What makes a great Cibachrome print?

What makes a great Cibachrome print?When I am attempting to make a great Cibachrome print, what do I look for? What process do I go through to make the image as close to perfect as I possibly can? I have spent 40 years making my exhibition quality Cibachrome prints. I’d like to share with you what goes into making a superlative print.

What really brings a print to life are subtleties and refinements. It takes 10% of the work to get the print 90% of the way to where it looks pretty good. It’s tempting to stop there, since it takes 90% more work to complete the subtle final 10% which brings the print to life. There are no shortcuts nor can the process be rushed.

To begin the process of making a print you need to be clear about what you are trying to achieve. If you don’t know where you’re going you won’t get there. The closer you get to bringing a print to life the more subtle are the changes and the more critical are your decisions. Trial and error won’t get you there.

The most important factor I strive for in making a print is luminosity. I want the print to have so much life in it that light actually seems to come out of the print, you don’t have to dig for it. The perception of this light is an experiential process not a mental process. You need to be able to tangibly see and feel it in the print if you expect others to be able to do so.

I believe the goal of fine art, photographic or otherwise, is the direct conveying of an experience which is immediate and (ideally) profound and uplifting. The viewer doesn’t just see the image, they experience something which touches and moves them in a profound way which transcends cultural or historical differences. I’ve learned the most about what makes an image come to life by having this experience while viewing extraordinary paintings.

As an example, have you ever seen an original Rembrandt oil painting? If you have, your experience didn’t depend on your knowledge about the history of painting, the materials and techniques involved, the intent of the artist or the painting’s historical context. No. The image instantly strikes to your very core with its intensity and life and you walk away a changed person, treasuring that spark which now glows within you. That fiery spark is what I have attempted to share with others though my prints and which has motivated me for these many years.

When I’m working on a Cibachrome print I first make sectional test strips to get the image looking reasonably good by adjusting overall density, contrast, tone reproduction and color balance. Then I make a full-size work print, put in into a mat and place it on an easel with proper lighting. I view the print from various distances, ranging from 30 feet to one foot away, since we experience an image differently, depending how far away we are from it.

From a far distance we see the overall composition and cohesiveness (or lack thereof) of all parts of the image. From a medium distance the structural details emerge, and our eye is led in various ways throughout the photograph, choreographing our perception of the whole image. And close up, the fine details become an integral part of the composition and suddenly the image can become startlingly three dimensional. Move even closer and the very fine details can have their own fascinating micro-compositions.

At this point I fine tune the print by adjusting overall density, local densities with dodging and burning, and very fine adjustments in color balance. I study the print to see where it leads my eye and pay attention to what I’m actually seeing, not my expectations of what I want to see. And most importantly, what do I inwardly feel and experience when I gaze at this print? If I see a flicker of fire and light in the image, how can I help breathe life into it?

I can’t emphasize enough that you have to divorce yourself from what you’re expecting out of the image or what you experienced when you photographed it. What do you actually see and experience in this print right now? The longer you stare at it the better it will appear to you. Look away for a minute then quickly look back at it. What is your first impression? It will be the most accurate. If you’re not sure, take a break for 10 minutes or so and try again. If you’re still not sure where to go with it, look at it the next day. Often it will be immediately clear to you.

When I know how I want to make this print better, I make another full-size test print and evaluate it. Then another, repeating this process as often as it takes. This takes many hours, sometimes days.

As the print gets better and better, I become hyper-vigilant. When I realize I’ve reached the point where this is the best I can do I’m still left with the feeling that much more is possible. At that point, how do I choose when a “Work print” made the leap and has become an “Exhibition print”? I make that choice the next day when I’m not still intoxicated with the intensity and passion of the creative process.

One of the most important aspects of making a print is understanding the importance of precise color balance of the print to achieve maximum tone and color separation. Our perception of color has as much to do with colors which are in proximity to each other as it does to the color values themselves. Opposite colors intensify each other.

“Opposite colors” means color pairs such as red and cyan, blue and yellow, magenta and green. This includes many other subtle warm and cool tones. This effect not only applies to obvious patches of discrete colors but also to subtle relationships within many fine details.

As an example, green leaves often have fine details consisting of subtle shades of yellow-green and blue-green. If the overall color balance is slightly green or slightly magenta, color differentiation is obscured, and the green leaves look flat. If it is slightly yellow, the yellow-greens become more prominent and the blue-greens become less prominent; thus the color contrast between the two is less pronounced and the tonal separation is muted. If the color balance is slightly blue the effect is reversed but with the same muted results.

When fine tuning a print, all aspects have to be in balance and working together for the maximum effect. Using the above example of color balance, in some cases there can be too much tonal separation and the image begins to feel fragmented and loses cohesion. Ditto for overall contrast, edge sharpness and tone reproduction. Delicacy and balance are required to bring the print to life.

Adjusting the cohesiveness of the image is primarily done through dodging and burning. When you stand at a middle distance, pay attention how you perceive the image. How do your eyes roam and put together various areas within the print? Which parts are emphasized or minimized? Do all parts of the image work together to bring it to life? By adjusting the densities and visual weights throughout the entire image you are able to sculpt the image into a cohesive whole. This effect of a cohesive whole is one of the visual attributes which give my Cibachrome prints a somewhat painterly quality.

With experience, prints become better but never easier or quick to produce. Through patience and constant striving to produce the best possible work, over time you gain extensive technical knowledge and skill but, more importantly, a greater aesthetic sensibility which opens and enlightens the eyes of our understanding.

It is worth the effort.