James Nachtwey received a Lifetime Achievement Award this past Monday from the American Society of Magazine Editors in NYC. He was in my studio Cone Editions Press in East Topsham, Vermont the following Tuesday morning to work 17 hours straight with me on photographs we’ve been printing together now for more than a year. He left my place at 2am on Wednesday. Sleepless in Vermont… This is not actually so unusual for James – with the exception of rushing to NYC to get the award. Usually we work for 3-4 days like this and then he is on assignment for Time.
But, I was genuinely surprised when I found out he had received this award. He left last week and said he had something to do in NYC. I found out online before James mentioned it on Tuesday. I said “WOW! You were in NYC last night giving this speech and you’re here now?” He said something like “yep, I took the redeye back to Vermont. Got in at 2am.” How dedicated he is to his work never ceases to amaze me.
If you do not know James Nachtwey work – please listen to his speech – and view the movie about his life and career. It is a remarkable achievement and a powerful recognition of a lifetime of achievement. But – this cat is young! Not so certain why they didn’t wait another few decades…
He has been an enormous influence in my life and has changed how I relate to the printing of my own work.
Since 2012, I have had this privilege of working with one of the world’s most amazing human beings with the highest sense of integrity for both humanity and his own work. For truth, really. It’s about truth. And these photographs are often taken under the most stressful situations with film that is often hastily processed in order to be published as quickly as possible. It is very challenging work on all levels – and this is the most intense collaboration of my career.
Our work is not restorative in the common sense of the word – but rather it is a restoration of a particular moment in time. The defects of sensitized silver, soft emulsions, and even the defects in sensors or the DSLR’s processing algorithms create a chaos often repairable only at the grossly enlarged pixel level. This will occupy our time for weeks or months striving for perfection, even when knowing it is something that may never be able to be attained.
And what “perfection” means is giving integrity to the subject given all of the possible imperfections of film and of digital sensors and of inkjet printers and of inkjet paper. This is an imperfect medium to be sure. But, there is absolutely no compromise with James. Proofing is an infinitum of possibility. There is a lesson there to be learned by any printmaker whether amateur or the most accomplished. It’s about not giving up.
It is either right or it needs more work. Anything else is compromise.
If it’s a tiny imperceptible scratch in the transparency that escaped the oil mounting, or a single fleck of paper white as a result of lint that prevented printing on the media. Color cast, color blooming, dust and spotting, color correction, contrast, hue/saturation… Even if only we can just barely see it – the remedy, the removal, the responsibility of that is ours. And it speaks of our own integrity as collaborators.
While there are no second chances in shooting the subjects that James shoots, printing is filled with many chances. If a single print can give dignity to humanity by expressing it without compromise – then it’s worth spending the weeks and the hours. We can’t actually change anything. We can not move a can, a cigarette butt, nor even a fly from a photograph. James wouldn’t alter a single thing about the truth of a photograph. What I am speaking to is aesthetics and quality. That we have total control of.
I never say No to James. How could I? I can sleep tomorrow (if he lets me). My days run into nights working with James and I love it. The privilege is that I get to witness the artist – and his passion. James gives everything he has to photojournalism because he gives a voice to those who are otherwise silent. He’s been shot at, shot, injured by grenade. He was just shot through the leg last year in Thailand. This is serious stuff. This is history. And this is his story.
So, I have this privilege – and I won’t say that I haven’t ended up in tears at 3am – or cursed my printers – or the media I am printing on. But, I haven’t been to a war zone before – and I have that opportunity with James. And he has been to war zones so many times before. And I just feel that I would follow him anywhere. We make prints that others say are the most perfect ever – and we find fault – and we make them more perfect. That is an amazing collaborative expression to experience. Giving everything to the art.
James is a heroic artist. I don’t think that he would consider himself that. But, I know painters, and I have known and worked with painters who have literally fought with demons worse than the devil itself and won. That is serious stuff. James is an artist with a very difficult and often dangerous subject matter. We don’t need to know anything of his psyche to understand his subjects. But he is absolutely going to the limits, beyond the limits, way beyond to allow us to bear witness.
One of the projects we have been working on since 2012 is his upcoming Exhibition at the Currier Museum. Witness to History: James Nachtwey’s 9/11 Photographs
James Nachtwey has been printing at Cone Editions Press, using Piezography Selenium inks on JonCone Studio Type 5 paper and ConeColor PRO inks on Epson Exhibition Fiber paper. Of course Piezography Gloss Overprint is used to make the Selenium prints look exactly like selenium toned silver fiber prints. But, we are also using it on the Epson Exhibition Fiber color prints. It takes longer to print – but the surface is gorgeous and the color, dMax and details are greatly enhanced. GO brings out detail on baryta paper whether Piezography or ConeColor, Epson, Canon & HP Color pigment inks. The color is heightened. It’s an inexpensive face mount in a way… It definitely superlatizes color work.
There is very little difference in what we are using at Cone Editions Press and what we are selling to others to use on InkjetMall. Cone Editions does have some privileges as it’s where we develop all of our inks.
Our printmaking sessions usually last 14- 18 hour days and we usually proof full size at 32″ x 46” but never less than 24 x 30. We do not allow any spatial and psychological differences due to perception at varying scale to interfere with our decisions. No guessing. No short cutting. We are working in a very dim imaging room with 30” hardware calibrated NEC SpectraView. We are working on a CEP built Windows computer – running a bad ass chip and memory and solid state. We are off OS X in the studio to maintain color management across printing (something OS X has not stabilized over the past 6 years.) We are running Mac OS X mini print servers but they are frozen at OS X 10.4.11. We usually make ICC profiles at the beginning of each work session – and always with new batches of Epson Exhibition Fiber paper. Piezography is more forgiving of paper batches – but we have the luxury of making fresh media curves and we do.
James and I often sit side by side thinking no one would believe what we do in order to repair the tiniest imperceptible scratch, or silver grains ravaged by too warm developers, or minor but visible sensor blooming from the early Canon 1Ds. How do you remove magenta from red? How do you repair a single silver grain? How do you make a half point change when 1 is too much? Most important is devising on the fly and seeing the differences between 3 ways of doing the same thing. Which one is better? Time is something we are spending and we will never get back – but its how one chooses to conduct their life and their work. James’s photographs are worth spending time on. And its a lesson that can benefit any photographer who looks at the prints they are producing.
But, in the end, the photographs we print together are rendered splendidly. There is absolutely no barrier to viewing them. Nothing on the surface or deep down in the rendering no matter how slight or imperceptible. This is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.