A comment was just posted over on my Art Concepts in Photography, Part 1: Texture article, but after I had composed my reply, I realized that it would be better suited to an entire post. Here is the comment:
Though my question has little to do with your most recent article, I find that the expertise you’ve shared since I began following your site to be compelling and hope that you can provide me an answer that will serve my needs. I have seen many digital photos over the years, some pretty dismal and some pretty spectacular. My question was born out of seeing, for the first time, an exhibition comprised of 150 works by Ansel Adams, which were nearly all “Silver Gelatin” prints. My question is (setting aside for the moment the composition, line, form and majestic beauty of many of the locations) can any digital print be made in such a way that a knowledgeable observer would not be able to distinguish it from a print made using the silver gelatin method?
In the interest of full disclosure, I should probably mention that the comment was posted by my father, who, having a degree in fine art and a gallery of his own, takes a vested interest in some of the topics I discuss. That said, I thought it was a very relevant question and one that many of you might have thought about, too, so here's what I think.
First, it would depend on how knowledgeable the viewer was and how close they could get to their subject. Second, there are many technologies available, so the short answer is “probably,” but the long answer is more interesting.
So-called “lightjet,” which combines a digital (laser-based) exposure of photographic paper with traditional (chemical) development methods, produces very fine results, especially of full-color images. Upon very close inspection, however, it would be clear that there are many colorful dots making up the print. Still, these prints have fantastic longevity, are often quite lustrous, and are available for a lot less money, comparatively, than other methods. An added benefit is the ability to print on any brand and type of photographic paper available to photographers, from Kodak Endura to Fuji Crystal Archive. There is a certain je ne sais quoi surrounding real photographic papers that may be the strongest argument for lightjet.
Inkjet prints boast a longevity nearly comparable to traditional development and are capable of a much broader range of color than lightjet. The highest-end inkjet printers now deliver between seven and twelve physical inks in picoliter droplets that mix on the paper to create a continuous tone image. The ink droplets are dispensed by a piezoelectric system and can be either dye-based or pigment-based, each having their own archival and color properties. Inkjet printers, however, are much more expensive to run than ordering your prints from a third-party photofinisher (who probably uses lightjet), and if you need the highest quality available, you will have to buy, configure, and operate the setup yourself, which is no small task!
Giclee (zhee-clay or gee-clay) has also held its own against the influx of lower-cost inkjet solutions, boasting the ability to print on materials such as canvas and at resolutions beyond what inkjet or lightjet typically can achieve. Giclee (sometimes called Iris printing because one of the original models was called Iris) is essentially a CMYK inkjet system, meaning that only cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inks are used, though I have heard of giclee printers that use six inks. The ink is fired from glass nozzles at one million droplets per second and each drop is electrically charged so it can be directed toward or away from the paper by electromagnetism. The paper itself is affixed to a drum that spins at about 180 inches per second. Giclee is probably one of the most mechanically impressive printing methods around.
Artists have chosen giclee for years because of its faithful color reproduction and ability to print on “artistic” substrates such as canvas. A single giclee print, however, can cost $50, $100, or $200 to produce, not including the calibration and other services required to achieve the results you need. Giclee is more favored by painters than photographers.
Four-color offset lithography, which is how all print publications are produced nowadays, is actually capable of near-giclee quality, however American print shops tend to be too traditionalist to adopt the color management methods necessary to produce fine art prints to an exacting standard. Bill Atkinson, a man absolutely fanatical about color accuracy, collaborated with a Japanese print shop to implement color management methodologies for their four-color presses. In return, they printed his book of rock photographs. That book may be the only example of accurate color reproduction through offset lithography on any American bookshelf. The difference between the capabilities of high-end offset lithography and giclee is entirely due to the willingness of the technical staff involved to use modern digital color management methods.
At the end of the day, can any of these digital solutions deliver a result as austere and striking as a pure black and white gelatin silver print? Probably not, but they can come very close. I am convinced that Ansel Adams himself would be a dedicated and outspoken advocate of digital photography and all of its methods were he still alive today.