R. Mac Holbert is the co-founder of Nash Editions. Widely regarded as the world’s first digital printmaking studio focusing solely on photography, Nash Editions has established an international reputation for fine art photographic digital output. Conceived in 1989, and opening its doors in 1991, Nash Editions celebrates its 14th anniversary this year.
Prior to Nash Editions, Mr. Holbert was the Tour Manager for such music groups as Crosby, Stills & Nash, Peter, Paul & Mary and Carole King. He has long been active in the environmental movement helping to produce benefits for the Cousteau Society, Greenpeace, the Algalita Foundation and others.
Mr. Holbert has lectured extensively and conducted workshops on digital output, digital imaging/scanning and fine art printing on the IRIS and Epson large format printers. He is a Beta tester for Epson America, Adobe and other software and hardware manufacturers.
Mr. Holbert’s clients have included William Claxton, Robert Heinecken, Stephen Shore, David Hockney, Douglas Kirkland, Eric Fischl, Danny Lyon, Pedro Meyer, Joyce Neimanas, Olivia Parker, and Maggie Taylor.
He is the recipient of numerous awards including the 2007 Lifetime Achievement Award – Digital Imaging Marketing Association and the 2000 Computerworld Smithsonian Medal for his pioneering work in digital printmaking.
JPC When you find yourself in the position of facilitating the realization of someone else’s vision, it helps to know your own. (Run with it. Agree. Disagree. Elaborate.)
MH #1 I’m assuming that vision here refers not only to a set of visual aesthetics but also to a personal intellectual and emotional perspective. The foundation of a successful collaborative experience is a strong understanding of all the elements involved in the concept of vision. A powerful visualization provides everyone in the process with a common artistic framework that helps to provide form to an often abstract pursuit. My personal vision has been profoundly influenced by the experience of working with the tools I’ve chosen to express my own work and I feel it is the responsibility of the printmaker to use that knowledge to inform the “vision” of any collaborative effort. It’s a delicate balance to inform without usurping intent. A strong sense of personal vision provides a “lingua franca” for artistic communication.
#2. Successful printmaking involves a “conversation” between the artist and the printmaker. The lack of appropriate “vocabulary” on the part of either participant can severely impede a truly collaborative experience. The very process of developing and refining one’s personal vision helps to create this artistic “lingua franca”. One of the most common problems we deal with at Nash Editions is a lack of clarity of vision on the part of many clients. It’s to be expected as many of our clients are new to the digital approach. We usually suggest to new clients that they take one or two images through the entire process prior to attempting a large-scale effort. In this way, the client can incorporate the specifics of the process into a refinement of their “vision”.
JPC How does working with other artist’s to facilitate their visions impact the development of your own? I imagine there are times when it’s challenging to see through someone else’s eyes, yet also stimulating. And I imagine that having to see with so many different eyes might present challenges in developing your own singular vision.
MH #1. Anything that expands one’s visual vocabulary enhances one’s vision. I don’t find this input to be a distraction as I have a strongly ingrained aesthetic framework that supports a personal artistic vision that welcomes continued refinement. One of the most rewarding aspects of artistic collaboration is the acknowledgement and the enhancement of my own artistic insight.
JPC I know my background in painting has had a tremendous impact on my visual development and so the way that I see and create photographic images. Your background in other arts, particularly sculpture has obviously had a tremendous impact on your visual development and photography as well. You often speak of “sculpting” an image to enhance the appearance of three dimensions in a two dimensional medium.
MH #1. Having a background in sculpture has predisposed my eye to search for dimension in my prints. I approach most images with an eye to optimize tonal and color relationships with the specific purpose of creating a faux three-dimensional viewing experience for the observer. Printmaking is, by definition, two-dimensional. The very process of defining an image with ink on paper can diminish tonal and color separation and contribute to the “flatness” of an image. I’ve learned many imaging “tricks” that provide visual queues for the observer as to foreground, background and relative position to both. For instance, in the “real” world objects in the foreground appear more saturated than those in the background. A subtle reduction of saturation in the background along with a subtle enhancement of foreground saturation forces the observer to more strongly sense the foreground and push back the background which the brain translates into “depth”.
JPC There’s a subtle surrealism in your work. How would you describe your brand of surrealism?
MH #1. I jokingly refer to my slant on the world as “so realism”. Surrealism has many definitions but the one that best fits my work is, “characterized by incongruous juxtapositions.” I search out aspects of everyday experience that, in my eye, stand out from everything else. I look for the ironic, the humorous. I find that much of “traditional” fine art photography takes itself too seriously and in many cases demands an educated intellectual framework to fully appreciate. I’m more interested in what’s in the heart- what the viewer “feels” about incongruity.
JPC Cartier Bresson considered himself a surrealist. Is there something inherently surreal about photography?
MH There is something inherently surreal about our world in general. I recently saw the Magritte at the Los Angeles County Museum. I enjoyed the show immensely. The ironic thing was that the most surreal images I saw were the people viewing the show. I really missed my camera that night. At one point I rounded a corner and was confronted with a 4’ tall museum guard wearing a bowler hat talking to a 4’ 6” elderly woman wearing a bright orange flowing, flowered dress with a bright yellow floppy hat. Behind them, making them appear even smaller than they were was a 20’ tall female mannequin wearing a bright red dress. WOW!
JPC I love the control of digital printmaking. Because the image is uncoupled from media it is extremely versatile. Artist’s now have unparalleled control over their palette. An image can be realized in any palette – high or low key, high or low contrast, highly saturated or neutral. To use the full potential inherent in this an artist has to learn to see with new eyes and do some experimentation to experience the possibilities. What have you found to be most stimulating in your explorations of light?
MH I was never a fan of the high contrast B&W aesthetic. The subtleties of light have always caught my eye. For me, being able to work with a full range of grayscale values is the most exciting aspect of digital imaging. Eighteen years of digital imaging has profoundly influenced the way I look at my world. When working in the wet darkroom one tends to incorporate the limitations of the process into their vision. Knowing that capturing and expressing extreme shadow and highlight information is digitally possible. I now fully consider those elements when I frame a shot. The range of possibilities has increased and that has expanded my vision. High dynamic range image and infinite focus
capture will further enhance our vision.
JPC I love the versatility of digital printmaking. Because the image is uncoupled from media it can be realized on multiple media, sometimes simultaneously. We can now print any image on a variety of substrates, from canvas to rice paper to metal to transparent Mylar. To access the full potential of this unparalleled freedom of expression requires exposure and experimentation. What are some of the new possibilities that you find to be most compelling?
MH The versatility of digital output is indeed one of the most compelling features. We’ve printed on just about anything that would feed through the machine. I personally love using the digital output as part of the process in creating a mixed media piece. I am currently working on a project that that involves producing digital negatives for creating final images on steel plates. Another possibility I’ve wanted to explore is making lenticular prints to capture multiple frames and bring new meaning to the phrase “the decisive moment”.
JPC There’s been a lot of dialog in the industry about reproducing the look and feel of analog materials; today we’ve met and in many cases exceeded the analog standards. You and I both like to highlight that equal attention should be paid to exploring the aesthetic characteristics that are possible as a result of dealing with new media. Is this dialog more difficult to have because the possibilities are so vast? How would you recommend beginning to approach it?
MH The first year we opened to the public (1991) I was contacted by a representative of a major photographic museum asking if we would be interested in producing a show that would focus on digital emulations of traditional printing processes. I responded that our focus at Nash Editions was more on the exploration of new substrates and new aesthetics. Trying to re-create a “look” that another process already does so well seemed to be an exercise in futility. Learning from the past is great but holding on just for the sake of comfort stifles artistic growth.
JPC Let’s play the game we often play together – exploring possibilities. Technology has always evolved. Printmaking has evolved with it. What advances do you think we’ll see in the near future?
Here’s a beginning. Self-calibrating and self-profiling devices (from input to output). More sophisticated separation and ink limit controls. An expanded array and use of print coatings, such as varnishes. Metallic inks. A continued reduction in scale limits. Increased durability, including easily cleaned prints.
MH Better, faster, cheaper. That seems to be the way technology progresses. The digital printing world has advanced a lot in 20 years. We now can produce prints that, in most cases, are more permanent than the most permanent traditional photographic processes, we can print cleaner with less chemical pollution, we can print on a greater variety of substrates and, perhaps most importantly – we can print with an unprecedented control over out images. The area of near-future developments I see happening are in ink and paper manufacturing and seamless color management.
Today’s papers all suffer from a common flaw – surface durability. Today’s inks are formulated with substances that necessitate aggressive paper coatings to compensate for excessive dot gain. The coating sits on the surface and is vulnerable to physical damage. I expect to see new developments in both ink and paper technology that will allow for less fragile output.
Modern color management is far from modern. It is unnecessarily complicated and lacks a meaningful standard. I would expect that future digital capture and output devices will implement seamless, non-intrusive, cross platform, color management.
JPC Without considerations of time and practicality, what new possibilities would you like to see?
Here’s the beginning of my list. Three dimensional substrates or substrates that can conform seamlessly to three dimensional structures. Refractive polymers. Light emitting substrates. An evolution in the quality of projected imagery. A reduction in the separation between moving and still images.
MH I would like to see a physical substrate that you would allow one to “program” the texture and color. Imagine a video screen that you could control the surface quality and the shape of the substrate. Texture could be customized to more perfectly integrate with the imagery. Light emitting substrates of unimaginable resolution would allow artist unprecedented ability to express the their vision. Neural cameras could capture imagery at any point along the input pathway – at point of capture to imagery transmuted by experience and emotion.
JPC Some proponents of digital technology deemphasize the production of physical things (prints, posters, books, etc) and emphasize purely electronic forms of expression (experienced through displays or projections). I haven’t seen a reduction in the interest of physical things but there are new forms of expression that are quite compelling. For instance, many of my images (soon to be all) and the things that have been written about them (by others and by myself) are instantaneously accessible to any one with a connection to the world wide web. People can even download portable slideshows of my work from my website. And soon, sound. This changes goals in reproduction and publication. Has this impacted you as an artist? Has it impacted you as a business?
MH I don’t believe that thousands of years of interacting with physical objects are going to change overnight. Electronic imagery doesn’t seem to have the same sense of ownership. That is perhaps more the fault of the obtrusive technology involved in current video expression. As technology advances and the process takes more of a back seat to the art perhaps more expressive electronic tools will supplant the traditional artistic mediums. But I think the physical object will always remain an important aspect of artistic expression. I remember when Kodak introduced Photo CD in 1992 with the expectation that it would become a popular consumer product. They saw a world where families and friends would share images on their television screens. Beyond the minor but important technical obstacles, the lack of intimacy and “preciousness” experienced with an image on screen was lacking and Photo CD failed miserably in the consumer marketplace. It’s easier to have an intimate memory experience with something you can hold in your hand. A video screen is too abstract.
JPC There are many myths and misperceptions regarding the production of fine art prints.
Myth. An artist’s prints are better if he or she produces them. Another myth follows, an artist is only truly great if he or she produces his or her own prints. Cartier-Bresson was a great artist, yet he rarely if ever produced his own prints. In fact, some say his prints are best only when he worked with a master printer.
Tell me when you think it’s most beneficial to work with a master printer, like yourself.
MH Collaboration: The act of working together through reflective listening and genuine articulation of ideas, in a partnership of mutual respect and diversity. Collaborating with a printmaker does not preclude a true expression of the individual’s vision. In most cases it serves to enhance. A good printmaker does not impose upon the art but rather informs it. The fact that I have personally worked with literally thousands of client over the years provides me with a versatility of experience that it would impossible to acquire working only on one’s own body of work.
JPC Myth. Digital printing eliminates the performance aspect of printmaking. Are printing conditions really that stable? Doesn’t media evolve rapidly? (New substrates every month, new software every year and a half, new inksets every three years.) Isn’t the digital file indefinitely modifiable? I find that as both technology and my vision evolve so does my work, to the point that it’s challenging to maintain a comprehensive current archive of my work. Print on demand is not just a possibility in some ways it’s become a necessity.
We’ve both had to spend a great deal of time educating artists, collectors, and manufacturers. Tell me a little about your experiences in this arena.
MH From the day we opened our doors to the public we realized that education was going to be as an important aspect of our business as mastering the technology. We’ve always believed that the digital revolution is truly a revolution: a relatively sudden and absolutely drastic change. When I started this journey I took very seriously the idea of revolution. For any movement to successfully institute change one needs to educate the uninitiated. In comparison to other revolutions in the arts, like the advent of photography in early 19th century, the acceptance of digital tools has happened relatively quickly. In the early nineties there was an organized resistance to digital that has almost completely disappeared today. Pockets of discontent still exist, especially in the fine art photography world where traditionally processed images have so long represented “quality”. Many traditionalists cannot see beyond what they consider to be the “gold standard” – the air-dried silver print. I have always appreciated the beauty of a well-crafted silver print but if you judge a digital print by how closely it reproduces the look of silver print your eliminating the possibility of appreciating new visual experiences.
We began public displays of our prints prior to our public opening. We always answered questions about the process and took advantage of every possibility to let the art world know about the wonders of these new tools. In the 18 years we’ve been in business Nash Editions has been featured in over 300 print articles and close to 100 Web articles. I personally began teaching workshops in 1995 and have presented numerous classes for everyone from the Getty Research Center, the Boston Museum of Fine Art, The Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, the Los Angeles County Museum, The Friends of Photography in San Francisco, The School of Visual arts in New York, the International Center for Photography, Santa Fe Workshops, Anderson Ranch Arts Center, the Butler Museum of American Art to name a few. I have also led workshops for California state college photography instructors and numerous public and private elementary schools. In the past year I have expanded my workshops into Mexico, Spain and China.
JPC Do you have other favorite myths you’d like to add to the list or to unravel?
MH Well, one that I have seen in print too many times and have heard from the mouths of those that should know better is, “Now anybody with a digital camera and a copy of Photoshop can call themselves fine art photographers.” Art has never been about the tools. What’s interesting is what’s behind the lens, not what’s in front of it. I had a client several years ago who had a show of his images and was approached by a friend who remarked, “Your images are beautiful. You must have a wonderful camera!” Later that evening the same friend hosted a dinner. During the first course my client remarked to the host, “This dinner is spectacular! You must have a wonderful stove!”
JPC Tell me about the production of your recent book – (insert exact title). What’s the final product? How was it made? How has the journey impacted your personal vision?
MH Our book is titled, Nash Editions: Photography and the Art of Digital Printing. It’s been an interesting journey of over three years. There are a plethora of excellent books “about” digital photography and digital printmaking. I realized several years ago how much time I’ve spent over the years talking about process. In all that time the “art” seemed to always take a backseat. There has been a steady but diminishing resistance to digital that tends to direct the visual experience toward a discussion on the relative merits of digital –vs- traditional methods. I wanted to tell the story of our studio because I felt that it was an important one since it’s bound to repeat itself in the future as technology continues to refine and alter the tools as well as our aesthetics. What I really wanted to do was to celebrate digitally produced art. I wanted to share the wealth of images that adventurous artistic souls have produced with these new tools. There are over 175 color and B&W images that illustrate the range of artistic possibilities. Both Graham and I are very excited by what our clients have created and are proud to have been involved in the process of realizing their visions on paper.
JPC What words of advice would you offer to artist’s exploring the possibilities of the digital world?
MH Digital only resembles traditional photography in that one is capturing and expressing light. Leave behind the restrictions of the old technology. I see too many photographers grasping onto the past and in doing so limiting the possibilities of expression. We need to confront the new tools on their own strengths and weaknesses and learn to use them to their fullest extent.