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Living Large Format

Professional Photographers Bring Large Format Printing to Life

By Lorraine A. DarConte

More and more professional photographers—from wedding, to commercial, to fine art—have switched to digital capture and output for various reasons. Some love the added creativity they’ve acquired, while others are happy with the savings reaped in time and money. But perhaps the one thing they all agree on is the amount of control they’ve gained over their work, particularly when it comes to printing large images.

Maura Dutra: Stepping Back in Time
Photographer Maura Dutra has a unique background that includes 20 years of experience as an art director and visual effects producer. Along with husband and collaborator Bruce Hamilton Dorn, the two earned a slew of industry awards for excellence in image making. "We learned our craft as image-makers in Hollywood, New York, and Paris, and have the scars to prove it," laughs Dutra. Today, the couple owns and operates iDC Photography. Their work includes weddings, portraiture, and art prints, much of which is created in a style they call Photo Impressionism.

One of Dutra’s pet projects, which she’s been working on for about three years, is the creation of floral images that evoke a sense of days gone by. Her goal was to study old world botanical imagery and then create her personal vision using a fresh mix of digital imaging tools. "For this series, I looked to antique French botanical images for inspiration." She began the series while living in Los Angeles where she planted specific varieties of flowers—with the intention of photographing them—in her English garden.

To create the images, Dutra works with a variety of digital capture techniques. She captures her images using both digital photography—with a Canon 1D Mark II and 1DS Mark II—as well as a scanner for three-dimensional objects. "For this series, I mostly worked with the scanner—an Epson Expression XL—to create collage elements to play with," explains Dutra. The Epson has a 17-inch flat glass work area that Dutra built a black velvet-lined box around so she wouldn’t have to flatten the flowers to scan them. "I was intrigued by how graphic the floral forms became whenever I used the scanner," she says. "In contrast, my current work involves a digital photographic capture approach. Of course, photography offers a different set of parameters to be explored in terms of focus, depth of field, and lighting."

"Next I chose several textured paper backgrounds upon which I added hand-scripted botanical names using a Japanese bamboo pen and ink. I then roughed-up these background papers by crumpling, stomping on, and aging them with tea," she explains. To add even more of an old world ambiance, Dutra designed her own set of catalogue and specimen stamps. Using the bamboo pen, she hand-scribes additional details about the flower specimen, such as a collection date and location.

After these various items are created, Dutra works in Adobe Photoshop CS to build a multi-layered image using the elements she has generated. From the flower petals to the leaves and stems—which, she notes, are an important part of the botanical history of cataloging—the composition of the final image begins to emerge. "Once I get all the elements in place, I flatten and bring the image into Corel Painter IX." She uses the Cloning feature along with custom painter brushes to create the final digital painting.

When complete, Dutra typically prints images in editions, in sizes up to 40x60 inches. "I think people have an emotional response to large prints," she says. "The heroic scale really commands attention, plus, the larger the print the more visible the painterly technique." Dutra enjoys the hands-on aspect of printing her personal work and feels that the printmaking step is an important part of her mixed-media process.

Dutra chooses a printing substrate such as canvas, photo rag, handmade papers, or watercolor paper based upon the needs of the specific project. "Having an assortment of print surfaces means I can apply a variety of enhancement materials that are appropriate for each different substrate. For example, if I choose watercolor paper, I might use soft pastels and color pencils to enhance and/or highlight certain elements. This really is the dawn of a new form of printmaking and mixed media art," says Dutra. "And it is up to artists to explore these tools and to investigate what’s new and light the creative path."

Laurence Gartel: Pure Prints
Digital artist Laurence Gartel is well known for his manipulated video and still images. For a recent project, he was hired by a music company to shoot footage in India for a multi-media DVD. "I shot approximately 3,000 pictures and hours of digital video footage," states Gartel. "I then translated the imagery into the kind of art I create and made a documentary about the impressions the trip made on me. I suppose, in a way, it can be compared to Paul Gauguin’s trip to Tahiti or Man Ray’s excursion to France, where the impressions of a place—the experience—become part of the artwork."

Gartel photographed the India project with a Konica Minolta A2, an 8 mega-pixel camera, and printed his photos—which are typically 24x36 inches—with a Hewlett-Packard 130NR. "You can always see more in a large image," explains Gartel. "I haven’t printed small in a long time and these [images] definitely aren’t intimate in that sense. I wanted to make a broad stroke."

Gartel also likes the control he gains by making his own prints. "It’s a very closed loop," he notes. "I use the HP printer with HP paper [semi-satin] and inks, which is the best of all worlds. I like a gloss paper but not too glossy. I also like canvas because I can carry it around without ruining it. It’s very flexible. Paper is much more sensitive; you have to treat it with a great deal of care." The computer I use is a Compaq (manufactured by HP) so the color space is as accurate as it can be." Gartel reworks his images with a blend of Adobe Photoshop versions 7, 8, and 9. He says he works almost seamlessly from camera, to computer, to printer without any color management problems.

For his latest exhibit at Onda Lounge during Miami’s annual Art Basel event, Gartel showed original images from the trip. "There are some things that are just so pure they should not be manipulated," says Gartel. "There’s nothing to alter. When you see a starving face; it seems almost sacrilege to do so." It was also important for Gartel to show people how unique the country really is. "It’s like nowhere else on earth; it’s just beyond," he says.

Stephen Shaub: The Awakening
Stephen Schaub’s Haiku Series images appear as surreal snippets from a dream in progress. The lines are blurred, the meaning hidden, and everything seems to be moving in slow motion. Schaub has been perfecting this series for about a year now. "I spent the first four to five months developing this unique process," he explains. "They are scanned from Polaroid positives and deal with what I refer to as unprocessed emotion. The Haiku photographs do visually what Haiku poetry—the world’s shortest literary form—does verbally. It epitomizes the concept of depth within brevity."

Schaub began the series by photographing with the simplest input devices he could find—instant Polaroid cameras. "I shot with instant Polaroid cameras for the better part of a year; recently I’ve had a camera specifically made for the Haiku work by William Littman, who specializes in modifying old Polaroid 110B cameras." The camera is modified to accept 4x5 film and instant materials.

"I also had the lens bokeh—a Japanese term that refers to the out of focus quality of an image—modified to my specifications." The end result is a hand-held responsive coupled rangefinder that uses 4x5-inch materials. "I focus it the same way I’d focus a Leica using the split image rangefinder. For close-up work there is a ground glass option. The end result is drop dead gorgeous 4x5-inch Polaroids that are amazing to work with."

The Polaroid positives are scanned with a Microtek I900 flatbed scanner. "The large size of my final print, coupled with the fact that I’m scanning a positive, translates to a final scan of 600 megabytes. When you enlarge a Polaroid positive, it deconstructs and takes on a dimensional roundness. The grain of the Polaroid becomes like pointillism, and from a distance, [the prints] have an almost painterly-like quality." Schaub uses a customized PC to ready the images for printing.

He prints his images using a Roland FJ540 running the D’Vinci Solution, a 12-color printing system that uses ErgoSoft RIP software. "I’m currently one of a handful of artists in the world working with this unique printing platform. There are only seven or eight of these systems in existence that utilize 12 colors of pure pigment printing at once. The beauty of this is that I have complete control over the printer via the software." Ergosoft’s Version 12 software allows Schaub to control all aspects of the printing process, including which droplet sizes and combinations print in which ink channels.

Schaub prints on Gampi paper, which has been made by the Japanese for more than 1,300 years. "There’s not a lot of Gampi made because the plant can’t be cultivated; it has to grow wild. It’s expensive (ten dollars per square foot), time consuming to make, and it’s very thin and strong. It is also one of the most archival papers ever made," says Schaub.

"I’ve developed a process for finishing the print that makes everything work. I heat the paper in a way that causes the inks to boil within the paper and become part of it. Then I put multiple coats of protective archival varnish over the surface of the prints," states Schaub. "All of my Haikus are printed in editions of three, and take six to eight weeks to make, start to finish."

The most recent development in the Haiku Series is the creation of the Shoji Screen edition, which incorporates three panels that, combined, are 75 inches high and 100 inches long— printed in three pieces, each 30x72 inches. "The final artwork is a continuous print that flows over the three panels," says Schaub. "A Street Frames in Boston is custom-building mahogany, ebony-stained Shoji Screens to my specifications. The front of the screen features a Haiku print, while the back is solid mahogany. Available in editions of one, the Haiku Shoji Screen is a dimensional photograph—both artwork and functional furniture at once."

"I’m creating works on paper," concludes Schaub, "and I like that distinction. I don’t consider an inkjet print in the same light as traditional silver print; rather, it’s more of an alternative process. Too many other art forms use inkjet printing for it to be considered exclusively photographic, so therefore, these are works on paper. I’m still a photographic artist, but digital photography allows me to explore areas that weren’t possible before."

John Woodin: Before and After the Storm
Although media arts professor John Woodin left Louisiana long ago, he still views it as home, both literally and figuratively. His current project features images of New Orleans-area architecture before and after Hurricane Katrina. "The project sort of grew out of my interest in architectural photography," explains Woodin. "I evacuated New Orleans about twenty years ago, but ever since then, I’ve come to realize almost all the pictures I make are about home. I’ve been photographing interior and exterior spaces that in some way remind me of my hometown.

"In 2004, I decided to go home and make these pictures. I photographed mostly shotgun houses in the lower to lower-middle income neighborhoods. A shotgun house is the predominant style of housing in these areas," notes Woodin. "Theoretically, you can shoot a gun through the front door and the bullet won’t hit any walls, but go straight out the back." Woodin photographed the majority of the project with a Mamiya 6 and 2 1/4 color negative film. "[The camera] is very light and portable and I love its 50mm lens."

For a recent exhibit of his work, Woodin made his largest prints ever. "Though the vast majority of the prints were 17x17 inches (made on an Epson Stylus Pro 4000 printer)," he states, "a number called for a larger size. The big prints were detailed views of walls of non-residential buildings from the same neighborhoods. They looked like beautiful abstract expressionist paintings and provided a visual rest from the repetitive frontal views of the shotgun houses." He printed half a dozen images to 42x42 inches with an HP Designjet 5500 PS.

"All the work was done from scanned negatives," explains Woodin. "I wanted to make scans that were good enough to print big, though I had a little difficulty with color accuracy. I was making the color corrections before the scan, so I wouldn’t have to make the corrections in Photoshop after the fact. I’m working with an Epson desktop scanner and Silverfast software, by LaserSoft Imaging Inc. It was a pretty steep learning curve," he admits, "but by the end I was making pretty good scans."

Although color management was a challenge, it wasn’t Woodin’s main issue. Since he was shooting architecture with an SLR, he knew he’d have convergence problems. He scanned the negatives and then corrected the perspective in Photoshop. "That was my main reason for going into the digital realm—to make [the images] like the other architectural work I create with a view camera." So why not just stick with a view camera? "Speed. I was moving quickly and making as many photographs as I could in a short amount of time."

After Katrina left her mark, Woodin returned to the city to continue working on the project, but this time around, he shot digital. "I borrowed a Hasselblad H1 with a 22-megapixel back and rented a 35mm lens that gave me the same angle of view as my other camera." He revisited places he’d photographed in the past and shot them again, as well as taking new pictures. "I shot more than 650 pictures in three days."

"The great thing was, I knew after I made the shot that I had exactly what I wanted. Generally speaking, when I make exposures," says Woodin, "I try to push my histogram as far to the right as possible. And the Hasselblad H1 has an audible over-exposure warning built in."

"Whenever I got a warning, I’d back off my exposure a bit. Last week I did a test to see how big I could go; I made a 30x40-inch print from that digital file and it’s looking pretty good. The accuracy of the color was much easier to achieve, and so a lot of the color issues went away. I have been a hybrid photographer for quite a while," he admits, "but I continue to shoot film because I like being able to make large fine grain prints. Now that I’ve had a taste of a medium format digital back, film is looking less and less attractive."

Create and Express
It is clear that large format advancements have allowed photographers to express themselves, and their art, in new and exciting ways. Both digital and traditional photography technology have also opened numerous doors when it comes to the amount of control and freedom given to the artist. Each of these projects profiled is an example of the unique combination of hardware and software that can be used to create and express powerful images.

Feb2006, Digital Output

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