For those uninitiated in the alchemical mysteries of 21st-century printing, it’s easy to imagine that the breathtaking sunset photo we’re admiring is simply a Xerox-like reproduction of a raw snapshot of nature, transmitted directly through the camera to the gallery wall. In actuality, the greater whole that moves us with its beauty is the sum of many skilled collaborative parts.
Photographer Ansel Adams, working decades before the advent of Photoshop, painstakingly modified his prints by hand in the darkroom using techniques of “dodge and burn” to adjust light and darkness. In Adams’ oft-quoted explanation, “Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships.”
Today’s artists are fortunate to live in a time when they can bring their raw image — and their most exalted vision for its ultimate potential — to Jack Leustig at Fine Art New Mexico.
“What we can do now with technology, Ansel Adams had to do by hand in the darkroom – and every print of that photograph had to be individually dodged and burned. We can do that work once, and it will appear in every print,” Leustig said. “But what hasn’t changed and won’t change is that the technology itself is not the art form. The printer isn’t what does it. Anyone can buy a printer, even a great printer. The work is in preparing the file.”
Leustig is one of the few people in the world who has been mastering this work since its inception. He was an original collaborator with Graham Nash in the development of what was then called “digigraph” printing and is now commonly known as giclée. (Nash, revered by a generation of boomers for his musical legacy, has a fine arts résumé as extensive as his musical one.)
At Fine Art New Mexico, Leustig works 11-hour days. The high-ceilinged space functions as a working studio, as well as a shop and gallery displaying more treasures than many museums. Artist Liz Mercuri is studio manager and production manager. “She is indispensable,” Leustig said. “And we have her work, her wonderful cards here, and people love them.”
Fine Art New Mexico is the only giclée printer affiliated with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “We are the oldest and most experienced with this, so people who are looking for it come and find us. A giclée printer is an artist — or not. If the printer is an artist, it’s not going to be cold, not going to be dry. They’re going to capture the essence of what the original art is. There’s a reason I have New York and Los Angeles artists and LACMA. There is a nuanced difference that artists can see.”
The roster of artists who have responded to the 'nuanced difference' is a who’s who of respected names in the arts.
Photographer Geraint Smith was introduced to Leustig soon after Fine Art opened in Arroyo Seco. “Jack showed me the potential of fine art digital printing and how to move my photography to the new realm. He helped me create my first portfolio of fine art digital prints, followed by a large number of fine art canvas prints for a show in Taos in 2005,” Smith said. “At that time, I believe, Lenny Foster and I were two of the first photographers in town to work with Jack. His expertise in fine art printing is recognized locally, nationally and internationally. I would like to acknowledge Jack’s work, friendship and, over the years, his gift to me and all other artists in the community who have worked with him. I am honored that Jack Leustig and Fine Art New Mexico are reproducing a very large portfolio of my work spanning the past 40 years.”
Despite Foster’s recent cross-country relocation, his association with Leustig continues uninterrupted. “Even though I have moved, I still prefer to have Jack and Liz to work up and print images for me,” he told Tempo. “Jack is a good friend and a master printer. Sure, I imagine, see, create and market the images, but it is because of the wonderful 13-year collaboration with Fine Art New Mexico that I can present exceptional, high-quality work.”
Foster spoke fondly of the creative communion he has found with Leustig. “On occasion, someone will say, ‘Why don’t you print your own work?’ I say, ‘Shut up.’ ... Besides not wanting to do it all, invest 30 years in becoming a master and spend thousands of dollars on equipment, I enjoy the collaboration and helping to support another business in town. Because we both thrive, so what could be better than that?”
Photographer Paul O’Connor, who immortalized a cast of local characters in his iconic book, “Taos Portraits,” echoed the appreciation and enjoyment of co-creating. “I’ve been working with Jack Leustig since I made the switch from splashing around in the chemicals in the darkroom to sitting down next to him at the computer. It didn’t take long before my creative process adapted to working with his eye and expertise. I was never able to learn Photoshop, and that turns out to be a good thing because I enjoy the collaborative process I have with Jack. Getting his feedback and expertise brings my images to a higher level. He brings out the best in my work.”
This weekend, another longtime Leustig co-creator — the late Kenneth Price — will be honored with an exhibit at the Bareiss Gallery, 15 State Road 150, north of El Prado. (An in-depth look at Price’s “surreal vision of the moment” was featured in the May 25 Tempo.) Twenty newly released Price drawings will be offered, with an opening reception this Friday (June 16) from 5-7:30 p.m. The Bareiss Gallery will be open for view and purchase of the Price prints on Saturday and Sunday (June 17-18) from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. After that, the prints will be available exclusively through Fine Art New Mexico at its Arroyo Seco studio or online at FineArtNewMexico.com.
For Leustig, a childhood math prodigy, there is no contradiction in the symbiosis of technology and creativity. “Art has an emotional quality. When you add in the technology, you can either strip that away or use the technology to really bare and reveal and enhance the emotional content. Mathematics and elegance — these are two words that are joined. In the composition of a photo, an album, a song, you can almost see the equation behind it. And that, to me, is elegance.”