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(adapted with images removed from Chapter 1 of Harald Johnson's book, Mastering Digital Printing, Second Edition, Thomson Course Technology PTR, 2005, ISBN: 1592004318.)

Digital, Fine-Art Printing Comes of Age

[Author's note: This book excerpt focuses on high-quality digital printing in an "art" context. That means printing for photography and digital and traditional art. I intentionally didn't include the history of what I call commercial art (graphic design, advertising, marcom) and "sign-and-banner" printing (signs, billboards, event graphics, building wraps, etc.). That's for another book at another time. Also not included here is the book's sidebar "Computer's, Art and Printmaking: A Brief History," which includes key dates and events from 1946. --Harald Johnson]

While artists have been using computers to create and even output images for decades, and the roots of digital printing stretch way back in time through multiple lines of development, things didn't really take off until two groups on opposite sides of the U.S. started to put their attentions on a new way of imagemaking and printing.

Jon Cone's Computer-Assisted Printmaking
In 1980, Jon Cone, who was educated and trained as a traditional fine-art printmaker and who owned an art gallery in New York City's SoHo district, founded an experimental and collaborative printmaking studio in the waterfront town of Port Chester, New York. There, from 1980 to 1984, printmaker Cone worked with artists in the media of silkscreen, intaglio, relief, monoprint, and photogravure.

Sensing, however, that the computer could be an advantageous tool for experimental printmaking and wanting to break away from the pack of other printmakers, many of whom were horrified by what he was doing, Cone started experimenting with scanners and learning computer programming. Combining his skills as a master printmaker and a recent computer geek (he was mesmerized by the 1984 Apple Macintosh TV commercial), he started to shift into a hybrid approach, combining traditional printmaking with a digital component to create what could be best described as computer-assisted original prints and multiples.

This was nothing like the push-button inkjet printing that we know today. Cone's collaborative artists would create a digital master either with computer software, by placing objects on the scanner's glass, by painting onto separation mylars--whatever it took to create an image and turn it into a digital state. Cone would then often output the digital files to negative or positive film on a Linotronic imagesetter, and, in turn, those films would be used to burn silkscreen, photogravure, and etching plates for the final printing on a traditional etching press. An alternative technique was to use a digital Canon copier to create outputs that were used to transfer the image under pressure and with the help of acetone onto printmaking paper.

All this was very technical and time-consuming work, but the results were stunning, and Cone's innovative digital editions were shown and sold in New York until 1990 when Cone and his studio relocated to a small, rural village in Vermont to continue with digital-printmaking experiments.

By 1992, Cone had added inkjet printing to his repertoire, but the story now backs up a little and shifts to the West Coast.

Graham Nash and Digital Fine-Art Printing
The photographic side of the equation didn't gel until the paths of six people--a rock star and his best friend, an art publicist, a sales rep, a computer wizard, and a silkscreen printer--unexpectedly intersected in early 1989 in California. Rock musician Graham Nash (of the legendary group Crosby, Stills, and Nash) had been quietly collecting photographs for years. On the road with the band, Nash and his best friend Mac Holbert, who was also CSN's tour manager, would always hit the local galleries and swap meets looking for visual treasures. In the process, Nash amassed a world-class collection of vintage and contemporary photographs.

Nash also took photographs every chance he got, and it was only a matter of time before he caught the computer bug and started scanning and manipulating his images on the computer screen. Now, this was in the early days (mid '80s), when the scanning was crude and the printing not much better.

Holbert, who had computerized the band's accounting process early on, was soon helping Nash with his digital experiments. The two could see the potential of working digitally, but a decent print of what they were viewing on the monitor had so far eluded them. Outside of the commercial design world and other specialized applications, there were few options for Nash and Holbert to output their digital files in high resolution onto large-sized paper.

If Nash wanted to start printing and showing his digitally processed black and white images, he was going to have to change gears and move to a new level. He decided to invent a way to do it himself, and to do that, he needed to raise some money, and he needed some help.

Enter Charles Wehrenberg, a San Francisco art publicist and writer. Wehrenberg was a friend of Nash's and a well-known figure in New York and West Coast high-art circles. Once he understood that Nash wanted to sell his photo collection to raise the money to invest in a way to print his photo art, Wehrenberg came up with a plan. He arranged for the collection's sale through New York's venerable auction house, Sotheby's. Their PR machine would beat the drum, and Nash would handle the media like the pro he was.

However, Wehrenberg added a twist to the idea. To increase the buzz for the event and for what Nash was trying to do, Wehrenberg orchestrated a concurrent art show of Nash's own photography at the Simon Lowinsky gallery, to be held in New York the day before the Sotheby's sale.

The exhibition was scheduled for the following spring (1990), and Nash began pulling together 16 unique portraits taken over many years of touring with the band. But, there was a major problem. Most of the original negatives (and even the prints) had disappeared when Nash sent them to an art director, and they never returned. All he had were the contact sheet proofs to work from, and these were much too small for making the large display prints the gallery wanted--at least using standard photographic methods.

During his search for high-quality digital output, Nash had discovered Jetgraphix, a design research lab affiliated with UCLA across town from his Encino (Los Angeles) home. Run by former ad agency art director John Bilotta, the studio was a test site for Fuji's experimental, large-format inkjet printers of the same name (Jetgraphix). Nash was intrigued by the prints Bilotta could make, but the resolution was so low ("dots as big as your head") that when Nash asked if he knew of anything better, Bilotta handed him a sales brochure for something called an IRIS printer. (Another person who received a Bilotta brochure was a silkscreen printer named Jack Duganne; more about him shortly.)

Steve Boulter, the West Coast sales rep for Boston-based IRIS Graphics, had been showing test samples and passing out brochures for their new graphic arts, pre-press proofing machine to anyone he could. Boulter was pushing his company to get the IRIS into the hands of more photographers and artists, but the company didn't see much point to it--they were in the commercial graphics business, not the fine-art business. Boulter, however, believed in his idea and continued to make the rounds of art studios and businesses involved with art production. One of his big sales at the end of 1988 was to The Walt Disney Company in Burbank, which was using the machine to output hardcopy color prints in conjunction with their top secret, computer animation process.

Wehrenberg was already familiar with the IRIS. Artist Richard Lowenberg had shown him some early sample prints, and Wehrenberg liked what he saw. A lot. He called the IRIS company for more information, and they relayed the call to Steve Boulter who happened to be visiting San Francisco. Soon, Boulter was standing at Wehrenberg's dining room table showing off more samples. Impressed all over again, Wehrenberg picked up the phone to call Graham Nash, and he put Boulter on the line to set up a meeting.

Boulter flew to L.A. the following week (in April, 1989), and Nash was equally amazed at the quality of the IRIS prints. He instantly realized that this was the solution to his two-part problem of getting images out of his computer and also making the prints for the Lowinsky show.

However, there was a remaining glitch: how to get the images into the IRIS printer. The machine was meant to be hooked up only to large, proprietary, pre-press systems, not home scanners or Macintosh computers. Boulter knew just the person to solve the problem: David Coons. Coons was a color engineer for Disney, and he was helping the company make the transition from analog to digital animation. (Coons would receive an Academy Award in 1992 for co-developing Disney's ground-breaking, computer animation production system.) Coons was also the one in charge of running the new IRIS 3024 printer that Boulter had sold them. Boulter introduced Coons to Nash, and soon, Coons was on the team.

Working off-hours at Disney and using custom software programs that he wrote specifically for the project, Coons scanned and retouched Nash's proof prints, downloaded them to the IRIS, and printed the edition of images onto thick, Arches watercolor paper.

Nash ultimately met his April 24, 1990 Lowinsky exhibition deadline, and the following day's sale at Sotheby's brought in $2.17 million, a record for a private photographic collection. The world's first series of all-digitally printed, photographic fine art drew crowds and raves in New York and, as the show traveled, in Tokyo and Los Angeles. (A set of those prints later sold at auction at Christie's for $19,500.)

The plan had worked perfectly; digital prints were on the art map.

Even before the show, while Coons was moonlighting at Disney to output the print portfolios, Nash, Boulter, Wehrenberg, Coons, and eventually Holbert were kicking around the idea of setting up a shop to produce these new digital prints on a commercial basis. Coons was already experimenting with non-Nash images including several for artist Sally Larsen, who was Wehrenberg's wife.

Graham Nash soon bought one of the $126,000 IRIS machines and installed it in July 1990 in the small garage of an old house he owned in nearby Manhattan Beach, a suburb of Los Angeles. By August, Steve Boulter had moved into the top floor of the garage, and David Coons was making the long commute from Burbank each day with nine-track computer tapes of images that needed printing for a new edition of Nash portraits to be shown in Tokyo in November, 1990.

Remember our friend, serigrapher Jack Duganne? He soon found out about what was going on in Manhattan Beach. It wasn't far from his studio in Santa Monica, so Duganne, who could see the digital writing on the wall, started bringing digital tapes of his art clients' scanned images over for printing. By February, 1991, he was printing on the IRIS himself as a Nash Editions' employee. Duganne took to the IRIS quickly, developing new printing procedures and in the process becoming Nash's master printmaker. While there, Duganne also came up with the term "giclée", but more about that later.

The work for outside clients continued to grow, and as Coons and Boulter began to spend less time at the Manhattan Beach studio, it became clear that someone would need to manage this new business enterprise if it were going to succeed. Coons had been running things while Nash and Holbert were on the road with CSN, but when the last tour ended in June, 1991, Holbert moved down from his home in Santa Cruz and took over the managing of the shop. On July 1, 1991, Graham Nash and Mac Holbert officially opened Nash Editions, the world's first professional, all-digital printmaking studio.

The Revolution Takes Off
By 1993, a mere handful of digital printmaking studios--including Nash Editions (L.A.), Harvest Productions (Anaheim, California), Cone Editions (Vermont), Adamson Editions (Washington, D.C.), Digital Pond (San Francisco), and Thunderbird Editions (Clearwater, Florida)--were busy on both U.S. coasts. All were using IRIS inkjet technology to make fine-art prints for photographers and artists. Soon, there were a dozen similar shops (many set up by Jon Cone), then many dozen, then scores. Today, there are anywhere from 2,500 to 5,000 professional or commercial printmakers making digital prints for artists the world over.

However, just as important, and the reason many of you are reading this, is the fact that there are now many tens of thousands of individual photographers and artists, from amateurs to pros, who are able to print high-quality images in their own studios, homes, and offices. No longer constrained by the high costs of traditional printing methods, the production of "artistic" prints has been put in the hands of the greatest number of people--the artists and the imagemakers themselves. This democratization of digital printing took a parallel path of development after the introduction by Epson in 1994 of the first, high-quality, desktop inkjet printer: the Epson Stylus Color. Spurred on by the attention and pushing of dedicated experimenter/artists, Epson and the other manufacturers eventually evolved the technology we enjoy today.

All of these art revolutionaries provided the essential "proof of concept" that the new process needed before it could blossom. They deserve the credit for opening the door to the promise of digital printing, and the early adopting photographers and artists walked right in. And that door is swinging wider all the time.

Where Are They Now?
Jon Cone would go on to many other milestones, and he remains a key player in the digital printing world. Graham Nash still takes photographs and is the figurehead of Nash Editions, while Mac Holbert continues to run the day-to-day operations. David Coons and his first wife, Susan, opened their own fine-art scanning service (ArtScans) two doors down from Nash Editions in 1993. Steve Boulter is a consultant to the digital imaging industry. Charlie Wehrenberg still lives in San Francisco and continues to work in the art world. Jack Duganne opened his own digital printmaking studio (Duganne Ateliers) in Santa Monica in 1996.

All seven remain actively involved with art in general and with digital printmaking in particular.

Copyright � 2002-2006 Harald Johnson. All rights reserved.

(read related piece "Giclée: The True Story" from same chapter)
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