FEW things make a photographer's day as much as a beautifully hung exhibition of his or her work.
The big guns like Avedon and Leibovitz don't have to worry about the nitty-gritty of mat cutting and framing. In fact, it likely has been years since talented folks like these even have been in the darkroom. That, after all, is what darkroom assistants and museum staff are for: to make gorgeous prints of a master photographer's work, then hand it over to be expertly matted and framed by people who do this for a living.
So where does that leave the rest of us?
I tend to mat and frame my own exhibition work for two reasons. First, it's a heck of a lot cheaper that way. And second, I enjoy it. In fact, after I have finished a body of work and face a framing deadline for a show, I look forward to the chore since it affords me the chance to see my work at its best. Instead of a pile of prints in the darkroom, I am looking at a collection of handsome images, set off by crisply-cut mats and well-selected frames.
When it comes to framing, I tend to be conservative. I don't want the frame to distract a viewer from the photograph. Hence, my preference these days is for matte-black metal frames and off-white archival mat board for warm-toned black-and-white photographs. (In previous years, when the bulk of my personal work was in color, my framing regimen was much the same, only I tended to use silver frames to set off my 16-by-20 Cibachromes. Black frames, I think, would have taken away from the vibrancy of these lush prints.)
The operative word in this discussion is "archival." In general, this means that your photographs will be framed in an environment free of elements that can degrade the image over time. Usually this means acid-free materials, including mat board, mounting tape and backing board. In virtually all cases -- and certainly when you are framing images you are selling -- archival framing is more than a preference; it is a requirement. To do anything less, in my opinion, is a waste of time. I know. I found out the hard way.
Years ago, when I was framing my Cibachromes, I thought I could cut corners by using garden variety corrugated board as my final backing board, i.e., the piece that went behind my archivally matted print. I reasoned that my print already was in an acid-free sandwich created by the over-mat and under-mat, and that I really didn't need to have a piece of archival foam-cor behind it all.
What I didn't count on was the cardboard's inability to retain its shape in humid conditions. Though my prints themselves didn't suffer, the mats did. The over-mats -- the ones actually framing my print -- warped terribly over time and this past summer I had to have new mats cut, as well as buy the more rigid foam-cor backing board that I should have had in the first place.
A word about cutting mats: I don't. It's one of those things that I simply don't do because I am no good at it. Instead, I have my mats, backing board and frame parts cut professionally, then put them together myself, saving money that way. Here in Washington, places like Framer's Workroom on Wisconsin Avenue provide friendly, helpful staff, excellent service and a spacious environment in which to put together your framed pieces. I've used them for years every time I have needed to put together a show. I set up shop at one of their framing tables and put my show together over several days, one picture at a time.
Another way I save money is by using common window glass for my frames. Though Plexiglas is much lighter, it tends to scratch more easily. So-called glare-free glass -- using the polarization principle to block reflection -- also tends to make the framed image appear duller. Who needs that? (In fairness, newer versions of this glass eliminate much of this problem. You might want to check it out.)
Also, my preferred mat board is Exeter Conservation Board from Light Impressions of Rochester, N.Y. Though not 100 percent rag, like Light Impressions' more expensive Museum Board, Conservation Board meets archival standards and comes in a pleasant off-white that perfectly complements my work.
As I said, there's nothing like seeing your work framed and hung on a wall -- especially when you haven't gone broke to put it there.
For more information, call Light Impressions Inc. at 800/828-6216 or the Framer's Workroom at 202/363-1970.
Questions or comments? Write me c/o Weekend, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org