A Short History of Fine Art Digital Printing
Updated: Jun 22
It started, funnily enough, with a rock star.
Graham Nash, of ‘Crosby, Stills & Nash’, was not only a famous musician but also an accomplished photographer and collector. In 1989 Nash, along with his road manager and fellow photographer R Mac Holbert, watched a demonstration of a photographic image, stored as a digital file on ¼ inch tape, being printed onto glossy paper using an 'Iris Graphics Model 3047' printer. As Holbert recorded in a diary entry “When the printer stopped spinning and they opened it, both Graham and I got chills. It was astounding! I couldn’t believe what I was looking at!”
The Iris 3047 had being designed to print colour digital files as proofs prior to the file being sent to an offset printer for the industrial printing of things like glossy magazines. It was capable of matching the colour gamut and tonal range of large offset print systems and was used to print a ‘hard copy’ of colour-critical image files for visual assessment, before the job was sent to production. The Iris printer was based on then newly developed ‘inkjet’ technology – the ink is sprayed onto the media surface in tiny dots by an array of jets or nozzles.
An Iris 3047 in action. The lid has been removed to demonstrate how the print head moved from left to right, laying down ink, as the drum spun.
Nash and Holbert immediately recognized the possibilities of the Iris printer. Here was a machine that took a digital file and, on demand, printed a single high-resolution colour-accurate image on a variety of different media up to A0 size. But the Iris 3047 was not conceived of nor intended for the printing of individual photographs or artwork, its function was a prepress proofer in an industrial production print environment.
But there weren’t really any other printers available. 1990 had seen the introduction of the first commercially available digital camera - the digital image revolution was in full swing - but there weren’t any large format professional-quality digital photographic printers on the market.
In December of 1989 Graham Nash purchased his own Iris 3047 for the princely sum of $126 000 - which was way beyond the reach of most photographers and artists. At first Nash and Holbert were just printing their own photographs but soon they began to be approached by other photographers and artists wanting their images printed. In 1991 they open Nash Editions in California. This was the worlds first digital fine art photography printing studio.
Fine Art Printing Studios: Challenges and Breakthroughs
Other studios began to appear across the US. One of the other early pioneers was Jon Cone, who had started Cone Editions in the early 1980's in New York City as a printmaking studio producing serigraphy, etchings and photogravure. Cone was an early adopter of the new technology and in 1989 moved to rural Vermont and set up a studio, also working with an Iris 3047. He was heavily involved in the development of more fade-resistant inks for the Iris. He later switched over to Epson printers and developed his own ink formulation for the Epson printers. Jumping forward to 2000, Jon Cone created the Piezography dedicated black-and-white system for Epson machines. Print Art adopted Piezography in 2018.
But back to the early 1990's and alongside the new print technology was the simultaneously exploding area of imaging software. Adobe Photoshop was in its early stages and print-makers and studios were beginning to realize the level of control that could be achieved, particularly for colour images and how it was possible to start creating a colour-controlled loop between different devices.
The Original Hack
The Iris 3047 had many advantages but it also had some challenges. For example, initially it could only load fairly thin paper. A famous anecdote describes how, after receiving their brand new, very expensive, machine, R Mac Holbert voided the warranty with a hacksaw in the first 15 minutes. He sawed off the print head and remounted it further away from the paper so that the printer would accept thick sheets of watercolour fine art paper.
Other challenges included the fact that it was slow and “very expensive to operate, it constantly purges ink, if any little droplet of spit or water lands on the print it is flawed and it takes several rejected prints to make one perfect print”.
And the biggest challenge was the longevity of the ink. Because the Iris had been designed as a proofer, intended for the printing of short-term proofs, the dye-based inks initially available had poor light-stability. The industry responded with dye-based inksets with improved longevity for Iris printers, but this longevity was still limited to a few years. Eventually, newer inksets and improved substrates were developed that extended the life of the prints.
The invention of the term "Giclée"
It was around this time that Nash Editions member Jack Duganne created the term "Giclée". Duganne was looking for a term of distinction to describe the prints that Nash Editions and other studios were producing on their modified Iris printers. It was felt that most people associated the term ‘inkjet’ with cheap desktop document printers. And ‘Iris prints’ were short-term proofs. So he created the term "Giclée" - which was adopted from the French word gicleur (a jet or a nozzle) and the associated verb gicler (to squirt out) and referred to the ‘inkjet’ technology that the Iris printer was based on. The name stuck, though the original inventors of the term have long rejected it [more about this in a later post]
Iris was not the only digital printer that existed. Canon, Epson and HP had all been developing various printers to meet the new world of digital imaging. In fact, Canon have a good claim to have invented digital printing in 1977 when a researcher accidentally touched an ink-filled syringe with a hot soldering iron, forcing the ink to expand and release a drop from the tip of the syringe. This was the basis of inkjet printing. Canon called it 'bubble jet technology'. Epson went on to develop 'piezoelectric' technology, which relied on electrical charges to fire the ink nozzles.
The Iris printer was revolutionary, but the design of the heads meant that it could only work with dye-based inks. While the longevity of the Iris inks had improved dramatically, it was only with the switch to pigment-based inks that
archival grade prints would be possible. This switch started to happen in 1999 when Epson released the Stylus Pro 9500 model of large-format machines. These machines cost much less then the Iris, they operated on a 'drop-on-demand' piezoelectric technology, they used pigment inks, they could load just about any type of media and were easy to operate. The end of the might Iris was in sight.
Nash Editions was one the beta testers for the new Epson printers and in 2001 R Mac Holbert collaborated with photographer Stephen Wilkes to produce a major photographic exhibition, "America in Detail'. The show was critically acclaimed and shown in in major cities across the US. This is generally believed to be the first major photographic exhibition printed using the new pigment ink, large-format, inkjet printers. And then in 2005 Epson released the Stylus Pro 9800 model. What was groundbreaking about the 9800 was the expanded colour gamut of the UltraChrome K3 inkset which included three levels of black ink (hence 'K3') to improve shadow detail and much better neutrals across the range. And the pigment inks were extremely lightfast, rated as being fade resistant for over 100 years. This was it, and the basic structure of fine art and photographic printing was created.
Photographer Greg Gorman prints one of his images of Sharon Stone using his Epson 9800 printer, at his home in Los Angeles, in 2006.
The early leader in the digital fine art printer market was Epson. There was a synergy between Epson, and Epson inks, and photographers that helped Epson take the early lead. It was only later, when Canon and HP developed improved ink sets and printers, that Epson had any competition. Currently all three companies make excellent machines, with archival inks and wide colour gamuts and good neutrals. All three brands have their adherents, with each brand slightly stronger in different respects, but all three are capable of producing prints that where unimaginable in terms of colour, depth and longevity a few years ago.
In August 2005, Graham Nash and R Mac Holbert donated their original Iris 3047 printer to The Smithsonian Museum, along with an Apple II computer and a 1989 Iris print of David Crosby (the first print created at Nash Editions). It was the end of an era and the start of a whole new world.
Nash Editions: Photography and the Art of Digital Printing
Jeff Schewe: The Digital Print