An Interview with Master Printmaker Eric Joseph
After hearing fine art printmaking wizard Eric Joseph speak at a workshop or presentation, it is not difficult to imagine him during his college days as an art and photography student at California State University, Northridge, burrowed away in the darkroom, laser-focused on coaxing out a last small degree of dramatic tone from a print. Joseph spent a year during his college days working as the school’s photography lab technician, but he found the bureaucracy and politics of academia off-putting.
Despite how well-known Joseph is in the photography world, he admits that capturing images with a camera is not his main passion. What Joseph considers himself first and foremost is an educator. He teaches digital fine art photography printmaking on behalf of the Los Angeles Center of Photography (LACP) and is a sought-after speaker who travels the country giving seminars at colleges, universities, commercial labs and professional photographic organizations on fine art inkjet paper, color management and printmaking. He also serves on the board of the LACP.
Joseph is also an accomplished businessman who started working at Freestyle Photo and Imaging Suppliesin 1986 as an in-store salesperson and has advanced to his current position of co-president, chief products education, and sales and support officer.
I am pleased to present the following in-depth conversation with Eric Joseph.
Jon Wollenhaupt: How do you define yourself in terms of your experience and accumulated skills: printmaker, photographer, educator, and businessman? How would you rank those four areas of your career in terms of how you see yourself?
Eric Joseph: Interestingly enough, nobody’s ever asked me that question. But it is astute of you to ask that question because I am really kind of a combo platter. In terms of the ranking you proposed, I would consider myself first as an educator, second as a printmaker, third as a businessperson, and last as a photographer. Some people might be surprised by that. I do get asked often if I’m a photographer. I’ve never taken photos for the sake of shooting. I have always taken photos with a mindset and intention of making a print. My passion lies with printmaking and the technical aspects involved with it. During college I was that guy who seemed to live in the darkroom. And I love teaching to others what I have learned about all the aspects of the digital printmaking process — from color management and the importance of monitor calibration to how paper selection influences an image.
I kind of fell into being a businessperson. Before I ended up at Freestyle Photo and Imaging Supplies, I worked odd jobs in photography, whatever I could do — headshots, insurance work and so forth. But I was not feeling very comfortable with that and needed a full-time job. I applied to Freestyle as an entry-level store salesperson position, and I have been there now for 36 years. I consider myself very fortunate to have landed there, because whomever I have reported to over the many years there recognized the contributions that I’ve made, and I continue to grow and learn in my work. It’s been very satisfying.
JW: When did you first realize the crucial role fine art paper plays in the digital printmaking process?
Joseph: Ever since my darkroom days, I found that the choice of paper for printing was always paramount; it is what allowed me to execute my unique artistic signature. I always tell students that no matter if you are shooting film or digital, the important thing to remember is what you will ultimately be presenting to people is the print on paper. And the paper you choose can have a big impact on how your images look.
It is an exciting time right now because we have more papers available, in terms of surfaces and textures and tone, than ever before in the history of photography. But that abundance has also created apprehension and confusion for many photographers. It was about 12 years ago when I started getting requests from customers, colleges and universities, and educators with whom I worked. They were saying, “There is no one taking a leadership role in helping us understand what paper to use and how to get the best results.”
In my effort to become more educated about the wide range of fine art papers being produced, I realized I had a unique position of influence. I went to all the inkjet fine art paper manufacturers and said, “You know what? If you want me to help educate the market, you’ve got to do me a favor.” I asked them to send me a box of every paper they made. Then I started working with a single image, and I began printing that image on a wide variety of different papers. And what I discovered with these new papers was miraculous! It doesn’t really matter what camera you use or what lens you use, or how good you are at Photoshop. It really is the paper selection that is the most important part of the printmaking process.
For example, I have an image of an old-fashioned depository drop box that I printed on Hahnemühle William Turner Matt Fine Art. When I have shown that print, many times someone has come up to me and said, “Wow, that image is super three-dimensional. You must have used a medium-format digital camera with a ton of megapixels, right? That’s got to be a super-high-resolution image to get that depth in dimension out of a matte paper with texture.” Then I tell them that the reality is I took that image 12 years ago with a Nikon D7000. The file I used to print the image was maybe 6 megabytes. To me, it just proves that it isn’t what you have, it’s what you do with it. And I have proven while working with thousands of people over the years that paper really does make a difference and that people’s preconceived notions of what they think they like on paper can be very different from what they actually like because they never tried anything else.
JW: Tell us about the inkjet paper psychotherapy sessions you offer.
Joseph: The sessions are a part of my process when working with a photographer. What we do is simply select a single image and print it on a variety of different papers. If I’m working remotely with someone, I’ll send the prints to them. And then they get to see for themselves the results when the same image is printed on a number of different papers and on a printer with a custom profile.
The process is much like a laboratory test. Often, somebody starts a session by saying, “I really only like matte paper. I don’t like the reflections I see with glossy and semi-gloss papers.” And I think, well, OK. Let’s give them what they want, right? So I’ll print the image on a variety of matte papers, but I will also throw in a couple of other papers as well. And nine times out of 10, when they see the prints they will say, “You know what? I like matte paper, but I didn’t realize my work looks even better on glossy paper.” And I see the light go on. It also happens that someone will say, “I don’t like matte papers. I don’t get rich colors or rich blacks.” And I’ll do the opposite. To me, it’s about seeing it, right? And seeing it is important, feeling it, holding the print in your hand under the optimal light conditions. I’ll say it again: It’s not about the printer or the camera. Canon and Epson both make great printers. These aren’t the discussions I’m having now. It’s all about the paper.
“I mean, you are a photographer, which means you create photographs, right? The word photograph means “to write with light.” You could make the argument that an image isn’t a photograph until that light is written on a piece of paper—a print!”
JW: Do you find that for most photographers the choice of paper they use for printing is a mere afterthought?
Joseph: I have found that is the case with most photographers. The reason most people are not concerned with their choice of fine art paper is because the photography industry hasn’t really promoted paper in a way that makes it a significant thing to think about. The main thing most photographers think about is the camera and what lens they have.
I know people who go out and buy a Leica M11 because it looks cool, and it shows off how much money they’ve spent on a camera. But are they printing their work? It’s a shame when you’ve got $27,000 worth of camera equipment hanging around your neck, yet the images taken are mostly posted to social media. That equipment is designed to make beautiful prints. I think way too many photographers suffer from what I call GAS, which stands for gear acquisition syndrome.
Let’s not forget that images displayed on a computer screen are backlit, whereas a print is dependent upon the light that reflects off of its surface. A print is a tactile thing that should absorb the viewer’s attention. That is very different from the deluge of ephemeral images we see on social media that are mostly forgotten seconds after they are posted. I mean, you are a photographer, which means you create photographs, right? The word photograph means “to write with light.” You could make the argument that an image isn’t a photograph until that light is written on a piece of paper—a print! And as I have said, the choice of paper is of tremendous importance. To me, leaving that out of the creative equation is unthinkable.
Resources for Fine Art Paper InJet Prints
- Video: The Six Steps to Making Perfect Inkjet Prints with Eric Joseph
- Eric Joseph: Bio and Class Schedule – LACP
- Freestyle: The World of Inkjet Papers Seminars
- More information about inkjet paper psychotherapy sessions with Eric Joseph
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