Some of the comments to Peter's Voja Mitrovic posts have indicated that there is some confusion out there about what makes a good print or a good printer. This is a topic near and dear to my heart, and I'd love to write much more about it, but what I'd like to point out here is that, while there might figuratively be said to be something "magic" about a really good print, there's nothing necessarily magic about getting there.
A home darkroom worker with decent skills and adequate equipment can make a really good print, one that is every bit as good—although maybe not exactly in the same way—as one made by a master printer.
How can I say such a thing? Because there are several variables that you can't see in the print itself. Mainly: time.
Let me 'splain.
For the most part, artists and devoted hobbyists can be better printers than garden-variety professional custom printers for three reasons. First, they have the client with them—themselves. They know what they want, and they can keep going until they get it. Second, they're only printing their own work. Long practice tends—partially subconsciously—to "groove" our own methods with our intentions and tastes, such that we become very good printers of our own work. We tend to be consistent to ourselves.
But—third—the biggest luxury that an amateur has over a professional is time. As in, the amount of it he or she is free to lavish on the project.
A pro printer in a lab—there were thousands and thousands of them in the old days, not so many left now—is "on the clock." The lab is getting a certain fee for the print and paying the printer a certain hourly wage, plus overhead. The pro just had to crank the prints out. The faster he could work, the more money everyone made. The idea of a pro taking a whole hour to make a single print from a single negative would have been laughable to most custom labs in the wet-print days. And if that worker didn't improve, it would probably be a job-ender. A pro might take several hours on one print, but only when he absolutely needed to. When he could work fast, he did. And he had to be able to.
But what's an hour to an amateur? Nothing. An amateur, working nights or weekends, printing his own negs, is completely off the clock. How much time it takes hardly enters into the equation. He or she could take two hours on a print—or two days. What does it matter? You're just having fun. It's a hobby, a recreation, an avocation.
Undeniably, a big part of being a great printer, pro or amateur, is judgment and sensitivity—I don't argue that. A few pros have those virtues in spades, and quite a few amateurs don't. But other aspects of the pro's skill set are not visible in the final prints: A pro has to be able to get results from all kinds of negatives. A pro has to know not only how to follow the client's instructions, but to get inside her head and get a sense of her tastes. But most of all, a pro has to be fast.
I remember reading an account of how Charlie Pratt printed. I'm going from memory, but I think he did it in three stages. First, a good guide print, to see if he liked the picture. If he did, he'd get into the darkroom and spend half a day making a really good print. Then he'd let it dry, pin it to the wall, and live with it for a few days or a week—study it, contemplate it, weigh his options. Then he'd go back into the darkroom and really get to work.
No custom printer working for money ever had that kind of luxury.
And this is why many fine-art prints are better than most "custom-made" lab prints.
The marvel of Voja Mitrovic—and men and women like him—is that he can make prints "in the style" of many different photographers, from negatives that often vary widely. He can make a good guide print in one exposure from merely holding the neg up to the safelight and eyeballing it. (I could do that too, when I had my chops up. But only from my own negatives.) You can make a guide print that will look just as good as his guide print. It just might take you half an hour and three sheets of paper to get there, is all.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Stephen Best: "The Charles Pratt story comes from Ralph Steiner's preface to Charles Pratt: Photographs, one of my favourite photography monographs. Since the book is (justifiably) hard to obtain, and I have a real soft spot for Pratt's work, and it's a great quote, here's the relevant passage in full:
He [Pratt] came one evening fifteen years ago to a photographic discussion group which I sort of ran. We were looking at a couple of dozen rather ratty photographs, which had been broght [sic] in by a pleasant week-end photographer, who boasted: 'I knocked off these prints in just one evening.'
I was horrified by the prints, by the idea of two dozen in an evening, but mostly by the sacrilegious 'knocked off.' I was afraid of what might slip off my sometimes acid tongue, so I said: 'Charlie, why don't you tell us how you go about making a print.'
Rather shyly he told the group that he would take half to a full day to make from four to six rather good proof enlargements from one or at the most two negatives. He told the group that he would mount them all, and stand them up on a railing in his workroom, and would look at them for a month or so. Then he exploded into his normal, earth-shaking laugh, and said: 'I don't mean that I stand in front of them for a month, I leave them up for a month, stop to look at them some time each day to see how I feel. One day an idea will hit me how I want to print them, and I'll really go to work. Then I'll spend time on them.' That was Charlie.
Mike replies: I guess I got the story "sorta kinda" right. It is a wonderful passage. Thanks Stephen.
I saw the show of the prints from that book—it was in a wonderful little corner gallery of the Corcoran, two rooms that had wonderful light. Like all the exhibits at the Corcoran that I liked (the school, which I attended, was in the basement), I went to look at it numerous times and ended up spending many hours with the work. Later the administration appropriated those two beautiful rooms for offices, which I thought was a shame. I still remember where many of the pictures were hung in those galleries.
Featured Comment by David Simonton: "The Pratt book, Charles Pratt: Photographs was published in 1982 and was edited by John Gossage. Robert Frank, Lisette Model, Jane Livingston, and Ralph Steiner all contributed Introductions.
"About printing, Charles Pratt (1926–1976) wrote:
I spend a good deal of time printing, because to me a photograph is only a photograph when it's a photograph—not when it's an unrealized potential in a badly printed negative, nor when it's a reproduction. Printing is an essential part of the process of transforming the experience into a photographic image. This involves fiddling with tonality, not for the sake of richness as it applies to pieces of silver on paper, but as it applies to the memory of the surface that was in front of me, and as it applies to the unity of the image within the rectangle. The whole chain of effort starts with the experience of actuality at the moment of exposure, and this experience must be held all along the way if it is to be held at the end—as for me it must be.
"Pratt's 'Statement About Photography,' which appears at the end of the book (and from which the above quotation is drawn), is an eloquent, probing, and clear-as-crystal description of the photographic process as it is practiced, and experienced, by a master photographer."