• Chase Hirt

On Paper

A simple human connection in the photography lab radically changed my view of photography. Midway through my Senior year of high school, I showed the photography teacher some of my recent landscape images taken over Spring Break, and he suggested that I print them. Staring at him somewhat blankly, I failed to comprehend the importance of this practice. Undeterred, he beckoned me over to his computer monitors and showed me how to prepare the image for printing.

The teacher adjusts the image resolution for print (middle) and the printer is loaded (right)

Then, he lead me over to the paper shelf and selected the surface onto which my five best photographs would be displayed. Marveling over the quality and thickness, I was instructed to insert the paper into the top slot of the massive printer. Mesmerized by the printhead’s methodical application of fine points of ink to the paper visible under the transparent plastic cover, I observed my image come to life over the span of five quick minutes.

When I first grasped and beheld my first printed image, I saw the scene anew. The physicality of the photograph astounded me. I was able to touch my work and appreciate the details in an additional dimension. Instead of scrolling past a flat image on my phone, I manipulated and angled the paper to catch the light just right. Instead of zooming in to check the details, I simply moved my face closer to the surface or vice versa. The glistening rocks shone with a lifelike quality, and I could appreciate the gentle, porous texture of the sandstone cliffs. The fine tendrils of the “long exposure” water were accentuated the the subtle gloss of the paper, and the rich blues and oranges reminded me of that magical sunrise. I was hooked.

The above images are the first prints I ever made

Printing consumed my free periods, and I resolved to learn all I could about printers, paper, and ink. I was also especially grateful for the photography teacher’s generous donation of time and expertise, as I did not take photography classes at my high school.

By some grand coincidence, a family friend was looking to offload an almost brand-new portable photography printer along with reams of paper, and I could now practice my love for printing at home. Experimenting further, I began to test out sample paper packs recommended by internet photography and printing forums. As a result, I soon fell in love with texture. Smooth, glossy finishes mostly cast aside, I deliberately printed images on my favorite textured papers to achieve a 3D effect. I soon came to understand that while one can appreciate art displayed on digital formats, an image only ever truly comes to life when printed, framed, and proudly showcased on the wall.

Upon contemplating my newfound love for printing, I wondered why all photographers did not have this same passion. Months of interacting with my local and online photography communities has led me to the unfortunate conclusion that printing photographs has become a hidden and largely underappreciated art. With the emergence of digital photography, it has become simpler and more cost effective to reach a wider audience by posting images on social media rather than hanging prints up in a local gallery.

Signing prints at a local print lab

With film, the only way a photographer could view exposures was through creating prints of images in a darkroom. Thus, printing functioned as an essential part of the photographic process. In the digital era, however, photographers have the choice to either print their images for personal or commercial use or solely display their images as pixels on a flat screen. Due to the modern convenience of shooting photos and immediately seeing results, images have the tendency to become trivialized. It is now up to the photographer to selectively choose only the best photographs to print, since we now have the ability to shoot hundreds of images on our internal storage cards beyond the limitations of a 36-exposure roll of film. While digital representations of images serve essential purposes in our society such as allowing for the rapid transmission of information and events, it behooves every serious photographer to experience their art in “real” life. Unlike posting any image which suits one’s aesthetic fancy to social media in a manner of seconds, choosing to give a specific image a new level of existence on paper requires deeper contemplation. A catalogue of thousands of images can be stored on hard drives, uploaded to a website portfolio, or shared on social media, but there is limited space on the wall for prints.

As such, printing forces photographers to become highly self-aware and selective when choosing which few images to print out of 20+ favorites. Printing is also the best practice to further understand one’s own creativity, style, and purpose as a photographer. Interestingly, I have found that not all images keep the same appeal when transferred to paper. In fact, it takes a truly special image to look better on paper than it does on a screen. With these deliberately curated images in hand, a whole new appreciation for artistry begins to develop. Even though photos can be displayed as screensavers and even on digital pictures frames, nothing gets close to the uniquely tangible and enduring quality of an image rendered onto paper, matted, framed, and put behind glass. I have been tempted—and succumbed— to pump my fist triumphantly in the air while holding my rectangular, tangible piece of art fresh off the printer!

When I delved deeper into the printing world and started looking beyond the standard, semi-glossy surfaces after testing out more unique, specialty finishes, I found that certain images in my portfolio worked best with super glossy papers, while more fine-art landscapes shined on subtle, matte textured papers.

The above images were printed on super glossy paper to show off their vibrant, rich colors

In particular, I was enamored with Hahnemühle—a niche German paper company founded in 1584. They specialize in extremely high quality papers and create some of the finest textured papers ever made. My favorite paper is perhaps Hahnemühle’s German Etching Paper, because it combines a subdued fine-grain with a surface coating that allows for the rich permeation of color and rendering of precise details. Once the image is printed upon this paper, it is a joy to touch and observe in closer detail. Matching a semi-coarse paper with the right image can truly turn a photograph into a piece of unique art by raising naturally textured elements in the scene slightly above the a flat sheet of paper, giving the scene a three dimensional quality.

The above images were printed on Hahnemühle textured papers

The images below are close-up views showing the effect of texture on the photographs

Behind the scenes look at how I took photos of my prints

Printing can also offer new opportunities and new audiences through a physical, rather than electronic, connection with one’s immediate community. I decided to bring my favorite photograph at the time to my local print shop to get it professionally printed in a large size and beautifully framed.

Images above and below depict my first professionally printed and framed image

The experience of working with the long-time shop owner, obsessing over every little detail and color rendered by the printer, and consciously choosing the correct paper to show off the image, heightened my appreciation of this photography-related art form. After half a dozen test prints, we were finally greeted by the print in all of its inky glory.

The framing came next, and I was in charge of browsing the walls literally covered in frames for the perfect shade of wood to complement the image. Just as I finished inspecting the final print and had it lined up with my chosen frame, a seasoned businesswoman walked into the print shop. She immediately gravitated to my picture, which was fresh off the printer air-drying on the counter, with the focus and intent only an experienced art patron can muster. Eying my print in just the right light, she turned to me with a questioning look, inquiring if I was the artist. When I acknowledged that I took the photograph, she immediately started beaming, asking all about how and where it was taken, and praising the composition and colors of the image. As a result, we exchanged emails, and within a month, she had garnered an interview for me with the director of a local art gallery.

I wrote her a note and attached a small printed version of the photograph that she admired in appreciation of her support.

This is the gallery in question

After a successful meeting during which I showed the director my portfolio and some sample prints, he later got me in touch with a prospective buyer who purchased two of my favorite photographs printed and framed in the largest possible size.

Additionally, just before arriving to Colgate for my freshman year of college, I installed a small exhibit of two framed photographs on the wall, and a dozen smaller prints made on my home photography printer all available for purchase.

While most business happens online these days, a face-to-face human connection can take you the furthest in the shortest period of time with the most long-lasting relationships. The simple act of going to a print shop and politely interacting with admirers of my work led to a giant step forward in my photography career. Although printing has become largely replaced by online portfolios, it still holds its place as a companion art to photography itself. The physicality and worldly intention inherent in the process allows for a deeper connection with one’s work. For an audience, photographic prints draw their attention and mark a photograph as truly special—since the image on the wall clearly deserved effort and time to complete the laborious printing process. If you have not already, I encourage you, my reader, to visit your local gallery and appreciate tangible photography in person.

See More Printed Photographs from Recent Sales Below

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