What is an HPA Photograph?

SCDesignStudios/ January 11, 2016/ Film Photography/

“Hand-printed by Artist” or “HPA” is used in the art world to note a print as being just that: hand-printed by the artist. The term is used in artistic mediums that work with paper prints, such as photography, lithography and other ink printing art.

What is an HPA?

Workings No. 168 - HPA Shannon Graham - S&C Design Studios

Workings No. 168 – Black and White Photograph – HPA Shannon Graham

HPA is intended to indicate to collectors that the print was created by the artists own hands. This is an important distinction for artists who do produce prints themselves.

For instance, in the days when every photographer shot film, the term HPA was found on many prints. While many photographers had a darkroom, this was not always the case. Some allowed others to produce prints for them, using both large and small photo labs.

Photographers who do their own darkroom work use HPA to add value to their work. Collectors can assume that the piece was actually printed by the artist.

Is an HPA More Valuable?

The definition of value can be subjective and for this purpose, I use the word to refer to the artwork’s uniqueness or special qualities, rather than its monetary value.

There is a distinct value in any piece of art that an artist has created themselves. We value fine art oil paintings for their meticulous brush strokes. The same value can be attributed to paper mediums that deal with reproductions and limited editions.

As a printer who spends hours in the darkroom perfecting a single photograph, I do see the value of HPAs. The paper-handling skills, material preparation, fine-tuned manipulations, even the finishing touches that no one will ever notice are laborious for ink and photo printers alike.

Printing in the darkroom. Hypo and selenium tone to create hand-printed original photograph.

Workings No. 192 – in the hypo and selenium toner. Darkroom work.

The Path to Perfection

In the photography world, we worry about every aspect of a silver gelatin print’s creation: temperature control, chemical formulas, film and paper storage, process timing, etc. These are constantly on our minds and carefully controlled using years of experience.

To create a perfect print from all of the factors we work with makes the finished piece more valuable in terms of it being special.

Beyond that, every artist has a style or an idea of how they want their final prints to look. In the darkroom, we narrow down the exposure the dodge and burn to fine-tune tonalities before using chemical toners for a finishing touch. Each print is slightly different than every other.

The first prints – our test prints – vary greatly as we find the overall exposure. Once the base is found, we work out the details – a little darker here, a little lighter there – until the final prints are created. Some negatives are more challenging than others, but we strive for the absolute best print possible from every negative.

So, yes. I am a believer in the HPA label. All artists who take this amount of time and pay such close attention to details deserve this simple recognition of their work.

Hand Retouching Silver Gelatin Print with Photo Dyes - Black and White Film Photography -Workings No. 148

The prints are not finished until every little dust spot is removed by hand with brush and dyes.

HPA was Common Once

Before the last few decades, the HPA label was quite popular, particularly among photographers. It was a common way for darkroom shooters to distinguish their work from those who outsourced printing.

HPA also played its role in the art show market. Photography has long met challenges in ‘traditional’ art circles. Skeptics would say that photography is not an ‘art,’ yet many photographers have shown otherwise.

In our studio, we like to call it a scientific artform. We work with math, chemistry, the environment and light, measurements, degrees and calculations when working with traditional photography. Our artistic visions merge with science on a daily basis and this adds to its appeal from a creator’s standpoint (you have to be a bit of a geek to enjoy this work).

HPA in  a Digital World

Today, the number of photographers working in the darkroom is minimal. The digital age has flipped our medium on its head and we have seen it personally in our careers.

The world of ‘art’ photographers has proliferated  – a conversation for another time – and the printing options have exploded. Since the majority of photos today are not hand-printed, the HPA label is not seen as often as it once was.

Collectors of photography and prints can know that the HPA label means that you are looking at something special and unique, a piece of art that has a lot of effort behind it.

-Colleen Graham, S&C Design Studios