By Steph Jorgl
Charles James and Joe Berndt launched a digital photography lab called BowHaus in 1992 when they saw the impact that digital scanning, retouching and compositing was going to have on the photo industry. "We envisioned a 'digital photo lab' without chemicals and entirely digital," explains James. "We started the company with a few Macintosh FX computers and Wacom tablets."
They soon succeeded in developing their own new ultra-refined and highly courted way of printing images using a digital scanning and printing technology called "True Black and White." This technique is achieved by a combination of high resolution scanning and printing images using the "InkJet Control" and "OpenPrintMaker" software developed by BowHaus. Over the past four years, this process has revolutionized the way that professional photographers are printing and showing their work.
What Is "True Black and White?"
"Our "True Black and White" approach is the result of years of development that we did using our digital scanners and film recorders," says James. "The method of isolating each color or tone, in the case of black and white, and controlling it separately goes all the way back to dye-transfer printing which used three separation negatives, three full size film matrices and three color dyes to produce a print."
A "True Black and White" digital print is sharper from edge to edge. In a traditional Silver Print (TSP), you can't get absolute sharpness at the extreme edges, the enlarger's lens just isn't as sharp on the perimeter as it is in the center. With a "True Black and White", there is no lens limitation or distortion. With the development of new papers used for printing, a "True Black and White" print can have a deeper d-max (a blacker black) than a silver print. The deep blacks are deeper and richer than a TSP, giving the print more dimension and richness.
How It All Began
Charles James attended a vocational art high school in NYC, The High School of Art and Design. He then went on to college at The Cooper Union School of Art and Architecture in New York, and focused his studies on black and white photojournalism and "street photography" where he learned to print in a darkroom and process film by hand. "A friend from college was working at a 'dye-transfer' print shop in NYC, and got me a summer job there," reflects James. "It was a hand-crafted process from which I learned a great deal about color printing in general." Dye transfer printing was the highest-end type of printing for commercial reproduction at the time.
"While doing dye-transfers, I learned to hand mix 'black-dyes' to create dark and moody prints with a black and white feel," says James. "The special monochrome and reduced gamut ink sets used today are similar to this process." This experience would prove an essential step in the future of digital black and white printing and the evolution of printing to the "True Black and White" process James later pioneered with his partner Joe Berndt.
After college, James moved to Los Angeles and continued to work in the Dye Transfer Process for a few years before moving on to making photo composites. He found a niche there, specializing in "soft-edge photo composites" for the movie poster industry. "It was the only way to create realistic photo composites before Photoshop," explains James.
While working at a photo lab, James met and mentored a self-taught technical and creative wizard named Joe Berndt in the art of photo compositing. Berndt and James worked together for a few years before Berndt moved on to work at a prepress print shop where he learned about four-color offset printing.
Berndt and James Launch BowHaus
They stayed in touch and decided to leave their respective jobs and start BowHaus together in 1992. James assumed the role of CEO, while Berndt became the Master Printmaker and the mastermind who programmed BowHaus' InkJet Control and OpenPrintMaker software.
As a Digital Photo Lab, BowHaus does much more than printmaking. "We also scan film originals and plan to increase services and products that integrate well in a web-based world," says James. "In addition to fine art printmaking, we also print high-end retail graphics that are displayed in stores like James Perse and Erica Courtney. We also recently produced large, black-and-white nudes for Marc Jacobs for NY's Fashion Week. Our current clients are photographers, graphic designers and book publishers."
The Quest For "True Black and White"
Around 2001 - 2002, Epson came out with a range of printers that were very high-resolution 1440 DPI and better able to handle an archival type of pigment ink. This was a groundbreaking achievement for the work that Berndt and James were trying to do.
"But since these machines were built for six-color printing, the software to drive them was a "black box,"" says Berndt. "What you sent into it got mysteriously changed prior to being printed. You could not control how your file was sent to what ink, and printmakers struggled to get what they wanted through this black box."
"We had been doing BW prints prior to that on our IRIS printer using what was at the time the best archival inks available," explains Berndt. "The results were quite good, but not good enough. We were held back by hardware and software limitations." So Berndt embarked upon a custom driver project in 2002.
InkJet Control and OpenPrintMaker
What resulted was Berndt's development of the InkJet Control and OpenPrintMaker software for BowHaus. The software allows printmakers to choose their ink, paper and printer and then create a formula for use that creates prints that fulfill their vision. There are different levels of printing that can be produced using the software.
"At the basic level, it is quite easy, you can load a file, load a profile and then print," says Berndt. "But to completely utilize the potential you need to be advanced user." Expert-level skills will attain the image quality that is now sought out by professional photographers far and wide.
Although BowHaus developed its custom drivers for its own business and clients, the company also markets and sells a version of its InkJet Control and OpenPrintMaker software to the public via its web site. "Most of our software sales are from word of mouth and from photographers forums," says Berndt. "The software is very powerful." The InkJet Control and OpenPrintMaker software and drivers are available for both Mac and PC.
Prints Built To Last
BowHaus prints don't just look good, they last longer than other black and white prints. "Most ink manufacturers report that gray/black inks will last twice as long as their color inks," says James. "Canon and Epson estimates their current generation of color pigment inks to last one hundred years when printed on archival papers and about two hundred years before noticeable fading begins when printed with gray/black pigment inks."
"True Black and White" prints last longer than color prints because the BowHaus process uses gray/black inks that are known to be more lightfast than color inks. Standard and even "advanced" black and white print drivers allow small amounts of color to be used when printing a black and white image.
But with the BowHaus' proprietary software, a printmaker can completely eliminate or restrict color inks. A "True Black and White" print also appears more unique because a printmaker can handcraft it digitally using the InkJet Control and OpenPrintMaker software combined with their own "signature" formula, blending tone, ink and paper.
In early 2006, paper manufacturers began releasing papers with a matte/glossy finish that met this challenge successfully when used with gray/black inks and BowHaus' business took off even further. "We began using this generation of papers and were able to make Master and Exhibition prints that photographers and gallery experts chose over traditional silver gelatin prints," explains James.
Since then, photographic legends have flocked to BowHaus when preparing and printing black-and-white images for their gallery shows.
The Art World and Beyond
The biggest challenge for BowHaus continues to be its quest to break out of the "photo lab" mold and expand further into software development and Internet marketing.
However after 15 years in business and having printed collections for Nick Brandt, Mark Laita, Herman Leonard, Melvin Sokolski and others for gallery shows across Los Angeles, BowHaus "True Black and White" prints are now being viewed on a wider scale than ever.
It may no longer be clear to the viewer whether they are viewing a high-end digital print or traditional silver print, but there is no doubt that the depth and richness of a BowHaus print will stand noticeably on its own above the rest.
Where To Get BowHaus Software
Online sales of the software have been successful, yet James and Berndt consistently keep their eyes toward the future. "We are currently working on a new version of our software that will support Canon printers," says James. "We are also looking towards a complete rewrite of the software to serve a larger market of users." The current version of BowHaus' InkJet Control and OpenPrintMaker software is available at