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A Short History of Digital Fine-Art Printing

In the early days of the digital revolution, in the 1980's, the idea of a high-resolution digital fine-art print that could rival traditional printmaking in terms of aesthetic value and longevity was still just an idea.

The journey from vision to reality started, funnily enough, with a rock star.

The rock star pioneer

Graham Nash, of 'The Hollies' and Crosby, Stills & Nash, was not only a famous rock star but also an accomplished photographer and photographic print collector. In the late 1970s, Nash's tour manager, R. Mac Holbert had computerized the band's accounting system. Later Holbert began to experiment with scanning images for tour itineraries. That led Nash and Holbert to becoming interested in the idea of scanning and printing some of their own black-and-white photographs.

"I started with a Thunderscanner," Nash says, "which was a small scanner head that you put into an Apple Dot Matrix printer in place of the ink cartridge. The item to be scanned was fed into the printer--just like loading paper into a typewriter--and special software activated the print head, which scanned the paper line by line. I also had some very primitive manipulation software called Digital Darkroom. It was fun, but when I got serious about it, I found that there was no way to get them off the screen. I tried everything - photographing the screen, thermal prints, wax prints. There wasn't a lot available in those days, and this was in 1987, 1988."

After research and experimentation with various commercial printers, Nash and Holbert were eventually introduced to the "Iris Graphics Model 3047" printer. The Iris was a proofing printer, designed to print full-colour proofs in commercial print and pre-press shops. 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 files, before the job was sent to production.

The technology

The Iris 3047 was based on then-newly developed ‘inkjet’ technology. Inkjet printing works by having an array of nozzles or jets that shoot very small drops of ink onto the media surface. These droplets overlay one another, creating colours like a painter creates colours by mixing paints. At this point the technology was relativity crude, with fixed drop size and only four inks. Modern professional inkjet printers use up to 12 inks, greatly expanding the colour gamut, and variable size microscopic droplets, down to 1.5 picolitres in size (that's one one-trillionth of a litre!)

The journey begins

In 1989 Nash and 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 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!”

Nash and Holbert immediately recognized the possibilities of the Iris 3047. Here was a machine that took a digital file and, on demand, printed a single high-resolution image up to A0 size. This was a revolutionary idea in 1989.

Further impetus was created when Nash was invited to have a show at a New York gallery. But most of the negatives and gelatin silver prints for the show were lost after being sent to an art director. All Nash had were the contact sheet proofs. At this point Nash was put in touch with David Coons. Coons was a colour engineer working for Disney, helping the company make the transition from analog to digital animation. One of the tools that Coons had at his disposal was an Iris 3047. 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 and printed the files using the Iris 3047.

The world's first series of digitally printed photographic prints drew crowds and raves in New York. The plan had worked perfectly; digital prints were on the art map.

An Iris 3047 in action. The lid has been removed to demonstrate how the print head moves from left to right, laying down ink, as the drum spins.

An Iris 3047 in action. The lid has been removed to demonstrate how the print head moves from left to right, laying down ink, as the drum spins.

Nash Editions

In December of 1989 Nash purchased his own Iris 3047 for the princely sum of $126 000. 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. Nash Editions is generally recognised as the world's first digital fine-art printing studio.

Graham Nash (left) and Jack Duganne of Nash Editions removing a finished print from the drum of the Iris 3047. Duganne is the guy who invented the term "Giclée".
Graham Nash (left) and Jack Duganne of Nash Editions removing a finished print from the drum of the Iris 3047. Duganne is the guy who invented the term "Giclée".

Other early pioneers

Graham Nash wasn't the only early adopter of digital and inkjet technology. One of the other pioneers was Jon Cone. Cone was trained as a traditional fine-art printmaker and worked with artists in the mediums of silkscreen, intaglio, monoprint, and photogravure. Sensing, however, that the computer could be a great tool for experimental printmaking, Cone started incorporating scanners and learning computer programming. Combining his skills as a master printmaker and a recent computer geek, he started to shift into a hybrid approach, combining traditional printmaking with a digital component, much to the horror of some other printmakers.

Cone Editions

In 1989 Cone moved to rural Vermont and opened Cone Editions. Originally also working with an Iris 3047 for large-format digital fine-art prints, 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.

Software comes to the party

Back in the early 1990's, 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 by creating a colour-controlled loop between different devices, using ICC profiles and wide-gamut colour spaces, allowing for an almost unprecedented level of colour management.

The Original Hack

The Iris 3047 started the revolution and had many advantages but it also had some challenges. It was not conceived of nor intended for the printing of individual photographs or artwork. Initially it could only load fairly thin paper. A famous anecdote describes how, after Nash Editions receiving their brand new, very expensive, machine, Holbert voided the warranty with a hacksaw on the first day. He sawed off the print-head and remounted it further away from the paper so that the printer would accept thicker sheets of 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 3047 had been designed for the printing of short-term proofs, the dye-based inks initially available had poor light-stability and were prone to fading. The industry responded with dye-based ink-sets with improved longevity, but this longevity was still limited to a few years. Eventually, newer ink-sets and improved substrates were developed that extended the life of the prints.

But a truly 'archival-quality' digital print system was still to come.

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, or spray) 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. [Read upcoming What's in a Name blog for more on this].

Pigment inks introduce archival quality printing

The Iris 3047 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-quality digital prints would be possible.

Canon, Epson and HP had all been developing new printers to meet the exploding world of digital imaging. A major breakthrough happened in 1999 with the release of the Epson Stylus Pro 9500 large-format inkjet printer. The new generation of inkjet printers cost much less then the Iris 3047, they operated on a 'drop-on-demand' technology, they had more inks which meant a wider colour gamut, they could load just about any type of media and they were easy to operate. Notably they used pigment ink, greatly improving the light-fastness of the prints. The end of the mighty Iris 3047 was in sight.

Nash Editions was one the beta testers for the new Epson printers and in 2001 Holbert collaborated with photographer Stephen Wilkes to produce a major photographic exhibition, "America in Detail". The show was critically acclaimed and shown 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.

The Epson 'Stylus Pro 9800' changes the game

In 2005 Epson released the Stylus Pro 9800 model. What was groundbreaking about the 9800 was the expanded colour gamut of the UltraChrome K3 ink-set 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 light-fast. This was the first ink-set that could comfortably be described as 'archival-quality'. The 9800 created the blueprint for large-format fine-art digital printers. An iconic piece of engineering, built to last, with many working machines still in use around the world.

Our beloved 15-year old model is still going strong!

Photographer Greg Gorman prints one of his images of Sharon Stone using his Epson 9800 printer, at his home in Los Angeles, in 2006.

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 Big Three duke it out

The early leader in the digital fine-art printer market was Epson. There was a synergy between Epson, 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. HP and Canon have caught up to Epson, and currently all three companies make excellent machines, with archival inks, 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.

The machine that started it all goes to the big house

In August 2005, Nash and Holbert donated their original Iris 3047 printer to The Smithsonian Museum, along with an Apple II computer.

It was the end of an era - and the start of a whole new world.


Jeff Schewe: The Digital Print. Peachpit Press, 2013


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