The Print Ark

Over the winter, spurred on by a geneology project for one of his classes at UNC, my son Sam took up the ongoing work on the Kornylak family tree. Several months of research traced our family name back to Skelivka, (Felsztyn in Polish) a village in today’s Western Ukraine founded in 1374 by King Louis I of Hungary, and uncovered fascinating geographic stories of Kornylaks of the past, of ethnic Poles, migrating Italians, Ashkenazi Jews, and a Catholic Bishop.

Sam offered an additional insight. “There were probably no Kornylaks who were artists,” he said.

“See, before formal records were kept, only people with significance in the community were documented in many places, Skelivka included.  Creating art was a common way to become famous within a community, so artists are one of the few types of people (besides rabbis, priests, large landowners, military officers, etc.) who would show up well in a search of historical records before ~1772 in Skelivka (or earlier/later depending on region; some parts of Germany have records of lay-people starting in the late 1500s).”

An artist working in physical media, he pointed out, would not only be well-known at the time, but a physical record of their work would likely have survived over time, even if there were no written records of them. His deep research had thus far turned up no such work.

Elvira Reilly, Mask 16X20″ Oil on Canvas

This struck me deeply. On another branch of the family tree, my great grandmother Elvira Reilly was a prolific painter in the early 20th century. I grew up around her work which hung on walls of every Kornylak home. She died in 1958, and after my great grandfather, famed physical therapist and author Harold J Reilly died in 1987, much of Elvira’s work left the family for various reasons. They only now periodically turn up on Ebay or various art auctions. Each painting is a fascinating document of the places she lived and visited around the world in New York, France, Cuba, and Key West Florida. They are also personal treasures, vivid windows to a time and place in my family’s past, often with renderings of old family homes and individuals. There is little written record of Grandma Reilly, and certainly no website, digital records, or wikipedia page. But her paintings persist.

Elvira Reilly, Dance Marathon, 24X20″ Oil on Canvas


What will a young genealogist of the future learn about us? About me and my own work? This blog, the hard drive it lives on will be dead in 3 years. The social pages, the technology to decode it all and send it out to the world will probably be obsolete in 10 years. Three decades of photography work, backed up on expensive RAID servers, will require constant servitude to usher it through changes in media and technology to survive even 20 years in digital form. The reams of published work I’ve produced will be rotting in garbage heaps. I may never see all of Grandma Elvira’s paintings, but they will last for many hundreds of years; the last exposed bones of generations once time has swept everything else away.

Elvira Reilly, Portrait, 18×24″ Oil on Board

How can I make my own work persist in the same way? There may be a sense of urgency that hits any artist eventually. I had just gone through a year of scanning and cataloguing all my film. With nearly a million images organized on a hard drive, Sam’s insight about the longevity of art reminded me that an important part of my work was not done, and now I was deeply interested in the endgame.

The Photographic Endgame

To Ansel Adams (you knew I was going there) the final expression of a photograph is of course The Print. More specifically, the Fine Print, painstakingly rendered and retouched. But remember that to Adams and his contemporaries, the print was a photograph, a gelatin silver print favored by Adams, or the various other forms of analog photographic prints such as cyanotype, dye transfer, and more recently, mechanically controlled photographs such as Cibachrome. That was the endpoint – the whole point – of photography, and distinguished from other forms of graphic reproduction such as gravure process, letterpress, and offset lithography.

You can say that a negative or digital files contain all the “information.” of a photograph. Archiving all that is definitely important, but I am not interested in just leaving behind information, raw content for other people to have to interpret or process. You might look at the digital process as sort of a direct-to-positive form of photography, with no physical intermediary. But many digital photographers do not even get to the print stage. Their work lives primarily as backlit images on a screen, or at best, as reproductions on magazine paper or newsprint that will not survive long.

Even Ansel Adams seemed to have been unconcerned by the slipping of photography into impermanence. In a 1975 interview with Paul Hill, he said, “For me the future of the image is going to be in electronic form. … You will see perfectly beautiful images on an electronic screen. And I’d say that would be very handsome. They would be almost as close as the best reproductions.” If anything, photographers put a lot of faith in the photo book as a legacy piece. A book is physical, and whats more, it includes an ordering and rhythmic intent of the photographer that gives meaning and context. There is comfort in the intimacy of reading. “Smell the ink and drift away,” as Teju Cole put it. I share that love of the photo book – I’m a rabid collector – but I don’t share that faith in its ultimate permanence. I’m still haunted by the invisibility of my ancestors.

The Master Print

I’d been thinking seriously about the photographic endgame ever since my good friend and colleague Michael Clark posted a piece on his blog five years ago, “The Analog Backup” He wrote:

“When you kick the bucket, who is going to dig through your hard drives to pull out those epic, once in a lifetime images and save them for the world to consider twenty, sixty, or a hundred years from now? If you want to make sure your work can stand the test of time, then making prints of your images is the only sure fire way they will be remembered a century or more from now.”

Michael is about the same age as me, and we’ve been in the game together since our early dirtbag adventure photographer days nearly 30 years ago. I guess it’s natural for us to be thinking about these kinds of things at this stage in our lives. Michael is a master in the genre, and whats more, has literally written the book on digital workflow. I’d seen Michael’s process firsthand in his Santa Fe Studio and followed his progress with interest. I’d also been printing my own work on inkjet, but not to this degree. Recently I began using an Epson SureColor P-900 inkjet printer and convinced myself through testing that this printer could yield the most faithful and long-lived prints I could make of my photographs. I wanted to finally pursue Michael’s idea further, to print doubles of each of my best photographs, and store them as a the most permanent expression of my work, but also as a “Master Print” of my best work, maybe 500 images, that could be faithfully reproduced at some point in the future should all my negatives and digital files disappear. A Print Ark.

The photographic printmaking process is by no means dead. I have made my fair share of silver gelatin prints, and I absolutely love a good Cibachrome/Ilfochrome and chromogenic digital C-print like Lightjet or HP Indigo on Fuji Crystal Archive. Spectacular, but these will not last as long as the best pigment dye inkjet prints, and I can make inkjet prints right here in my studio. The control I have over the process is the critical thing, and the reproduction quality, resolution and stability of the latest inkjet technology I think rivals any other photographic or reproduction process out there.

Without going into too much technical detail, I am printing these from Adobe RGB or ProPhoto RGB colorspace through Lightroom, sending images to the printer driver as 360 or 720 dpi images depending on the native resolution of the image, and using the highest quality settings on the printer itself, namely 5760 dpi, and the Carbon Black & Black Enhanced Overcoat settings when available. I am also using manufacturer-provided profiles for each paper type. There are plenty of great blogs and tutorials out there about optimizing these settings. Most of the discussion centers around whether the highest print head resolutions actually yield better results for print viewing. In most cases, they do not, but for my purposes – to create the best possible Master Print – it does matter, as I convinced myself through testing.

Paper Selection

For these prints, I was looking for a paper that could resolve the highest possible resolution, with the highest possible color depth and most accurate rendition, and would be the most stable. I quickly narrowed down my paper selection to one of a few new Epson paper stocks, namely the new Epson Legacy line. Much has already been said of these papers but they are highly stable traditionally manufactured fiber papers with no optical brighteners and astounding DMAX. Within this line are the Legacy Platine, Baryta (now Baryta II), Fibre, Etching, and Textured papers. The Platine and Baryta II have by far the best color reproduction range, and According to Wilhelm Research, using the Epson SureColor HDX pigment inks, both are color stable in excess of 400 years under proper dark storage conditions. I also wanted to consider the Fibre paper, which has very little texture and may yield a better/easier reproduction, along with one of my favorites, Epson’s Hot Press Natural.

I loved the matte look and feel of the Legacy Fibre and Hot Press Natural for display purposes but it was immediately clear that the color reproduction was much better on the Baryta II and Platine papers. I expected that, but I wanted to see for myself.

Top: Epson Legacy Fibre
Bottom: Epson Legacy Platine
Rather than adjust for paper density, black point, etc in this iPhone shot, I am showing these side by side as a fair representation of the obvious difference in color and range of these two papers.
JPEG from orginal: Lisa Rands, Vapor Lock (V11) Dayton Boulders, Dayton, TN, 2008

The same comparison holds for Epson Hot Press Natural. I was astonished at how accurately colors were rendered on the Platine and Baryta II papers when compared to the backlit digital images. They blew away Epson Exhibition Fiber, which up to this point was probably the best-rendering paper I had worked with up to this point.

Print on Epson Legacy Platine (center) under 5500K lamp compared to individually calibrated Apple 27″ 5K Retina Studio Display (left) and LG 43″ 4K IPS LED Monitors. At a glance, excellent color fidelity and range.
Storm clearing over the high country, Yosemite National Park, 2002

The comparison between Legacy Platine and Baryta II was more subtle. Baryta II was just released by Epson as a replacement to the original Legacy Baryta which had a small amount of optical brightener in the coating. The new formulation is (as far as I can tell) the same without the OBA’s. Originally (from 2016), Epson claimed that Legacy Platine was slightly warmer and darker than Baryta. I never got a chance to try the original formulation, but in comparison to Baryta II, Platine actually looked a bit closer to true white to me, though still lightly on the darker/higher contrast side. That makes sense, if they removed the OBA. I found the texture to be ever so slightly more “ordered” than that of the Platine, which seemed to have a more “organically” textured surface. Baryta II is a stiffer paper.

Left: Epson Legacy Platine. Right: Legacy Baryta II.
Platine is slightly darker but at the same time whiter paper white. Both papers are fantastic for reproduction.
Lisa Rands at Stone Fort, Chattanooga, Tennessee, 2014

There are some subtle differences between these two papers. At the time of this post I didn’t have any more Baryta II and it’s hard to get as it has just come out. For now, I think either will be excellent for this project but I’ll update once I can test more closely.

Print Size

In terms of resolution, I would consider the ideal Master Print to be essentially a full-resolution “contact print” where I am reproducing detail at 1:1 scale, which can then be reproduced accurately. I’m going to skip a lot of the details and math of resolution and print head technology and get right to it: Of the nearly 1 Million images in my collection, from digital sensors between 12MP sensors up to 100MP, and film scans rendered with between 45MP to 100MP of data (with a couple exceptions), anything less than 13×19″ and I am printing below the latent resolution of most of my images. Anything above 17×22″ and I am just duplicating pixels and wasting paper and ink (and would need a bigger printer!) My suspicion was that, as in Michael Clark’s workflow, I would end up printing at 17×22″, but I wanted to test this for myself given the new printer and paper I was working with.

Putting away the loupe for a second, the biggest test is about reproducibility, or more accurately, “scanability.” Which of these sizes would, when scanned/reproduced, hold the most information, without waste? To test this, I set up a simple copy arrangement, under soft daylight balanced LED, some bounce, and a Nikon Z7II 45MP camera.

Quick and dirty copy setup to test the reproducibility of a 13×19″ Master Print
Man on a Dog on a Horse, 2018
Man on a Dog on a Horse, 2018
JPEG from a 46MP digital file (Nikon D850)
Man on a Dog on a Horse, 2018
13×19″ print (left)
17×22″ print (right)
Digital copy at same angle of view, detail.

The reproduction quality of the 13×19 print was remarkable. The digital file renders at 460ppi at 13×19″ with 1/2 border, and at just about 393ppi for a 17×22″ print, (without cropping to fit), so in both cases it was sent to the printer at 720ppi. I photographed the print in 47MP wide sections, which would yield about a 100MP “scan” of the print, regardless of print size. There is a slight increase in detail from the 17×22″ print copy, but more importantly the texture of the paper is much more prominent in the 13×19″ print copy, especially in the sky areas. I had not thought of this before, but of course it makes complete sense. The limiting factor is paper texture, much like grain in film or noise in a digital image. Regardless of resolution, with smaller print size, the paper grain becomes more and more apparent compared to the detail of the image.

Man on a Dog on a Horse, 2018
13×19″ print (left)
17×22″ print (right)
Digital copy at same angle of view, extreme detail.
Note “paper noise” in sky. White specs are reflections from paper surface.

17×22″ seems the way to go. Actually, at least that big. I could see the argument for printing an even bigger Master Print, even beyond the contact resolution, because the “paper noise” effect will be less and less of an issue.

Speaking of color fidelity, here is another example, from what in the past was a very difficult print to make.

Chris Sierzant, The Concave, Little River Canyon, Alabama, 2005
Original from 100MP digital scan of a 6×7 negative

The color rendition is just magnificent, considering the round trip this image took, with very little adjustment needed to the copy of the Master Print to match the original.

Chris Sierzant, The Concave, Little River Canyon, Alabama, 2005
Detail copy from 17×22″ print on Epson Legacy Platine, minimal adjustments


I need a bigger printer… Or I need a glossy “repro” paper with the dmax and resolution of Epson Legacy Platine but with zero texture. For now, I am moving forward with 17×22″ prints on the Epson SureColor P-900, with Epson Legacy Platine paper.

What is my best work? A subject for another day, but the workflow was simple. I scale each image to fill 17×22″ size without cropping and I leave 1/2″ borders on each print for ease of handling. This also gives me a margin to write information on the back without potentially interfering with image reproduction. Once I make a pair of identical prints that I am satisfied with (sometimes after a few smaller proof prints), I lay them flat to dry overnight. I write the image filename along with a short caption and original date on the back. Then I sign and date each Master Print and store them in an archival case, separated by archival tissue paper. These boxes will be catalogued (digitally and on paper) and stored offsite. Maybe it’s the last I will ever see of them.

A 13×19″ Print on Epson Legacy Platine paper coming out of the Epson SureColor P-900.
Before I decided to move to 17×22″ print size.
Thomas Schmidt, Horse Pens 40 Ranch, Alabama, 2014
Information hand-written on the back of each Master Print
using an archival ink pen (In this case a Pigma Micron)
Storm clearing over the high country, Yosemite National Park, 2002
Master Print stored in an Archival Methods Onyx museum-grade acid-free storage box.
Between each print is a sheet of buffered archival tissue paper.
Damien, Grandfather Campground, Boone, North Carolina, 2014

One last important note: How much will all this cost? I have worked out the numbers here for Epson Legacy Platine on the Epson SureColor P-900 printer (not included in the cost, but it runs about $1300)

13×19″ Prints: $4.40 paper per page + $1.75 ink per page = $6.15 per print

17×22″ Prints: $6.44 paper per page + $2.00 ink per page = $8.44 per print

A 17×22″ print is a 52% increase in surface area over a 13×19″ print, but the cost increase is only 37% so there are some savings as you scale.

Let’s say I select 250 images and print doubles at 17×22″. That is a total cost of $4220, plus about 10 archival boxes, interleaving materials, etc brings the total cost to about $5000. A couple shoot days worth at most for a commercial or high-end editorial photographer. Seems worth it.

Let me know what you think of this Master Print process, the idea of the Photo Ark. Would love to hear your input.

note: previously this was titled The Photo Ark but I changed it so as not to be confused with Joel Sartore’s photo project

Published on Feb 09, 2023
Filed under: Art,Behind the Scenes,Gear Reviews,Personal Work,Photography
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