Interview with Jack Klebanow
Two years ago at the PDN Photo Expo, I was
looking for someone in the New York area
who specialized in high end photo mounting.
After thirty minutes of questions, answers,
and a few laughs we finally exchanged names.
“Jack Klebanow, nice to meet you. What’s
yours?” This was my introduction to L2
Fine Art Mounting & Framing.
The Finishing Touch
Sitting in front of a computer screen, scanning images on posting sites is like walking through a farmers market. There are beautiful examples of RAW ingredients, but the finished meal will reflect the chef. Printing and mounting pictures can make or break an image. For many photographers, myself included, it means trusting other people to complete your body of work. The range of expertise required to frame and mount images is extensive. It is a delicate process, filled with options, and one I prefer to hand off to others. Building a successful, long term relationship with a framer was something I neglected for many years. Lacking the technical knowledge of how I wanted to present images became an impediment, but with a little guidance from Jack Klebanow, the options are no longer a mystery.
Jack was nice enough to invite me out to his production facility in Queens. He arranged a tour of the frame shop, mounting room, and image preparation studio. The entire operation was much larger than I had expected. As an example, the wood shop was bigger than some cabinet shops I know from my construction days. Each room was neatly laid out with separate working stations. It was reassuring to know when my prints go in for finishing they are given dedicated space. This is a warm fuzzy feeling that lets you sleep easily when your prints are being mounted.
When it comes to mounting professionals have no choice. They need to do something. Images presented in galleries will be packed, crated, and shipped all over the world. Putting a photo in a cardboard tube is as safe as gambling on race horses. Sure Robert Capa was famous for winning thousands of dollars and showering gifts on Magnum employees and photographers when he won. He was even more notorious for spending every last penny he had and most of Magnum’s collective funds. Who knows what will happen when that tube is opened. Framing and/or mounting an image gives it a fighting chance in transport. Even with the safest handlers, the trend of showing photographs without frames, glass, or protection means that sometimes things go wrong.
But for amateurs, who might enter a few contests, show at local galleries, or have their work displayed in their neighborhood cafes, mounting is not an everyday practice. It can take time to understand how you would like your images to be presented. These opportunities to display work can be very exciting, but how will the feeling of a picture change depending on how its finished? Once all of the pixel peeping and Photoshop adjustments are complete, every image will need to be printed and mounted.
Here is one thing to know about framers that comes as a surprise to most new comers. Framers and mounters explicitly state that they are not responsible for damaged prints. They are not responsible if someone damages it in transit, if they damage it in house, or someone damages it delivering the finished product. They have photographic immunity. When I first heard this my reaction was, “This is the Mother of all copouts!” After talking to Jack, I learned that the “no responsibility” is a half truth.
In reality, most framers have close relationships with photo labs. This is definitely the case in New York. If your image gets damaged in transit, most good labs will get you another print at no additional cost. So their clause really means that if it gets damaged, your lab is the one who will normally pick up the tab. But if the mounter drops your print or damages it, technically they are not responsible either. The logic behind this is simple. If they damage one print for you and the lab will not send the mounter another image, they loose your business for good. The mounter is hedging their bets.
Last year, while proofing a medium sized color print (30″x30″), the second run of the image was destroyed in transit. A corner of the box was crushed. It look like a garbage truck ran over it. And if you have ever seen UPS load boxes, it is easy to believe how it was damaged. Anyway, the C-Lab (the lab I use in NYC) had me review the print for color anyway. The color was good and a new print arrived in two days. The lesson learned was good labs make a difference.
When it comes time to mounting your image there are some of the basic choices. I would like to focus on the more contemporary mounts because they are more confusing. We will go from least expensive to most expensive.
Properties & Uses: Entry Level, Mock Ups, & Temporary Presentation
Gator board is a layer of polystyrene foam sandwiched between two layers of melamine. In english, that means its a layer of semi rigid foam sandwiched between two layers of thin plastic. It is a bit firmer than Foamcore, which is readily available at arts and crafts stores.
Smaller pictures mount well on gator board. Simply put, “It Works,” but I would not use it for exhibition work. In is more for temporary installation which is why it makes appearances at photo trade shows. If you have a bunch of images to make, and want to make some test prints to layout at home in the installation space, gator board is a great way to stiffen up a print, allowing it to be handled without bending.
The profile of Gator board is black. You might think that black is a neutral color, but I find the black edge has a very distinct look. This does not mean using a black substrate is a bad idea, it’s not. But the black line will jump out against a white wall, so it is something to consider.
Properties & Uses: Low Cost/High Quality, Fine Art, & Floater Frames
Plexi glass is a low cost/high quality solution to mounting an image, with some distinct advantages over the higher end options. There are two factors that drive up the cost of mounting; the cost of cutting and finishing the substrate and the smoothness of the substrate. Plexi glass can be cut easily on a table saw and does not require a special set up like aluminum. The face of a sheet of plexi is relatively smooth. In the right light there is a small amount of texture, which could be an issue on a glossy print. The difference between the plexi and a smoother substrate like aluminum is like the difference between smooth leather and patent leather. The look of plexi is a matter of taste. In the past I have used it for color Lamba prints and did not mind the slight texture.
Plexi glass comes in thickness from 1/8″ to a few inches thick. You can mount anything on plexi. It works for color, black and white, Lambda, fiber prints, or fabric images. But, plexi is a non-breathable surface. For anyone using hand pressed papers, plexi might not be your first choice. The thickness of hand made papers means the surface will breath at a different rate than the back of the image, which will be permanently affixed to the plexi. Certain papers should be allowed to float and breath evenly on both sides.
There are hundreds of colors to choose from with plexi glass. The most popular choices are white, black, and clear. Jack explained his mounting philosophy back in his office. He said “(As Framers/mounters) We are not looking to be decorative. If we do a good job, you should not notice our work.” For this reason, he finds most people choose clear plexi glass, because the side profile of clear plexi is dark gray. It doesn’t call attention to itself like white or black. Being moderate color, the picture remains the center of attention.
Properties: High End, Fine Art, & Floater Frames
Dibond (pronounced Dee-bond, not Die-bond) is another sandwich construction like gatorboard, except the materials are much nicer. Dibond is made by laminating a plastic core with two thin sheets of aluminum. The finished construction is very smooth and rigid.
If it is important for the substrate to be totally smooth than you will want to use Dibond or aluminum sheets. The tiny texture on plexi is not present on Dibond. It can be used inside traditional frames or as a floater frame.
Dibond confuses me. While I love the smooth surface treatment, the sandwich construction is visible. It looks like a line of silver with the black filling and another line of silver. It has a very machined or industrial look that has a big aesthetic impact. If you were mounting pictures of Formula 1 race cars Dibond would make sense, but a portrait accented by metallic lines feels strange. Again, like any mounted detail it is a matter of taste. You might discovered Dibond and think “That guy had no idea what he was talking about, I love this stuff.” Trust your own judgement and don’t make choices because someone else said they liked or disliked a product. Even the Buddha said,
“Do not trust my words, the words you find
in a book, or those of any teacher.
Go out and experience for
Properties: High End, Fine Art, especially for prints over four feet
The aluminum used for mounting is the same aluminum that is used on airplanes and cameras. Well, almost the same. Aluminum comes in a number of different formulas, like #6061, a favorite for fabricator due to its strength and machinability. But without going into a chemical analysis of aluminum, the main idea is you are mounting on metal. It can be ordered in any thickness, but will become very expensive if you start ordering in pieces thicker than 1/2″. Aside from being the strongest stand alone material, it can be polished to a near mirror finish. If your prints require a perfectly shiny, smooth surface aluminum will be your substrate of choice. The effect is stunning and so is the price, look out!
With the hefty price tag of aluminum mounting, you would imagine to only see it in museums, but much to my surprise I see it in smaller galleries in New York City all the time. From emerging artists to later career photo demi-gods, I see aluminum mounted prints from 8 inches by 10 inches to 8 feet by 10 feet. The larger prints, regardless of their artistic merit are impressive and its great to know artists and mounters are pushing the technological edges of the photo industry.
The edges of aluminum are gray. They can be brushed, polished, or even anodized (aka colored). Most people sand the edges to a matte finish. Within the choices of black, gray, white, or colored edges, I personally prefer shades of gray. They have a tendency to sit in the background and let the image do the talking.
Frame or Frameless
In the world of framing, the single greatest innovation of the last twenty-ish years has been eliminating the frame and the museum matt. In traditional painting, which influenced photography, pictures were small and framed with white Museum Matts. The distinction between the multi color matts found in hotel lobbies and museum matt is that a Museum matt is an archival 8 ply paper construction. For traditional framing the 8 ply thickness of a Museum matt looks more substantial than a 4 ply matt.
Photographers realized in the late 1980′s that frames are part of the final piece. Many decided to get rid of the frame all together. A simple solution was to just pin raw prints directly to the wall. It is a popular strategy in art school and in emerging artists shows, usually. I say usually because last summer I went to a Jack Pierson opening in Chelsea and he had these huge prints that had been folded like a newspaper. They were pinned right to the wall and commenting on the temporality of the image. Art, for all of its graces and pitfalls, can promise one thing; no stone is left unturned. Artist will toy with the ideas about art all the way down to the thumb tack on the wall.
If you feel like frames are dated and would like to give your pictures a more contemporary look there are two main types of mounting.
When you ask to have a picture face mounted it means that you can select a substrate, like the ones listed above and then they will mount a piece of clear plexi glass directly on top of the image. This is a wonderful, but absolutely irreversible process. The surface piece of plexi is cold bonded right to the image and the edges are sanded flush with the substrate. The finish product is like a photo-panini, thin, compact, and delicious (ok maybe visually delicious).
Why do they use plexi instead of glass? Plexi glass has no iron in it which actually turns glass greenish. Low iron glass also referred to as starfire glass is really expensive and I am told plexi is clearer, though I think it is more of a cost and safety issue. Plexi will not shatter and the cost of cutting glass, then tempering and mounting would be a mess.
The plus side of using plexi on the face of an image is the image is protected and not exposed. It is an excellent halfbreed solution between traditional framing and contemporary mounting.
In order for plexi glass to be clear, it will have a slight shine. Depending on where the work will be exhibited the glare on the face may be an issue. Glare is rarely a deal breaker for most people. Between the evils of glare or the possibility of damage, most opt for glare. Lighting can always be adjusted on an image, but a complete raw image is like looking at the precursor to a curator’s heart attack.
When frameless solutions started gaining popularity, one nagging problem kept showing its face. Without a frame any time the picture was set on its edge, it ran the risk of chipping. I am sure there are hundreds of hours devoted every year to fighting, tears, and lawsuits over damaged photo edges. As an alternative, some artists have gone back to the frame, but ditched the matts and basically mounted a frameless image inside of a wooded frame. Visually, it is an elegant solution. The photographs are usually mounted with a small space around the entire image, leaving a void between the frame and the image. This hollow cavity really emphasizes the material properties of a print. The back side of the image is supported by either metal or wooded bars, which are not visible when the piece is hung on the wall. The bars will keep any images larger than 8″x10″ from warping.
Completely raw images can be mounted without face mounting plexi glass. There is no glare, only image. The frames can be made in any material or finish to match the work. The images is protected on all sides, except the face of course. They will not resist vandalism by axe (See Diego Velasquez’s Rokeby Venus in London) or acid bath ( See Rembrant’s Nightwatch in Amsterdam). Short of major acts of vandalism floater frames are probably the furthest elevation of mounting in the last twenty years. They protect the image, display it in a raw form, and make installation/shipping a non-heart attack inducing task.
Get your wallet out. From a technical stand point, there are barely any disadvantages to a floater frame. They provide the most protection and with the least amount of compromise to the image, but…the big but here is it is not cheap. If you are mounting your first image, it might not be worth it to invest a few hundred dollars on the initial print. The entire process can be overwhelming. Floater frames are expensive, but you get what you pay for. Ultimately, if its worth investing in top quality cameras and lenses, it only makes sense to be consistent. All too often a great image putters to a halt because it the framing and mounting are mediocre. If you really want to make a statement with an image, Floater Frames are worth the investment.
Jack’s Klebanow on Today’s Trends
Jack mounts for some on the worlds top artists and photographers. don’t let this fact be intimidating. He is a down to earth guy who takes every project seriously, whether you are mounting a single image for the first time, or preparing for a show at the Museum of Modern Art, Jack has seen and handled it all.
I asked him what are the mistakes most people make with framing and mounting and he gave me these fun facts.
- Do your homework. If you are not sure what you want, ask? There are no stupid questions and if you saw something you liked send him a link or a photo. If its in New York chances are he may have mounted it. And if not, he can advise you on how to achieve almost any effect.
- If you are working in series print and mount everything at once. It is easier for printers and mounters to produce consistent results from the same body of work if they can work on all the images at once.
- Remember to let the picture steal the show. Going overboard with creative framing might take away from the image. Simple is often better, unless you are painter Ashley Bickerton (see image)
- If you are looking to shake the look of traditional photographs, print big and ditch museum matting.
If you have never mounted your work before, I would highly recommend mounting at least one image a year. This yearly exercise of mounting your best image, whether its a gift, a contest winner, or a piece for your Living Room will change the way you think about images. A finished print will broaden the meaning of an image and allow it to realize its full potential.
L2 Laminall is located in New York City and can be reached on their website below.
Phone: 718-947-3400, or
By appointment at:
547 West 27th Street, in the Aperture Gallery.