Elisabeth Spector wrote an excellent response yesterday to DD-B's post about the evolution of the Lincoln Memorial print. Since then, several people have "piled on" and agreed with her that they don't like some of the changes Ctein and DD-B made to the picture. (I do, but that's beside the point.)
What I think might be getting overlooked is what is explicit in the rest of DD-B's post: he worked with his printer (and friend—Ctein) to get the result he wanted. He describes this process in some detail. And he succeeded—that is, he did get what he wanted—as you can read right there in English at the end of the post, where he says the print is "certainly the finest rendering of the image I've ever seen!"
This is a great example of what I mean when I say (as I often do) "you've got to take mature artists at their word." (And by "artists" I just mean creators of artworks—that term "artist" is so loaded.) What that means is, once you've determined that the creator of a work of art or craft is skilled, competent, and practiced enough to actually achieve what they're after, then you really can't argue with their choices. It's their work. They get to decide.
There are, naturally, a few things you do get to decide. You get to decide whether you like that artist or not, of course. If their choices consistently bug you or detract from your experience of the work, then maybe you just don't sync well with that person and his or her work isn't for you. (plenty of artists are like that for me.) You can also learn from another creator's choices—this is what Elisabeth is describing she went through. She's clarified her own feelings about what she would have done differently if David's picture had been hers. That's important.
I think you can learn from other creators (you'll notice I'm avoiding that "artist" word) in both a positive or a negative way. Both are equally valid. You can admire someone and want to emulate their work—model yourself or your approach on them; you can also intentionally reject another creator's choices and resolve to avoid them.
Either one can be important to your own work. Many times, encountering an artist who is very clear about his or her own artistic strategies can have the effect of "forcing" you to deal with it and arrive at your own conclusion, either as a creator yourself or as a critical viewer and appreciator of work. A few "fer instances": Andreas Gursky Photoshops his work as part of his creative process. Positive or negative for you? (Don't answer these questions to me—I'm not asking, I'm suggesting that these questions are what you should ask yourself.) There's a photojournalist I've written about (forgot the name!) who uses heavily oversaturated colors. That might drive you to consider color saturation in your own work, pro or con. Ralph Eugene Meatyard places a sense of surrealism front and center in his work. Accept or reject? Ditto Joel-Peter Witkin's necrophilia. Studying the work of Gregory Crewdson for any length of time will bring you face to face with the directorial mode of staging scenes deliberately and extensively in order to photograph them. Interest you, or turn you off? And so on. I could go on all day.
But back to the subject. While I think "I would have done it differently" is a good learning and self-testing and self-clarifying tool, at the same time I don't think "he should have done it differently" is a very mature critical stance. Do you see the distinction?
(I've been "immature" that way myself, lest you think I'm casting stones. For instance, note my "uncolorizing" of John Moore's famous picture here. You have to scroll down a bit. Bad Mike. Not your picture, not your right.)
Maturity as a viewer and appreciator of photography or any other art starts to come when we give artists enough credit to believe their choices are deliberate, and we can both give them room for their own intentions and also respect their right to shape their own work into what they want it to be. Only then can we really start to work out whether their art can speak to us or not. I don't like Bruce Gilden's methods or his use of flash (I generally dislike flash) but his work is genuine and it convinces me. Adam Fuss's composition and concerns are about as far from mine as they can get, but I still really like his work because he has let me see its coherence and unity.
So learn from DD-B's choices or not, either pro (like the changes) or con (don't like the changes). But agree with them or not—doesn't affect him. His picture, he's the one who gets to say.
(Thanks to Elisabeth)
Print Sale printer and admin Ctein adds: First, I want to remind everyone that I always run these sales on a customer-satisfaction-guaranteed basis. If you really don't like the photograph after you buy it, you can return it and I'll refund your money. This does not happen often, but it does happen. So, if seeing the "before" and "after" versions has put some doubts in your mind about how much you'll like the "after" version, I'd encourage you to go ahead and buy the print. I will bet, with some degree of confidence, that you will like it a lot better when you see the print than you think.
Now, I'm not going to argue with anyone's aesthetic judgments because a.) it's not my place and b.) as Mike said in this post, DD-B, as the creating artist, is the ultimate arbiter of the right way to print this photograph. So far as I'm concerned, this is a fascinating intellectual debate of photographic aesthetics and I'm enjoying it immensely, but it's one in which we have no standing.
Having said that, there's a couple of things going on here that do distort people's judgments. First, remember that you're looking at an on-screen JPEG; the actual print presents tones and total placement considerably differently. The print looks substantially more dramatic than the JPEG. This does interfere with judging the relative impact of the before and after versions. Not saying it would necessarily change anyone's opinion, but the limitations of web presentation mean that we are all "viewing through a glass, darkly."
There is another kind of illusion going on: the web version of the finished photograph looks distorted to me. It looks squat and flat (I mean that geometrically). When I look at the print, it looks taller and narrower, so the sense of verticality in the print is much closer to the way the JPEG of the drum scan looks as it's represented in DD-B's column.
The impression is so compelling that I took out a ruler and measured the proportions of the screen image and the print, because I was certain that some kind of distortion had occurred to make the image more squat in posting it online. It's not! It is entirely an illusion. The proportions are exactly the same—it just looks wrong.
Ain't that weird and interesting?
For what it's worth, I don't get the same distorted impressions when I look at the web image at the top of the original Sale article, so you're not seeing a misrepresentation of the photograph there. I'm positive it's one of those geometrical illusions, maybe something like the patterns that make parallel lines look like they're diverging when they're not or vice versa. Something about having those two images in juxtaposition on the webpage. (I'm arm-waving—I really don't know why.)
Anyways, it's a reminder that we always have to be careful judging a photograph, especially a print, from an online image.
Original contents copyright 2014 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Bob Smith: "I also prefer the original drum scan. The perspective feels more like what you experience when you see the memorial in person. Like it is towering over you. The corrected image seems a little too squared away and not as natural. Regardless, after living in D.C. for thirty years I was without one single photo of D.C. hanging on the wall. Well I'll have one now as soon as this photo arrives. I still like it and it is outside the norm of available shots of D.C. available. Or taken by myself."
ben ng: "I love Elisabeth's comments, as well as Kenneth's. I never show any image other than the finished product. I also never have a printer [printmaker], even one of Ctein's abilities.I don't believe in having someone else print, or 'realise,' as I call it, my pictures. I am the only one capable of it. I really make the print for my own needs and satisfaction, and if others like it, they buy it with nothing else to compare it to. This seems to be the only site where discussions like this take place...wonderful!"
David Dyer-Bennet responds to all the comments generally: I should say, in case it's not obvious, that disagreeing with my decisions is completely and totally okay—in fact it's required; if everybody agrees with me there's something wrong. The kind of disagreement we're seeing here, where people explain how different versions affect them and why they like one better than another, is the best kind of productive discussion. No idea if I'd have thought of removing the ladder. It's possible I'd have said "I wish we could make that go away," even if I didn't know how (then). Seeing it gone, I liked it better. Consistently, the people preferring a different approach are just not going for my idea of strict formality contrasting with the two workers casually standing there. The perspective correction, the ladder, and the cropping all tie back to that same thing, it seems to me. So the ladder (removing it) fits right in with the rest of my choices in printing this, to me.
MikeR: "I am absolutely delighted by the thoughtful and articulate (and polite) discussion this print has provoked, because I am learning so much from it. Thank you to everyone who commented.
"My wife's preference shared the Elisabeth Spector viewpoint, mine the DD-B/Ctein. We had our own discussion about the print, the original image, and the validity of the creator's intentions. A then-and-now contrast: when she shot a Nikon F2, she prided herself in all composition being in-camera, and no manipulation in printing. Today, a Photoshop geek, she abstracts and colorizes her images in a way that reminds me of Matisse. Different tools, different vision?
"Since I have a number of negatives that have frustrated me in the darkroom, I purchased this print to give me a reference point for what can be done by a really, really good printer (Ctein). These discussions, in which Ctein himself has taken part, provide a significant and unexpected bonus, both in technique, and in viewpoint."
"Did I say thank you?"