• Neil Williamson

In the Beginning

New York, Art School and the Darkroom


In 1989 I was lucky and privileged enough to be studying photography at art school in New York City. I had grown up in apartheid South Africa and had never previously left the country. From the isolation and repression and legalized criminality of 1980’s South Africa under an official ‘State Of Emergency’ to the extraordinary time and place that was Lower East Side in 1989 just split my brain open. The Lower East Side of New York in the late ‘80’s was mad. Empty lots and burned-out tenement buildings and abandoned cars everywhere. Junkies and dealers and cops on every corner. It was also an extraordinary time of freedom and creativity with countless artists and musicians living in the area. One day I sat 6 feet away from Joey Ramone eating a slice of pizza (still one of the coolest moments of my life) and once ended up a rooftop party with a bunch of squatter punks and Debbie Harry.


At school I spent hours in the darkroom, entranced by the alchemy of the photochemical process of film development and printing. I thought I had found my groove. The thrill of watching the image appear, rise up, in the developer was pure magic. I knew I wanted to be a street photographer and photographic printer. I would spend hours walking the city, photographing anything that caught my eye. I was painfully awkward and shy (still am at times) but I once heard a quote about how shy people often make the best photographers because they don’t have the option to ‘feel’ their way into a situation, instead, like jumping in a pool of icy water, the only way in is to take a deep breath and plunge.










Print Art: The beginning


But somehow life took some other turns and 20 years later, 2009 found me working in the film industry in Cape Town. My plan to become Gary Winogrand or Don McCullin hadn’t materialized. I had delivered junkmail door-to-door in Canada, worked furniture removals in Paris, a stint in a bookshop in London, a bunch of other things as well. Some half-hearted attempts at becoming a travel writer. Ended up in the film industry in Cape Town working as everything from special effects to a location scout and finally as an art director. But somehow, I knew I was treading water, this was not where I was meant to be.


And then one day in 2009 someone let me use their large format inkjet printer for an afternoon. An Epson, the 9800 model. I quickly scanned one of my old 35mm negatives from New York, a grainy B&W skyline, and printed it as big as the machine would allow. And there it was, that same thrill of watching the image appear. I couldn’t believe how good it looked. I couldn’t believe how satisfying it was. It wasn’t a good print; the neg had been scanned on a crappy flatbed, the post processing in photoshop was rudimentary and the cheap paper was lightweight and buckled under the ink load, but I could immediately sense the possibilities.




To say that I had a moment of revelation would be untrue. Its only really with the benefit of hindsight that I see that as the pivot point. But that is definitely where Print Art started. It took a couple of years to before I was printing for other people as a job, but certainly that was the beginning.


Taking Shape


At first, I was using someone else’s machine, printing artwork on canvas for film sets. Again, I could see the possibilities, the promise was there, but I knew I had a long way to go. I started to look at prints again. I went to galleries (still do) and looked closely at what was been produced by others. Eventually I got my own printer. I got a studio space. I quit working in the film industry. Slowly, by trial and error, by practice, by endless hours and lessons and photoshop books and late nights and two-steps-forward-one-step-back, over the next 5 years, I managed to build a good understanding of the technical aspects of the digital print workflow and was eventually at a point where I could consistently get an excellent screen-to-print match with accurate and repeatable colour from print to print.


In the Game


Pretty much everything I made I sunk back into the business. I quickly discovered that certain (expensive) gear is really helpful or indeed essential to getting consistent and predictable results. Key things include colour-accurate monitors (most monitors vary from mildly to wildly inaccurate) and standardized lighting to view prints. And a professional spectrophotometer, which is a tool that allows one to calibrate monitors and profile papers. These are some of the basic tools that allow one to create a ‘closed colour loop’ between different devices. And of course the printers themselves. I have always stuck to Epson. From the venerable Epson 9800 to the 9890 and the P9000, now my flagship machine, the brilliant Epson SureColor P10000, one of the best fine-art and photographic printers ever made. These are all 44 inch/1118 mm wide printers


Synchronicity


The challenge to owning a bunch of technical devices is getting them to talk to each other properly. They age at different rates, the software doesn't always sync. It's one thing to have the gear, its another thing to understand the idea behind everything; you really need to grok what each component's purpose is and then you are more able to get them gel and stay a happy family.


Colour me happy


After more than 10 years, watching a print emerge still gives me a thrill. And I love that I am still learning all the time. Age has increased my curiosity of how things work. I get a kick out of taking machines apart to understand how they work. And I love working with images in photoshop and am constantly exploring the world of colour grading and retouching. Colour is an endlessly fascinating thing. How colours react to their environment, how altering the colour of one part of an image can effect the whole balance. And I am often reminded of how much many of the traditional analogue photography concepts still apply to digital. And I feel strongly that digital printing is not just about moving numbers from one device to another. Images look different on paper. A decent printer needs to develop an instinct in translating file to paper, no matter how 'accurate' the system is.


Digital vs Analogue - the war of the worlds

As someone who started in analogue photography, I remain in love with the idea of prints that are made without the benefit of computers and electronic devices. Silver prints can be so beautiful as to make me feel like I can't bear to look away. My reverence for the art and craft of the handmade silver print remains undiminished. But I also love the idea that new technology has made it much easier for a really beautiful print to be available to everyone. There is a degree of democratization of fine-art printing (and photography) that has happened with the digital image revolution. The amount of control that we have now is unparalleled to what was available in the darkroom. That control, combined with the longevity of the best papers and inks, and the raw beauty of the prints makes it an exciting time to be a printer.


So when someone asks me which is better, digital or analogue, I say both.




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