What I find fascinating about the foregoing discussion of printing and print quality is how often the comments bump up against what I would call "The Limits of Certainty." As much as we would like to speak with authority on how things should or shouldn't be done, or how prints should or shouldn't look, we are voicing opinions and preferences, not objective facts. It's all so virtual. We're forced to discuss prints while looking at JPEGs. We each have our own unique set of eyes and visual biases. We may be inspired to print one way on one day and perhaps another way the next. Ctein would print one of my images differently than I would, as would Mike. Which one of us is "right?"
We can discuss individual preferences, years of printing experience and artistic judgment for weeks, but what you ultimately end up with is a print and a viewer. A print that the photographer is satisfied with and that the viewer enjoys enough to buy, frame and mount on a wall seems the best we can hope for. The great challenge is how to do it. Although we (i.e. those who wish to produce excellent prints) all have the same goal, the most that other printers can do is give us maps to how they reached it. We then have to find our own way as best we can.
Photo by George LeChat
Mike adds: Hence the classic didactic instrument of art instruction, the "critique." In a critique, a group of artists (usually a class of students) brings examples of their own recent work (usually an assignment) and pins them to the wall. Each person's work is then discussed in turn by the teachers (if it's a class, and there are teachers) and the members of the group. Generally, all aspects of how the pictures work can be discussed, but there is no reason why the discussion can't center on print quality, as one of my classes—taught by Frank DiPerna—did. Also, although sometimes the effect of regular critiques is to lead to the formation of a group taste, it's just as usual for individuals to put themselves into some other relationship to the group—to try to provoke the group, out-do the others in some way, or hold back one's "real work" and put up dummies, so to speak, to protect oneself from criticism. The relationship can always be learned from by the individual, if he or she so chooses. At the Corcoran, where I got my degree, there were always two teachers, who often voiced conflicting opinions—to undermine the idea that any teacher held the "correct" answer just because he or she was the teacher.
I thought critiques were fun, interesting, and helpful enough that I tried to extend them past the end of art school. My graduating class met a number of times for group critiques in peoples' homes after we graduated. The problem was that many of us were by then preoccupied with making a living, and didn't have time or energy to make new work, so, increasingly, people would show up without any new work. Our momentum eventually dissipated.
In Washington, D.C., where I taught, I also used to get people coming to me saying things like "My friend -------- took your class at -------- and she loved it. If you ever teach another class, will you please let me know?" I'd encourage those people to organize a group of a few friends, and we'd meet in somebody's home, use slides, and hold critiques. I became an itinerant teacher.
I've never quite taken to the idea of the "camera club," where, typically, larger groups of people get together to compete and award prizes, sometimes in separate categories, sometimes with an "expert guest" who is responsible for bestowing the brass rings. I was asked to do this once, and I found it vaguely unsatisfying—plus, I awarded top prize in three of five categories—the judging was blind as to the identity of the participants—to the same guy, which was very unsatisfying to the group, which would have liked to have seen the coveted prizes distributed more equably. What can I say? I thought he had the best eye. If I were going to start a trend, like the Lyceum movement encouraged by Emerson or Vincent and Miller's Chautauquas, I'd suggest photographers start small critique groups. Realistically speaking, though, it's too heavy a commitment to be practical in modern life; this isn't the nineteenth century any more.
* "À chacun son goût" is French for "To each his own taste." Title suggested by Mr. O. Grad. I can't reproduce diacritical marks such as the accent grave and circumflex in headers on TOP. Flyer from jebabb.us, advertising a Chautauqua in Corbin, Kentucky in 1926. Although Chautauquas were allegedly for self-improvement and adult education, entertainment played a part too. I particularly like Ellsworth Plumstead, the Dean of Impersonators, and the lady saxophonist.
Send this post to a friend
Note: Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site. More...
Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.