This week's column by Ctein
Mike's thought-provoking column on "Connectedness" raised the question: whither goest photography...or prints, anyway?
Personally, I don't have a clue. But it may be instructive to take a quick, anecdotal look at history. It's true that prints have dominated, ever since the invention of the printable negative, by numbers, but the dominance has been sociologically complicated.
Artistically, printing became very important in photography because it allowed alteration. Software "art filters" are just the latest incarnation of a concept that goes back to the very earliest days of printmaking. Back then, considerable effort went into producing prints that emulated, in some fashion or another, painting or drawing. It was the aesthetic. That's what people thought a visual rendition ought to look like. Impressionism was a dominant form in photographic prints (an interesting turnabout, as it was photography's realism that, in significant part, drove the development of Impressionism).
That changed when the ƒ/64 folk and their ilk threw down the gauntlet and declared that fine photography should be inherently realistic. Although wrapped in the flag of artistic sensibility, it was at least as much a pragmatic decision. Making a photographic print look like a painting or drawing is really hard work! Making a straight photographic print is child's play by comparison. Elevating the straight print to the pinnacle of aesthetic sensibility had utilitarian virtues.
That's driven a lot of the sensibilities about photography. Up through the middle of the last century, it was almost all about prints for commerce as well as art. Kodachrome poked a hole in that, and the invention of easily-processed chromogenic slide films tipped the scale entirely. It was so much easier getting a sheet of film developed than having a tri-color carbro or dye transfer print made. Those of you who have been doing photography a long time no doubt heard the near-universal assertion that the only way you could get really good press reproduction was to start with a slide. That was why important and commercially successful photographers used slide film, as well as eliminating the vagaries of print production from the workflow.
But, if you've been doing photography a really, really long time, you know that that assertion was bogus. When chromogenic films started to encroach in a major way on the commercial photography business in the early '50s, printing houses and press operators swore that you couldn't get good reproduction from a slide; you had to work from a print.
It was only about what they knew how to do, but such prejudices have force. By the time I got into photography, in the late 1960s, most printing houses had forgotten how to deal with prints and slides had become the canon. Utilitarianism again. If you were serious about color photography, either artistically or commercially, you used slide film. Fine (darkroom) printing be damned.
Technically it was nonsense, but it was the accepted social norm. My impression is that it remained so until slide films became increasingly difficult to obtain and get processed, all while color negative films and processing became ever more ubiquitous. In other words, not very long ago.
On a parallel track, for a very long time there was a commonly held prejudice that it was black-and-white that made for serious photography; color was a frivolity. Serious photographers didn't work in color. A large fraction of the fine art photography galleries wouldn't even entertain color.
If you think that had nothing to do with the fact that most photographers who were printers could not come close to mastering color, I will be happy to sell you a bridge. The one of your choice; I can provide deeds of title to any of them.
Convenience drives lofty aesthetic sentiments and photography more than many wish to admit. What does that say about the future of photography? In the long-term, absolutely nothing. You can't predict those kind of trends, although we all have opinions. In the short term, so long as electronic conveyance, through various media and channels, becomes more the norm and more convenient, I'm pretty certain that you will see this elevated to the level of an aesthetic, because, in photography, convenience frequently is.
There's nothing inherently wrong with that. Or, for that matter, working just for screen images, viz. this column. Just keep in mind that the sensibilities and pronouncements are likely to continue to change with technology and convenience.
Ctein's column, a day late this week, usually occurs on Wednesdays.
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