Well, my column on digital printing two weeks back, which seemed like a straightforward technical column, has developed into a complex and erudite conversion that is anything but straightforward or shallow. Way to go, commenters!
And, once again, a comment from Geoff Wittig provides me with a theme. If Geoff keeps this up, I'm never going to have to come up with an original topic again.
So, taking a deep breath and diving into the deep end of the pool...
Last week, Geoff relayed a remark by David Plowden—"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.'"
This is a remarkably nontrivial thought. Unlike Benson's remark to the effect that "...photographers who hand their images to someone else for printing are abdicating part of their artistic responsibility," which provoked in me a (completely justified) "this isn't even wrong" reaction, Plowden's observation is simultaneously and in various ways and circumstances right, wrong, sideways and off-axis in the complex plane. It's most assuredly not amenable to simple analysis. (Of course, I was not there for the conversation and I don't know just what that printer said to Plowden.)
In an "average" sense, I'd disagree with the notion. When I do custom printing for people, no matter their level of printing skills, I'm going to be making suggestions about ways I think the print could be improved. Sometimes they're trivial—a slightly different crop, a modest dodge or a burn. They're tweaks on what the photographer's providing me as a starting or reference point. Usually the photographer agrees with me; on occasion they don't. It's their call; it's their vision I'm trying to fulfill (I'll get back to that).
I think it would be wrong to say that the resulting photograph is in any way less theirs because I happened to come up with a good idea they didn't think of. People make suggestions to me all the time about my own photographs. On occasion I accept them. I don't think of the result as being less my own photo; after all, I'm learning new stuff all the time! That is part of being an artist.
(And, to keep the discourse as clear as I can, I've already established that I consider it entirely irrelevant who controls the instrumentality of printing. You personally feel differently? Fine. That was last week's column; you can go argue your side in the comments there. If you already have, please don't reiterate the same point here. We're moving on, not going in circles.)
I truly don't believe the minor fact that I may suggest to the photographer a better way to print in any way affects their artistic ownership. But, that's only a small part of a larger landscape. Back to that "fulfilling the vision" thing, which gets into just what "collaboration" can mean.
I collaborate with photographers on printing their work. I don't know any custom printer who works any other way (although I have no trouble imagining they might exist). The reason we succeed in this business, if we do, is that we know lots more about how to make a good print than our typical client. We're not a mechanical device they simply issue instructions to. We try to find out what they want of their photograph and then we propose ways they can get that, often ones they never thought of. It's a collaborative process, no question of that.
But the resulting work is not inherently nor usually a collaboration, although it could be. The photographer had some idea in mind when they made the photograph. It didn't include the input of the printer. We came into the picture (ahem) much later, at a stage where the photographer is trying to physically implement that vision. But that creative vision doesn't originate with the printer. Again, usually—the interesting exceptions are part of the reason why Plowden's situation is anything but trivial.
Examples make this point clearer. My best friend Laurie Toby Edison and I have created joint works such as the one above. Our Collaborations derive from a complex process of interactions, but even at the points in the process where we're not actively engaged with each other, we're both aware that collaborative work is happening. There's a mutual vision from before the first frame is exposed.
I also print for Laurie. Laurie's a masterful printer, so almost all the time I am supposed to exactly duplicate a print she's already made, like the one below. Which, it turns out, I can't do, and I'll get back to that later because I have a hunch it's germane. Whatever; I get very, very, very close. On occasion, though, she's been really pressed for time and she's just handed me the negative and the proof sheet, and we have a conversation about what the print should do. Then I print the negative 'blind,' and almost always I get something she likes. It's still her photograph, 'cause it's still her vision. I simply realize it for her via remote control, as it were.
That's not the normal photographer/printer relationship; Laurie and I have had 30 years to get in each others' heads. But it's not telepathic and I'm not always right. As with any photographer, I'll usually make suggestions, and Laurie will usually vet them, but sometimes, not often, we simply aren't close to being in agreement. Laurie's given me prints to match that I quite disagree with. I tell her so in no uncertain terms; what else are friends for?
The conversation typically runs something like this:
C: This ceiling doesn't work. We need to paint it beige.
L: Nope, I painted it taupe, and I wanted it taupe.
C: But taupe simply doesn't work. It catches the sun wrong and it clashes with the drapes. It really needs to be beige.
L: No, if it were your ceiling it would need to be beige. It's my ceiling.
That's the trump card. So I paint it taupe, just knowing in my heart of hearts that I'm right and Laurie's wrong. But it's her photograph and it doesn't matter that she's utterly wrong (and she is, you know) and I know better (and I do, you know). She owns the work.
I'm still right, though (he grumps with entirely characteristic maturity).
But, I think there was one time—out of hundreds of photographs—when she did agree beige would be better, and the resulting print was very different from what she originally envisioned. It was still her photograph, though; I'd never have made it. Merely giving her a great idea for making it even closer her vision didn't make it mine.
Okay, now what about that remark I made about not being able to make prints that look exactly like Laurie's? It's been my general experience when printing for other master printers. Almost every time, I can't do it. I strongly expect it would be true in the other direction, if I needed to have someone else print my work. I can't explain it. I can say it's not a matter of one or the other of us being better printers. It also doesn't seem to matter whether it's digital or wet printing.
My best not-a-real-answer guess (insert a whole lot of arm-waving here) is that there are two things going on. One is that master printers are working at such a refined level that our work's affected in significant ways by variables that aren't even in the recognized sets of parameters we try to control when printing. The other is that we can see subtleties that most people would never notice, so we find significance in print differences that most folks would justifiably consider ignorable.
If (and this is a really large if) this situation applies to most master printers, then Plowden's and even Benson's remarks become more understandable. Within their frames of experience and reference, they would be undeniably true, although they still wouldn't be universals. The concerns and sensitivities of master printers are not those of 99% of the folks doing printing. We may be entirely justified in those sensitivities, but there's still something of a princess and the pea thing going on.
One last wrinkle I'd like to toss out. I suspect I would be okay with other folks printing my work. I've noticed that while I am extremely particular and fussy about having a print come out exactly right, what constitutes "exactly right" for me can change considerably with time. I can hit the bull's-eye every time, but the target moves around. I have to force myself to be a little less fussy than my inclinations run. I've been known to fine-tune a print, in wet darkroom terms, to within a 20th of a paper grade, a quarter CC color balance and/or 1% exposure. Should I go back and reprint that photograph the next day, what I'll decide looks exactly right will not agree with the previous day to such incredibly tight specifications. If I look at it a month or year later, my idea of the best print may be considerably different. There may even be two or three different versions that I consider best prints, "local maxima" in the print space, if you will.
You can see why, given that, I think someone else of comparable skill to mine could make prints that would satisfy me. But, I have no idea if my experience is common or not. It would be interesting to hear from other "extreme printers" in the readership on this subject.
In any case, I've taken the topic about as far as I want to in this particular direction. But I'm not done with it; next week I'll ruminate on yet a different angle on this complex business of printing and what it means to us.
Ctein's regular weekly column appears on TOP on Thursday mornings.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.