Back then, we posted pictures of department heads and trouble-shooters and such on the bridge to help familiarize volunteers with the people with authority in various areas. We found these going through the Minicon archives last weekend. There are some more, not Polaroids, that I haven’t scanned yet because I haven’t figured out how to clean them (there’s gunk on the front). (click photo for gallery)
People following my blog can probably guess why I’m concerned with this just at the moment.
Where and Why
The formal purpose of the artist’s signature is to certify that particular print as meeting their artistic and technical standards.
My research strongly suggests that there is no consensus on what is expected by art buyers, collectors, or museum curators. They do all seem to like consistency, so you should decide early on what you’re going to do, and do that from then on. Or at least make rare changes, and make the changes cleanly and ideally document somewhere people can find that you have done so.
So far as I can tell, people do anything from nothing at all to using a stamp or “chop” on the back to signing the front (“recto”) or back (“verso”). They write anything from their initials to a regular signature, or print their name, or anything else. They often include a date or two (for photography, date of image and date of print are the two most often used). They sometimes include the title of the print. They use anything from metallic-ink sharpies to pencils. They write on the back, or in the margin on the front, or within the actual image.
The full form I like is to put the image title and year photographed in the bottom margin at the left, and the signature and year printed at the right. I will leave enough space so it can be either included in the mat opening, or matted out, at the owner’s choice.
However, when signing a batch of prints all at once, that’s too much to write (it is; I’m not lazy, I just have lousy handwriting, and if I tried to do that much on each of a pile of prints, it’d end up illegible on most of them). If I were clever and thought ahead more, I might print the image title and year photographed as part of the image (an image of my careful printing; I can do it once legibly if I get enough chances), and only do the actual signature and year printed by hand.
Specifically, with what? What writing instrument?
The requirements as I see them are:
- Harmless (will not damage the image, either physically or chemically)
- Permanent (will not fade, hard to remove, resistant to water and other hazards)
- Suitable width (artist preference)
- Suitable color / density (artist preference)
- Hard to smear
- Writes smoothly and without skipping on the particular paper
Those first two are sometimes lumped into “archival”. Given the complexity of the inkset-plus-paper chemistry encountered in modern digital inkjet prints, adding a third thing, the ink from the signing pen, to the equation is at best a wild gamble. Ink plus paper combinations get tested by various firms, but I’ve never heard of any of them adding signing pens into the mix.
Given this total lack of real information, I’m making a wild leap of faith: I’m accepting all writing implements that make claims of being permanent and (critically) neutral Ph (or acid-free). And I’m taking their word for it; I have no way to verify it much. Amateur testing is interesting as far as it goes, but accelerated testing is a black art, amateurs aren’t very good at it. And for art prints, I’m thinking in terms of the print lasting for centuries, not just years.
The totally conservative approach is to stick to pencil (graphite, not very reactive) or India ink (basically a carbon suspension in water, not very reactive). I find that too limiting, especially since pencil doesn’t write on the front of this paper.
I tried a bunch of pens I liked writing with and had sitting around on this paper. Surprisingly, everything with any sort of “ink” wrote beautifully on the particular paper I’m working with this time (Canson Baryta Photographique). One dry pencil also worked fine (the Schwan all-stabilo 8046); a mechanical pencil with HB lead and a charcoal marker didn’t mark at all. (Maybe it’s not that surprising; this paper has an ink-receptive surface layer after all.)
Even more surprisingly, every pen I looked up info on claimed to be archival and acid free; apparently all of these pens I grabbed meet my technical criteria. (Well, all but one; for total giggles I tried a Big Round Stic, a very cheap ballpoint. Surprisingly, it wrote on the paper perfectly well. It’s hard enough to damage the surface, and I have no reason to consider its ink suitably permanent, so I would strongly recommend against actually using it to sign artwork.)
The implements I tried include:
- Schwan All-Stabilo 8046 black pencil
- Sakura Pigma Micron 08 #1 archival ink pen (fine soft-point)
- Mechanical pencil with HB lead—did not write on this paper
- Pilot Precise Grip Bold (liquid ink pen)
- Uniball Signo Impact 207 RT (gel ink pen)
- Sharpie Liquid Pencil (seems to be graphite ink pen)
- Schmidt Easyflow 9000 M refill (gel ink refill)
- Sanford Sharpie fine-point permanent marker (permanent felt-tip)
- Blaisdell Charcoal Pencil Medium 633T—did not write on this paper
Here are the various results. I’m not bothering to label individual trials, you’ll need to try your pens on your paper anyway, but this shows that a wide range of pens made good solid clean marks on this paper, at least.
I also tried a few of them on the back of the paper.
ADDED: I found the Sakura almost impossible to smear. The other roller pens could be smeared just slightly by running a finger over them immediately after writing—not something I do frequently by accident, but it also indicates that stacking prints as I sign them might be a problem. The Stabilo pencil also smeared a tiny bit, interestingly.
Other Interesting Articles
I’ve been meaning to do an article on this for years. This week, this image is on sale through The Online Photographer, so I thought I’d better get around to it, in case I might be able to stir up an additional order or two.
I’m simultaneously rather excited and a bit scared about writing this. I’ve had great hopes for this photo since I shot it in 1975, but never got a satisfactory print until 2007 when I had
- A drum scan of the negative
- Ctein’s help
Ctein wrote a column about that for TOP back in 2007.
I thought the Lincoln Memorial shot had promise at once; it’s marked on the contact sheet with red grease pencil as I did then for things I wanted to try to print. I remember not being able to print it at various stages and with various technologies; but looking at the contact sheet and early scans now, I think at least the first scan is something I could work with. I suppose it’s possible that I’ve learned something about digital printing in the last two decades. Probably other people could have printed it at earlier stages, too.
Then, on top of that, I really wonder if maybe I should have paid for more bits of drum scan (16 bits or higher res?); maybe it could be even better.
Yeah, I’m all wrapped up in getting ready for the start of the sale, which means I’m questioning every decision that it’s too late to change.
However, what I’m actually going to write about here is printing this picture. I’m working largely from memory (Ctein doesn’t tend to create a layer structure that preserves every single decision made as a separate event), but I do have the contact sheet (and negative), Nikon scan, drum scan, and the 2007 and 2014 versions of the edited file, so I have at least some objective evidence of what was done to aid my memory.
How we accomplished things might be of some interest, but what we chose to accomplish, and why, are far more important. Of course I have even less evidence for those; that’s nearly entirely from my memory.
The problems actually start one step back from where you might think. You see, I have three exposures of the memorial from this trip.
This shows them in backwards order (note the negative numbers at the bottom). So, at the left there is the one I actually printed. In the middle is an even more underexposed version, of no particular interest.
And at the far right is what first caught my eye. It wasn’t just Lincoln and the park workers, it also included the family in the foreground at the left. Unfortunately, it was done in such a hurry that the exposure is awful, and the family is cut off too high (for no good reason, there’s free space at the top), and that guy on the right is a problem, and there’s a guy on the left between us and the family too (I suspect one or two of the spare guys walked into the frame between when I saw the possibility and when I was able to shoot).
So, in the end, there’s no choice, there’s only one version worth working with. You can’t obsess about the ones that got away, because if you shoot people living their lives, a lot of things you see get away over the years.
I started with a scan I made myself (Nikon Coolscan LS-2000).
First, you may notice there’s an amount of crap on the negative. That’s easily fixed, if annoying. Also, it mostly looks pretty good; I think my saved file of this is significantly adjusted, not straight.
Also, that the cropping is somewhat different, and that there’s that ladder in the background, and that the perspective is also somewhat different.
I might have been able to make something of this, eventually, but I didn’t at the time.
So I went ahead and had a drum scan made (some years later).
Even at the small size it looks a bit more flavorful to me (remembering that we’re looking for information to work with in printing here, not finished art!). It’s smoother. Also they either cleaned the neg better than I did, or spotted it a bit.
First time I’d done this, so I probably didn’t give the lab the best instructions, either. What I’ve got is a 40 megabyte tiff file in 8-bit (per channel) RGB, which is a pretty strange choice for the lab to make when scanning a B&W negative.
When Ctein first got his large-format printer, I was out in California about a week every month for work, so I was visiting fairly frequently. He suggested I bring some image files that we could play with printing, so the next time I went out I did. Came back from that with four prints I believe (four that I still have on my walls, at least), and we worked on a couple of others a bit before moving on. We spent about a day and a half doing that and very little else, which was a blast.
(My usual readers mostly know who Ctein is, but for those who don’t: he is or has been a photographer; custom printer in dye transfer, B&W, and digital; author of two books on printing; and writer for many photo magazines.)
In case you’ve never tried it, I can tell you that you can learn quite a lot sitting for hours with a master printer working on getting photos ready to print. We’ve done this off and on at my computer and his over the years, sometimes just poking at ideas, this one time carrying several images all the way through to making actual large prints (24″ paper, the images are about 20″ wide and 30″ or so long).
Okay, so what all did we do, anyway?
I think of this as global contrast adjustments. Treating the picture as a whole, we’re putting the major parts into appropriate tonal relationships.
The Lincoln Memorial is a masterpiece of neo-classical design. I wanted to present it in the print with that kind of formality, both for its own sake, and because that increases the contrast with the workers standing casually on the statue.
In this case, a bit of straightening plus removing the vertical convergence were required. This is an area where digital printing has it all over darkroom printing; you can do a small amount of perspective correction in the darkroom, but most enlargers make it very annoying, and the physics limits pretty strongly how far you can take it.
If you’re doing this kind of work a lot, it can be worthwhile hauling a view camera around, or at least a perspective control lens, which lets you fix the convergence in the camera. On the other hand, that means you can’t get such shots of anything but static scenes (well, or scenes that can be predicted reliably). With digital, you can get the perspective you want in more dynamic situations.
Local contrast enhancement
Anything from large-radius unsharp masking (with a radius up in the 50-75 pixel range you’re changing the local contrast quite strikingly) to simple dodging and burning to fancier Photoshop tools to additional curves adjustment layers with individual layer masks. I believe we used some techniques to enhance contrast in both shadows and highlights without making the whole picture look flat
Noise (grain) reduction
Another place where digital printing has it all over the darkroom! I think Ctein hit this with Neat Image after playing with the settings a lot. Neat Image has a lot of settings, and I use Noise Ninja (which is simpler and quite effective) myself. Ctein uses both (and other newer things), choosing them for how well they work on the particular problems in a particular image.
Much simpler in digital than in the darkroom. I don’t have to manually spot each print with a palette of dyes and very very fine brushes, and yes, I’ve done that. (Yes, it’s so easy one can get lazy about cleaning negatives before scanning, which is not good.)
Remove stepladder from background
This level of retouching was done on darkroom prints for advertising photos sometimes (even in color), using air brushes and such, but I would certainly never have tried it. I’m glad to have the ladder gone, though. (I remember removing it was Ctein’s idea. I learned one Photoshop technique I hadn’t known previously watching how he did it, too.)
Dodge out faces of workers
Crop to eliminate distracting foreground steps, chain, pillars
The one thing that’s close to exactly equally easy in darkroom and digital!
Deciding how to crop is black art, mostly. In this picture it’s fairly simple, we’re trying to retain as much image as possible while eliminating a few distractions. Composition is always important, but this is a photo with a strong subject which draws the eye quite easily on its own, we don’t need to do a lot of work to get you to see the important bits here.
Adjust B&W tones in printer driver (somewhat colder black)
I always did prefer the cold-tone Agfa papers. With Epson Ultrachrome printers, in the B&W mode you can easily adjust the B&W image tone in the printer driver, and we turned it modestly to the cold side. I don’t remember numbers.
We re-worked the image when Mike Johnston of The Online Photographer decided (at Ctein’s urging) to offer this as their July print sale (TOP has done a couple of print sales a year for a long time, but is just starting to experiment with having print sale every month).
To really see the final outcome, you need to go over to The Online Photographer and buy a print, but, for purposes of this article, here’s the jpeg we’re using to represent the final print.
Memories of this are more recent, plus the discussion was conducted in email. So I know what we aimed to do better than above, but I’m not nearly as clear on how Ctein achieved the goals since I didn’t see that happen.
So, here are the additional changes we made for the final version.
Lightened much of the image
I think Ctein probably felt, now, that the original print was maybe too dark (though he didn’t have it in front of him when doing the new versions, just the file). But also, for a smaller print, the proper brightness range is different, usually lighter, than for a bigger one, and the print sale prints were going to be smaller than the first print we made in 2007.
Brought out the worker’s faces more
Even after lightening, Ctein could get some more there, so he did.
Eliminated some optical-illusion halo around the worker’s heads
But we got weird illusion halos. But Ctein killed them off.
Reduced spray mist around the feet
In the first proofs I saw, I felt that the side and toe of Lincoln’s shoe, the hose near it, and the left worker’s boots ended up looking funny, low-contrast and weird. I suspect it’s actual spray from a few seconds before still in the air, and hence completely “natural”, but it looked weird, and I think what matters in this kind of print is that it look believable, not necessarily that it be slavishly accurate (obviously for forensic or scientific photos, or even just photojournalism, the rules are different!).
Removed weird effects on the toe of the boot
After the above, it looked bizarre for other reasons, so Ctein messed about until it didn’t. I didn’t see the intermediate state so I can’t be too specific.
Darkened the pedestal
I felt that the big hulking pedestal was drawing too much attention to itself. I didn’t want to crop it out, I wanted Lincoln to be clearly above us and it contributes to that, but I wanted it to draw less attention. Again, we pushed this to the point where some artifacts appeared, which Ctein then had to eliminate.
Brought out the spray on the left side some
Didn’t want to darken the spray or make it less visible while darkening the side, so magic was done.
So, to make it easier to compare, here are the initial scan and the final image side by side.
The list of things done looks long, but I don’t consider this to be an example of “extensive” manipulation. We did take one thing out (the ladder), but it was a background element. Other than that, we did things that were basically “optical” in their results, all of which can be done in the darkroom. It’s just that, when you start writing down every little thing, it ends up being a long list.
The Online Photographer, my favorite online site for photographers, is having a special sale on one of my photos. I’m very excited; I’ve never had a one-man gallery show or an organized print sale in all these years.
Some of you who live around Minneapolis will have seen the big print of this in my dining room. This sale is for a smaller version (9×12 image on 12×15 paper), but if anything even nicer (Ctein and I went back to our earlier file and looked at it again for this sale; some things changed for the smaller prints, some things probably just changed because of changing tastes). These prints are made by Ctein, to my satisfaction (after three shipments of proofs for the improvements for the small version), and signed by him on the back and me on the front. I think they’re utterly gorgeous.
I shot this on film in 1975; it’s taken a while for technology, my skill, and the number of friends I could get help from to get to where we could make first-rate prints from it, but we eventually won that battle.
You’ll find full details on the print sale at The Online Photographer. It’s on now, and runs through 7pm Central Time on Friday July 11. Price is $95 plus shipping (which will look anywhere from kind of pricey to remarkably cheap, depending on your familiarity with the art photo market).
Yesterday was the day the tower was open (this year, it’s open two more days, June 12-13), and I managed to remember to go over, and got to see the inside and see the view from the top. It was rather hazy, which made photographs from there less interesting than they might be. But it was still fun, and it makes an easy way to scout for places on the ground with a good view of the tower.
The line got rather longer, and by the time I left was around the tower, down two flights of stairs, and across a lawn. (I posted a cell-phone picture on Facebook yesterday, so this will be largely redundant to my friends there.)