For years, my favorite bread at Trader Joe’s was what they called the “Tuscan Pane.” It was a hearty bread, without being too dense — think of a cross between a good sourdough and a ciabatta. It had great flavor and texture, was perfect for sandwiches and toast (French or otherwise) and only used four or five ingredients. I was making my weekly bread run and I noticed something different about the look of my beloved Pane. I asked the manager about it and he told me that it was the same thing, and that perhaps it just came from a different bakery. I know my Tuscan Pane and despite having the same name, this wasn’t it. It didn’t look or feel the same and the ingredients listed on the back went from four or five to about a dozen. I mentioned this and again I was assured that it was the same, so I reluctantly bought a loaf and went on my way. Here’s the thing, the new bread wasn’t the same thing as the old bread. To be clear, the new bread wasn’t a bad bread, it just wasn’t the bread I wanted, loved or expected, regardless of being called the same thing. And that was the rub, the fact that they tried to pass off this other bread as my bread. If they had called it something else, that would be a different story, but they didn’t. Not cool, TJ’s.
I’ve been a fan of Red River Paper since 2009, when they were kind enough to sponsor some of the early Faded & Blurred photo walks. I became particularly partial to the Polar Matte, which has a great weight to it, does beautiful black and whites and if you love a matte finish is just an all around terrific paper. In 2012, Red River released a new paper called San Gabriel SemiGloss Fiber, which promised “the look of traditional fiber prints from the heyday of chemical darkrooms” (press release here). I used to love using fiber paper in my darkroom days — mostly Oriental Seagull and Ilford Multigrade — so the notion that I could get a similar look and feel from inkjet prints was very intriguing. I think I loved San Gabriel SemiGloss Fiber straight away. Much like the Polar Matte, it had a great feel — handling it felt like darkroom fiber paper. It also had a subtle texture and the print surface was just a tad on the warm side. Colors looked terrific but printing black and white is where — at least for me — this paper really hit its stride.
A couple months or so ago, Red River announced a new “2.0” version of San Gabriel SemiGloss Fiber, partially renamed to San Gabriel Baryta SemiGloss. Hmmm. For those of you who may be wondering what Baryta means, it’s basically a marketing term for the barium sulfate, barium oxide or barium hydroxide coating which allow for greater detail and expanded (potential) tonal range. Both the old and the “new” version shared the same barium sulfate variant, as well as the 100% alpha-cellulose base stock. On paper (no pun), they appeared to be the same thing, so I ordered a sample pack to be sure. When it arrived, the first thing I noticed was the feel of the paper compared to the 1.0 version. The new paper felt more like resin coated (RC) paper and less like fiber. Also, the surface texture was slightly different and the overall white tone of the paper lacked the “ever so slightly warm” quality that I loved about the previous version. Still, the proof is in the pudding — or printing — so I printed a few black and white and color photos on both versions, using the ICC profiles available on the Red River site. As I mentioned, the new paper is not as warm, but it’s also what I would call “cool.” It’s probably neutral, especially when looking at it on its own. Color and detail look great, as do blacks and deep shadows. White there’s nothing “wrong” with the new version, my initial reaction was that I preferred the look and feel of version 1.0. I called up the president of Red River, Drew Hendrix, and left a voice mail asking if he’d be willing to have a conversation about the new paper.
Drew was kind enough to call me back, and I asked him about some of the changes that led to the new 2.0 version. He said that for months they had experienced a growing number of quality-control issues with the mill that was making the 1.0 version. Unfortunately, the mill making the 1.0 version was the only source for that exact paper, so they were faced with a decision to either discontinue the line completely, or make what they determined to be negligible changes to the paper. The 2.0 version really came as a direct response to Red River wanting to be able to consistently deliver a high quality product. I asked Drew whether there was any internal discussion around renaming the new paper to something else, since for some customers (myself included) the changes were enough to qualify the 2.0 version as an entirely new paper. He said there were several discussions and he realized that for some, the changes would be more dramatic, perhaps even enough for customers to look elsewhere, overall the new version still embodied the spirit of the original — to provide the look and feel of a traditional darkroom paper.
I’ve got to say that I’m a little torn over San Gabriel Baryta SemiGloss. It’s a nice paper, really nice actually, but I’m having a hard time liking it as much as the previous iteration. Maybe I miss the slightly warm quality or perhaps it’s just me longing for the feel of a “paper of the past” that reminds me more of printing in a darkroom. I will say my prints look spectacular on the new paper. Blacks are rich and the tonal range is terrific. Do they look as good or even better than the old paper? Well, I guess that depends on you. I think if I had never seen or used the original version, or if they had called it something other than San Gabriel SemiGloss — with or without the addition of Baryta — none of these issues would be issues at all. But, just like the Tuscan Pane, I loved the original. That said, the more I print on the 2.0 version, the more I like it. In fact, it’s what I’m currently using for prints in my store. The bottom line is that it’s a terrific paper, not necessarily better or worse than the 1.0 version — just different. Moreover, the reason to move to a 2.0 version at all was to maintain a quality product for the customer, which I have to respect. Just so I’m not looking at stacks of print samples in a vacuum, I’ve done some informal focus testing among friends, printing the same images on both papers asking which one looks “better” (whatever that means) and surprisingly, the results have been split nearly 50/50. So I guess beauty — as well as what makes a “good” paper — really is in the eye of the beholder.
I’d like to thank Drew for sending me some paper samples in order to put this review together and I encourage you to head over to Red River Paper to pick up a box of San Gabriel Baryta SemiGloss for yourself. If you’re unsure of which paper may be right for you, they also have sample packs available, which include not only the Polar Matte (still one of my favorite papers), but also Polar Pearl Metallic and Aurora Fine Art, both of which are fantastic papers.