First: digital prints are beautiful. I've always thought so.
Prints to me are it, the very core and center of photography. I really, really love prints. Old ones, new ones, good ones, bad ones. Prints interest me, from superlative fine art prints to discarded ID photos with footprints on them. I've seen prints of every conceivable type from every era and from all over the world, and of most every type. One of my proudest moments in photography was when I was coming out of the Jefferson Annex of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. one evening, after yet another session of poring over priceless original prints, and the guard in the hallway said, "Jesus Christ, do you live here?" I practically did. I didn't see the whole collection, of course, but how could I resist when they were willing to bring me portfolio after portfolio of superb museum-quality historical prints that I could look at individually, without glass, for as long as I wanted to? Printmaking was my personal passion in those days, an obsession, and that was a great, great education.
It was in San Francisco in the 1990s that I saw the first good digital prints I ever encountered. I was there for Photo West representing Darkroom & Creative Camera Techniques, of which I was the Editor, and I went offsite to a gallery show of the new prints then known as "giclée." (There were dye-subs and several other types represented as well.) There was still a lot of status-wrangling (that overriding pasttime of human primates) going on in the field at that time, and the show was taking backhanded slaps in the press and amongst photo veterans at the equipment show (and, as I overheard, from other gallery visitors). And of course the quality of the pictures and of the prints was uneven. But the best of them captivated me—I could tell right away that digitally-made prints had a number of properties that distinguished them in a good way from the conventional optical color printing methods of the day, and had great promise. I was greatly enthused and encouraged.
Another big leap came when home printers began using "stochastic" dot patterns instead of even rows of dots. The random dot patterns—visible to the eye with the earliest printers!—had a pointillistic beauty. I kept several examples for years, but the dyes eventually deteriorated to nothing.
Today, high-end hobbyists can choose from a number of excellent printers, superb inksets, and a great variety of really beautiful papers. We started our print sale program here at TOP so that people would have an opportunity to own and see firsthand their very own examples not only of now-historical optical-chemical printing techniques, but of fine digital prints made on the best materials as well.
The best thing about digital printing at home is that it gives you the opportunity to at least occasionally make a print that is exactly the way you want it to be. No compromises at all. As I said yesterday, sometimes it isn't easy, but the big advantage available to the home hobbyist digital printer is the same as the advantage formerly enjoyed by the home darkroom worker—when your time is your own, you can put all the time you want into crafting an object. Nobody's dictating to you to take only one hour, or ten, or a hundred on a print. If you want to print a file ten times taking a day each time and scrutinizing it minutely in each interim, nobody can tell you you can't. If you want to try six different papers to see how each one subtly changes the look of the print, you can.
Longtime readers of this site might remember my print of Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother. Dorothea herself never made a fine print of that image; and I had seen firsthand the early vintage FSA prints in the Library of Congress. Printing that superb scan at home, I was able to be just fanatical about getting exactly what I wanted. I worked on it for days, researching a variety of published examples, balancing it, cropping it just right. I simply pretended I was Dorothea's printer, charged with making her masterpiece look as good as it possibly could. I paid attention to every detail, even searching for the perfect paper for the image. Fascinatingly, I found that changing the local contrast in Florence Thompson's face actually changed her apparent expression—more contrast emphasized her worry lines and the furrowing of her brow, and made her look more haggard and careworn; less contrast made her look prettier and more serene. I spent several days just mulling over that. No hurry.
Two of countless JPEGs I found online. Let your eyes go back and forth just to Florence's face in each of these representations, and emotionally "read" her expression: to me she looks sadder, more resigned, and younger on the left, more angry, pained, and older on the right. Getting the balance just right is a mere printing decision, but affects the very meaning of the picture and the emotions it communicates.
Regular readers know that I'm not an egocentric guy by nature, and that I'm reticent about "blowing my own horn" so to speak, but I think it's at least possible that my print of Migrant Mother is the best one that's ever been made of the picture. Some readers who own both like it better than Richard Benson's photogravure made for Aperture, and I know it's better than the silver prints made from copy negatives sold by the LoC. I would be willing to put my interpretation against anyone's.
And you don't need a masterpiece to do this yourself. A good digital printer and your own picture files, and you too can make a print that is a masterpiece for you, to your taste and according to your own intentions. You don't have to accept what the camera gives you. You don't have to accept what a lab decides is right. You don't have to please anyone else. You can work according to the light of your own judgment.
You can be in control. That's the best thing about digital printing at home—and it's a great thing indeed.
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Del: "I have your print of Migrant Mother on the wall next to my desk. Every new person that comes to my office offers comments about it; many recognize it without knowing the history. I also keep the book Dustbowl Descent by Bill Ganzel, who photographed and interviewed Florence and her family later. It demonstrates survival at its finest. I work with the poor and addicted and it allows me to demonstrate to others that there is almost always a way forward. Your interpretation of it remains my favorite. Thanks."
Featured Comment by Kelvin Jones: "Mike, I read your blog every day and always get more than a little back for my time. Thank you. Let me pass on something that might interest you. Your discussion of the digital print today reminded me of a book titled The Digital Print—Identification and Preservation by Martin C. Jurgens. A dry title for a fascinating history of digital printing published by Getty Conservation Institute in 2009. It's encyclopedic in its coverage and well illustrated to boot. There's a fascinating variety of different screens and dot patterns described in the poster included at the back and much more besides. A good geek reference for your shelf."
Featured Comment by George Barr: "I'm the proud owner of one of those lovely Dorothea Lange prints and have to say that Mike did a wonderful job of it. After I purchased his print, I downloaded the file from the Library of Congress and spent a few hours making my own edits, but none were as fine as Mike's and I resolved to just enjoy his print, which I continue to do. If Mike were to offer that print again, I'd strongly encourage getting his print of this classic of American photography."
Featured Comment by David: "OK Mike, I give up!! Which one is the original Dorothea Lange JPEG?!? I'm stumped and Im never gonna win the prize. :-( "
Mike replies: I know you're joking, David, but so as not to cause confusion, Dorothea took the picture with a Graflex Super D SLR (yes, SLR—and no, not DSLR), as shown in this old post, on 4x5 black-and-white film. The negative was the property of the U.S. government from the get-go and was never copyrighted—by law, it never can be. The first prints would have been made by FSA technicians back in Washington, although I'm not sure off the top of my head whether they or she would have developed the negative (there is limited space in my head, and the filing system is not the best). For some years, members of the public could buy inexpensive prints made from the original negative, but then, because of the picture's popularity, copy negatives began to be used. Again, not sure of the timeline. Now, the Library of Congress no longer makes traditional optical/chemical prints of the picture for sale—the Prints and Photographs Division sells inkjet prints made from a scan. Dorothea herself never earned any money from the picture, except indirectly; the subject, Florence Thompson, never earned any money from the picture, a fact she was bitter about later in her life; and as far as I know Dorothea never made "artist's prints" of the picture herself nor was able to sell fine prints of it.
Speaking of filing systems, the original FSA pictures were all printed more or less 8x10, mounted to black cardboard, and stored in row after row of filing cabinets, which as of 30 years ago still occupied the main reception room of the P&P Div. They've moved since then, so I don't know about now. Presumably, the Migrant Mother in those files would be the original vintage print of the image, but I never managed to find it there myself; possibly it had been stolen, or removed to prevent theft, or maybe I simply never looked in the right place.