"My print server is an iBook," says black-and-white master printer Antonis Ricos. He picks up the laptop and unplugs the USB cable from an Epson 9500. The giant printer sits like an upright piano in the (former) living room of his 80-year-old bungalow just southeast of Beverly Hills. Also in the room: a pair of 44 inch by 6 foot black-and-white prints, fresh off the printer. At point-blank they're large-format-negative sharp, shadows and highlights holding details perfectly. "Lets go into the other room," he says.
He doesn't need a big computer. With his laptop running IJC/OPM under Mac OS X, Antonis can print on any of his five printers. "I can move it to the other room or use it with someone else's printer across town," he says. "I can walk up to any printer and make a print right now. Other RIPs need heavy hardware."
This house-dominating technology is a long way from Antonis's traditional beginnings, retouching photos with an airbrush, bleaches and dyes. The transition to digital printmaking began in the late 90s, when he hooked up with Joe Berndt at Bowhaus and "loaded the Iris with gray inks, made profiles.. a monster.. and it took days to figure out." The "Iris" Antonis refers to, is an inkjet printer originally designed for CMYK proofing, which ushered in the age of fine art giclee printing in the 90's. For paper, they just bought Somerset at the art store. "If your image didn't need much black," says Antonis, "it could look nice. Those prints have probably long faded and if you look through a loop, you would jump back in horror and say, what are those big blobs doing in my print? " The "blobs" are coarse black inkjet dots in otherwise subtle highlights.
Antonis began in fine arts, receiving a BA in art history and film from Middlebury (famous for its language emphasis; he speaks "4-and-a-half"). He then earned an MFA in film production from UCLA, planning to become a cameraman. But his interest in critical studies pulled him back to UCLA, where he is "ABD" (All but dissertation). "But then I went AWOL and bought a light meter and thought I would do something else." The "else" was editorial photography for "Rider," the motorcycle magazine.
In the late 80s he moved into retouching/printmaking. "I had one foot in photography and the other in fine art (both his studies and talents as a painter). So I thought I would turn to painting on top of photographs..this is all pre-computer." Not many people had both photography experience and good hands. Soon his phone wouldn't stop ringing for retouching work.
This culminated, certainly in an artistic sense, with a call from the Ansel Adams estate. They had decided to produce a book that included a series of Alaska photographs never printed by the master himself because the negatives had become horribly water-damaged. "Adams had given up," says Ricos. "But master printmaker John Sexton, the last of Adams' assistants, agreed to take on the arduous task of printing from the damaged negatives. Antonis succeeded in repairing several of the images using airbrush, bleaches and dyes on the prints. (The prints were first published in Adams' "The American Wilderness".)
His big commercial break came when Team One Advertising asked Antonis to produce an edition of colorized fine art prints for the Lexus brand launch campaign in 1989.
Ricos' current commercial practice consists mostly of digital retouching for advertising and business clients, such as Qualcom, Hilton and Sempra (annual reports) and movie ad work for Paramount Pictures.
He also continues to make high-end black-and-white prints for himself and selected photographers like Barbara. But only black-and-white. "If you want to print color don't bother me, call BowHaus," he says laughing.
Secrets and Highlights Revealed
Antonis Ricos reveals his secrets for using IJC/OPM, and highlights NEW Features in the Windows version
BH: What are the most important new features in the Windows Beta Version of IJC/OPM?
AR: The PC version has more features than the Mac version at this point. The most amazing feature is that you can bring in an image with alpha channels and assign a separate profile to each channel (a profile is basically a look up table, a set of numbers correlating to how much ink goes on the paper for every value of gray).
This opens up amazing possibilities depending on your inkset. With a 7 channel Ultrachrome printer you can go much further than split toning. By controlling the color through alpha channels you can go all the way to bringing a full color image in the middle of a black-and-gray print. Admittedly, this is not for novice users, but the capability is there.
There are also some minor but useful new features. First, I can verify a profile to see if it's still good for a specific printer by printing a grayscale test strip right from OPM. In the Mac version I had to go to IJC to do this. Second, I can do nozzle checks and head cleaning from inside OPM instead of having to go through Epson's utility. Third, I can choose from several different dither patterns, a choice not available until now. Dither patterns can affect the way image detail is rendered and may have a different impact depending on image content .
Of course, IJC/OPM for Windows has all the other advantages that Mac printmakers have enjoyed since last year. With OPM, I can print without Photoshop, which I find very useful, since I don't have to tie up a powerful machine or dedicate a second Photoshop license. And, of course, IJC continues to offer complete control over profile-making.
BH: What other software is useful for black-and-white Printing and why do you prefer one to the other?
AR: First, I prefer software that allows you to make your own profiles. I wouldn't want to be tied to canned profiles for high-end bw printing. That limits the alternatives to 2 pieces of software that I know of: QTR and StudioPrint. The latter is only for the PC and I am a dedicated Mac user. Certainly, if there was no alternative, I wouldn't mind picking up a PC. But if you add together the cost of the hardware and the RIP you'd be over 10 times the cost of IJC/OPM. Of course, the price comparison is a bit unfair: IJC/OPM is cheaper because it doesn't offer color printing and other features that full-fledged RIPs do. But it offers all the fine-tuning control I need for bw. If you use the $50 shareware program Quad Tone RIP (QTR), you'll make a print that can be made to look as good as a print from either of the competing RIPs. The key to the differences is how you get to that first print.
QTR has a more involved installation, for example, since it relies on several pieces of code that need to be installed separately and a printer to be defined at the OS level (Printer Setup Utility). In return, you can make a bw print from any program that can display a grayscale and has a Print command. That's a good thing if that's how you prefer to work. But I find it better to offload the printing task to a machine that's no faster than the printer, and keep working in Photoshop running on a dedicated, powerful workstation. I couldn't imagine having one of these huge canvas prints go on for two hours in the background while I am trying to get work done out of the same CPU. Installing the Mac version of IJC/OPM is a simple drag-and-drop of a single, small .dmg file that contains the 2 programs and related profiles.
Because QTR relies on the OS for communications with the USB port, sometimes things can get tricky. I read people's stories on the Yahoo board with USB issues. OPM presents you with a simple list of what printer is connected to your USB, you highlight the one you want and that's it. That's how I can pick up my iBook and go from printer to printer, plugging and unplugging without quitting the program or turning off anything. Then there is the issue of how easy and fast it is to make a profile. I haven't had much experience profiling with QTR though I know it can certainly be done well, judging from how good the final prints look. But I didn't see an interface to rival the one of IJC. The end results may be the same, but I need a quick way to make, tweak or linearize a profile on the fly. To me, that's half the trick to getting the best possible print when you are faced with several ink and paper choices not to mention day to day variability of the whole setup. At this point in the game, I can make a new profile from scratch in under a half hour or tweak an existing one in a few minutes. And that's with having to input 26 densitometer readings manually. When a version of IJC comes out in the future that supports automatic input, that time will further decrease dramatically. I find it worth spending a little time at the start of a print session to make sure the grayscale is linearized and plots exactly where you want it to.
BH: As one of the foremost experts in making black-and-white digital prints, and with your fine arts background, beyond the technical issues, what are your feelings about the overall aesthetics of digital vs. silver prints?
AR: Currently, you can't make an inkjet print with the depth of black, the surface sheen and durability of darkroom air-dried glossy fiber prints. The technology is evolving so I won't say it'll never happen. But that's one of the aspects a lot of us miss from the old, smelly days of the darkroom. There are hybrid methods, of course, using digitally produced negs to print in the darkroom, but that can be a lot of work.
It turns out, though, that high-end bw inkjet prints have their own beauty. Most of them are on so-called "watercolor" papers and when you hit it just right they can surpass the tonal richness of a platinum print and exhibit the luxurious surface of an etching.
Overall, digital bw printing today feels more like fine art printmaking (serigraphy, litho,intaglio etc) and less like the traditional darkroom because of the choices of substrates and the many controls we have. You can pretty much do digitally what a Rauschenberg could once only do in a traditional printmaking studio. And then turn around and do a straight photographic print that will blow your socks off.. all with the same equipment.
BH: Can you reflect a bit on the future of black-and-white photography and printing, given the massive technological changes taking place in the field?
AR: Unfortunately, the many new ways to print black-and-white are not necessarily keeping makers of traditional materials in business. Ilford and Kodak are in trouble in those areas. Black-and-white paper and chemicals will start to go as manufacturers scale down. For me personally, as a big fan of shooting black-and-white film, I don't see that as a welcome change. I know not everyone will agree but I prefer a silver negative to digital capture. I like grain rather than digital noise and enjoy the extreme exposure latitude of film.
Ultimately, when all the CDs, DVDs and SD cards have long bit the dust, a well processed and stored silver neg will still be there for a future generation to "read". And considering the high cost of constantly replacing digital technologies, I doubt that in the long run digital capture is that much cheaper than bw film.
BH: What larger impact do you think the move to digital photography, overall, will have in the future?
AR: Digital is immediate: Without email and digital cameras we would never have known about many issues in the modern world, like the prison scandals in Iraq. With its flexibility, digital has made possible a view of the world we never knew.
But I think there is a trade-off. I'm afraid that historians will look at the late 90's and the 21st century as a big gap in the historical record of our times precisely because it may be lost to digital. The high end of photography, newspapers, magazines, and the like, may preserve their archives, or at least what they published. But with all the transitioning to new storage technologies, how much of our images in archived files will be readable in 50 years? When I go to a photography show at the Getty, I don't just see images of the great "masters". A lot of valuable material consists of pictures of everyday life and of personal
moments. I doubt future archivists will find much of that for our times.