexpensively offset prints that exceed the quality of handcrafted silver prints is, in both historical and aesthetic terms, really staggering.

This is revolutionary for all who love photography, in a good way, but not unambiguously so for photographers. Jensen says one fine art photographer told him that three customers in one year returned prints to him because they did not look as good as the reproductions in his book. And others have admitted to him that they limit the sharpening of the images that they prepare for publication—make them deliberately less-good—so that their prints do not suffer in comparison.

Jensen goes on from there to explore the implications of this for photo print sales and value. That interests me less. And all this is just an explanation of the science behind a wonderful aesthetic experience and minor miracle. Of now being able to open up a $10 magazine and drink in photos almost as beautiful and striking as any that have emerged from a master printmaker's darkroom.

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