By Pete Myers
Suggesting a new fine art photography paper to photographers is likely akin to discussing religion — everyone has an opinion — and what works for one, likely does not work for others.
Nevertheless, a new fine art paper, Crane & Co. Museo Silver Rag, is entering the market, with a release date of late February 2006, coinciding with this year’s Photo Marketing Association (PMA) show. As a beta tester of this paper, and in chorus with many of my fellow beta testers, we have come to regard Museo Silver Rag with true endearment. Why the enthusiasm for a new paper, in a market choked with paper choices?
Many of us, especially in monochrome work, have been seeking a material that looks and feels like a “traditional” fiber-based photographic print. Galleries, museums, and even clients observe digital photography with wonderment, but often shun the New Age materials used in the print process as “unconventional.” Simply put, they want a photograph to look and feel like a photograph, and not to endure their odium towards new-wave digital photographic technology for the sake of the image.
On the other side of the coin, those of us with a passion for the avant-garde wish to push forward the limits of digital image-making, seeking the best materials to do the job. In 2005, I wrote an article forDigital Outback Photo, called “Monochrome Photographic Printmaking with the Epson UltraChrome K3 Inkset.” The emphasis of that article was on the summation of three new technologies—the Epson UltraChrome K3 Inkset,ColorByte ImagePrint 6.1, and Pictorico Photo Gallery Hi-gloss White Film (PGHG) photographic print material — in creating images with deep density, and with maximum image clarity in monochromatic printmaking. Again, some readers missed the point that addressing these issues for monochrome printmaking has as much applicability toward color printmaking as it does with monochrome — it is just simpler to illustrate the variables with pure monochrome technique.
My conclusion in the article was that Pictorico PGHG, when used with the Epson K3 UltraChrome inkset, is for all intent and purposes the equivalent of digital “Cibachrome” photographic paper. It is a high-performance material, and will make the most of one’s prints. It is likely the best digital printmaking material on the market, given only the requirement of maximum image fidelity.
However, as with the original Cibachrome photographic paper, there is a price to be paid for using PGHG. The material has a super high-gloss finish, and it will scratch easily. The base material is a plastic polyester sheet. While the PGHG prints look outstanding when framed and under gallery lighting, it is a difficult material for the average framer to successfully utilize. PGHG should be static mounted or mounted to aluminum to preserve the flawless surface characteristics that make it a performance material. Not many framers have the expertise to do so, and even if they do, it will come at a great price to the client.
As avant-garde as I wish to be, back in the real world, I make my living from selling fine art prints (www.petemyers.com). Having the material fit into the mainstream market is an important aspect in producing a product. The image-making alone is where I have creative control, but the actual physical prints need to fit into a world long established in both form and function.
When I was writing my article on monochrome photographic printmaking, I interviewed John Pannozzo, the president of ColorByte Software (the maker of ImagePrint). John had been privy to early information on the development of Crane & Co. Museo Silver Rag, and he suggested to me that he had never seen such beautiful monochrome digital prints as with this product. John and his crew basically see every paper on the market come through their doors. To hear him have passion about a paper was highly unusual—especially after he had just seen the results of Pictorico PGHG firsthand.
After making introductions of my work to David Williams, Sales & Marketing Manager of Art Papers, of Crane & Co., he sent me a handful of sheets of early beta Museo Silver Rag paper. Frankly, I was less than enthusiastic about testing it, as Pictorico PGHG dominated my thinking. I figured any step back towards a real fiber paper-base would only degrade the image quality of the print.
My skepticism was further enhanced when I opened up the box and saw the Silver Rag paper. I debated whether I would even remove it from the box or bother testing it, as the material simply looked odd. Months later, this same reaction would be repeated when Michael Reichmann was presented with a beta roll of Silver Rag; and his first reaction to me was, “It looks like the cardboard that they send out in men’s shirts!” But first looks can be deceiving!
Thankfully, I did run the material through my printer. All I can say is that once a proper print has been made on Silver Rag, all thoughts about the “strangeness” of the paper faded instantly. Simply put, the final images looked like photographic prints on conventional fiber-based photographic paper — the intent of the product.
The digital age of photography has brushed away so much of what were the companies, standards, and traditions of photography a decade ago. For us, monochrome printmakers’ selenium-toned, Ilford Gallery silver prints were the gold standard. Can you still remember the weight and feel of those papers? It was a much different product than a fiber-based fine art paper: the norm today.
When David Williams came to Crane & Co. three years ago, he brought with him over twenty years of experience in the development of both resin-coated (RC) and baryta-coated photographic papers for other companies. Crane & Co. has been making premium papers in the United States for more than a century and is the oldest paper manufacturer in the country. In fact, it has been making the paper for U.S. currency since the 1870s. Just think about the quality of paper needed for the endurance of the average dollar bill in a wallet, and it is clear that the company has a noble expertise in paper products.
It is not a coincidence that Crane & Co. tapped Williams’ experience in blending its archival paper products with the need for a “traditional feeling” paper for photographers. What we get from this hybrid is Crane & Co. Museo Silver Rag.
Silver Rag can be used for color printmaking as readily as for monochrome work. However, it truly excels for monochrome work. Certainly, that is my area of expertise and enthusiasm. (It is rare to find products that work well for the demands of monochrome imaging.) Color printers have noted great print quality with Silver Rag, but with a bit less vividness in color saturation than would be common with more highly brightened paper types—as Silver Rag contains no optical paper brighteners. It certainly is a matter of personal taste and balance as to what one needs for his or her own printmaking; and testing is the only solution.
Does Silver Rag have the resolution of Pictorico PGHG? No. Does it have as great a maximum density as PGHG? No. But at the end of the day, for a fine arts photographer like me, Museo Silver Rag presents an almost perfect blend of compromises that yield deep rich images, making you want to lick your fingers for more. In fact, one of the common “problems” during the beta test period is that almost all of the testers kept requesting more sample material from Crane & Co., as we were positively addicted to using the material. Our only questions about Silver Rag seemed to revolve around: “When can we get more paper to put through our printers?”
After my testing of Silver Rag, I asked Crane & Co. to send up a test roll to Michael Reichmann. As with most of us making our living from photography, Michael is a busy man. For him to find time to test something as basic as Museo Silver Rag paper is difficult. It was a pleasure to hear from him that he had burned through a fifty-foot beta roll of the material in one sitting, and was grinning for more. The next thing I knew, he was emailing me for permission to post a Quick Take Look about Silver Rag. That is rare enthusiasm about a paper product, and speaks highly of how Silver Rag draws an audience.
How do you describe over the Internet how lush and deeply rich are the Museo Silver Rag prints? It simply is impossible. I can only encourage you to see a sample for yourself, and make your own judgment. If you don’t like it in color, try a monochrome print — most of us have found Silver Rag astonishing in monochrome.
As with all high performance materials, there are four notes of caution I wish to bring to your attention about Silver Rag prints:
1) The prints should ideally be viewed under point-source light (spot light), in a low ambient light room (darkened), with 18 percent reflective walls for maximum visual impact to the viewer of the prints. That is not to say that you will have trouble enjoying the prints under other lighting conditions, but rather that under the best lighting, you get the best performance. As with all high maximum-density print material with a gloss surface, diffuse lighting will kill off the benefits of the print. This is not a Silver Rag issue, but rather a general condition of viewing any high-performance photographic material. Believe me, I know even notable photographers who have fallen victim to reviewing high-performance print material without a proper viewing room and adequate lighting.
2) Most members of the beta team whom I have contacted are professional photographers, using Epson x800 printers and the K3 UltraChrome inkset. Using the older UltraChrome inks or lesser printers will result in a bronzing of the prints. I received much email from readers regarding my monochrome photographic printmaking article. These readers had been using less capable printers, old inks, and bad Raster Image Processing (RIP) technology. They were surprised that they were not getting the same results that I had seen from Pictorico PGHG. As with Pictorico PGHG, Museo Silver Rag is a high-performance material, and the nuances of printmaking are what deliver fine results. That is what makes a fine art print — nuances. I mention specific materials, inks, and printers because they actually have worked for me in application. I do not have prejudice towards specific manufacturers. Rather, I have specific knowledge in knowing what has worked for fine art photographers.
3) As a related matter, I still personally advocate the use of ColorByte’s ImagePrint 6.1 technology to fuel the RIP structure for driving the printer to maximum performance with a paper such as Museo Silver Rag. I hear more stories about photographers struggling to get meaningful prints, only to learn that they keep trying to “do it on the cheap.” I would advise that doing it right the first time will be less expensive and result in superior prints than doing it on the cheap. As photographers, our job is not to become print experts, but to make beautiful images. Let a company like ColorByte have all the “fun” in making the material work for you.
4) Museo Silver Rag was designed as an archival print material. It is 100 percent cotton, internally buffered, has no optical brighteners, has an alkaline pH, and in general, is well-designed archival material. However, Silver Rag has not undergone full permanence testing of ink on paper. While the prospects are good, until the tests have been made, we simply will not know its longevity. The base material is well made, but it is the polymer coating on the surface that actually hosts the image inks. I do hope that Crane & Co. will take the time and shoulder the expense of accelerated age testing to give us a more complete picture than currently exists. My prediction is that the paper will perform well under such testing conditions.
Crane & Co will be shipping Museo Silver Rag in most common sheet and roll sizes by the end of February 2006. It is a premium paper, and the MSRP ranges from $180 US to $240 US for 17” and 24” rolls. It is likely to be at a more attractive price point from your dealer, many of which are listed under the “Where to Buy” tab on the Museo site.
It is exciting to see Crane & Co. take a risk on a new type of product. Innovation is not without risk. My prediction is that Museo Silver Rag will be a blockbuster product for them — welcome to a brave new world!
Pete Myersis a master fine arts photographer, residing with his wife, Kathy, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Additionally, Myers recently completed authoring his first book manuscript, Finding Truth in Beauty: My Life as an Artist . He is a member of the Authors Guild.