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Friday, 22 February 2019


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"I actually had a dream about making prints with a big Epson last night—and in my dream, I had figured out a way to make someone else pay for the ink. I'm not kidding."

Hmm. Perhaps time to get a testosterone-level test...

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming. I went to a photo show of historic prints at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where I could barely make out the images because of low lighting and protective glass. I wanted to pull out my iPhone and turn on the flashlight app to check out the pix, but I chickened out. There seems to be a basic contradiction here -- they want to preserve rare prints, but for what? So they can sit in drawers, unseen, until they're dead? Or they're pulled out for some kind of ritual artifact display, in which you can't actually see the photos, but have to take it on faith that they're there? With delicate, sensitive photos, why doesn't the museum make precise copies, which I think really good digital printers could do, and display those, so we could see the images under brighter lights? You wouldn't get to see the actual artifact, but why is that different than seeing an actual artifact (say, Moonrise) that was "printed later?" And often, much later? I've also noticed that with many really old, delicate photos, some of the details are hard to make out, even under crystal clear museum glass. I think it would be very interesting to make a precise copy of the photo, right down to the the precise colors or shades, and to the exact millimeter in correct size, as the main point of a display, but then surround it with blow-ups of details, and also tonal adjustments that the curators believe would accurately represent the original, un-aged print.

I remember when I first encountered an inexplicably darkened photo exhibit at a museum, annoying as hell, and just chalked it up to some temporary technical problem. But then it kept reoccurring... Meanwhile, paintings, sculpture, etc never lack for light. Do they save on light at photo exhibits (only) because they think the public buys that it's to "protect" the photographs?

About 35 years ago (I believe it was IBM, could have been AT&T) had a showing of Karsh prints in the lobby of their 5th Avenue headquarters.
The prints were large--on the order of 4x5 feet they were spot lit , and got considerable base illumination. They were wonderful, and the highlights positively glowed. They were epic pictures of epic people, I loved it.
I was in MoMA last year and the photographs were actually hard to see.

I have always used a standardized print viewing light. In the darkroom, I just copied what David Vestal did, A 16x20" plexiglass squeegee-ing board, leaning back 5-10 degrees from vertical and a 100 watt or so R-40 flood about 5-6 feet away for even illumination.
For digital, instead of a print viewing booth, I illuminated a 4'x5' section of a wall (painted Munsell gray #8 with 4 Solux 5000k filtered Halogens in a track light system where the lamps were angled for even coverage and the fixture was moved back & forth until I got a meter reading specified as a Standard illumination level.
I do that with the regular lights off. With regular lights on is my second test.
The Solux set is surprisingly cheap, maybe $100-150 for a 4 head track fixture
This atlas gives me consistency.
My Image print RIP profiles are all available for Daylight (or D50 illuminant) or 3200k.
When people buy prints, I show them the difference, and give them a link to Tailored Lighting.

>> conservation of the institution's electric bills

Is this still true with LEDs now?

“Optical brighteners in printing paper also threw inexperienced printmakers off, especially if they evaluated their prints under fluorescent lights.”

Or perhaps they were just not very good printmakers? (It does not seem to me to be a lot worse than not looking at your prints in proper light.)

One more thing. When printing for reproduction, the platemaking guys really liked dark prints, so if the prints were "liberated" from some magazine's filing cabinet, they are going to be dark.

I make a fair number of prints, mostly because I enjoy the process (my production far exceeds the capacity of my wall space), but what I really want is an electronic ‟frame” with the color characteristics and high dynamic range to show digital photographs to their best advantage regardless of the ambient light.

The functional spec I have in mind includes:

(1) wide gamut (~Adobe RGB);
(2) high dynamic range (>= 1000:1);
(3) high resolution (>= 200 px/inch);
(4) thin (<= 2.5 inch);
(5) square, to handle both landscape and portrait orientations;
(6) battery-powered (i.e., no cords).

As far as I can determine, only the battery-powered requirement might be a stretch for current technology—although I’m not aware of any manufacturer that is currently offering square panels. I've seen one product that I might be willing to live with, despite it being corded and rectangular (it can be used in either orientation), except for the fact that it only displays images in fixed aspect ratios.

A good print, well-illuminated, can be quite striking, but a good digital image has subtleties in both the highlights and especially the shadows that can only be optimally displayed by a transmissive medium.

How one prints is at times driven by the display conditions. Under good quartz/halogen lighting a print that otherwise looks dark will sing - and look great. A low light level color image of last rays of sun on a bristlecone snag looks flat - until you see it in late evening light - then is is amazing.
Knowing the display lighting helps when printing. Putting information with the print about what one believes will look best can help when one is deciding how to show the image.

I recall one of the Ansel Adams programs in which he took a fresh, wet print and put it in the microwave to see what it would look like when it "dried down," as he described it. The video just kept going as the microwave cooked, and Adams said with a wry smile, "You have to wait!"

"A bit of technical background: the light that strikes a print actually passes through the emulsion twice—once on the way in toward the paper base, and once after it reflects off the paper and comes back out."

Is this only true of a silver print or does it also apply to an inkjet print? Probably obvious to all, but the term emulsion took me back to a very specific place, far, far from my monitor and Epson.

...Low light levels are common even in good museums today. This is a custom or fashion based on some mix of two things: conservation of the prints, and conservation of the institution's electric bills...

Today there's no excuse for the second thing. High-CRI LEDs in a choice of color temperatures now enable any institution to light prints as brightly as desired with very low kWh consumption.

That conservation thing is another matter. I've gotten to the point where it's not worthwhile traveling any distance to view exhibits. They're almost always so dark one cannot see the prints anyway.

In my my good old darkroom days, I viewed my prints by a light bulb hung over the fixer tray. (Didn't we all?) It was at least a 60-watter, but it could even have been 100. Under that bright bulb, with my eyes still adapted to the dark, those prints looked wonderful, from the inky blacks to the dazzling highlights. But now when I dig them out of storage, they look dark and grim. Like wearing dark sunglasses in the late afternoon. Granted, that was my style then, but those prints will never look their best unless I spotlight them like the day they were made.

I ran into the same problem a couple years ago at a Harry Callahan exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Had a terrible time viewing the prints under the weak flat lighting from a 10' ceiling. It finally dawned on me that the lighting was geared towards preserving the silver based prints. Don't think electricity is as much a problem for them as it would be for a US gallery of similar size. Our rates are a fraction of what you pay in the US; my 900sqft apartment cost just under $75 for December and January combined, two of our coldest months. Commercial and institutional rates are higher but still much lower than comparable rates in the US.

Re: optical brighteners and fluorescent lights:
What about modern LED bulbs? I know some LED flashlights produce lots of UV.

[I have no experience with that. I don't even know which papers have brighteners any more, either, although it's pretty easy to tell--just look at them under a black light! --Mike]

From my recollection, it’s the viewing light. Karsh appeared to expose, process and print so that the low values had a great deal of separation and the high values were not overly dominant and didn’t distract. I think as far as the technical was concerned, he was after that kind of richness.

I saw the comprehensive Adams exhibit at Boston's MFA yesterday. As expected, prints exhibited full dynamic range black to white, but in my subjective opinion seemed to be biased more to black than when I saw some of them exhibited there several years ago (2013?). Don't know why. Lighting was more than adequate. However, protective glass was very reflective.

I have yet to see a reproduction in a book or poster or on my monitor that didn't pale beside the real thing. It's like the difference between playing in an orchestra compared to the best audio reproduction.

I can tell you that we have for several years been in the era of museums receiving digital files from photographers and having prints (generally large ones) made to the photographers' specifications for exhibition purposes, after which those prints are destroyed.

A few years back I visited the valley of the kings in Egypt. Going down the passages to the tombs, and then in the tombs themselves, the most amazing art is on display; painted directly onto the walls about 33 centuries ago, and since kept in perfect "archival' conditions (very low humidity, and total darkness) for all those centuries until the last one. The Egyptologist with us explained that the art is now visibly deteriorating due to the humidity of visitors breath, lighting systems, and even occasional illicit touching. But the country badly needs the tourist money, so rather than conserve the tombs properly (such as building a replica site for example), they just close certain tombs for a period and open up others in their place. They also now prohibit the use of flash and use perspex screens to prevent physical damage. But all they have really done is to somewhat slow down the deterioration.

I sometimes reflect on those incredibly talented artists who painstakingly created work that was never intended to be displayed – except perhaps to their gods. I am glad I got to see it however, because in centuries to come it seems unlikely that anyone else will.

Have there been scientific studies of which frequencies of light actually cause damage to displayed works of art? Are photographs affected by different frequencies than paintings?
All this is to say that I hope there is some basis for the practice and it's not just habit.

Why not do what the do with the freezers in the frozen food section of the super market? (I was going to say "frozen food freezer")

Have the lights turn brighter when someone is close. If the gallery is too small for that, have a button that will increase the lighting for a short time.

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