When Epson introduced photographic quality pigment-based inks, many in the industry noted that the future of photographic printing had arrived. However, photographers quickly pointed out that the future of color photographic printing may have arrived but not when it came to Black and White. Rich blacks reproduced as muddy dark grays, there was color contamination in the lower and upper scale and a weird phenomenon of prints looking neutral under one light source then shifting blue or green under different types of lighting. This metameric failure known colloquially as "metamerism" was inherent in analog prints but at a much lower level.
On-line forums were gaining popularity and it seemed that metamerism was the number one gripe in posts about digital photography. Many thought these complaints reinforced that silver halide B&W printing was sacrosanct and that no one should mess with the legacy of Minor White, Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. But Epson saw an opportunity to begin a dialogue with leaders in B&W including devotees of the Zone System, respectfully known as Zonies. The goal was not to discredit silver halide B&W, but to develop technologies that might ultimately provide greater creative control.
Through this dialogue Epson better understood the tonal scale requirements for B&W, the need for a high D-max, and that until metamerism was overcome everything else was moot. A few within Epson were classically trained in the darkroom and conducted internal classes on the technical aspects of B&W printing, plus the harder to define, but mission critical understanding of what it was like to have your hands in the developer. As Jeff Schewe told us, "Its not about B&W but all the grays in-between". Those grays were measurable on a densitometer, but from an aesthetic perspective un-measurable in the infinite ways they can tell a story, create empathy and change public opinion.
As new inkjet printing systems were developed with dramatic improvements in color, Epson listened carefully to the B&W experts. Legends like John Sexton diplomatically told us we were making limited progress in B&W. They also spoke to the importance of the paper itself. There were discussions of the irony that the most basic technology in analog photography was the most challenging in digital photography. But to many, B&W has always been more difficult than color. Advanced step-by-step techniques were developed over decades with traditional silver halide B&W materials.
This rigorous and mathematical approach often took years to master but at its core was really a series of published recipes. The best cooks often take their dishes to new levels by discarding the original instructions. The same could be said of great B&W photographers who disregard the comfort of a classic characteristic curve shape. For example Greg Gorman likes to "slam the histogram" purposely losing shadow detail to create an increased sense of mystery in his B&W prints of well-known personalities. With training one can produce a technically correct and at the same time boring silver halide B&W print. As Ansel Adams said, "There is nothing worse than a sharp photograph of a fuzzy concept". While Adams is credited with formulating the Zone System, a mathematical approach to the control of silver halide black and white materials, he also said, "There are no rules for good photographs, just good photographs".
In 2005 there was a breakthrough. In addition to 3 new black inks in the Epson Ultrachrome K3 ink set, a new Advanced Black and White print mode was incorporated into the driver. D-max on microporous papers was similar to silver halide B&W papers, metamorism had been overcome and there was no color contamination in the upper or lower scale. There was excitement that B&W could finally cross into the digital world and take advantage of the almost infinite creative control of a digital workflow. But the B&W experts told us that while the advances were remarkable and that they could now print some of their work digitally, true B&W had to have the look and feel of a classic fiber-based, double-weight, F-surface air-dried silver gelatin print.
Epson had already started development on a B&W paper that had the characteristics of revered silver halide papers but kept hitting technical roadblocks. There were challenges never before experienced with permanence, bronzing, scratching and head strikes. After several years of development that kept pace with the improvements with printer technology Epson introduced Exhibiton Fiber Paper. The D-max was a stunning 2.6, the thickness was just like double-weight, the lightfastness ratings were good and the surface texture and gloss level looked like it came from the darkroom. Word quickly spread that it was now okay, to paraphrase that old warning found in college darkrooms, to open up the door and let the dark leak out. There was a new irony that this innovative paper developed for B&W, also produced stunning color prints.
For me this entire process is reminiscent of an ancient Chinese saying - "Respect the past, live in the present and dream of the future". The traditional silver halide B&W print must always be respected. It was the very foundation of modern photography but its technical limitations are now giving way to a digital B&W workflow that opens up unlimited creative control without technical constraints. But most importantly Epson continues to work closely with leading creative professionals and together are not only dreaming about the future, but diligently working on making that future a reality.
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