I don't hold a lot of agreement with assertions about what photographers are obligated to do, as I've written in columns like "Channeling David Vestal" and "The Photo-Fetishist League." I think one of the more destructive mindsets in the arts accompanies a pronouncement to the effect that you are not a Proper Artist (or Practitioner, if you eschew the term "artist") unless you do such-and-such. We've all been fed them. Real Serious Photographers don't work in color. Or if they do, they only work in slide film. Or if they do that as well, they only work in large format. Or, absent that, at least they work in film, because we all know that it's not real and personal photography when you drag that durn, soulless computer stuff into it. Or, if they are so far gone and lost from The True Path (TTP [tm]) that they're committing digital photography, at least they work solely in RAW and never JPEG. Yup, we gotta maintain standards.
The reason why this is all nonsense is very simple: Every approach you take to photography will have its strengths and weaknesses, both artistically and technically. What's bad is when there's a mismatch between what you want to do and the advantages and disadvantages of how you're going about it. I rail against absolutism because it encourages that sort of mismatch by demanding TTP.
These pronouncements have been appearing my entire life. I don't expect them to stop. It's a game of whack a mole; when it pops up, you whack it. Sometimes the moles pop up where you don't expect them. I was stunned to read in a comment to my last column that, "...photographers who hand their images to someone else for printing are abdicating part of their artistic responsibility." Oh man, I can't let something that wrong pass*.
(Yes, there are certain arenas where prints don't matter one bit. That's obviously not the scope nor intent of the claim. Even absolutism has to be judged with a grain of relativism, so no fair shooting at the fish in the barrel.)
Failing the absolutism test is sufficient reason to damn it, as I've already argued in 2.5 columns. But worse, I think it's specifically bad advice. Printing takes a lot of time, money, and energy. No photographer is given an unlimited supply of any of those. Resources you devote to printing are ones you cannot devote to making more photographs, making more timely photographs (which may matter), learning and practicing how to make better photographs (which definitely matters), even traveling to more interesting locales to make photographs (travel being another one of those things that consumes time, money, and energy).
That's not to say that you shouldn't know what a good print looks like. That's very different from having to do it yourself, or ever having done it yourself. In fact, DIY can sometimes interfere with knowing what a good print looks like. Anyone in the biz has seen vast numbers of poorly printed portfolios, "wet" and "dry," where the photographer clearly had no idea that their printing sucked.
We can likely agree that understanding what a good print looks like is important. It's the main reason Mike started the low-cost print program at Photo Techniques magazine. We both think that's really important; it's hard for photographers to know what to aspire to without reference.
But, once you know that, is there an unavoidable need to be doing your own printing? No. Custom printers have existed since Day One and it's their business to understand what the photographer needs and to elicit the information from the photographer that will get them the print they need...even if the photographer doesn't know how to articulate that. It's part of the job. It's not even an especially rare skill; there used to be a zillion decent custom labs out there.
Many justly-famous photographers haven't done the majority of their own printing. In some subgenres like portraiture that is even the norm; the majority of great portrait photographers did not do their own printing; some never even learned to print. Among four photojournalists I have a fondness for, Pearce, Kennerly, Jarecke and Turnley, we have substantial talents with quite varying amounts of personal printing in their careers. Even in landscape photography, that bastion of fine printing, it's a mixed bunch. Eliot Porter was famous for doing dye transfers of his landscapes. Galen Rowell wasn't exactly well-known for his darkroom time.
Obviously I made the "print your own" choice, even taking it to possibly unreasonable extremes. But it's never been clear that it was the only right choice for me. Some arguments to the contrary: I am a vastly better printer than I am photographer. Is that imbalance really good for one's art? I don't think it is for mine.
It may not have even been the smartest career move. Frank McLaughlin, the patron saint of dye transfer, once asked me in all seriousness if I was really better off having immersed myself in doing dye transfer printing. A good case could be made that I've spent as much money in the darkroom as it would've cost me to buy others' dye transfer printing services, and I would not have been out many thousands of hours of my time. And I'm not sure I could even claim a net profit on printing my own work until the dye transfer print sales here on TOP. That's 30 years to financial break-even, again not counting the number of hours spent.
Understand that I am not expressing one bit of regret. I like my life. But I cannot logically defend it as the best choice, either artistically or professionally, for me. As for declaring what must work for others, oh, that is to laugh.
*An afterthought to insure that we don't veer into the ad hominem...I didn't write this to defend my printing business; I did it because I have a deep knowledge of the subject. 99.9% of you could decide that having anyone else print your work would be abhorrent and it wouldn't affect me one bit nor in any way jeopardize my income; you're not my clientele.Ctein's regular weekly column appears every Thursday morning on TOP.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Geoff Wittig: "Ouch! Smacked down by Ctein!
"I probably deserve it for implying such an absolutist position. But I'd like to clarify a bit; I was paraphrasing a comment made by Richard Benson in an interview in Lenswork. [Issue 84 with audio on 84 Extended —Ed.] Benson is the author of The Printed Picture, former head of Yale's art department and an expert printer. (Okay, the academic credentials may be considered a negative here, but still.) Regarding the print as a physical artifact, as the final work of art resulting from the photographic process, I think the assertion still has merit. Delegating the actual process of crafting a print from your photograph does indeed relinquish some of your control over the image, and introduces at least a modicum of someone else's interpretation into the final print. David Plowden has described a conversation with a custom printer who boasted that he could make a better print from Plowden's negatives than Plowden could. 'No doubt you're right; but it would no longer be my photograph.' That's obviously a bit of hyperbole, but Plowden is emphasizing the importance of controlling every aspect of the photograph's interpretation. Certainly there have been countless fruitful collaborations between photographers and printers; not for one moment to I mean to denigrate the remarkable skills of fine printers like Ctein. Robert Glenn Ketchum's work for example is known largely through the spectacular Ilfochrome prints made by Michael Wilder. Obviously working closely with a skilled printer who follows your instructions (or who can educate you regarding where the image 'wants to go') can yield a superb result.
"There are also obviously large areas of photographic expression where finicky darkroom (wet or digital) interpretation and a physical print are irrelevant. The vast majority of snapshots and family photographs come to mind. Plenty of photojournalism finds its home as 2x3" halftone reproduction on newsprint, where careful attention to print quality seems beside the point. Then again, it's hard to imagine W. Eugene Smith's work having precisely the same feel or impact without his obsessive stylized darkroom interpretation.
"As always, YMMV. Like the old Ben & Jerry's bumper sticker says, 'If it's not fun, why do it?' For me, printing is easily half the fun. But if anyone finds it torturous and gets great results from Mpix or Costco, well, have fun!"
Ctein replies: Oh, absolutely not meant as a smack-down of you. (I'm sure you know that, but I want to make sure everyone else does, too.)
I think there are some interesting ideas worth exploring in more depth in the Plowden anecdote; there's a deep and fascinating question along the lines of "What does 'artistic ownership' mean and what compromises or enhances it?" It might even be the seed for a whole new column. But, I'm too blitzed after 13 hours of traveling to think deeply right now.
Featured Comment by Greg Smith: "Best thing you've posted I've seen. Good job. I do my own printing, because I haven't tried a pro shop yet. Economically, its cheaper for me to self-print. My work sells, so there is some validation for my efforts and I take a measure of satisfaction in being able to tell those curious that I do the entire process from camera to frame myself. Someday, when the funds present themselves I will try a custom house, see what's what. Talk of absolutism brings to mind a bumper sticker: 'Death to extremists!' Best wishes."