For the last couple of years I have challenged myself to become a much better printer. I want my prints to have this 'organic' and very vivid tonality with lots of beautiful tonal shifts, elegance, highlights that are muted but have that inner glow, deep and strongly black blacks, and well defined mid-tones that carry the picture content forward.
I have no real rules of what the final outcome should be, but essentially I want the pictures to leap off the surface of the paper, and engage me or whoever happens to be viewing the print.
So, I have gone through hundreds, if not thousands of sheets of mostly Ilford MGIV fiber matte paper. I love it for its surface, for the way it tones, how easy it is to spot once the print is done, but also for its consistency from box to box. It's my staple paper, and with my negatives and Ethol LPD (replenished) paper developer, my prints almost always end up printing well at Grade 3 filtration. I use other papers too, and lay my hands on boxes of Forte Polygrade that I can manage to find, and I really love Ilford Warmtone semimatte for portraiture. Stunning paper. But mainly I stick with the MGIV matte fiber.
Sometimes I use split grade printing with difficult negatives, other times I flash the paper when printing negatives with lots of highlight contrast. I dodge and burn my prints such that I try to make it 'invisible' in the final print, as if the tones were just like that in the negative. I don't use masks - it's too much work and I usually find it isn't worth my time. I outflank the prints, by making a test strip using the f-stop printing method first, and then I make two prints - one a bit too dark, and another too light. On purpose. Just to see where highlights and shadows take me and how much I should dodge and burn in the work print, and then go from there. It gives a very solid foundation for the print.
I also tone the prints. Sometimes a lot, and other times not so much. It depends on the picture. I use four toners to get what I want.
Setting the stage - I try very hard to become a better printer, looking with a very critical eye on the prints, working them over if I'm not happy the first time. Or the second time. But I do find that I usually nail it pretty good in the first round, and it's rare that I have to go back and re-do something. I'm proud of that. I've gotten better, and I hope to continue that way and improve basically with each printing session. Today I think I'm decent. I go to museums and galleries to find inspiration from masters of the past and today, and I look at the work of fellow photographers today, exchange views, exchange darkroom tips, etc. We look at each others prints and it's wonderful to share like this.
So overall I'm extremely satisfied and excited with how things are coming along. I'm starting to feel ready to really have a go at some of my past material and do the pictures justice after a decade of improving.
I do find it frustrating sometimes, though, that I see clear evidence of how I improve, and think a lot about what I might accomplish when I improve to a level that's better than what I am at today, and then I look at my old prints and compare, thinking that I will want to always reprint my work, which becomes impossible, because the amount of work I amass just keeps growing.
Does anybody else find themselves in a situation similar to mine? The desire to aspire to becoming one of the upper echelons of printmaking. But at the same time finding it frustrating that printing something today will basically be a learning experience for getting better, basically rendering a print a little bit obsolete as soon as it's created. It's a thing of never being satisfied, I guess, a desire to push boundaries and limits, to find out what's beyond my current scope of knowledge and skill. It is a wonderful journey, don't get me wrong, I'm both happy and proud about what I'm able to do, and a prospect of becoming even better.