Till 2011 I made traditional silver prints in the darkroom. Now I use a Epson Stylus Photo R3000 printer in combination with Piezography system, which supplies sets of inks and a printer driver for the black and white photographer.
The default ink system for the Epson R3000 printer is adapted to mixed use – both colour prints and monochrome. It uses three tones of black (black, light black & light light black) and a variety of colours (cyan, magenta, yellow, light cyan, light magenta). when printing black and white the results are surprisingly good.
The Piezography system replaces the Epson inks with a series of 7 tones ranging from intense black to a grey so light that it is barely distinguishable from white. All the required tones are made up by combining these different inks. The results come close to the quality and richness of darkroom prints.
When I print a negative I first scan the negative at maximum dpi (6400) making multiple passes. I work on the resulting image in Photoshop. Digital printing is in many ways easier for me since it is so much easier to get the general tonal structure of a print right using a well-calibrated screen than in the darkroom – a little work with curves or levels is often all it takes for a print to sing. But occasionally build up a sky-scrapers-worth of layers – that’s usually a sign that I’ve lost my way somewhere, or made a false start.
Because Composition is what interests me most in photography my prints tend to be soft, with less contrast than is the fashion. Contrasty prints eliminate nuance from an image’s composition – giving importance to only the most important elements, setting the eye on tram-lines as it passes over the print. A softer print opens the whole surface of the image to composition and therefore allows more subtle compositional elements to be seen and felt.
A contrasty print works like a piece of high impact journalism: it conveys a single meaning and eliminates ambiguity; a soft print is more like a challenging poem which asks the viewer to engage with it deeply and alertly.
I miss darkroom printing – which is undoubtedly more challenging, but more rewarding, than digital printing. With the latter I can produce a decent print in an afternoon but the process lacks magic, and I miss the hands-on alchemical aspects of being in a darkroom, the smell, feel and smell of chemicals, and the gurgle of water; I miss working in the dark, faintly illuminated by red light, peering at pools of light and making passes over them, like a conjurer…