I've been truly enjoying the comments to Ctein's post yesterday, and just wanted to add a few thoughts and reactions of my own. Actually these are all things that have been mentioned by me, Ctein, or commenters either this week or in weeks past, so maybe call it "underlining" instead of "adding."
• It's important to keep in mind that for most mainstream techniques (i.e., any double-negative process) for most of photography's history, printing wasn't optional. It was the necessary last stage of the process. Without it, you didn't have anything you could conveniently look at. The major exception, color slides, necessitated notoriously burdensome viewing requirements—you had to set up a projector and a screen in a darkened room. Nowadays, it's quite feasible to be a very serious and active photographer without ever making a print. But, for the most part, that's a novel development. The major reason for the radical decline in printing is simply that printing is no longer necessary. Not only that, but, for most of us, the situation has flip-flopped—it's now much harder to look at prints than online JPEGs. Witness....
• Ctein's "before and after" example yesterday gave me a bit of an existential smile because, of course, we're not seeing his print. Printing is the act and art of fixing the image on paper. All of the things we are seeing in those two JPEGs that he "did to the print"—while they could easily take place during the printing process and were, as Ctein tells us, part of his preparation for printing—really fall under the category of "image optimization" and don't absolutely require that printing be done in conjunction with it. Image optimization can of course be performed on digital files. We're still just taking his word for what the print looked like.
• To know what prints look like, you've got to look at prints.
• This leads to my next point, which receives very little discussion but which I think is a crucially important part of the act of printing: it fixes the image into final form, or the best approximation of final form. That is, the print that the artist makes or approves is often the best, most stable and most durable embodiment of the way the artist wants her image to look. This is true whether the artist prints the picture herself or hires a custom printer to do the work under her direction. In printmaking—by which I mean stone lithography, copper-plate etching, etc.—the custom is for the artist to sign only those prints which fully meet her satisfaction; one doesn't sign seconds or proofs. Fine printing a photograph is a way of "signing off" on the image so others can see it the way you intend them to. I used to go to the Library of Congress and call up various master portfolios to look at. With stable techniques—assuming the originals had not deteriorated with age—what I was able to hold in my hands was the picture the way the artist wanted me to see it. Holding an original Frederick Evans print in my hands, I was able to see the picture as Frederick Evans wanted me to. As long as an image exists only as a digital file (or a negative, or a book reproduction, or an online JPEG, etc.) that final state hasn't really been "set," except perhaps under very controlled conditions like seeing it on the photographer's own monitor (and that will change in time, because nobody keeps their monitors forever and monitors don't stay perfectly calibrated indefinitely). The print is not an absolute way of fixing an image according to its maker's intention—you can probably think of some of the ways in which prints are still approximate and malleable—but, given good methods, materials, and techniques, it's still the best way we have.
• I got into photography in a serious way in 1980, and by maybe 1985 I'd heard "the negative is the score, the print is the performance" so many times I was tired of it. I've heard it half a million times since. Yes, the great truisms remain profound for those who haven't encountered them before. But let's go a little further: great printers are like great conductors. Their printing style consistently shows their aesthetic concerns and tastes. Their interpretation is individual. Klemperer is deliberate, Beecham warm, von Karajan precise and perfectionist. Fürtwangler's lines are flexible, Erich Kleiber is fierce, Barenboim exaggerates the chiaroscuro of fast and slow tempos. You'd never mistake Bruno Walter for John Gardiner in Mozart. Great printers are like that too. When I was editing the darkroom magazine, I saw an endless procession of "Zoner" wannabee work that attempted to mimic the style of Adams, but the surprisingly thing was that very little of it was truly successful. It wasn't because they couldn't copy his technique—he left detailed "instruction manuals" in the form of his technical books, and some people were slavish in their imitation, to the point of using the same developer and the same light meter. It's that they didn't have his judgment—they didn't see like he did. So they couldn't quite print like he did. When Walter Rosenblum was caught making counterfeit "vintage" Lewis Hine prints from the original Hine negatives (which, as a leading Hine expert, he would then certify as genuine), one of the ways the deception was discovered was that the prints he made looked like Walter Rosenblum prints—they showed telltales of his characteristic interpretations as a printer. In any event, it might be as important—some would say more important—to develop your own style of interpretation as it is to learn to make generic "good prints."
• I've always said that the most important thing about printing is judgment. Sometimes, when other photographers "optimize" an image to their satisfaction, I'll disagree—to me, they made it worse. Experts disagree. I commissioned a feature in my magazine called "Master Printing Class" that was written by Bruce Barnbaum. Every issue, Bruce would show a straight print from a particular negative and then show his final interpretation, describing how he got from one to the other. Another Contributing Editor, David Vestal, said he often preferred the "before" print. My friend Ailsa McWhinnie, founding Editor of the English Black & White Photography magazines, went a bit further. In her magazine (maybe it's still an ongoing feature—I don't see the magazine any more), there was a wonderful regular feature that I enjoyed where two printers would be given the same negative to print. Sometimes their "final" prints were pretty close, but often they were wildly different. The point is that there's no one right way to make a great print. You're not going to please everybody, so you'd at least better make sure to please yourself.
CRANKY ADDENDUM: If I ever stop blogging, it will be because there is nothing I can say that someone, somewhere, will not take issue with it. I've just finished treating with two individuals who wrote to me in favor of the oil spill. One of them is angry with me. If I said killing babies is wrong, I'd get an email from the Infant Euthanasia Society.
People seem to be having trouble with my contention that the print fixes the photographer's intent. Relatively, okay? Relatively. To quote a relevant passage from Nelson Pass, the amplifier designer, responding to customers' anxieties about the durability of their purchases: "In fifteen years, the electrolytic power-supply capacitors will get old. Depending on usage, you will begin to have semiconductor and other failures between 10 and 50 years after date of manufacture. Later, the sun will cool to a white dwarf, and after that, the universe will experience heat death." In other words, nothing lasts forever. I'm also reminded of a friend of my parents who was known as Black John. Convinced anarchy and apocalypse were nigh and fanatical about the protection of his person, Black John built himself a elaborate survivalist redoubt in the woods of northern Wisconsin. And then died of old age. Ticking seconds breached his defenses.
I certainly never intended to imply that every print fixes its photographer's intent. Forgive me—I didn't feel that was even necessary to say. Most photographers don't even have an intent. And I didn't mean to say that the fixing has to last forever. The vast majority of photographic prints are made for some immediate or ephemeral mundane or quotidian purpose, with no thought for their career in the universe thereafter. I don't dispute that.
Sometimes, blogging is like being pecked to death by ducks. —MJ
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
"To take an obvious example, my retinas are calibrated for a different color space than a typical set of retinas are. ('Color blind' is a crude and misleading term, since I see in color, with three primaries like everybody else. It's just that at least one of my primaries isn't quite standard.) There's no way for me to make a color print that will look to me the way I envisioned it and also look to other people the way I envisioned it. I suppose with a lot of very careful measurement, it might theoretically be possible to come up with a way to make a print that produced for other people an experience that could be considered in some sense equivalent to mine, but this isn't a practical possibility. When I distribute a color photo (as a print, a JPEG, or in any other form), I must simply resign myself to the fact that almost everybody else's experience of it will be unlike mine in this way.
"For the rest of you, it may be easier to overlook this, but of course there are all kinds of variation in the population—some viewer will inevitably be getting your image with the wrong color space, or will be able to focus on it optimally at the wrong viewing distance, or will in any of countless other ways just experience it in a way other than what you'd envisioned.
"Once we accept that, it becomes easier to accept differences between monitors as more of the same. That doesn't mean we shouldn't do our best to assert control, but it's important to remember that, even if we could perfect our printing process or our monitor calibration, our control would still have its limits."