A new Ilford-branded silver gelatine paper is on its way, aimed at fine-art photographers. Simon Bainbridge speaks to Harman Technology's Steven Brierley to get the story on the development of its first traditional black-and-white paper in 13 years.
Harman Technology has collaborated with Hahnemühle to produce the first new black-and-white silver gelatine paper to bear the Ilford name in more than a dozen years.
The launch of Multigrade Art 300 at this year's Focus-on-Imaging show in Birmingham follows 18 months of research and development to create a product that answered the primary wishes of the more than 150 printers and photographers Harman surveyed, asking what they would want from a new paper.
The 300gsm textured paper has a matt finish, behaves like conventional Multigrade products, and is designed to meet the primary demand that came from the survey - to produce a product that has a cool base colour and a neutral-to-warm image tone.
"It has all the characteristics of a fine art, watercolour-type paper," says Steven Brierley, director of sales and marketing at Harman in an exclusive interview with BJP. "And we managed to get Hahnemühle to manufacture a version of it for us that has the wet strength to withstand darkroom use [to archival standards]." That was quite a challenge, says Brierley, given Hahnemühle's brief was to provide a clear, 100 percent cotton rag paper base that was acid free, but still able to survive the archival washing required when making fine-art prints.
The next challenge, he says, was to add an emulsion. "It was a pig to coat, because one of the things the paper has is an almost hydrophilic quality that resists the penetration of water. The first time we coated it, it just ran off. We were, ‘oh, right, that's unusual'. And so we then completely changed the make-up of the Multigrade emulsion so that it would adhere correctly to the paper, and once it adheres, it's perfect.
"So this is that fusion between silver gelatine images and the fine-art inkjet end, in that you can have the look of a fine-art inkjet paper, but with a silver gelatine image. And I think for labs, printers and photographers, it's a really nice addition to the range [of papers still out on the market], because we've seen ever-decreasing choice of finish of paper over the past 20 years, as the traditional materials have declined in terms of who's left making them.
"And while I can sit here and be proud and say that we still make all the products that we've always made, to the printers - like Robin Bell, who was the first to appeal to me to make this - that's no real help because it's the things he's lost that he's upset about."
Bell's call for help instigated the survey, which asked: "if we made another paper, what would you like?" "And what came back, inevitably, was 150 different answers," says Brierley. "But a thread came out of it that was very clear, and it was ‘make us a paper with a completely different surface, and if you're going to do it, make it a watercolour-type paper'. [They also said] ‘could it have some texture in the image, and we'd like it to have a slightly cooler base colour, and a warmer image colour in the emulsion'.
"And we said okay. It wouldn't have been a combination we'd have come up with, but that stood out as a common thread from the replies, and it was as good a brief as we were going to get."
The paper will also carry the Hahnemühle brand. "That's quite important," says Brierley, "because to people who are collecting images, we have a great reputation for creating silver gelatine products, and they have a great reputation for making fine-art inkjet. So the fusion of the two stands us in good stead.
"It reinforces our view that the fine-art market is here to stay. Our sales of fibre-based papers in the last three years have been absolutely flat, whereas we've seen some decline is resin-coated paper usage, because the industrial use of those products has largely gone. We've seen the stability in fibre-base, which is great, because it tells you that it's reached this plateaux position.
"So we think it's the right time - now it's stabilised - to produce a new paper. If you ask me how much we're going to sell, or if it's going to be a huge success, or I have no idea. It may even just cannibalise other papers we make."
Brierley says a digital version (that can be used by labs to output directly from digital files) is around three months away. "Much as the digital paper matters to us, it was important to get the hand-print version right. By volume, our sales of traditional papers are worth far more to us than the digital paper. But I think this will really change what's possible with digital papers, because it takes you firmly into the fine-art end in a way that a glossy unglazed paper can't."
The new paper will feature on both Harman and Silverprint's stands at Focus, before going on sale on 04 April. It will be available in sizes from 5×7 up to 20×24-inch packed in boxes of 10, 15, 30 or 50 sheets. Pricing has yet to be communicated.
Fine-art printer Mike Crawford has been testing the paper in advance of the launch, and will give his verdict in BJP's April issue.
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