The Analog (Print) Backup

Several years ago I posted an article here on the blog entitled The Analog Backup. It was not a popular article. But it did inspire a few of my peers to start printing their best images as an archive. One of those, my good friend Andrew Kornylak, an amazing photographer and cinematographer, has been printing a lot of his work over the last year in order to create a photo ark, or a print backup of his best work. We have been talking every few weeks and it has been fascinating to see how he has approached this process. After months of work, he has published a great article entitled The Print Ark on his blog. I highly recommend checking out his blog post as it is much deeper than anything I have written on the subject.

Andrew, and his son, have done a lot more research on what historically is remembered and how what we leave behind helps us and our work to be remembered. Hence, that is the whole point of having not just your images backed up on hard drives but an analog, or print, backup as well that can be discovered and protected much more easily than a giant pile of hard drives. As he points out in his article, with the latest Epson printers and certain papers, Wilhelm Imaging Research has discovered that these new ink jet prints can last up to 400 years with proper storage. None of these ink jet prints have been around that long so it remains to be seen what the reality is but they will certainly last much longer than silver gelatin prints created in the darkroom.

Way back in 2018 I wrote the following:

“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.”

For the last five or six years I have been creating 17×22-inch prints from my older Epson 3880 and now for the last year from the newer Epson SureColor P900 that replaced my old 3880. The new P900 definitely produces slightly better print quality but I have not gone back and replaced those older prints as they are sufficient. Over the years I have had long spells (six months or more) where I did not add any prints to the print archive, but I seem to go in spurts when I have downtime between assignments.

Andrew pointed out in his article, and I mentioned in my old blog post, this is not an inexpensive affair. He reckons that each 17×22 inch print costs around $8.44 USD. That seems pretty accurate. If the goal is to make two prints of your best images and let’s just say that is 500 images, then the total comes to around $8,440 USD! That is a huge amount of money for a print backup. But in retrospect, I have spent tens of thousands of dollars on giant RAID enclosures and hard drives to back up all of my digital images and video content in triplicate–and that is just in the last decade or so. Hard drive storage is not cheap when you have sixty to seventy terabytes of images that need to be backed up–and those hard drives also need to be continually maintained and monitored. On my desk I have over 200 TB of hard drives in RAID enclosures and another hundred TB of hard drives offsite as well. Hence, while the print archive sounds expensive, it is only a small percentage of the amount I have spent on hard drives.

In defense of the print archive, there is another side benefit–which is really diving deep into your archive and thinking long and hard about which images might be the most memorable decades from now. It is amazing to me how differently–and how much more critically–I look at a print than I do when the image is on a monitor. I have a 31-inch Eizo CG319X top-end monitor that is about as glorious as monitors get. It better be because it retails for $6,000 USD! But even with that amazing screen to look at, I still see things in my prints that I didn’t see on the monitor somehow. Making large prints helps not only to archive the images but also in some cases to further refine the images themselves.

I honestly still get excited to see the images roll off the printer. The new Epson SureColor P900, which I have had for about a year, seems to be slower than my older 3880, but the print quality is a fair bit better. These days I am using a variety of papers, but all of them are from the Baryta family including Hahnemühle Photo Rag Baryta, Ilford Gold Fibre Pearl and Ilford Gold Fibre Gloss. Ilford’s Gold Fibre Silk was and still is one of my favorite ink jet papers ever but it has been out of production for a number of years now. The Hahnemühle Photo Rag® Baryta is the closest paper I have found to Gold Fibre Silk. The newer Ilford Gold Fibre Pearl is fairly similar but with a slightly different texture than the older Gold Fibre Silk. All of these options are high-end fine art papers that will last (according to the Wilhelm Imaging Research website) over 200 years. The reason I use these Baryta papers is not just how long the prints will last but also because I love the way my images look when printed on these papers. The paper has a wide dynamic range so the full range of tones in my images print almost identically to how they appear on my monitor. That is critical so that my images appear in print as I want them.

This is obviously an ongoing project. As I create new images that seem worthy of the print archive, I make the prints and add them to the boxes. For every image that gets added to the archive, I make two identical prints of each image. In the early days I made three identical prints of each image but that took forever, so I dropped down to two prints of each image. At this point I have over 600 prints in the archive (which means I have two or three prints of around 250 images). I still have a backlog of prints to make–and I am constantly finding new and old images to add. In those quiet times between assignments I have a few days here and there where I can make a dozen prints or more while working on other projects. The P900 is just whirring in the background all day.

Regardless of the cost (of the prints) it is nothing compared to the cost of creating the images. As global climate change continues to march on I find myself drawn to images of massive glaciers and forests that may or may not be here in a hundred years. The adventure sports images will undoubtably look dated at some point–just as expedition images from one hundred years ago look to us now. But, these are part of the historical record. And some of these were created with boundary pushing photographic techniques that weren’t possible a decade ago. Hence, it isn’t just an archive to protect the images but also an archive to showcase the photographic techniques used to create those images.

At 17×22 inches, the prints don’t feel that big to me. But they are just big enough that when framed they would look respectable–and could be shown as a set in a gallery setting. I know very few of my colleagues will consider making a print archive a must, but I hope more photographers consider it so the epic images we have created are not lost on hard drives.

I will leave it here and get back to making some more prints this afternoon. At the very least, I encourage all photographers to get a decent ink jet printer and to make some prints of their images. It is a lot of fun, and also gives a lot of insight into what the image really looks like. Put a few up on the wall and live with your images for a while. That is perhaps the best thing about a print–that you can live with an image for years. Seeing it everyday reminds you not just of that moment but also that you really got something–you captured a bit of magic.

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