Lets start at the beginning because ironically the story today, is the same as it was in the early 1800's.
While many experimented in the early 19th century to visually record the world around them, Joseph Niepce is acknowledged as the inventor of photography. In 1826 Niepce made an 8-hour exposure to a bitumen coated pewter plate of the view from his window. He immersed the exposed plate into oil of lavender and white petroleum creating, "Window at Le Gras", the world's first permanent photograph. From that moment, photography would be defined not by the camera but by the print. Over 180 years later, the print not only defines a photograph but to many it is the very definition of photography. As the legendary Jay Maisel recently said, "The print is something that you can sell, that you can leave to someone and it's the print on which you can build your reputation."
From PY-1 [Photography Year 1 in 1826] to PY-161 (1987), photographic printmaking was about advancements, frustrations and the dangers of chemistry. Mid 19th century photographers were sometimes called, "mad hatters." Hat makers of that era used mercury compounds that led to serious mental disorders. Shortened from, "mad as a hatter", photographers often met the same fate as they too were using mercury to produce daguerreotypes. Today some might say photographers are still a bit crazy, but it's no longer about poisoning but about passion!
Many cultivated that passion in the darkroom. Thousands have told me the same story of being in a mysteriously lit room with a towel jammed under the door to block the light, but it felt more like one was blocking out the world for a special event. Then came the pure joy and excitement of watching their first photographic print slowly develop in a tray of chemicals. Alchemy and art came together in that magical moment and they were hooked. Teenagers often discovered romance under the glow of the safelight with the soothing sounds of prints washing in the background.
Over time most grew tired of stained fingers, breathing fixer and being locked away in a dimly lit room for hours trying to make that perfect B&W print. The rudimentary tools of cardboard and coat hanger wire and jiggling them as if roasting marshmallows for dodging, combined with awkward hand contortions for burning, felt downright Dickensian. While one could make C-prints, it just was not practical and there was little control over the color and no control over contrast and saturation. It was during this time that most photographers yielded the craft of printmaking, both color and B&W, to the lab and reluctantly relied on others to interpret their vision. While there were master printmakers and improved analog print processes, in reality, photographic printmaking had become a series of frustrating and time-consuming compromises.
In PY-162 (1988), a rock and roll musician and his best friend changed the course of photographic history when they needed to print an important exhibition, but only had jumbo contact sheets because the original negatives were lost. Graham Nash and Mac Holbert purchased an Iris ink jet printer for a mere $126,000 to produce prints from scans off of the contact sheets. Designed for pre-press proofing, Mac and Graham voided the warranty in the first 10 minutes by using a hacksaw to raise the print head so that thicker paper could be used to produce photographs. As Mac says, "it was quite a moment" and in many ways that moment spawned the beginning of creative control via ink jet technology. One year later in PY-163 (1989), Graham and Mac started Nash Editions which many credit as being the world's first fine art digital printmaking company.
These new ink jet prints found their way into the photography field and quickly met a high degree of resistance because they were "digital". Photography had not been accepted or regarded as a form of collectable art until the 1960's and color photography had not started to gain credibility as a collectable until the 1980's. It was not unexpected that a Luddite literally spat on Mac Holbert at Photo LA in PY-166 (1992) screaming that he and his partner Graham Nash were ruining photography. What this person, and many others could not comprehend, was that inkjet technology would ultimately bring the long lost creative control back to the photographer and eliminate so many of the compromises.
Epson introduced the first color desktop inkjet printer with true photographic quality in PY-168 (1994) and photographers were astounded by the quality. In the last few years of the 20th Century many photographers commented that printing with an Epson reminded them of the joy they used to experience in the darkroom with new levels of control but there were limitations, particularly with permanence.
"Digital C prints" (which are just traditional silver-halide color prints exposed with a laser) and traditional B&W silver prints comprised the majority of photographic printing through PY-174 (2000). In PY-175 (2001) in celebration of the new millennium, Epson produced a ground-breaking exhibition called America in Detail. The traveling exhibition featured photographs by Stephen Wilkes. The prints were made by Nash Editions using an entirely new wide format printer with pigment-based inks that finally overcame the hurdle of print permanence. Luddites flocked to the exhibitions with loupes in hand but could no longer find faults.
In PY-179 (2005), Epson introduced another generation of Stylus Pro printers featuring UltraChrome K3 inks, which had photographers and scholars alike saying that never in the history of photography had so much control been in the hands of so many. The beauty of this latest Epson inkjet technology was that photographers had unprecedented creative control...the agony of this latest Epson inkjet technology was that photographers had unprecedented creative control!
While digital printing seminars and workshops had started at the turn of the 21st century by PY-179 many photographers realized they had to re-educate themselves on printmaking. It was a stressful time of diving into the latest technology, breaking old habits and not just taking control, but taking responsibility for the entire digital workflow. During this time new communities developed where photographers and printmakers of all skills shared their knowledge. There was feeling that by sharing, and not hording, everyone would benefit. From my perspective this was photography's Renaissance, spurred to some degree by digital capture, but in many more ways through digital printing with Epson inkjet technology.
At this time of this writing in PY-183 (2009) even more amazing technical advancements have been made with the 900 class of Epson Stylus Pro printers and UltraChrome HDR ink. Epson inkjet printing is highly regarded and accepted as the leading technology for photographic printing. It's also amazing to look back at the incredible progress that has occurred in just the past few years.
But in the end, as it was from the beginning, it's not about the technology it's still all about the print. With input from many of the world's leading professionals and with the view from Niepce's window in mind, Epson's zeal is to continuously improve inkjet technology. That zeal is not about the technology in of itself, but in getting the technology out of the way so the focus is purely on the print...because the print endures.
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