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September 1994

The mirror tells the tale with Mirror Image

by Kris McGovern

When the staff at Mirror Image Inc. asks who's the fairest of them all, the mirror can honestly reply, "You are."

the Cambridge, Mass., company breezed to victory in the Great PRESS Print-Off '94 at APEX-Minneapolis in June, capturing the Grand Prize, the People's Choice, first place in multicolor on dark and third place in multicolor on light.

So how does a printer achieve such standout status? By printing photographic reproductions of fine art onto T-shirts, making the tees wearable - but affordable - works of art themselves. Whether reproducing the surreal details of Sandy Skoglund's "Revenge of the Goldfish" or the fine hairs on the muzzle of a polar bear painted by Eddie Le Page, Mirror Image strives to remain true to the original artwork as is humanly - and computerly - possible.

"Basically, we attack the problem with cathode-ray guns blazing," says Colin Cheer, art director of a department that has three employees - and six Macintosh computers.

The employee/computer ratio reflects Mirror Image's emphases on developing its own techniques in an industry that is "pretty primitive at this time," says owner Rick Roth. "Sometimes it seems a miracle that you can print anything at all," let alone the finely detailed work demanded by Mirror Image's customers.

Foto Folio, one of Mirror Image's mainstays, publishes artwork by the likes of William Wegman, Richard Avedon and Frank Lloyd Wright on note cards, posters, tees - often in conjunction with museum shows. Shirts printed by Mirror Image graced four recent shows in New York City, including the Avedon show at the Whitney Museum of Art.

"It tends to be an upscale Market," Cheer says, "although the Avedon shirt is cool no matter what."

And everybady loves the Wegman dogs, adds Roth. "He's a populist artist who appeals to a broad spectrum - from the housewife dog-lover to the fine art snob."

In printing such art, however, Mirror Image has faced some "heavy problems because the level of detail is beyond what screenprinting can handle," says Roth. "We spend a lot of time on research and development, trying to perfect the printing process."

Reproduction of the Wegman dogs, for example would have been as muddy as pawprints a scant few years ago. "No one expected photographic reproductions to get that clarity," says Cheer, who will go to painstaking lengths for a quality reproduction.

"A separation has to be engineered, " he says. For one image, he did 12 color sparations and still didn't feel he had it right.

"Colin is one of the few people in the world who understands both T-shirt printing and doing separations on the computer," says Roth.

Computers have "completely revolutionized what we can do, what we can expect," says Cheer. "I'm excited about the way computers are affecting the ornery process of T-shirt printing."

For Cheer, the key is not only to know what you want to end up with - and what is possible given the properties of ink: how it flows through a screen, how it shears off and the like.

"An incredible level of physics can apply to ink movement," he says. Although he, like most of the staff at Mirror Image, has a fine arts background, Cheer also has a strong, traditional background as a printer and would urge any "digit head" to spend a year working on a press.

Well-established in the screenprinting network, Cheer is free with much of his information, "I have a reputation for being a big mouth," he says. "I want to tell everybody everything." But he realizes he has to "hold back a certain amount" simply because of the time Mirror Image has invested in R&D.

Still, says Cheer, "there's a lot of sharing going on." He subscribes to several electronic bulletin boards where he has learned much, especially from discussions of offset printing. An e-mail correspondence might lead to a phone conversation and more information trading hands.

Sometimes, however, "We get uninformed requests where people don't realize what they're asking," says Roth. "It's taken us a long time to figure out (a certain technique or device), and they want to be handed it. Sometimes it's hard to find colleagues who really do give and take."

Or who have made the same commitment to quality.

Untill Mirror Image bought its own automatic press in October, the company did only manual printing; the work requiring an automatic press was subcontracted out to Peter Schonn of Print It in Portland, Maine, which is a two-hour drive from Cambridge.

"We had to go that far to find someone who met our standards," says Roth.

He and Cheer worked very closely with Schonn, to the point of mixing the inks themselves, while the subcontracting gave them time to "test the waters."

"We decided we didn't want to be slaves to a machine we had to feed at all costs," says Roth. "We decided we would get the work first, then the machine," instead of the other way around.

Mirror Image now has more than enough work to justify the automatic. In addition to the fine art reproductions, the company also prints maps of harbors as well as nature prints.

Mirror Image also does merchandise fulfillment for Amnesty International, the human rights organization, handling everything from taking the orders to distributing the shirts.

"Our customers are doing well because we can do more and more amazing reproductions for them," Roth says. The customers have so much faith in Mirror Image's work they often drop-ship the shirts without inspecting them. And shirts are never sent back.

"It's just amazing that you can make money, stay in the black and still do R&D," says Cheer. That research and development is what makes screenprinting so exciting and such a challenge, to Cheer.

"In screenprinting there are no rules," he says. "You can do whatever you want."

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