Not too long ago, I was in Santa Fe, New Mexico. There’s a lot of art galleries in Santa Fe, including several that specialize in photography. I was able to see quite a bit of photographic work spanning the range from old masters to contemporary artists, the majority of it captured on film and made as traditional silver gelatin prints. Viewing all of this work, I came to a somewhat startling realization. I’ve really grown quite fond of modern inkjet prints.
Don’t get me wrong, a well-done traditional silver gelatin print is a thing of beauty. My interest in photography predates the digital camera revolution, and it was photographs made by film and darkroom processes that sparked that interest. My appreciation for the medium remains firmly intact.
Having started in photography as a digital photographer, and having worked exclusively with inkjet printing, I’ve naturally seen and worked with a lot of inkjet prints. To me, inkjet printers and textured matte papers are a match made in heaven. Done well, they produce prints that look and feel, to my eye, a bit warmer and a bit softer than their traditional counterparts, while still remaining distinctly photographic.
It’s a bit hard to put into words. Once, I had a few photographs exhibited in a show that was mostly paintings. I overheard a couple of the guests speculating on what medium my works were, and they went back and forth between photography and woodblock printing. You might think that, as a photographer, I would be offended that someone would think my work could be woodblock prints. I’m not. It’s not a perfect analogy, but this is kind of what I mean when I say that inkjet prints on textured matte papers have a warm and soft quality.
By way of comparison, I couldn’t help but feel that the traditional silver gelatin prints I looked at in Santa Fe felt, well, a little cold and hard. I don’t mean that in a pejorative way, they were still very beautiful. But their beauty was manifested in a way that’s specific to silver gelatin printing technology.
I think among a certain group of photographers, my words here are a kind of heresy. Throughout the short history of inkjet printing, silver gelatin has been the benchmark against which inkjet prints are judged. The battle lines seem to have been drawn over whether or not inkjet prints are “catching up to” or “yet as good as” traditional film and darkroom processes. Few seem to have taken the position that inkjet prints have their own qualities to recommend them, and that in those qualities can achieve excellence on par with the standard set for traditional prints.