Mac Holbert is a founder of and partner in Nash Editions, the first and one of the best fine-art digital printmakers in the country. He is also a prolific lecturer, workshop instructor, and friend of artists trying to get the most out of inkjet printing. Jim Kasson interviewed Holbert in Carmel .
JK: How’d you get to be a printmaker?
MH: I was a student at UCSC in the 60s. I think I was the first sculpture major there. I always loved working in the arts and I loved the collaborative process. Fortunately or unfortunately, when I left the university, I was kidnapped by rock and roll for 23 years.
JK: How’d that happen?
MH: I was hitchhiking home from a commune in New Mexico, and I got picked up by the production manager for Crosby, Stills, and Nash who was on his way back from Woodstock. I ended up working as a go-fer at the Big Sur Folk Festival at the Monterey Fairgrounds the following weekend. I worked my tail off. I was fairly intelligent. I didn’t drool. So they hired me for some tours. My first job was as an assistant truck driver. I had never driven anything larger than a VW until about 1:30 in the morning, outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming, when the real truck driver was too tired to drive any further. He pulled over, and told me to get in the driver’s seat, and talked me through the shifting until we were in about 12th gear, then he went to sleep, and left me to speed through the night with this forty-foot trailer behind me. I did that for a tour then I did guitar tuning and stage management. And then about the mid-70s, I became the tour manager.
JK: And the connection with photography and Graham Nash?
MH: Graham and I saw the world the same way. We shared a love of photography. I ended up living next door to him in San Francisco. We spent the better part of the 70s in the darkroom. We were doing everything from pinhole photographs to alternative processes. We ended up collecting a lot of the same things. We were both into German expressionism, woodcuts especially. In the mid to late 70s, Graham started collecting photography. He started out with Diane Arbus, and got the bug big time. We dealt with the craziness of being on the road by visiting every gallery, every photo dealer, and every rare book store in whatever town we were in. Instead of staying up all night long and sleeping off hangovers in the morning like everybody else, we’d be up early and we would grab the yellow pages, find a bunch of places to go to, and spend the day until sound check going to all these places.
JK: That’s the photography thread. How did computers start to enter your life?
MH: About the mid-70s, I was putting tours together for rock bands. Somebody introduced me to a spreadsheet running on an Apple computer. I realized right away what a powerful application it was. I no longer needed my bottle of Whiteout and my eraser. Rock and roll tours were constantly changing, and updating the information was always a pain. Soon I started to do rudimentary imaging with MacPaint and the ThunderScanner. In the mid-80s Graham asked me if I’d help him put together a system so he could start working on some of his photographs. I set him up with an early high-end scanner, the best monitor we could find, and got him a copy of Digital Darkroom to edit the images. Graham was off and running. He spent a couple of years doing it. Then he called me and said: “How the hell do I get these images out of my computer? I can’t bring my computer to you. You could come to my house and look at them, but if I wanted to send them to you, how could I get them out of there?” That brought up the whole question of output. In those days there weren’t a lot of options. There were dot matrix printers, dye sub, wax thermal printers, and film recorders. We tried them all. None of them had the look that we wanted. None of them could give wet photography a run for its money. We finally heard about a shop connected to UCLA called Jet Graphics. It was run by John Bilotta, who has been working at Nash Editions for nine years. They were using a Fuji drop-on-demand inkjet printer that printed on real art paper. The dot structure was not the best, but the paper wasn’t all glossy and slick and the images resembled what you were looking at on the screen. We got excited about it, and Graham did several hundred prints on the machine. He went in one day with some files and found out that they were going out of business because the machine was falling to pieces and Fuji wasn’t supporting it any more. John said that the national sales manager for Iris Graphics had come through a week before. When we contacted him, he suggested that we meet George Rice at his color house in downtown LA, where they were using the Iris as a proofing machine. We went. When the machine stopped spinning and they opened it up, we saw something that shocked both of us. The image was incredibly photographic, absolutely perfect in terms of color. The image itself sucked – it was a bride with a bouquet of pink flowers – but we looked at one another and we knew we were looking at the future. Graham had been offered a show of his photography at The Parco Gallery in Tokyo. They wanted 40 different images, 3 feet by 4 feet, and they wanted them in editions of 35. They wanted us to print the editions in one fell swoop, so they could have them available for sale. Doing this traditionally was a daunting task, especially when you consider that we didn’t have negatives in all cases. We found a color scientist, David Coons, who moonlighted from Disney and printed the whole set of images on Arches watercolor paper. We shipped the show to Japan. They loved it.
JK: Press proofs only have to last a few weeks. What ink set were you using?
MH: We were using the Iris graphics set, which had all the longevity of a sneeze, but the prints were beautiful while they lasted. They went to all 19 Parco Galleries in Japan over the following year. Word got back to the US that this was a pretty incredible show, so we got a request from the Simon Lowinsky Gallery in NYC to do one of Graham’s shows. G Ray Hawkins gallery in LA also wanted to do one of the shows. We printed up two more sets of the images, and had shows in both cities. The NY papers sang about the quality of the prints. People really responded to them. We knew we were onto something.
JK: How did this turn into a business?
MH: Flash forward about a year. Graham and I are on the road, playing golf in Australia. His $126,000 machine is sitting back in a garage in Manhattan Beach doing absolutely nothing. I said “Let me get off the road and quit being a highly-paid babysitter, and I’ll go back and open up a fine-art print making studio. I’ll move my family to LA if necessary, and I’ll run the company.” He said, “Go for it. I’ll support you for a year.”
JK: So now you had to turn the Iris into a fine-art printer.
MH: There were a lot of technical problems. We needed to move the heads back on the machine, because they would bump into the thick paper we were using. A piece of ink-soaked lint would get in the electronics of the printhead and short out the whole machine. Or a piece of lint would gather enough ink to where gravity took over and it would fly into the middle of an otherwise-perfect print. The paper we were using cost about $30 a sheet. On a good day you could probably get six or eight prints. So we spent a year, maybe a year and a half investigating things like the proper kind of tape to use to strap the piece of paper to the rotating drum. We had to find a tape that would hold stiff, heavy watercolor paper on the drum, and we needed to be able to pull the paper away from the tape without ripping the paper. We investigated all types of papers. We hack-sawed the heads off the printer and moved them back, thereby voiding the warranty on a $126,000 machine. Graham did give us permission to do whatever we thought we needed to do to make the machine work. We did every thing we could do to combat the lint problem.
JK: And you had problems with permanence.
MH: We started to do some investigation about more permanent inks. We were very honest with our clients about the lack of permanence. We offered to reprint anything that came from these early ink sets. We sold the early prints more as exhibition prints, not as limited editions, with the exception of the set that we did for Graham. Since they were sold as portfolios, the feeling was that they wouldn’t be exposed to light continuously. Iris prints are 100% permanent in the dark. So we figured that in a portfolio environment where they’re seeing little light, they would be perfectly safe for many years. As it turns out, most of them are.
JK: You were about as early as you could be to do a business like this.
MH: It was perfect timing. Our work got better, and we got some more experience with Photoshop, got beyond Levels, which is where you usually start. We acquired more sophisticated computers. We kept in close touch with Apple and they kept us up to date with the latest machines. The only people who weren’t very cooperative were Iris.
JK: How’d you get involved with Epson?
MH: In 1999, a woman from Epson walked into the studio, and asked if we’d be interested in trying out some of their machines. We’d be fools not to look at it, but when you bring a new technology into the studio, you don’t do that lightly. I’m not willing to take stuff just because it’s free. If you take on something, you need to really put it through its paces, and that takes time. I called up Graham, and we arranged to go down to Torrance and see what the printer could do. We took a black and white file – if anything is going to break, it’s going to be a black and white file – and we took a couple of color images too. We met with Mark Radogna, who’s the product manager for the pro-graphics line. We gave him the black and white file, and he printed it. It was the most god-awful thing I’d ever seen. It was kinda green…
JK: He must have printed it without color corrections.
MH: Yes. That was a bad start, but we saw the potential there. The resolution was there. We printed a couple of color images, and they looked spectacular.
JK: And you had to be impressed with the difference between the Epson maintenance routine and the Iris one.
MH: When I showed John Bilotta how you clean the Epson printer by pressing a button and holding it for three seconds, he was ecstatic. John’s life revolved around Iris. He would come in at 8:00 in the morning, and from then to 11:00 at the earliest, he was doing maintenance every day. Among our three Iris printers, one of them was usually down at any given time. We were spending fifty or sixty thousand dollars a year buying nozzles. In January of this year, we discontinued Iris printing entirely.
JK: In the beginning, who were your first customers?
MH: A Mexican photographer named Pedro Meyer. I worked hand in hand with Pedro. He was far ahead of anybody else in recombining images to create new imagery. We did three or four hundred prints for Pedro. We did the big show at the California Museum of Photography, a show at the Cochran, and a show that traveled all over Central America.
JK: Was there a customer who put you on the map?
MH: Francesco Clemente and Alan Ginsberg printed with us, but what really got us known was when David Hockney printed with us. After Hockney people started to take notice.
JK: You worked with a lot of people on inks.
MH: We worked with American Inkjet, and we worked with Lyson. We tried to work with Iris. Lyson came out with the first archival inkset. We ended up modifying it; we created a couple of hybrid sets by mixing inks. With the new, more permanent inks, we couldn’t print reds and blues like we wanted. To me it was never just about permanence, it was about making the image look good if you could. If there was something we could do that would extend the longevity and maintain the integrity of the color, that’s the path we’d take, even though it meant that our prints weren’t lasting a long as they might. Finally American Inkjet came out with a set in 1997 or 1998 called Pinnacle Gold. That set was a good blend. That’s what we used until we switched over to the Epson.
JK: How many people do you have now?
MH: It’s similar to what we had when we got started. Then it was my wife and I. We then hired a printmaker named Jack Duganne, who was a serigrapher. I owe a lot to Jack. He taught me the ins and outs of the printmaking business. We hired John Bilotta and Chris Pan became our office manager. Right now we have seven people working for us. When I started Nash Editions it was going to be about making the finest prints we could, and it was never going to be about making money. I hoped we could keep our nose above the financial waters and maintain the quality. I never wanted it to get to the point where it became so busy that I couldn’t personally oversee every single job. I check every print that goes out now and I did then. When I go, I want to be known for the quality of the prints, not for the money I’ve made.
JK: Since Epson came along, do you have to still invent things, or are you mostly using the printers the way their designers intended?
MH: Epson is listening. If there’s a problem, we talk to them about it, and if it makes sense to them and if they think other users would like things the way we do, they’ll make the change. We still do a few things. We were printing on a paper that’s 44×60, and 550 gsm. So it’s thick and heavy and long. You can’t drape it behind the printer when you load it. We developed clips that hold it in the air and take the weight off of it and still allow it to go in. Little things like that but nothing much.
JK: You are now working with photographers who are sending you digital files?
MH: Yes, that started about two years ago. About 15% of what we do now is from digital sources.
JK: What are the headaches associated with that?
MH: Expectations. People will make images in JPEG mode, and ask for 20×30 prints.
JK: When you accept a digital file, you’re no long running the color management from end to end. You’re in the middle.
MH: Yes, I’ve had people give me sRBG files. But I have a whole stable of photographers, many using the Canon 1Ds, and they’re sending me good solid color managed files that are just astounding. Working digitally is such a relief, the files have been color managed from the beginning, and you don’t have the artifacts of film: the scratches, the junk.
JK: You’ve been an industry visionary and teacher, somebody who’s driven the whole field of digital fine art printmaking, not just for Nash Editions, but for everybody. How’d you get into that position?
MH: I enjoy turning on the light bulb in people’s heads. When we started this, I looked upon it as a revolution, and I wanted to be one of the spokesmen for the revolution. The amount of control that it allows you to have over your images is what everybody always imagined as an artist. I wanted more people to be aware of the new tools; if they were aware of them they were going to use them.
JK: What’s your take on the difficulties that digital art has had in being accepted in the art world?
MH: In 1992, about a year after I opened Nash Editions, I made a list of concerns that I had about getting this new technology accepted in the fine art world. Three important concerns were permanence, the cost of the equipment, and fear of new technology. Today a color image done on an Epson printer in most cases exceeds the permanence of Fuji Crystal Archive, which is the standard of the museum world. The cost of the equipment has plummeted. The remaining barrier for some is fear of new technology and fear of having to change one’s life and the way that one sees things.
JK: How are we doing with that?
MH: I’m writing an article for Adobe, and I did a survey in preparation. I interviewed 16 people: major museum curators, gallery owners, collectors, and artists. All of the curators that I interviewed were very supportive of digital, for them it was about the art, never about the process. I asked specific questions like, “In the acquisition of new artwork, how important is the technology used to produce the work in your purchase decision-making process.” Every single one said it wasn’t important whatsoever. Gallery owners were a whole different thing. One gallery owner has been dealing with digital art for about five years, and 70% of what he sells is digital, and he has no problems with the technology at all. Another dealer in the same complex of galleries absolutely doesn’t like digital, says it looks digital, says anybody with a digital camera and an Epson printer can call himself a fine art photographer these days. Among the artists, there was full acceptance. I talked to two painters who were using digital technology, although they weren’t selling them as final output, but they were using digital photography as part of the process. Every day that goes by there’s a new gallery that’s seeing the light and embracing digital, and dealing with it as just another process. If I had to make a guess of when there’ll be nearly full acceptance, I’d say in five to seven years—there are people who don’t even think photography is a fine art. I would say that acceptance is 50/50 at this point.
JK: How should people printing in their homes or studios be thinking about permanence?
MH: The permanence issue has pretty much been dealt with in the past three or four years. Epson introduced the Ultrachrome inkjets, which have a good blend of color gamut and longevity. The prints that we’re getting now range anywhere from 35 to 200 years of display life, with no noticeable fading.
JK: How should artists go about selecting the substrate? What’s the range of papers available?
MH: High-frequency images with lots of detail will do better on a glossy or semi-glossy coated surface. The matte and fine-art papers are appropriate for landscapes where there’s not a lot of detail; those papers can enhance the sense of softness. You should consider where it’s going to be displayed, what the end use is. I have a client now that did all of his prints on fine art paper, and they were absolutely beautiful. Now he’s dealing with a gallery that wants him to print them all on shiny, glossy paper, so it looks like a photograph. That gallery doesn’t know how to appreciate the aesthetics of a non-traditional print. So he’s now being dictated by the market to change his art.
JK: There is an interaction between the paper and the ink that affects permanence. Some paper/ink combinations have been extensively tested and many have not. How worried should a printer be about using an untested combination?
MH: I think they should be very worried about it. Last year, I was on a panel with Henry Wilhelm. He said you can print an image on Epson Premium Luster, and it will last 75 years. You can buy the “same” store brand paper at Staples, and it will last two or three years.
JK: There have been some widely-publicized paper/ink disasters. There was an outgassing problem a couple of years ago that caused huge color shifts within days or weeks. Are we past that era?
MH: There’s always going to be this kind of problem. Some of the fine art papers that weren’t made for inkjet printing have experienced problems. Somerset had a paper that was getting yellow spots, and you’d have to put the print in the sun to bleach the spots out. There are papers that react negatively to dry mount tissue. You have to be careful of everything. There was a line of ink/paper combination that was extremely sensitive to environmental gasses. Luckily many of the problems have simple solutions. The environmental gas problem can be solved just by framing the work behind glass or ‘plex.
JK: Do you have any advice for chemical photographers who are thinking about doing some digital work?
MH: The first and most important thing that you do is find somebody who is capable of creating a good digital print. There are a lot of really bad digital prints out there. If you’re looking at bad work, you’re going to have bad feelings about what digital printing is. So go look at some quality work. See if what you want to say on paper is something that can be said with this process. After you’ve discovered a printer/paper/ink combination that yields the results you want, take time to learn to use the hardware and software. There are a lot of people who buy the equipment and think it comes with a PhD in how to run it. It takes years of experience before you can make a world class print.
JK: How about black and white?
MH: Back in 1989 one of the things that we realized that people were going to be asking for black and white. Graham’s stuff was all black and white. One of the first things we did was to try to figure out a way to do a good black and white. We got together with David Coons and he came up with a set of curves for the CMYK inset that solved the problem. The curves kept the contaminating colors out of the midtones and the highlights and yet gave us the really solid blacks and shadows. It allowed us to make neutral prints.
JK: And where are we today?
MH: In the past two or three years some third-party drivers have brought real improvement. There’s one called Colorburst, and one called ImagePrint by ColorByte. They allow unprecedented control over black and white. They allow you to tone and to tint, to do split tones, and to do it all in a manner where the neutral component is not contaminated in a serious way. They reduce the metamerism effect that causes colors to shift under different lights. In ImagePrint’s case, they remove the yellow inks from the mix to improve metamerism. The range of tones that are available within ImagePrint is pretty astounding
JK: Where’s all this going? Are we going to have 20 inks?
MH: The firmware on the Epson is limited to 8 nozzles at this point, and going beyond that would be quite a change. But the obvious solution for a lot of things is a few more inks.
JK: It would be nice to have red and green.
MH: Amen. And four blacks.
JK: And light red and light green.
MH: Absolutely. And let’s throw in a clear to get rid of bronzing. And if we still need to have two blacks for different types of paper, then we need two sets of grays.
JK: That’s 18. A printer for 11 inch wide paper is going to be four feet wide.
MH: [Laughs] I think we need more nozzles ultimately. There’s no way around the physics.
JK: Any final comment?
MH: I encourage people not to be frightened by technology. The exciting thing about this new technology in the art world is that it gives us the control to get closer to artistic truth, to better realize our artistic vision on paper.