“Pick your favorite Pacific Island.”
We’re staring at a small map attached to a enormous light box. Dangling from the box is a loupe, the kind jewelers use to scrutinize a diamond, and Ken Bledsoe, manager of fine art digital printing at Duggal is encouraging us to take a closer look. We do, pressing the loupe against the print and honing in on the South China Sea. The map’s tiny details, obscured by distance, spring into focus with startling clarity.
The high resolution print detail comes from a process generally thought to be on the wane: chromogenic printing, or what Duggal markets as HD-C prints.
The particular prints in question are rolling off Polielettronica’s LaserLab DS. Before it landed in Duggal’s New York offices, the technology was used by the U.S. military and intelligence services for printing high-resolution surveillance footage. The prints are sharp enough, Polielettronica says, that land surveyors can count individual trees in aerial images. The company agreed to sell the 50-inch LaserLab printer to Duggal exclusively for an 18 month run (an exclusivity that has recently lapsed). Smaller, 30-inch LaserLabs have been sold to several other photo labs in the U.S.
The LaserLab creates continuous tone prints at DPIs as high as 610 with an apparent resolution of 6100 dpi. The 50-inch model in Duggal’s shop can create a print as large as 50×100 inches on a range of media.
It is the first innovation in photographic processing that has excited CEO Mike Duggal in a while. “Digital photographic used to be the highest quality print you could make, but then inkjet really narrowed that gap,” he says. “This [Poliettronica] technology pushes photographic prints into another category.” Indeed, while other labs are scaling back their investment in c-printing, Duggal continues to invest, he says.
What justifies such an investment? After all, Poliettronica’s competitors, such as Durst and Oce (now owned by Canon), have abandoned the photo market as demand withers. Inkjet printers have gained a sizable foothold in the fine art market thanks to the range of materials they can print to and print lifespans that exceed dye-based c-prints. Indeed, Duggal’s New York facilities have several. Inkjet print quality has also improved—although whether it produces comparable (much less superior) quality to a c-print is a matter of fierce debate. As InfoTrends’ group director of the consumer and professional imaging group Ed Lee tells us, hard numbers on the actual number of photo labs still using c-print processes vs. inkjet are difficult to pin down but the trend lines in photofinishing in general have been pointing south for some time.
To Duggal, though, the investment in more traditional photographic processes begins and ends with the extreme resolution and quality obtainable through a continuous tone print. As others pull back, “we’re still investing in photography,” he says.
The Devil in the Details
Three prints are arrayed on a table: one is an inkjet, another a Lambda photographic print and the last is a print off the LaserLab. The difference between the inkjet and the photographic prints is noticeable immediately, but the difference between the Lambda and Poliettronica output is more subtle. You see it in the silvery sheen of a woman’s jewels or the crystalline details on a watch face. The difference is there, but you need to look for it. You need to get close.
These prints are not for every photographer, Duggal admits. Not every print is subjected to the kind of scrutiny that the HD-C print thrives under. They’re targeted at customers like photographer and artist Spencer Tunik whose work appears in museums and galleries where viewers will get right on top of them. Tunik’s work features hundreds of nude individuals sprawled out in public places. Even with large prints, viewers are always drawn in close to look at people’s faces, Tunik says. With 610 dpi HD-C prints, they can stand as close to the print as they desire and catch all the details. The HD-C print gives Tunik the “through the negative” print quality he says that photo gallery owners and museum curators desire.