Photographs are often inextricably bound to the media they’re produced on. A filter applied to a digital image might recreate the tone and shadings of a tintype, but the result is nothing like the experience of seeing the real thing.
Therein lies the appeal of UV curable inkjet printing. These printers can put an image on virtually anything: Dibond, aluminum, rubber, copper, latex, gessoed linen, canvas, rag paper, glass, acrylic, wood—any material that can be slid safely under the print head. “We had an artist bring in ten sheets of salvaged scrap metal to print on,” says Joseph Hill, president of ProLab Digital Imaging.
“That’s the real beauty,” Moore says. “The photograph becomes more of an object.” Moore has had his work printed on Dibond and on Gorilla Glass, the same used to make the iPhone screen.
Crawford says UV printing “changes the nature of what you can do” as a photographic artist. If you print an image on glass, “It changes the image—the image becomes more alive, glowing and bright and ethereal in the day and slowly dimming by evening,” he says.
Embracing the Technology
Once the domain of commercial screen printers and signmakers, UV curable inkjet printers have slowly seeped into the fine-art photographic market as printmakers such as New York-based Laumont Photographics and California’s ProLab Digital Imaging have embraced the technology. “We researched for several years potential systems that would produce, not larger or outdoor-worthy works, but true fine-art quality,” says Philippe Laumont. He found one in the swissQprint Impala, which he installed in his shop two years ago. Since then, Laumont has used the Impala to print a host of photographic work, including images for Moore and Crawford, on a variety of surfaces.
In broad strokes, UV printing is similar to any inkjet process in that inks are laid down on a surface. But rather than dry instantly, these inks, which contain none of the water or solvents found in most inkjet inks, need to be cured using ultraviolet radiation from UV LEDs or mercury vapor lamps attached to the print head. An analogous process occurs at a dentist’s office, where UV light is used to solidify cavity fillings. This curing can bind the ink directly to the surface, though in some cases materials are given a pre-coat to make the inks adhere better, Hill says.
As the technology has matured, it has also proliferated. There are now more than 60 brands of UV-curable printers on the market today, says Henry Wilhelm, print permanence expert and founder of Wilhelm Imaging Research. But the majority of those models are four-ink, CMYK or CMYK plus white ink models, not always suitable for the resolution and color fidelity requirements of photographic fine art. “For the high-quality fine-art printing, light cyan, light magenta, and gray inks along with full concentration cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inks plus one or even two white inks are best,” Wilhelm says. Only two printer vendors are currently able to deliver those specs: EFI and the aforementioned swissQprint, he says.
The printers themselves have another major benefit that’s enticed photographers: They’re enormous. The swissQprint Impala used by Laumont, for instance, has a print bed that’s 2.5 x 2 meters in size. That means they can produce very large, continuous prints without seams.
“What got me interested is that I can go so big,” Moore tells us. “The short dimension is 100 inches, which is phenomenal.” While he’s yet to produce his work at that size, he relishes the thought of having his 8x10s produced in those staggering dimensions.
One lingering question that surrounds UV output, particularly for photographers looking to sell their work, is just how long it will last. “If you sell work to someone, you want to have the confidence to say that this will be around for 50 or 100 years,” Crawford says. Having work produced on an archival medium “is good for the artists and for collectors and institutions,” Moore says. “Color is such a fugitive medium.” Hill says that with his Oce Arizona UV printer, the warranty on inks is just one year, even though he has seen UV prints that have resisted fading for far longer.
“With so many printer/ink/printing substrates available, it is not yet possible to give specific guidance as to how long a particular combination will last,” Wilhelm tells us. That said, preliminary data “suggests that in terms of fading of the ink colorants themselves, the substrate itself may have relatively little influence on fading rates, unlike [with] traditional water-base pigment inks, where the printing material can have significant influence on fading rates.”
Wilhelm is currently testing UV prints from swissQprint printers, paying particular attention to UV inks on acrylic and glass that are illuminated by high-powered LEDs, which he sees as a “very exciting new display mode for large-format fine-art photography.” EFI and other UV printer models will also be tested in the future.
If, as Ansel Adams once remarked, the “print is the performance,” then UV appears to have opened photography up to a number of new stages to play on. All that’s left to determine is just how long the run will be.
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