The Rebirth of the
LensWork Special Editions

November 2008

It’s been four years since our last LensWork Special Editions offering. We’ve received a steady flow of requests from readers, “When are you going to offer Special Editions again?” We know it’s taken longer than we’d all hoped, but at last the time is right, the technology is spectacular, and we are delighted to once again offer LensWork Special Editions! [Currently available folios]

Long-time readers of LensWork will know that our passion has always been for images, not for technology. However, it goes without saying that without technology, there is no photography! Technology is important. Rather than shun the technological aspects of photography, we’ve always pushed each technology to produce the very best photographic reproductions they can. We’ve done this with LensWork as ink-on-paper, adopting state-of-the-art stochastic duotone printing. We’ve done this with LensWork Extended as a digital publication, using the technology in ways even Adobe has found amazing. With our 1998 LensWork Special Editions program, we pioneered a technology to make reproduction prints that are visually indistinguishable from the photographer’s originals using gelatin silver materials in a wet darkroom. In all of these media, our dedication has been to bring the highest quality experience to our readers that each technology could allow. In this same spirit, we are now announcing the rebirth of the LensWork Special Editions.

Folios

With this rebirth of the LensWork Special Editions program we’re focusing our efforts on folios, rather than on individual prints. That’s not to say we won’t offer individual prints, but the feedback and requests from LensWork readers has overwhelmingly been for folios. What is a folio? I think of it as a hybrid between an individual print and a book. It’s a collection of unbound prints – book-size rather than wall-size prints. Because they are unbound, like loose prints they can be handled individually, are meant for viewing by hand, but can be matted and framed, I suppose, if you want to. The prints in a folio are presented in an embossed and die-cut art paper enclosure, and feel more like a single collection than a random pile of prints. Like a book, they are typically monographs or thematic, and contain a number of prints that explore a photographic theme more deeply than is possible with a single “greatest hits” image. 

Folios are a great format for collectible, tactile, yet displayable photographs. I’ve been producing folios for my personal work for years now. There is more information about folios as a format and as a concept on our website.

View or purchase sample prints

About the Technology

In the 1998 iteration of the LensWork Special Editions program, we made contact prints onto gelatin silver material using 425-line screen negatives. As changes in technology evolved in the graphic and printing industry, our ability to procure those hybrid negatives for printing in the wet darkroom disappeared. After selling over 28,000 LensWork Special Editions prints, we were left no choice but to discontinue the program in late 2004. Since then, we’ve not seen another technology that allows us to create photographic reproductions that look like gelatin silver prints, and we are not willing to compromise the quality we established with the very first prints in 1998. We’ve been flooded with requests from readers, and we’re obviously highly motivated to see the program continue, but not at the expense of our reputation.


As the gelatin silver LensWork Special Editions program was winding down, I started experimenting with Epson printers for my personal work. I discovered very quickly that the matte papers were just wonderful. I could make a print that was very similar to a platinum/palladium print with a similar tonal range, color, paper texture, and tactile feel. I prefer this for some work. But, the old “gelatin silver look” was simply not possible. The printers couldn’t produce it; the papers really couldn’t produce it. So, like many of you I’m sure, I’ve waited (not too patiently!) for a new technology that would allow us to make gelatin silver looking prints for those deep, deep blacks, those wonderful tonalities, and the aesthetically perfect surface textures that only gelatin silver papers have been able to produce.

Fortunately, the paper and printer manufacturers have been listening — and working very hard to create a solution. There has been an ongoing pursuit to make an inkjet paper and printer combination that could reproduce that wonderful gelatin silver look. In the four years since the end of our previous Special Editions program, there’ve been a few close calls, lots of claims in the marketplace, but precious little to get excited about. I’ve looked at every single new paper as it’s been introduced. I have been universally disappointed. For one reason or another, they just didn’t work. They either were too plastic, the densities weren’t sufficient, the surface texture was wrong, the longevity was questionable, or —worst of all — so many of them exhibited a terrible visual flaw  generally known as bronzing. Bronzing (also referred to as “gloss differential”) is an odd sheen in the dark tones that reflects differently than it should, sort of similar to a tintype that appears as a negative image when viewed at an acute angle.

Last year, with the introduction of baryta (pronounced ba-ri’-ta) coating techniques onto inkjet papers — the same kind of coatings that gelatin silver papers have always had — used in common with the latest inks, the promise of a true gelatin silver replacement seemed nearer than ever. I was hopeful, but not too optimistic. I’d been let down too many times in the last few years. Marketing claims are one thing, but seeing and testing is the only way to be sure.

The new crop of papers has been out now for a number of months and I’ve been testing them for some time. At last, I can say, without any hesitation whatsoever, that some of the newest papers are absolutely fabulous. They are every bit as good as the gelatin silver paper I printed on for years. In fact, the Dmax black densities are even greater than I was able to reproduce in the darkroom with selenium-toned prints! The surface textures are lovely — some papers better than others. The “feel” of them is just wonderful. It seems the wait has been worth it.

There are many variations in the marketplace, but four have risen to the top tier. I’ve been testing all four for some time now: Epson Exhibition Fiber, Ilford Galerie Gold Fiber Silk, Hahnemüle Fine Art Glossy, and Harman Glossy Fiber Base AL. I’ve put these four papers through their paces; tested them in every conceivable way including stress tests, density tests, and most importantly visual “aliveness.” Okay, that last one is a non-numerical, somewhat fuzzy concept. Let me explain.

I once interviewed Oliver Gagliani and we talked about the intangible nature of paper qualities. He compared the selection of photo paper to the judgment of a fine violin. The way to determine which violin is best is not based on reputation, not based on price, not based on materials, but based on the instrument’s ability to carry over distance. Oliver explained it this way: If you take a number of violins outdoors into a field and have someone play them while you listen from a distance, some violins just sound better. Up close they might look the same, and from a close range they might even sound the same. But the better violins have the ability to “carry” so much farther. Oliver simply applied this thinking to photographic papers, too. Sure, he would measure densities, he would look at all the other characteristics of a paper, but his true test was to look at papers from a distance and see which one “carried” the farthest. He was absolutely right. Some papers, seen from across the room, simply look better even though they may have exactly the same densities, similar paper base, the same shade of white, comparable surface textures, etc. There is a kind of ethereal presence that some papers have that is discernable if you really look and look carefully, which of course, we photographers do.

Testing these four papers, there was a very clear winner: the Harman Glossy Fiber Base AL. It was not only the deepest, darkest density of all — a density that exceeded what I was ever able to get in the darkroom with gelatin silver fiber papers — but looking up close, from across the room, under various light sources, it was simply better to my eye. I showed these papers to other people, visitors to LensWork, and members of our staff. Almost everyone agreed it was a marvelous paper, the best of the test subjects. That’s not to say the other papers aren’t good — they are. In some cases, people preferred one texture over another, or perhaps one paper color over another. Those are aesthetic decisions and I can’t fault people for wanting to choose one of the other papers. I’d be happy to produce LensWork Special Editions on any of those four papers. But for me, the Harman was the clear winner.

So, with the ability to use Harman papers in combination with Epson printers and K3 inks we can produce prints that, in my opinion, exceed the quality of the LensWork Special Editions we used to produce in the wet darkroom. Amazing! In fact, one of the tests we did was to print selected images from the former LensWork Special Editions program on Harman Glossy Fiber Base AL and compare it to the original gelatin silver prints that we made on Ilford Multigrade Fiber Base, selenium toned. In every single case, the Harmon print looked better than, or at least as good as, the toned gelatin silver version. I would never have predicted this. I’ve been a gelatin silver guy since my earliest days in photography. As a matter of fact, in the earlier edition of the LensWork Special Editions we made a big deal out of the fact that we were not producing inkjet prints. We advertised that and used that specific language; no inkjet prints.

Well, I’m now eating crow. The new papers and the new inks produce work that I could never produce in the darkroom, with a look and a feel that is absolutely spectacular. I am unapologetic about this. I have no qualms whatsoever in offering these Epson K3 pigment-on-paper prints on Harman paper and claiming with confidence and assurance that they are every bit as good, if not better, than the original LensWork Special Editions gelatin silver prints. Back then, we claimed our Special Editions were visually indistinguishable from the photographers’ original work. I stand by that claim. To my eyes — and I’ve been around photography for a long time — these prints are simply gorgeous.

I couldn’t be more excited about this new technology because it brings photography to a wider audience. It opens up the door for all of us photographers to produce work in an affordable way, to produce it relatively easily, to make photographs we can be very proud of, to make beautiful prints that look and feel absolutely gorgeous.
So that’s our “technological manifesto,” I guess. It’s the door that opens up the LensWork Special Editions program again and we’re very excited about it, thanks both to Epson printers and Harman paper — by the way, neither of whom are sponsors of LensWork nor do we accept any special concessions from them. We use their materials because they’re simply the best. And that’s the best testimonial I can think to give to this evolving technology.

To be sure, not every print should be on glossy, deep black papers. There are aesthetic considerations that trump technology. So, there will be some LensWork folios in the new program that continue to use the matte papers because the images are best reproduced in that medium. Isn’t this just marvelous? We now have the choice — a gelatin silver look, a matte platinum/palladium look, toned or not toned, warm-toned or cool-toned. It’s a terrific set of options to explore from the creative point of view. As we release more and more folios of photographers’ work as reproduction prints, working with photographers to produce the exact kind of reproduction prints they feel best represents their creative vision, we’ll keep evolving.

The New LensWork Special Editions Folios Program

As with the original LensWork Special Editions program, we are committed to our motto “Fine Art Photography at Real People Prices™.” Working with photographers, we will offer their images as folios with a philosophy that brings their work within reach of as many people’s purchasing budgets as possible. We continue to maintain that one of the saddest situations in fine art photography is the barrier between the photographic artist and an audience based on inflated prices. When photography is affordable, it can be enjoyed by collectors in all financial tiers — not just the wealthy elite in the art market. Affordable photography helps provide financial support to the artists. Affordable photographs helps photography as a whole build a larger base of fans and enthusiasts, an important step in the health of our collective artistic pursuits.

Honestly, we’ve taken some grief from those who insist that artwork should be expensive and limited to those who can afford to pay premium prices in the traditional distribution channels for fine art. We simply disagree. It’s not that we think galleries are wrong, but rather that they have an important role to play in the distribution of collectible originals and investment quality art. We think reproductions like the Ansel Adams Special Editions and our LensWork Special Editions have a role in the marketplace, too. We know there are many more people who love photography than who can afford to compete with the elite buyers and large purchasing budgets of art institutions. Rather than see those individuals “do without,” we prefer to see programs that make artwork within reach of the purchasing budgets of everyday folks. Our new Special Editions program continues in that tradition.
Because this is a rebirth for us, we have some experience with the concept of “special editions.” We’ve sold a lot of prints to thousands and thousands of satisfied buyers. We’ve also listened to what they had to say about our previous program. With this opportunity to reintroduce special editions once again to our readers, we are making some important improvements based on that feedback.

One of the most consistent comments (okay, complaints) about our earlier program was that we “discontinued” work. Too many people wished they had had the chance to buy a folio, but were too late to place an order. Because of the demands of production in the wet darkroom, we produced our gelatin silver Special Editions in batches and needed to know how many to produce before we could start. We produced only enough folios to fill the orders we’d gathered before the deadline. With this new program, we can essentially “print on demand.” Our intention is to keep folios available as long as people show interest in them.

We will introduce each new folio with a time-limited introductory price — typically 60-120 days. After that, the folio will continue to be offered for its regular price.

Folios will not be “limited editions” as is so common in the art world. Instead, consistent with our thoughts about limiting an infinitely reproducible art medium like photography, we will number folios, but not limit them to some arbitrary number.

We hope to introduce new folios on a regular basis — probably in concert with new issues of LensWork and LensWork Extended. You, therefore, might see a new folio or two every sixty days, but we aren’t committing to a specific new release schedule.

We will continue to offer monograph folios from specific photographers, but will also be introducing some thematic collection folios that will include the work of several photographers.

These new folios are slightly larger than those we offered a few years ago — 8x10½” — and will include either five, ten, fifteen, or twenty images along with text pages.

We’ve also been able to economize with some new workflow improvements, both with new printers (whose prints we don’t need to spot) and folio cover production. This will allow us to reduce the price compared to the folios we offered back then.

New Folios Now Available

Our first offering in this new program is by LensWork alumnus Mitch Dobrowner. We first published his work in LensWork #69 and he is back again with new images in this issue. For this new folio, we’ve worked with Mitch to select ten of his desert southwest landscapes for a new LensWork Special Editions Folio entitled The Still Earth. This folio is printed on Harman Glossy FB AL and is simply spectacular on this new paper.

We are particularly excited to offer our first folio of color images — a capability now open to us with this new technology. You may have seen the extraordinary color flower constructions of Huntington Witherill (another LensWork and LensWork Special Editions alumnus) in LensWork Extended #57. Huntington has selected fifteen images for this LensWork Special Editions folio. He prints his large, gallery prints on Hahnemüle Photo Rag Bright White, a matte paper, which we will also use in the production of this folio.

And, finally, I am excited to offer a new folio of my personal work, printed on the Harman Glossy FB AL. This folio is called Silva Lacrimosa (Tears of the Forest) and includes eleven new photographs from the charcoal remains of a forest fire.

A PDF of each of these new folios, as well as additional details about the program, some audio and video materials, and a history of the original LensWork Special Editions program is available on our website. This additional information is also included in the content of LensWork Extended #79.
Additional details can be found on pages 16 and 17 of this issue.

Thanks

Needless to say, we are excited to announce this new program. We know many of you have been looking forward to this, and we are grateful for your continual — and we should say, gentle — prodding and motivation over the last few year’s hiatus. We are glad to be back in production and look forward to once again bringing photography to an even wider audience in a format that truly showcases the creative work of so many fine photographers.