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Epson Show

March 25, 2001

Making Each Photographed Detail More Real Than Reality


HENRY WILHELM, a foremost authority on the conservation of color photographs, says that the show is an event that will be recorded in the history books and that he is thrilled to be alive to witness it. The event is "Epson's America in Detail: A Photographic Collection," a traveling show that is on view both in Santa Monica, Calif., through next Sunday and at the Navy Pier in Chicago through April 6.

In keeping with the turn that history has been taking recently, the exhibition is in fact a trade advertisement for a new technology. History often rides in on the back of new technologies, if less often on brand names. Still, photographic history has been transported by technologies (art history sometimes, too), so the advances this show represents might indeed end up in the history books — if technology doesn't eliminate books first.

On the walls in Chicago, and in Santa Monica at the Patricia Correia Gallery at Bergamot Station Arts Center, are 40 large color photographs by Stephen Wilkes, the largest about three by eight and a half feet. These are good, straight, reportorial and engaging pictures of a kind familiar from magazines, about people and places in America in the year 2000. But the real subjects are the newest printers and inksets by Epson, the electronics company. What these produce is just another printing process, but a process with an uncommon degree of detail at large scale as well as unprecedented longevity.

The exhibition would be called hyper-real if reality weren't a dirty word by now. America in detail indeed: the detail is overwhelming and almost unequaled by other color photographs. Every red and white stripe of the flag is reflected in an airman's eye, every insect swarming over a billboard that advertises food is visible in the photograph. The sense of depth is palpable, the sense of light and atmosphere convincing, the color brilliant. A hall in Grand Central Terminal grandly recedes behind a workman; early sunlight spreads like a blessing over a vineyard and morning mist; a palomino's coat stands out rich and warm against a pale green field and a charcoal-colored sky.

At first glance, these look like just another instance of high-color, polished reporting of the sort that National Geographic and travel advertisements specialize in, but these photographs have actually achieved the optical intensity those only pretended to. This is a bit startling. Marvin Heiferman, curator of the show with Carole Kismaric, said at a press conference when the show was at the Chelsea Piers in New York in January and February that he kept looking into every office window in a picture of Times Square to see what was on the walls. He sounded like the observer in 1839 who expressed wonder at being able to count every brick in a daguerreotype.

Photography is notorious for giving us more details than the eye can take in unaided, but color photography has not picked up every hair and pore like this. Andreas Gursky's photographs now at the Museum of Modern Art — printed in a darkroom, even if often manipulated in the computer beforehand — may seem amazingly sharp from a distance, but up close none have anything like the precision of these prints. The new experience is like looking at a painting by Jan Van Eyck, who could make you suspect that he habitually regarded the world through a magnifying glass.

What we used to think of as reality could never live up to the new inkjet prints. Human eyes are always on information overload. Millions of bits of information zoom into the brain every minute, but there's an editor there who says, "You can handle only so much; here's what you'll see." Besides, confronting a man instead of a picture, you wouldn't have the time (or the effrontery) to count the hairs in his eyebrows.

Current technology constantly provides greater and greater fidelity, which we consumers lap up. Old records and CD's are remastered. Stereo sound to mimic our right-left hearing has come to cinema, television and computers. Digital video is being engineered to approximate the richness and clarity of analog film. High definition television is on the wish list of millions of people. The illusions of virtual reality are becoming increasingly, um, real. The less direct contact we have, the more representation we are immersed in, the more we seek to replicate the look and sound of direct experience and even to better it. We the consumers feel entitled to demand that the substitutes we live with at least pretend not to be pretenders.

Color photographs up to now have been compromises, but we were accustomed to them. No photographer can print quite what he or she saw or what was registered on the negative or transparency because no enlarger can handle it adequately. The computer program Photoshop, however, can — in combination with the right inks, printer and paper and in the hands of a master printmaker like R. Mac Holbert, who printed Mr. Wilkes's images. Mr. Wilkes made his photographs with standard cameras and film, then scanned them into a computer; Mr. Holbert added nothing that was not there but brought out what was.

Digitally printed photographs are not new, nor are inkjet prints. Most people on the art circuit would be stunned to realize how many inkjet prints they have already seen, by the likes of John Baldessari, Chuck Close, Jim Dine, Annie Leibovitz, Diana Michener, Joel Meyerowitz, Robert Rauschenberg, Bert Stern, William Wegman and many others. The most beautiful such prints to date, Iris prints, were made with a printer manufactured by Iris Graphics.

Inkjet printers lay down ink in hundreds of tiny dots per inch on just about any absorbent material that will go through the printer, including watercolor paper and canvas. No photo emulsion. No chemicals. No darkroom other than Photoshop.

Digital printing in general can do lots of tricks. Photoshop can restore damaged prints and print them out like new. Inkjet can imitate old processes so successfully that once a print is under glass, even an expert is hard put to tell it is not an original. Digital printing can make unique Polaroids into editions and produce endless faithful replicas inexpensively. and sell authorized digital prints by well- known artists and photographers in editions of 500 to 1,000 at a fraction of gallery prices. Artland's prints come with certificates signed by the printer rather than the artist.

Digital color printers have up to now used dye-based inks, just as traditional color printing processes have. The new Epson printers use pigment-based inksets, similar to those used by the automotive industry. Both Epson and Hewlett Packard devised such inksets for outdoor signs; they had been looking for something permanent and resistant to pollutants. Dyes fade: consider your upholstery. Pigments last: consider oil paintings.

The present life expectancy of the most common types of color photographs ranges from 2 or 3 years to an upward limit of about 60. Mr. Wilhelm calculates that the new pigment prints will last 200 years, which makes them either art or hand-me- downs but certainly collectibles. (Incidentally, he was commissioned by Epson to test their prototypes — and commissioned by all their competitors to do the same.)

A few people began printing photographs with inkjet printers in the early 1990's, when the inks were still made from dyes. The pictures were beautiful but didn't last long. Iris, Epson, Canon and Hewlett Packard, electronics companies all, saw a new market and got into the photography business by default.

The origin myths are multiple. Chuck Close says the color office printer was inspired by his art. His early paintings were made by a painstaking process of laying down dots of color atop one another until they built up to the color he was after. About 1970, as he tells it, a Japanese inventor who saw his show began to fiddle with three air brushes that would mechanically place colors one atop another, a process that became the basis for the inkjet printer. Harry Bowers, a master printer based in New York, says he made the world's first digitally printed color photograph in 1985, using an early Mac and a frame grab from a video. Hoping to make continuous- tone pictures, he colored three black and white ribbons with the three different colors — cyan, magenta and yellow — that underlie most color printing and ran the image through a printer three times.

Whoever invented it, it's here, presenting us with details we would have surely missed without it. Ms. Kismaric, the co-curator of "Epson's America in Detail," offhandedly remarked that now that images offered so much to see, photography would have to come up with something substantial to say. Something substantial to say? Now that's an old problem. That predates both dyes and pigments — and will outlast them all.  

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