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Sunday, 13 June 2010


Thank you, Robert-- and...may I add, no electricity is required to view a print.

Well said and I'd like to add that in my experience it's much easier to make an image look good on a back lit screen that is it to make an image look good in print.
I consider on screen prints doodles and the print the painting. No comparison in my book.

Digital files are "tangible"; in particular, they explicitly count as "tangible form" for copyright purposes.

It looks to me like Robert takes the physical so much for granted that he's making assumptions. How the print looks, for example, depends drastically on the lighting and background it's displayed in -- just as the digital file can be displayed in different ways. However, the print doesn't usually specify what the "intended" display conditions (intensity and color temperature at least; but also background and so forth) are -- you have to guess. Whereas the digital file (at least mine) has that encoded in it, in the form of a profile.

A print is simply data, encoded in a somewhat inconvenient, lossy, and low-density format.

I take it that you've never heard of digital picture frames, the medium of the future.

I've been having the "print lighting" discussion privately on several fronts--I agree that lighting conditions are, or can be, important to the experience of the print, but I don't think that that's inherent in the print. When I see an Eggleston print in the inadequate lighting of the AIC gallery, it affect my experience on that occasion, but I still conceive it's possible to remove the print from that environment and put it in a different one and have it be the same print. The print's existence as an object is independent of the lighting. Why not simply posit ideal lighting? That's no different that positing a calibrated, profiled monitor of adequate size. Saying that a print might have to be viewed in bad lighting is like saying a digital file might have to be viewed on a cellphone.


I agree completely with this well-put post. It seems to me there is also a "materiality" of knowledge as well which is why I believe the notion that all books can and should and will be put into digital form runs counter to some fundamental human needs. When one writes a book, one needs to be able to hold it in one's hand, to feel the material reality of the knowledge, of the effort. The same seems true to me of photographs. In human efforts at least, there is something inherently trivial in something entirely transient and ephemeral.

One important consideration is the archivable nature of prints compared with digital. Long after DVDs or hard drives fail or are rendered obsolete, a well stored print will still exist and can be "read" by the human eye. It is this that may be the saving grace of digital photography--the ones we cared to print are the ones that ultimately survive.

"Something like the way our relationship to music was changed by recordings and radio. How can we begin to compare one to the other?"

To romanticize printed images and compare them to a musical performance is very misleading. The rendering of a musical performance is completely ephemeral. Performance has no permanence whatsoever unless recorded. It does not even exist as potential.

Images are images regardless of the media used to render them. Digital images may be rendered to the screen. Digital or analog images may be rendered to physical media. In the end they are all interpreted and stored as memories by our brain. Most of the time they really exist for us within our wetware.

Viewing physical prints provides data points representing touch and smell for us to remember. These memories are recalled when we think about a printed photograph. They do not represent a physical object only our memory of one.

The context surrounding the viewing of an image on the screen also produces data points that can be recalled as sense memory. We are talking about memory here folks.

I'm tempted to call the somewhat labored discussion going on here for the last couple of days as just another digital vs analog photography debate. Maybe not.

One thing is certain, romanticizing one rendering of an image as real and another as not real misses several points concerning human perception.

No doubt, a digital file is not a print. You've convinced me. I haven't really been convinced why it is, as you say, a big deal.

When comparing one to the other, it's probably a good idea to also consider the similarities. Both the digital file and the print are representations. Both can reflect the intention of the photographer. Both communicate. Both are photographs. To me, these things are more important than how they smell, how much room they take up, or even how ephemeral they are.

When was the last time you touched a nice fiber-based B&W print with your bare hands? Now, at best, in a private gallery showing, one may be allowed to touch an original with the cotton gloves. This simple experience probably cannot happen anymore, yet it helped define photography as an Art that is an integral part of our lives with a well-defined end product, more than just the production of images.

I agree. Love prints. I wish smugmug would just send me random prints every once in a while from my collection so I could store them away. I recently printed some nice 11x14's on my Epson for my middle school photography students (left a half inch white for fingerprints). I think people are surprised at just how good their images look with a decent print. Photobooks too now. I ordered one from the cheesy sounding mypublisher.com, just beautiful, family photos from this winter and we can't stop picking it up and paging through.

This reminds me of something I've noticed about my iPad. I'm finding it becoming a critical part of my editing workflow, as the physicality and form factor make it feel like you're holding a print.

This is helping my ability to pick the wheat from the chaff no end...

Like much else in life a photograph has a dual nature, the subject itself as a thing or a moment in time and the photograph as a thing which is based upon the subject but also has its own existence separate from the subject. Both are ephemeral but a print takes on a greater sense of 'thingness', an object with its own distinct being. Higher quality prints, those made with great skill on fine materials enhance the preciousness of the print as an object.

The truly great photograph will impart both these parts of the duality with equal force, the chosen subject & moment in time plus the skills of photographer/printer in creating an effective presentation. A great print of a great image encourages the viewer to enter the moment depicted.

In the end it's all ephemeral. The print is merely less so. An attempt to linger over something we find worthy of more contemplation than the flow of existence allows without the intervention of a photographer. A hundred thousand years from now, perhaps only a hundred or so, the prints we make will be gone along with all the moments they captured.

The print that is produced thru darkroom efforts directly displays those efforts. Whereas a print produced from a digital file shows no such efforts in its actual production. Except when produced thru some anonymous lab/machine, a darkroom print is the artifact of the photographer in the role of a printer.

To me, I prefer the archetypal version (the digital file) which can then be viewed anywhere, by anybody, at any time, versus a particular print that can only be seen by a few people at one particular place.

There is something wonderful about the tangible, but for images I am very happy about creating intangible objects instead of prints.

What he said :)

And, it is proof of your vision, of your interpretation - for better or worse. It can't be faked or alibied; it's there, in person. Some may feel that it's an anachronism, but, for me, the print is the manifestation of the art.

Wonderful thought and prescient. Thank you for reaffirming why I still spend so much on prints. They're the final art.

The physicality of the print - it's continuing existence presents the opportunity to have an ongoing relationship with the image. I believe that the ephemeral nature of the digital image ultimately invites paying attention to it for only a brief moment. If I compare the time I spend with any one image on line to the time I spend with a print the prints always win.

There are images on-line that I found very powerful on first encounter (Vanessa Winship for example); but for some reason I don't return to them.

I think books have the same advantage. You live with books. You don't really live with images from the web.

Maybe I should join troglodytes anonymous.

Can that exact image ever exist again, or be exactly the same on someone else's screen, in their light?

There is nothing exact when human visual perception is involved.

If Robert's argument is correct, then movies aren't really legitimate either. After all, they have to be projected on screens that vary in reflectance, using projectors whose bulbs can vary in brightness and color with lenses that can vary in quality. If you watch the movie on a television or computer, then you also can't be sure of seeing the same movie twice, as screens on TVs and computers (as Robert mentioned with regard to still photos) are inconsistent.

I might add that prints can vary in appearance depending on the viewing light used and the kind of glass used in framing, if the print is framed. Inkjet prints can look dramatically different in different light...remember the metamerism problem?

Nothing's real, the modern world sucks, technology is destroying our culture, killing God, and making the sky fall. We should all commit suicide! Or we can just ignore such rantings and just keep making art. I'll go for that.

Very well put. It's somewhat like the difference between meeting and dating over the Internet versus meeting in the flesh.

Prints certainly are physical objects, and generally speaking, humans have an affinity for physical objects. Witness the time spent over the choice of hardware used for photography.

Who knows, maybe the general absence of real prints has something to do with why a lot of us get so anxious about the hardware used upstream in the process these days. Perhaps if we made more prints we might all calm down and not fret so much about hardware.

1. I agree that a print is a physical object that a digital file is not. But I'm not sure what that has to do with making the picture look better.

Oh the other hand, I don't agree at all with this:

"The print that is produced thru darkroom efforts directly displays those efforts. Whereas a print produced from a digital file shows no such efforts in its actual production. Except when produced thru some anonymous lab/machine, a darkroom print is the artifact of the photographer in the role of a printer."

I"m tired of the implication that just because it is marginally easier to *repeat* the digital print over and over again that somehow this lessens the value of the work that goes into creating it in the first place. The digital tools are *not* easy to use and use well. It's not like you turn a crank and good files come out the other side. You have to work at it and work hard. You just don't have to breath fixer while doing the work.

I really need at the very least just start hanging up prints on my wall even if i'm not going to frame them. I really liked the way they looked in that shot all hung up and stuff.

For me, photography is about communicating ideas and usually (if we are honest) opinions and messages. Print is one way of doing that, and it does have a different presence that demands attention better than an image, but it is a technical means to an end. I would not overstate the case. Arguably the most effective and powerful tools for communicating are video and sound. A documentary, film, or even TV coverage is all digital and ephemeral, yet it may leave a more lasting impression, communicate and motivate more than a print. Prints have a special place, no doubt. In my view, they provoke a more personal, contemplative relationship with the scene portrayed than a digital image, but please don't sanctify it. After all, in the end it's just a piece of paper...the content is the most important thing.

The surname Lee,(one spelt Leigh) is the same as mine!Am very definitely not Asian!

I came to this the small town of then 2100 souls known as Burlington Ontario in the early months of 1948 with my parents
and have lived here more or less since.
With onset of chronic illness and continuing mobility problems am moving to a less restrictive one floor flat.

As I slowly pack a lifetime into boxes with the help of friends, we keep coming across boxes of black and white and
colour prints as well as many file
drawers of negatives in 116, 120, 35, 2 1/4 square as well as 4x5 and 8x10 cellulose and glass plate negatives.
All catalogued and (mostly all)ready for printing.

If all of these were computer stored
memories, would any exist, today, in a readable format?

Perhaps that is why the actual print is of lasting permanent value. I have photographs of my ancestors going way back, as prints, no negatives. Maybe
the historical aspect of an image is the
print in this new digital rendering age?

I can't grasp Robert's point.

1. At the 'data' level, a film negative or a gelatin-silver print is nothing but a pattern of grains, which is no more (or less) interesting than a pattern of 0's and 1's.

2. A print from a digital file is just as physical and tangible as a gelatin-silver print, an ambrotype, or whatever.

3. An image on a computer screen doesn't differ in kind from a Kodachrome slide, projected or just on a light table. Both can be printed, even if they haven't been printed yet.

4. To my knowledge, nobody has maintained that viewing images by transmitted light and by reflected light are one and the same experience.

Without these bumbles in reasoning, Robert's point seems to be "I like to handle darkroom prints."

The only answer I can think of is "Me too. Also digital prints."


Let's face it, most people do not experience most photography deeply enough for the (real) difference between prints and screen images to matter.

I look at it as a maker: I make prints to make photographs. That's what defines my art/craft. That's the purpose of shooting for me: making a shining silver or chromatic object on paper. To make that choice, I don't have to make judgments about anyone who doesn't have that desire to create paper art.

Electronic art is a type of art, but it is definitely a different art. FOR ME, the strong arguments in favor of the electronic art, as David Dyer-Bennett so nicely summarized it, are technical (convenience, losslessness) whereas the strong arguments for the paper art are sensual/aesthetic.

'Digital files don't have a tangible existence—they only exist in potential, are only temporarily decoded into images.'

I, too, am having trouble taking the above seriously. If you have a preference for the particular psycho-textural experience of prints, fine (I do, as it happens); but I can imagine Robert might with equal validity deny the existence of the wall in front of him on the evidence of his closed eyes. Things don't only become 'real' when they oblige our perceptions, as any first-year History or Philosophy undergraduate will be able to explain.

I try and go to as many photographic exhibitions as possible, because the experience is immeasurably better than on screen viewing. I just saw Thomas Struth in Zurich, and like Gursky before him in Basel, I went loaded with with jaundiced prejudices and came away convinced (with some caveats). The physicality was important, not only how the scale of some images worked, but also in the hanging. Having time to ponder a body of work carefully hung reveals more than flicking through an online gallery of images. The early series of Struths "objective" cityscapes, silver gelatin prints, not exceptionally large, made a special impression that belied the banality of the individual images when viewed on screen.

Prints have lots more dots.


So much fun reading the whistling past the graveyard angst of the "real print" guys as the ratio of photographs that never are printed to those that are reaches what, a thousand to one, ten thousand to one. Go ahead print, use film, or only shoot B&W. No one gives a rats behind. It is, of course, nostalgia for the "good old days" and grief for hard earned skills no longer valued even though no one will say so. Nothing wrong with nostalgia or mourning that which has been lost, but just cut the crap that printing (or using film or xyz) is the only way to experience the true art of photography. There are people alive today who will become great photographers without ever necessarily having any of their work printed. Get over it.

digital picture frames, the medium of the future.

Hopefully not!

Comparing a print to an electronic screen is like comparing a lemon to a lime. Same same, but different. Both outputs have strong and weak sides. I could argue why I like one better than the other, but in the end it doesn't matter at all. What interests me is the subject photographed and all the stories a picture can tell. As long as it is looks OK, output is the least of my concerns. I really can't get sentimental over anything material…

Without getting into a debate about the difference between a tangible print in hand, and a digital file that I have tweaked ready to print; I will reveal my personal nostalgic idiosyncratic process.

After I have made a print that I deem the best I have to offer on that given day. I have the lab make a high-res negative for my BxW work, and an LVT transparency for my color images. In the cause of security, and the comfort of my nostalgic inclination, I have my important images locked away safely on film.

It is my opinion that all images are latent in the mind of the maker. And only when that image meets my satisfaction and is successfully transfered to a substrate, that I consider the image worth exhibiting.


Well, I think an important point has only been marginally mentioned. The physical object, as opposed to the virtual one, appeals to many senses at a time. Sight mainly in the case of images, but the object itself can also be touched, weighted, smelled or even heard (the cracking of the family album pages).

That makes the object much more easy to love than its representation. Cinema has always been cinema, but for years to come, a photograph or an e-book on a screen will be perceived as mere representations of the real object, no matter how advantageous. (Not to mention how many senses are really used in “going to the cinema”).

Perhaps, the peak of it all is the family photo album; preserved, enriched and passed along from one generation to the next. It surely is the particular form of objectual photography more prone to be loved. We all probably treasure that experience, even if our particular family photo album is just a shoe box or even a single framed photograph hanging on a wall. There is nothing that prevents such an album to be embodied in an electronic file. But, ¿does anyone think that a powerpoint screen presentation can be kept, respected, treasured, loved or passed from father to son in the same way (or in any way indeed) that a leather bound album or a shoe box filled with touchable photos are?

Physical goes a long way.

I think this discussion is a bit more sophisticated than the digital vs. "real" photography debates that we've (hopefully) left behind us. There are perceptual differences between a physical print and a projected or screen-displayed photograph that powerfully influence and constrain the image. Each form of presentation favors certain image characteristics, and penalizes others. On-screen display favors images that depend upon great contrast, vivid color and immediate impact. The back-lit glow really smacks the viewer in the face. A finely made print instead favors images with great texture, detail, resolution; images with careful arrangement of a subtle tonal scale. Neither is intrinsically "better" than the other; they're simply different. A neon glowing sunset image will have more impact on-screen than in a print. But a good print of a subtle scene of a forest in fog is likely to convey its essence more faithfully than glowing phosphors would.

To me it's analogous to the distinction between prints on cotton rag papers and prints on glossy/baryta papers, though with a wider degree of difference. Each presentation may be better suited to specific artistic intents.

As always...have fun! Do what you like, what best suits your images to your eye, not what someone else tells you to do.

I own a water-color painting. It is the ony "original." I own one of fifty original lithographs from a series. I own one of a million original CD's of Merle Haggard's music. I also own one of thousands of originals of the movie "Pride and Prejudice." All these are physical, but some can be directly apprehended and some need a device. No big deal. Just depends on the art form.

I agree with the bulk of the comments about the physicality of the print. It's an important issue to this 55 year old middle-class white male.
To an increasing number of people, and not just young people, the physical world holds limited interest. Consider how many people spend hours each day fooling around in "virtual" worlds. And what the !*?@!* is Farmville, anyway?
Many just don't care if they can hold it in their hand. If it's on the screen it's real enough to them.
Not to sound like a complete crank... I'm close to answering the siren call of the iPhone. But I'll probably make prints from those files.

Display an image on a monitor or projecting it on a screen is pretty close to 'drawing or painting with light', aka photography.

Alright, let's get philosophical.

Touching a photograph is part of the fun.

As photographers we all know that there are mysteries in the way light reflects off of things. So it should be no surprise that the fact that a print reflects light rather than projecting it is a big deal.

Another part of the fun is listening to the guaranteed silence emanating from a photograph, as opposed to the hum of electrical equipment, or the potential of your iPhone to suddenly beep or ring. Interesting, how the mind stubbornly fails to live in the moment - the potential of things is certainly affecting.

Still, I have never seen a digital image displayed permanently on e-Paper in a peaceful art gallery. When I do, I may learn that the terms "digital" and "analogue" have no more lasting significance than the terms "touch-tone" and "rotary-dial".

Mark M said: "When comparing one to the other, it's probably a good idea to also consider the similarities. Both the digital file and the print are representations. Both can reflect the intention of the photographer."
I couldn't agree more. A photograph is not a painting - it doesn't gain that much from having a physical instantiation, particularly for its intended aesthetics - e.g. communicate an idea or a feeling. All the properties of a print that make it personal or valuable to a collector are really unnecessary (as in contingent, not essential).

Something that I just realized that I like about prints, and their physicality, is this:

When I have a print on a wall, I go look at it, sometimes.

This is a simple thing, but it's inherently DIFFERENT from the way I view digital photos. Mostly, I have to make an effort to look at a digital image, I have to find the file and open it. Even if I had a digital picture frame, I'd almost certainly set it up as a slide show, so the interaction goes 'hey, nice photo... let me wander two steps and loo.. oh crap, next image, which sucks, pfft. Time for a snack.'

I *could* get the effect I am describing if I used a digital frame as a slideshow with a very slow period, or to display a single image. But would I? Probably not.

Thank you to everyone who took the time to read my words, especially those who then posted thoughtful replies or kind compliments.

I'd typed a long follow-up comment here last night, addressing specific posts, which apparently got lost in the ether. Or maybe I just hit the wrong button.

Maybe that's just as well, because today I think it might be better to be as concise and general possible.

In the post I made only four or five assertions: Prints are physical objects; Digital files are not physical objects; Projected or electronically displayed images have no inherent physical presence (do I need to add "to human senses"?); Projections and electronic displays by their nature are temporary events, at least today (do I need to add "relative to prints"?); These approaches entail not only aesthetic and technical issues and choices, but at a deeper level associate with one's cultural and philosophical relationship with photographic images and/or with art.

I think it's essential to grasp or at least acknowledge the last point (which is a loaded one, for sure) if we are to discuss any of the first few without descending into petty bickering or religious wars. The fact that many of these discussions do arouse such passions I think validates my conclusion.

I made no assertions about what way is best, real, legitimate, true to vision, etc., whatever those terms may mean in this context. Again, these are philosophical and aesthetic matters, not technical or factual ones. Any of these paths present technical limitations and opportunities that are difficult to really master, and need to be mastered if they are to serve an artistic vision.

But my primary concern, if I didn't make it clear, is the relationship between viewer or appreciator and the image or object.

There are also areas of preference that don't fall neatly into these categories. Many people make and enjoy fine prints at least in part for their non-visual sensual qualities. Many others find those same qualities unnecessary, extravagant or distracting when all they want is to look at images. The same person might feel either way in different contexts.

I think another problem we run into around here fairly often, and in this instance, is forgetting that photographs aren't necessarily art, and photographers aren't necessarily artists. Some of the most successful and accomplished photographs are not art, and some of the most successful and accomplished photographers are not artists. But that's a whole other topic, isn't it?

Well, I thought this was going to be concise. Really.

I love prints! I prefer to see my work and others' work as prints. There is no doubt in my mind that the people I show my work to are much more moved by a large print than screen display, because they almost always comment on it.

I love digital files too. Since switching to digital files I'm making a whole lot more large prints. I just cleaned out my darkroom and sorted through years worth of prints. There is something neat about the way FB feels. That thrill is tiny in comparison to the excitement I experience seeing my photos printed exactly as I want them to look, matted and framed on the wall. I'll take digital files and prints.

Photo prints like musical recordings and printed books have permeated our culture for a certain time and place.
For a (long) while only live music was an acceptable means for enjoying that medium. Listeners did not consider "owning" that material.
The print represents to me the crowning achievment of the photo process but millions enjoy unlimited access,viewing and sharing of stored files.

C'mon, people.

Obviously, a print made from a digital file is an object, with just as much physicality as a silver print. It doesn't matter how it got there. I did not make a distinction. Nor, again, did I indicate a preference or a superiority.

Nor, obviously, are ephemeral experiences (performances of music, plays, movies, etc.) any less enjoyable or "legitimate" than a 500-year-old statue. But they are very different experiences.

This should be obvious, too, but abstractions can be quite real. Think of a bank balance, or the bytes that make up this blog. Just because you can't sense data doesn't mean it isn't very real in practical terms. But as far as I'm concerned, the senses-limited definition of "tangible" is quite appropriate when discussing pictures.

The point is this: a digital file consists of data, and ONLY data. It contains no qualities, nor analogs of qualities, only values of states and their relative locations. It's more abstraction than object. Those values can instruct graphic arrays, which recreate states, which we perceive as visual qualities. The device is physical, the image is an apparitional event.

Is this such an upsetting concept? Does it mean that digital is inferior/superior to an analog whatever? Does it make you inferior/superior for working with it and enjoying the conveniences of digital data? Well, maybe it does where you come from, but that's not my concern or my problem, and never was.

"And, it is proof of your vision, of your interpretation - for better or worse. It can't be faked or alibied; it's there, in person."

Al Benas, you are a poet.

James Bullard, thank you for yet another dimension, so to speak, and for the long view.

Matthew C, John Krumm, and others: Sounds like some of you get it, at least. [relief]


Well met, name-brother, and congratulations on rediscovering your treasures!

Once upon a time, my surname was pronounced like the letter "e", but crossing an ocean added a consonant (I know, at least we didn't lose entire syllables like some families.). Funny thing: in high school some of my classmates took to calling me "Robert E. Lee" after the famed Confederate general (not for any martial or leadership skills, I assure you), but the nickname often got shortened to "Robert E". I've hung onto it, at least online, as a "true alias".

Projected or electronically displayed images have no inherent physical presence (do I need to add "to human senses"?)

"Inherent" is a warning flag word, suggesting a debate about philosophical essences rather than actual physicality.

For actual physicality, a projected or electronically displayed image sends photons at my retina; a distinctly physical process, directly stimulating one of my senses.

(I should say that I do agree that prints are in objective and subjective ways different from electronic display. I feel like there's a mob coalescing around a position on the issue that includes a lot of nonsense, though, and I'm picking on the bits that seem like nonsense, such as the above. I'm not so much out to change people's position, as to get them to leave out some of the excesses in expressing it :-) .)

Digitally produced prints come from a computer system like a report. Silver-gelatin prints are human-nurtured and even washed and dried. I like how three-dimensional and holdable they are. I even like how they tend to curl. The objects themselves have personality!

"I'm not so much out to change people's position, as to get them to leave out some of the excesses in expressing it :-)"

I'm all for that, David. I thought I was pointing out a rather obvious fact, and was surprised to see a lot of people dive into their favorite trenches and start lobbing grenades.

But I'm starting to believe that going out of the way not to provoke those egos is useless. I don't think what I brought up is rocket science, metaphysics, or even a debate with positions. I can't help that people want to take it that way. I don't fault them for that, but it's not my fight. Good luck.

I think it's reasonable here to take as a given that to perceive anything visually by definition involves photons interacting with the retina (a.k.a. visibility), and move on. "Physicality" as it's commonly used concerns masses, volumes and forces on a much larger scale than photons, as far as I know. I'm sure you can argue with that on metaphysical, scientific or semantic grounds and be logically correct. I don't know that doing so would help the discussion any.

"A digital file consists of data, and ONLY data. It contains no qualities, nor analogs of qualities, only values of states and their relative locations. It's more abstraction than object"
Robert, the same logic can be applied to a print - after all it's all a bunch of atoms and their relative locations. In fact, all 'real' objects are abstractions - arbitrary boundaries we put around matter around us for evolutionary purposes.
The truth of the matter is that both prints and digital images affect our visual sense in the same way, regardless of how they are produced (granted, there are some differences - e.g. photon emitting LCDs vs. reflected light, detail observable at different distances, potential size of reproduction, but I don't think that is what you meant by 'tangible').
You argue that one can touch and smell the print, however, I don't see those qualities as necessary for the aesthetic enjoyment of an image. Unless, of course, we're talking about a blind person.

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