A Youth Misspent at the Printer.

When I ran an advertising agency I spent a lot of time doing press checks at the printers around town.  Never done a press check?  Sounds more glamorous than it is.  Or to quote early Ian Fleming, "It reads better than it lives."  Most printed pieces aren't very chic.  They tend to be utilitarian and straightforward.  You go to the press check to monitor quality.  It's your job to make sure that the guy whose responsibility it is to make sure all four colors line up together, and that there isn't a color cast or banding or weak colors does his job correctly.  And, as most veteran art directors will tell you.....most press checks happen in the middle of the night.  After a nice dinner and a glass of wine you tend to sit around the house waiting with a certain amount of dread for the phone call that lets you know, "We'll probably have your job on press around 11:00 pm."  When you get there you'll find out that printers have a whole different way of telling time and it's usually an hour behind whatever watch you're wearing.
So, you're a photographer, why should you care about the four color printing process?  Well, isn't this where you'd ultimately like your images to end up?  Are you content seeing them at 1200 pixels, splashed across Joe IT Guy's uncalibrated Dell monitor from 2002?  If you're like most photographers you dream of seeing your work in wonderfully rich magazines, in books and in annual reports and brochures.  And on that ultimate of two dimensional reproductive porn, the poster.  Well this really won't help much because photographers are rarely asked to do press checks unless they are good friends of the art director or they are paying for the job themselves.  

I didn't intend this to be about the nuts and bolts of four color printing anyway.  It's just that I came across this DVD in the archives and I'd forgotten all about this job I did for Hixo back in 2005.  We were illustrating some technical software products that were meant to bring tight and repeatable color management to the wet and sloppy craft of super high quality printing.  I never did find out what happened to the job but I did get paid and I did file these images under, "completed".  Which meant that I did my part.  (But here's a wretched secret I need to share with all those people dreaming of joining into the remarkable fun of freelance photography-------half the jobs you shoot get killed.  The best of the best rarely see the light of day.  Some concern or shift in the marketing strategy kills them as quickly as cyanide.....thought it only fair to warn you).   

I spent a day at the old Lithoprint printing plant just off IH-35 near downtown Austin.  We shot all the steps of having something printed in four or five or six colors.  I love the industrial ethos of the forty or fifty foot long Heidelberg presses.  I love the smell of the custom mixed inks sitting next to the giant grey machines in gallon sized paint cans.  And I love the guys who master the craft and, after years of training and apprenticeship, fire up these big monsters and get every step perfect so that spinning blankets and wet colored goo end up making discreet spots on paper with no shift from color to color.  Fast, wet color.
 While we always hated and feared the press check because of the big monkey wrenches it could throw at us we always walked out satisfied and proud of the work.  Going back as an observer.  A paid observer felt in some ways, privileged.  As though I'd skirted some recurring rite of passage and been invited into the lion's den without being hazed.
The thing I always forget is how loud it is in the busy print shops.  Big presses make big noise and the sound of large, thick press sheets being sucked off their tray and into the gaping maw of the German presses had it's own unique quality.  It's cliche but most of the time presses run like....well oiled machines.  None of the nozzle clogs that used to vex us ink jet printers.

So, I needed to use cameras that I could depend on for good available light performance and high sharpness.  I also wanted thick, rich colors.  For me, back a few years that meant two cameras that I loved using.  One is the Olympus e300 with it's 14-54 lens used at 400 ISO and the other camera, the one I used predominantly, was the venerable Kodak DCS-760 with a whopping six megapixels.  AND ABSOLUTELY NOISELESS AT ISO 80!!!!!  While everything moved we learned with slower camera to pay attention to the peaks of action where momentum would stop and people would freeze.  We also learned how to put these miracle cameras on tripods, making them as sharp (indeed, in many instances, sharper) today's 24 megapixel cameras.  
I will confess to loving a mix-matched lens/camera combination back then.  Nikon had just come out with the 10.5 mm fisheye lens for use on their DX cameras.  I disregarded protocol and jammed one on the DCS 760.  Look!  It vignettes on the edges.  And especially in the corners.  Of course I could crop that out but I really like the look.  

Most of the shots done here were shot at shutter speeds ranging from 1/2 a second to around 1/30th of a second.  No crazy 10 frames per second needed or wanted.  And white balance was all over the map.  But amazingly both cameras could be custom white balanced on the spot and this made post processing a snap.  That being said, I wanted the cyan and yellow mix that I got in the unbalanced photo below because it was more emotionally exact while being a bit dramatic.

Shooting on site, at someone else's office, by their grace and patience means that you can't be demanding and you can't be insistent.  You learn to be like water in a Zen koan and learn to divert around the rocks in the stream and find the paths of least resistance that move you forward on your path.  If you don't know how to make friends quickly, and show an honest interest in someone's daily work process, then this kind of work isn't for you.  Me?  I love industrial documentation almost as much as I love portraits and I love to do portraits more than most people love chocolate or money.  We got what we wanted. Made few friends.  Burned no bridges and didn't spill any ink.  It was a day well spent.

 We always talk about cameras and lenses but I must give an ample share of credit for the quality of these images to my noble tripod.  it's a ten year old Gitzo with a lot of miles on it but it's never gotten loose or shaky and it handles everything I throw at it.  It's nice to have a piece of gear that can actually freeze motion.....and freeze time.  All the best, Kirk


obakesan said...

nice one

seen a few daze like that when dealing with Leo Burned-me-out back in the 90's

Bill Beebe said...

You said:
(But here's a wretched secret I need to share with all those people dreaming of joining into the remarkable fun of freelance photography-------half the jobs you shoot get killed. The best of the best rarely see the light of day. Some concern or shift in the marketing strategy kills them as quickly as cyanide.....thought it only fair to warn you).

You and I have remarked about looking at the other side of their respective fences. Sometimes it's good to provide statistics to those gazing. You seem to indicate a less than 50% 'success' rate for a given project. In IT, especially for software projects, the success rate (i.e. a project completed as designed and deployed) is far worse, usually no more than 1 in 5; or 4 out of 5 projects wind up incomplete or on the shelf (shelfware) when done.

Thought it only fair to warn you.

John Krumm said...

Interesting post, Kirk. I spent about 6 months working as a temp "jogger" on a freight train sized press. I worked the output, jogging the stacks together like Lucille Ball as they came out of the press, then arranging them on a pallet. They quickly trained us to climb the beast and re-thread it when it jammed, always a nice break.

The only photographer in town that I know supports himself fully through photography, besides the newspaper guys, is a wildlife and landscape photographer who self publishes, printing in Korea. He flies there every year for a press check when the new calendars and any new books come out.

Anonymous said...

I've spent many years in press checks. I love your story. The images are great. thank you very much.

roteague said...

Very enjoyable post. It touched on the very reason I continue to shoot film - the print.