In 2005, I discovered a very exciting paper that is hand made in Japan only by custom order. This paper is 21st century adaptation of traditional Japanese washi.
I’ve been printing on this paper continuously ever since. I’m having somewhat of a love affair with it. Each sheet is an object. Actually, each sheet is carefully inspected and measured for weight and then carefully tagged at it’s corner as a guarantee of content. The paper is very expensive. Giant eight by fourteen foot sheets cost thousands of dollars each. The sheets I have made are significantly smaller and no more than four by seven feet. Still they costs hundreds of dollars for a single sheet.
So what is it about this paper that makes artists and photographers wish to use it?
Probably the most significant factor is sheer sensuality. Paper has always been attractive to artists as an object with a look and “feel” that is essential to choice. Holding a sheet between fingers and feeling the texture is part of a sensual experience. It’s a different experience from the texture that the eye sees. These sheets weigh several pounds each. Even a 44″ x 78″ sheet weights more than 2.5 lbs. They’re objects. Thick. They can stand against the wall “Diggin’ the scene With a gangsta lean” (in the lyrics of William DeVaughn).
They’re thick. They’re not pulled from a vat of slurry like Western paper. These papers are moulded and scultpted with trowels. The kozo and cotton slurry is poured on and smoothed out over a giant mould. The deckle then fitted to produce what I think is the most beautiful deckles ever. And the surface texture is obviously not patterned. To the contrary, each sheet is unique.
The paper is nearly 4mm thick. Can’t go through an Epson, HP or Canon. It really can’t go through my Roland. But, I modified my Roland to print this paper. I raised the print heads about the height of two pennies. I also had to raise the capping stations and the cleaning station. My Roland is a 64″ solvent printer that has been outfitted with pigment aqueous inks that I make. I choose the solvent printer because it has a paper heating base. I can heat the paper up so that the ink dries nearly on contact.
The paper does not have an inkjet coating to prevent bleed and spreading. Heating is essential and it allows me to increase my ink load appreciably. This paper is far more archival than the modern inkjet papers from Epson (Signature Series), Hahnemuhle digital fine art papers, Canson, Moab, etc… The presence of an inkjet coating, much like gelatin in a silver print, will always maintain a hydroscopic presence soaking up atmospheric pollution. We know from experience, that the modern inkjet papers outgas and that they are highly susceptible to the presence of gasses around them. Some inexplicably turn yellow for no apparent reason. Some stain after coming in contact with plastics, steel, etc…
The washi that is uncoated with an inkjet receptor coating stand a far better chance of lasting as long as the ink on them. Both Aardenburg and Wilhelm have given ratings now to inks that assume 100+ years of constant exhibition. Incidentally, I should mention that Piezography Carbon (formerly called Sepia) inks are leading all other manufacturers in longevity ratings at Aardenburg. But, currently the longevity tests only assume OBA fade.
Paper is susceptible to damage. We know that they should be acid-free and lignen-free. But, little is known about inkjet receptor coatings other than that they are hyper-sensitive to atmospheric pollution (especially at the immediate room level). So, with this thick handmade paper I feel that I am printing on a material that has the best opportunity of standing the test of time. Further, it’s expensive and substantial and these prints will never be casually handled or left about. Those who are choosing to have me print for them on it have the resources and intentions to insure that they will be acquired by and housed by collectors and museums who are conscious about the protection of works of art on paper.
For my own work, I have been printing my photography on this paper in a slowly developing style that features a deep rich black, long soft tone produced by pure carbon, and several layers of custom inks that are essentially toning agents. A very cool monochrome ink (much cooler than PiezoTone cool neutral). A very warm ink (like dirty tea). I’m not opposed to using orange pigments to alter warmth. Selenium finds its way there too in a unique way.
I work in grayscale. I manually partition or separate the grayscale into channels of information that are printed in these inks. I tie everything neatly together with a profiler I authored. I limit my inks to the maximum possible and calculate that over the presence of five or six or more channels of ink. For the Ashes and Snow projects, eleven different inks were used. Two blacks made it an even twelve. Now, I’ve simplified my process and made a system that achieves a greater range of tone and expression.
In my own work, I am printing square paper and paper that is formatted to my Canon 5D MKII. For others, I have paper made to their choosing. Zana Briski has panorama sheets made with huge feathery deckles that protrude one to one and a half inches from the main. And for each artist or photographer I develop their own unique “inking”.
Each sheet is a container for an image or an expression. I choose to print over every possible ink by bleed printing. Some of my clients have me print with defined borders. One uses an incredibly small thin white border around his images and receives a considerable amount of after print process by a team of paper artisans. I prefer the untouched look of pigment on fiber. The surface is so sensuous. The results are more like painting then photography, but it serves photography quite well.
My process is more akin to printmaking than digital printing because of the way I partition so many inks and the effect that gives. It is maybe closer to serigraphic or lithographic separations. Much of it is seat of the pants, but some of it I have down now as a science. There just is nothing like this material to work on. While it may fall flat with conventional inkjet printing, it arises to the occasion of being courted with excessive amounts of ink and heat. It is like a love affair.
If you would like to discuss a project with me using this paper – please contact me at Cone Editions Press. We call this type of printing “extreme printing”. We now have an inventory of smaller sheets about 20″ x 30″ fitted to full type sensor digital camera files.
I prepared a 5 minute video of working with this paper for art photographer, Yatin Patel.