SEA CHANGE

AS DIGITAL IMAGES EARN RESPECT, THEIR PRICES ARE RISING.

by Andrew Slayman

At next month's Association of International Photography Art Dealers (AIPAD) fair in New York, visitors will see vintage gelatin silver prints by such market stalwarts as Berenice Abbott, Robert Frank, and Edward Steichen. And alongside these classic products of the darkroom—made by hand on traditional enlargers, with fragile negatives as their source—will be prints created at least partially, if not entirely, on computers. Some of the latter will be indistinguishable from their silver-halide counterparts, while others will flaunt their digital pedigrees, the more fantastical creations perhaps even prompting viewers to ask, “is this photography at all?”

The proliferation of computerized images has been made possible by the rapid development over the past 5 to 10 years of digital techniques and their eager adoption by artists. When digital pigment inkjet prints, known as giclées, first appeared on the market, “there were a lot of questions about whether they were really photographic or some bastardized form of photography,” says Stephen Bulger, the Toronto-based dealer and AIPAD president, who attributes that early skepticism to the process’s use in making editioned prints from paintings, which led some people to see it as closer to lithography. “But as artists started to realize its full potential and use it when appropriate, it got wider acceptance.” What was marginal is now mainstream, accepted by collectors, dealers and museums alike. The Museum of Modern Art’s “New Photography 2009” show, which closed last month, featured six young artists of whom three make digital photographic prints from film, two shoot digitally and manipulate their work on the computer, and only one works exclusively in analog. Even galleries that are bastions of the gelatin silver print, such as Throckmorton Fine Art and Staley-Wise, both in New York, now list some digital prints in their inventories.

“Photography has changed so much over the past five years,” says Bulger, “and the AIPAD show continues to reflect the medium it represents.” Reviewing the catalogues of recent editions of the fair reveals a dramatic increase in the number of digital works for sale. As late as 2003, offerings were predominately vintage black-and-white prints, and only 1 percent were described as digital; by 2009 the digital portion had risen to 11 percent. Even this increase probably underestimates the true penetration of the technique, since digital images are not always identified as such in catalogues or on gallery web sites. “Overwhelmingly, if you see a color print on the wall made in the past four years, it’s digital,” says W. M. Hunt, of New York’s Hasted Hunt Kraeutier gallery.

Photographers working in large format, like Jeff Wall and Andreas Gursky, gave digital techniques their first real boost. Beginning in the 1990s, Wall used digital tools to combine dozens of frames shot on film into seamless compositions, something almost impossible to do in the darkroom; around the same time, Gursky was stretching and tiling his signature architectural photographs on the computer and removing unwanted buildings from his landscapes. “Large prints were made before digital enlargers were introduced, but they were difficult to produce,” says Tom Ashe, a professor of digital photography at the School of Visual Arts, in New York.

Today big color prints remain a major domain for digitization. The New York-based photographer Clifford Ross shot his “Mountains” series, 2004-09, on 9-by-18-inch film, from which he created digital prints of up to 6 by 11 feet, and he has done much the same with his ongoing “Hurricane” series, 1998-, the most recent examples of which were on view at the Sonnabend gallery last fall. The sheer expanse of the 48-by-68-inch prints adds to the drama of the abstract, almost sculptural close-ups of storm-churned waves.

“It’s a vital and interesting moment, because we’re in the transition from analog to digital,” says Eva Respini, the MOMA associate curator who organized the “New Photography” show. “A whole new set of tools is available to artists working in photography.” Increasing image size is only one of the applications artists have found for these tools. Other uses range from scanning and printing traditional negatives to creating abstract compositions and alternate realities that extend the very definition of photography.

Carter Mull and Sterling Ruby, two of the MOMA six, employ digital cameras and push Photoshop to the limit in pursuit of distinctly non-photographic visions. Mull shoots found images superimposed over newspaper clippings and then manipulates the resulting montages by adding color to, enlarging or otherwise transforming them. Ruby creates similar hybrids by layering computer-generated effects over found pictures. His Artaud, 2007, which began as a photo he took of a graffiti-covered wall in Italy, is ultimately an expressive, rather than documentary, image. Lisa Holden, whose pictures were featured in the special Innovation section at the 2009 edition of AIPAD, combines digital pixels with analog paint to create compositions that blend reality with abstraction. She photographs a model (often herself) and adds a background in Photoshop, using the program as well to repeatedly distort the components of the image. She makes a small working print, which she scratches and paints over and then rephotographs. Back in Photoshop, she does some further manipulation, culminating in a final, much larger print (the finished products typically sell for between $8,000 and $12,000, with smaller ones starting at $4,000). The entire process can take as long as three months, but digital technology allows Holden to perform the individual steps quickly. “Working on the computer, I can do it as fast as I can think,” she says. “It’s a very immediate process, with my hand and the [digital] drawing tablet.” If Mull, Ruby and Holden represent one extreme, in which photographs are a raw material in service to the technology, artists like Nick Brandt represent the opposite, where the technology serves the photograph. To create the exquisite black-and-white portraits gathered in the recently published volume A Shadow Falls (Abrams), Brandt shot close-ups of African animals using a medium-format camera, then scanned the silver-halide negatives at home, in the Los Angeles suburb of Topanga, and edited them in Photoshop, darkening the skies, among other enhancements. On the computer, he says, “I can pull details out of the shadows and highlights in the negative far more than I could in the darkroom.” After editing, the images are output as pigment inkjet prints. Then he takes the digital files of his favorites and, in a technical turnabout, makes large-format negatives from which he creates platinum-palladium prints in the darkroom.

Most photographers fall somewhere between the Holden-Brandt extremes. Taking inspiration from 17th-century Dutch painting, Julie Blackmon (whose prints, shown by the Chicago dealer Catherine Edelman, range in price from $2,200 to $4,600) collages multiple images of her family into unsettling scenes of domestic life depicting, as she puts it, “the mythic amidst the chaos.” In Party Lights, 2008, for instance, a man holding a baby steadies a ladder on which an older child, with only his legs visible, stands to hang a string of bulbs; a nearby pitchfork and another unwatched child suggest imminent commotion. In a more emotionally distanced mode, Andreas Gefeller uses a digital camera to take hundreds of detailed frames of scenes looked at from above or below, stitching them together into single bird’s—or ant’s—eye views of a building interior, a swimming pool or an office ceiling.

Barry Frydlender, whose 2007 MOMA retrospective won critical acclaim, shoots ­ piece by piece, over hours, days, or months—populated land and cityscapes, focusing on his native Israel with occasional excursions to London, New York and elsewhere. Blackmon, Frydlender and Gefeller all work exclusively with digital equipment, from capture through Photoshop to final print, and all meld multiple images, creating alternate realities—or alternate views of reality. Yet each one’s pictures are very different from the other’s and from those of Brandt and Holden and the hundreds of additional photographic artists currently working. “There isn’t one digital aesthetic,” says Respini. “It’s just part of what photography is today, however you use the technology.”

On the whole, the prices for digital and analog prints are comparable, although they vary greatly. The auction record for photographs is held by a digitally manipulated one: Gursky’s 99 Cent 11 Diptychon, 2001, which fetched El.7 million ($3.3 million) in the February 2007 contemporary art sale at Sotheby’s London. Nevertheless vintage gelatin silver photograph still dominate the major house’s sales. Sarah Shepard, a photography specialist at Christie’s, estimates that digital prints make up at most 5 percent of the house’s lots.

Indeed, last fall, the photo sessions at Sotheby’s New York did not include any lots described as digital, and those at Christie’s contained only a handful. The tide, however, is turning. “If they are selling few now, that will inevitably change very rapidly in the next few years as more and more photographers print in this way and those photos start to hit the secondary market,” says Brandt, one of whose prints fetched $7,500 in the Christie’s sale. Should collectors care whether a print is digital or analog—or whether the original exists as film in a glassine envelope or as a succession of bits on a hard drive somewhere? Early on, those concerned about the longevity of their treasures had reason for caution. “Up until 1999, most of the inks being used for inkjets were somewhat fugitive in terms of color,” says Alex Novak, of Contemporary Works/Vintage Works, in Chalfont, Pennsylvania. That is no longer the case. Chromogenic color prints made digitally have exactly the same life expectancy as comparable prints made in the darkroom, and tests by Wilhelm Imaging Research, a company specializing in color preservation, suggest that modern pigment inkjet prints will last even longer when properly framed. On the other hand, maybe the technology should matter. If you believe, with Marshall McLuhan, that “the medium is the message,” then whether a photograph is printed in the darkroom or on a computer is an integral part of its meaning. And it is impossible fully to appreciate its message without knowing how it was made.

Reprinted from ART + AUCTION magazine, the International Magazine for Art Collectors, in the February 2010 edition. ARTINFO.COM

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About My Art • The Artist’s Statement

by Robert Barnes

Why do I call my works “Digital Paintings?”

In traditional art the mediums of expression include Oils, Acrylics, Pastels, Water Colors, Pen & Ink, Pencil, Chalk and Chisels for Sculpting, or Wheels of Wet Clay.

In digital art it boils down to zeros and ones—and how you get them to appear on paper, canvas, metal or display screens.

My creations start with my imagination and include my photography or 3D computer models with colors and textures that I create. Other “paintings” are realized with a graphics tablet and graphics software that allows me to paint with electrons instead of pigments. The harder I press the pen to the tablet the more “paint” appears on the screen. I choose my hues from a palette of 16.7 million colors. I’m happiest when I combine all three elements into one work of art.

When I feel a piece is finished—I have it printed on extremely high quality photographic paper by Fuji, which is exposed using special graphics lasers in a digital darkroom. The paper is then developed just as any other photograph would be and the finished print is what I share with the world. Hence “Mixed Media” because of all the elements used in creating one of my images.

LightJet prints are sharp, detailed, and have rich and vibrant color, very closely matching the colors I see on the monitor during the creation process. The paper I use affords the images an exceptional life span.

Starting in 2003, I added a third medium for printing my works. I am creating large-scale canvas prints in the 3 to 5 foot range. These special prints are then varnished and put on stretcher bars. These are printed with various Giclée printers, depending on size and tonal quality. The canvas is coated to avoid the colors bleeding as they are applied.

Additional Comments on Size

I create my digital images at full size. In other words, if the final piece is 72 inches wide, I created it 72 inches wide. It was NOT created small and then massively enlarged. This can cause me to spend up to 7 days just to render one image with a ‘ray traced’ modeling program. The ONLY exception to my normal process is when someone special orders a “larger than full size” print. In that case, a digital enlargement (up to 2X) can be achieved as part of the limited edition.Once a limited edition has been closed out, the DVD-ROM that contains the image is destroyed. No full size prints will be made beyond that point. The only exceptions are the books and “posters” that celebrate the numbered prints. It is my sincere desire to create work of value and originality. I want my patrons to have something unique, rare and special.

Acknowledgments

Special thanks to Kenneth A. Huff for his explanation of the LightJet 5000. I have borrowed liberally from his write up on this subject. You are strongly encouraged to visit his website at www.itgoesboing.com. Kenneth is a brilliant artist.

All references to print longevity are based on testing done by Wilhelm Imaging Research, Inc. http://www.wilhelm-research.com.