Paper development is central to the evolution of printed photographs. By the time I got involved in photography in the early '70s, the beauty of photo papers had started to devolve. Virtually all color paper had become like plastic, and black-and-white RC (resin-coated) paper was showing up everywhere. It seemed that the love of conventional gelatin-silver prints was rapidly becoming the domain of fine-art photography only. Unfortunately, as digital technology gained momentum, those beautiful papers seemed to be unknown to the world of inkjet printing and became less available for the darkroom. It seemed like handmade platinum and palladium prints were the only ones that still looked like paper, and even they had to be printed on the smoothest surfaces to maintain detail and minimize problems.
With the digital age have come wonderful new technologies that have allowed the process of fine-art image capture to progress to previously unfathomable levels of quality and beauty. At the same time, and equally important, it has birthed a new realm of possibility in fine-art print aesthetics that goes in an entirely different direction than the mid-20th-century gelatin-silver papers.
I believe it was somewhere around 1992 when I first saw an inkjet photo print made on cotton art paper. It was stunning, and I began having some of my own images printed on fine-art papers by The Digital Pond, a then fine-art IRIS printing house in San Francisco. As I look back, seeing my photographs printed on a material that felt like real paper was one of the highlights of this whole digital photography evolution. It's ironic that the digital process is taking me back onto a material so basic and beautiful as cotton-fiber paper.
Unfortunately, as intriguing and often beautiful as those early prints were, none of the papers had an inkjet-compatible coating. This created real problems with ink bleed and shadow detail. Then in the late 1990s I became aware of a German specialty paper company named Hahnemühle.
I later learned that, as one of the oldest paper mills in the world, they had been producing fine-art papers for over 400 years. When I first saw inkjet prints on some of Hahnemühle's coated cotton papers, I was completely seduced by their beauty--and was thrilled to learn that they were going to bring to market a new Digital Fine-Art line. As an early adopter of digital inkjet printing, and as a true lover of cotton-fiber papers with a definite idea of how I wanted to see these papers evolve, collaboration with Hahnemühle seemed full of potential.
Birth of a new classic: Hahnemühle Museum Etching 350gsm
Working with Hahnemühle in the U.S. and in Germany, we set out to create a unique, high-quality digital paper designed to meet my requirements, which I believed were also those of many demanding professional artists, photographers, galleries, and museums. I have long wanted a stable, white, 100% cotton-fiber, fine-art paper with a traditional printmaking surface of moderate texture and heavy substance. After several months of working back and forth with Hahnemühle, they presented me with a paper that exceeded my expectations. It was aptly named Museum Etching.
Museum Etching 350gsm is a 100% paper made from what I am told are the finest cotton fibers available. The color is a lovely natural white, with a rich surface texture and substantial weight--which I consider gorgeous for fine-art inkjet printing. It features a high-quality, stable coating and contains no acid or optical brighteners. It is rated at ISO 9706 and, with these qualities, should remain color stable for hundreds of years.
I have been using Museum Etching 350gsm almost exclusively for all my fine-art prints for galleries and individual collectors, as well as in my digital printing classes. There has been very little linting, and it profiled well on the first try.
Of course, I still missed the look of gelatin-silver prints, so I started lobbying for the creation of an inkjet version of a heavy gelatin paper. Rising to the occasion, Hahnemühle developed Photo Rag Pearl 320gsm, and added it to the Digital Fine-Art line. I've seen it since its introduction. Photo Rag Pearl 320gsm is also a natural-white, OBA-free, 100% rag paper, but it features a slightly smoother gelatin finish that echoes traditional gelatin-silver papers and works beautifully with many of my black-and-white images.
The arts are about beauty, not expediency. Likewise, good materials cost more than cheap materials. The Hahnemühle Digital Fine-Art line includes some of the best digital print media available on the market today, and it will cost you more than ordinary paper. In my opinion, it's well worth it.
As I tell my printing students who may hesitate a bit at the cost of the paper I use in my course: Just think of how much time, money, and effort you have invested in your photographs. Next, consider how much you are investing to study fine-art printing. It would seem to me that using anything less than the best materials would be a terrible waste of that time, money, and effort--especially when you realize that you'll probably spend more on gas for your car to get here.
Stephen Johnson is a noted photographer, designer, and teacher. His photography explores the concerns of a landscape artist working in an increasingly industrialized world. He is considered by many to be the pioneer of digital photography, and his work is extensively published and exhibited worldwide in galleries, museums, and private collections. His most recent book, Stephen Johnson on Digital Photography, by O'Reilly, has been called the seminal book on digital photography. For more information, including his 2009 workshop schedule, visit www.sjphoto.com.
For more info. on the Hahnemühle Digital Fine-Art line of inkjet papers, visit www.hahnemuhledirect.com