Of the various components that make up of a fine art photographic book, the one that does not seem to be discussed as much is the quality of the printed page.
I think that there a number of reasons for that, including the assumption that if the book is being printed by offset presses, such as a Heidelberg, that the printing quality is the best possible. Another is the collectability of the photographers printed and bound work, as long as the printing quality is acceptable. Perhaps a third reason, is that in this post-modernist period, that the quality of the printed page is more irrelevant as compared to the content and meaning of the bound work.
If you are concerned about the quality of the printed page, lets discuss these assumptions, starting with the off set printing process. Off set printing for the fine photography book is the same offset printing for your newspaper, cereal box or the sales poster on the window of your local market. They all utilize a halftone screening process that transfers an image from a roller to a sheet of paper. It is not difficult to see the halftone pattern on the printed page, a simple 10x magnification loop will be all that you need.
This is the same halftone you may have at home or your office in your laser printer and is utilized for the Print on Demand (POD) books. The key to higher quality is the pre-production preparation of the printing plates. If it is not in the plate, it will not be on the page.
The assumption is that if a book was printed by an offset press that all of the current technologies available in the pre-production prep were utilized. From a recent sampling of books that I have been reviewing, offset printed books are not a guarantee that the printing will the finest possible. In fact, the print quality from Print on Demand publishers who use the HP Indigo 5500 is better than a number of recent offset books, such as the recent Photolucida books printed in Hong Kong. An excellent example of a high volume but beautiful quality printed softbound publication (I can not really call this a magazine) that exhibits some of the finest offset printing available, is LensWork. Nevertheless, because a book is offset printrf offshore in Hong Kong, Korea, China, or Malaysia does not mean that the book will have mediocre print quality.
Print quality does effect the look and the appearance of the work represented. A finer halftone screen will provide more details and contrast over a lesser halftone screen. It is difficult to make a good assessment of a books print quality when viewing a sample of the book on the Internet. Thus, from here on forward, if during my book reviews I determine that the book’s print quality is not up to muster, I will state it. Previously for my book reviews, unless a printed book was blatantly awful, I did not mention much about print quality. I have pointed out those book that I thought are finely printed, such as the Trolley Books printed in Italy. My concern is more about the content and to a lesser degree the book itself.
But the question still remains, if the book’s print quality is average or slightly detracts from the photographs, would you still purchase the book?
More than likely, the photographers images will not be re-published soon in another book and this may be the only option to see this particular body of work. A book is not meant to be the same as the photographers prints, although it is interesting on the really fine printing side, it is starting to get amazingly close. As a photographer who is interested in becoming published with a high quality book, it makes a lot of sense to obtain samples from your prospective publisher and then put your printing requirements in the contract.
Best regards, Douglas Stockdale