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Monday, 28 July 2008


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Good point, Tim.

This was driven home to me when I went down to Washington, D.C. to catch an exhibition of the work of André Kertesz.

The story goes that he couldn't afford an enlarger at first, so he made contact prints. No matter why he made them--these tiny (maybe 2"x3") prints are entire worlds unto themselves. The National Portrait Gallery had them up well framed and matted, and well lit; I stood with my nose nearly to them and...fell in.

The book of the exhibition was quite well done, but the reproductions of those tiny prints are just reproductions. They have none of the gem-like depth of the original prints.

Dear Tim,

I fail to see what's new.

Most photographs are seen by most people in reproduction, and that's the way it's been for half a century, at least. The reproduction, 99% of the time, does not do justice to the original. If the medium of the photograph is one that the viewers aren't familiar with, it is guaranteed that they will get a false impression of the medium's characteristics from the reproduction. There's nothing special in that respect about daguerreotypes. The same holds for platinum prints, ambrotypes, carbon and carbro prints, both color and B&W, and dye transfers. Until you've seen originals, you won't 'understand' what you're seeing in reproduction.

Eh, what possible solution to that is there? Don't let me see reproductions???

Even when the medium is familiar, execution may set it apart. I didn't (and couldn't) appreciate how good Ansel Adams prints were until I saw an exhibit of originals.

Reproduction always denatures the photograph. Online reproduction is not worse that way than on-paper, believe me!

This ain't new and it ain't a big deal.

pax / Ctein

That's not a problem unique to photography. I'm still stunned by the experience of seeing several Van Gogh paintings in the Musee D'Orsee.

I literally had no idea they looked like *that*.

Indeed, Tim, your assertion can be extended in any number of directions far beyond pure photography. That tiny 72 dpi electronic images of daguerreotypes don't offer the same visual experience that in-person viewing offers does not devalue the real thing any more than a photo of the Grand Canyon devalues that spectacle.

Were it not for GEH's efforts to scan and make these images available online most of us probably would never know they even existed, let alone ever see them.

So rather than complain, let's celebrate the electronic exhibition of these extraordinary artifacts. Those who would truly fully value the images will make the effort to visit the GEH or see them in exhibition elsewhere. To all others, 72 dpi thumbs are more than adequate.

I think it's interesting that this could be said of any form of art. For instance my wife works in stone ground ink and I have found no way to do her work justice though I use ever better lenses and ever better light. When you look at the detail of the original next to the image you can only be stunned by the depth and clarity of the original work.
She just walked in the room and I explained what I was writing about and she said 'How could it?'

Of course you would never enjoyed the experience of the daguerreotypes without the reproductions...which were reproductions....


Online reproductions are particularly suspect; absent are all the subtle, intimate nuances that can literally turn a mere snapshot into a masterwork when seen in person. I've readily dismissed way too many reproductions online, only to be knocked on my ass again and again upon first seeing an actual print of the image I thought I knew.

I'm completely with Tim on this. A photograph of a mountain means nothing to you if you've never seen a mountain. A lot of what we get from photographs depends on what we bring to them. When you show ME a reproduction of a daguerreotype, I can "fill in the blanks" adequately because I've seen literally thousands of original daguerreotypes in my life, and held hundreds in my hands. I at least know enough to be very cognizant of what I'm probably missing. But the online "reproduction" (if it even qualifies as that much) is meager and paltry compared to the real thing.

This is always a matter of degree. I think I could find numerous artists who I could argue put very little of their concern into the craft aspect and the object-quality of their originals, or didn't even intend for their originals to be seen; but just as surely I could give numerous examples of artists to whom the qualities and properties of the originals are all-important, and their work, seen secondhand, can hardly be said to have been "seen" at all.

In any event I think it's a grave error for people who want to understand photography not to look at originals, and in a very real sense looking at onscreen JPEGs of certain kinds of work is hardly even a valid or workable substitute at all. This even goes for all-digital prints, assuming the photographer intends the "final form" of her work to be a print--many of these look far different on paper than they do onscreen.

Mike J.

I still shoot a fair amount of B&W film but don't get to wet print enough. I have two photos hanging near each other. One a well composed harbor scene from Camden, Maine from a digital slr. The other a vintage locomotive on display in Waterville, Maine shot on 35mm B&W film. Both are small 6x9 prints and I enjoy viewing them. When you really stick your eyeball to the print the digital looks almost a bit illustrated next to the silver print. The digital might be ever slightly more detailed but lacks the smooth tonal transitions of The wet print. Mind you I have a top notch printer and use expensive papers but still they do not duplicate all the qualities available from traditional printing. There are so many web gurus with profitable sites telling you digital has far surpassed film as has digital printing. I say bull. I don't mean to get off the topic of vintage, specialized printing methods but even traditional wet printing is now vintage. Sure most pros need to shoot digital to survive but for fine art B&W, film and traditional printing still has it's place.

I agree that the situation is probably no worse with digital than it was when we just had books, and before that when artworks were studied from engravings, occasionally photographs, and descriptions by writers like Walter Pater who could travel to see original works. I've often had the experience of seeing photographs in person that I had only seen in books and being surprised by the scale (sometimes the prints in books were even larger than the originals), the detail, or the tonal range of the originals. I never got Weston until I saw the prints. Anyone who has ever tried to write about paintings from reproductions in books and reference slides knows that no two reproductions of the same work are vaguely similar to each other, let alone to the original.

In some cases the digital reproductions are better than the reproductions in books. A few years ago I was at the Royal Portrait Gallery in London, and at the time you could purchase Fuji Pictrography prints (I'm sure they still offer the service, but I don't know if the technology has changed) of works in the collection in the gift shop--just specify the size and the image, and for a modest fee, they printed it out on the spot. I got a nice print of a Julia Margaret Cameron portrait that I had just seen in the gallery, and while it was no match for the original, it was better than any version I'd seen in a book.

I think we just need to be more disciplined, as most art historians are, not to say that we've "seen" a photograph unless we've seen an original print, and to be conscious of that fact when we are viewing reproductions or casting judgment on a body of work that we may only know through reproductions.

EmmJay said: "There are so many web gurus with profitable sites telling you digital has far surpassed film as has digital printing. I say bull. I don't mean to get off the topic of vintage, specialized printing methods but even traditional wet printing is now vintage. Sure most pros need to shoot digital to survive but for fine art B&W, film and traditional printing still has it's place."

Yes, it does. Digital can't completely replace fine traditional printing. On the other hand, fine traditional printing can't replace digital, either. I like the fact that we now have a far wider choice of options available in digital-usable paper, than were ever available in wet-printing paper (unless you got into esoteric hand-coating practices, which, IMHO, were always heavier on the esoteric than on the photographic.)

In some ways, this change is parallel to the change from the daguerreotype to printed-out photographs. You lost some of the qualities of daguerreotypes, but the gains were far larger. Still, looking at daguerrotypes can be interesting, and not just as a historical exercise, but for appreciating those lost qualities. Same with silver/platinum prints, vis-a-vis the digital.


Search amazon.co.uk or amazon.com. Key in Albert Kahn.

The wonderful world!

One thing, to me, that is a "big deal", is not that the "image' loses in translation; but that the object is torn asunder from it's context. Daguerreotypes are "encased" images. The case is an essential protective device. Why are the cases not there? Look at the images at The Daguerreian Society.org

Photography probably loses the least when seperate from context, but daguerreotypes do lose a lot, out of those beautiful and delightful cases.

IMHO, any time spent in museums, galleries, or homes looking at, and handling actual objects is essential to an educated mind and eye.

Bias alert. I frame paintings, individually, so context is my main activity.


@John Bates: My thoughts exactly! I too was absolutely taken away by the originals and have since refused to look at books with Van Gogh or Monet reproductions.

Which then ties in with Ctein's question. I guess I *have* refused to look at reproductions, although I don't want to generalize too much on this point.


In a T.O.P. post from May 28, 2008, titled “Great Photo Books You Can Buy New—Part I: Reissues,” number three is John Szarkowski’s, THE PHOTOGRAPHER'S EYE. In this book, Szarkowski repeatedly referenced PRINTS AND VISUAL COMMUNICATION by William M. Ivins, Jr.
Ivins wasted no time stating his belief that “the principal function of the printed picture in western Europe and America has been obscured by the persistent habit of regarding prints as of interest and value only in so far as they can be regarded as works of art.” Shortly thereafter he declared “since the invention of writing there has been no more important invention than that of the exactly repeatable pictorial statement.”
Ivins saw photography as a very important development in the utilization of the most important invention since the invention of writing, and thus no small thing. We now know in what way the photographic print on paper and the reproduction of photographs on paper will be safely placed within the continium of the development of the exactly repeatable pictorial statement.
We would compare a virtual image of a daguerreotype to the daguerreotype? How would we compare a photograph of a woodcut to the cut block of wood?

Who is it that said ' the negative is the score and the print is the performance' ?
Wasn't it Ansel?

Think of all the musician/composers that give us a different take on a song with each performance.

John and Bojidar,

I had much the same experience with Van Gogh. I fell in love with his work through reproduction, but I was fortunate enough to see the traveling exhibit before the Van Gogh Museum was finished in the Netherlands. Ohmigawd.

Totally spoiled looking at the reproductions for me. The best of them aren't even close to pale imitations of the originals. There are few other artists whose work gets butchered so badly in reproduction as his.

So here's the thing. If I hadn't had the mediocre reproductions to begin with, I'd never have even bothered to go see the exhibit. How else would I have discovered his work? Few of us have the privilege to live near world-class museums, and even fewer of us to see representative samples of more than a few artists' work.

I would give Tim's thesis some credence if someone could convince me that either (a) the quality of online reproduction is significantly worse than the quality of reproduction in the typical art book the mass public has been likely to see over the past half-century or (b) people are more likely to think that images they see online are accurate representations of the original than they are when they see them in books.

In the absence of real evidence for either of these, I find Tim's thesis that the road to hell is being paved with digital intentions to be bereft of merit. And, I emphasize, that that was his point. Not the mere, indisputable statement that seeing reproductions is a pale imitation of seeing originals (oh, tell me something new), but that the increasing availability of online content is degrading art appreciation.

This is just another one of those "oh my god the sky is falling" claims that I think doesn't hold up to any kind of scrutiny.

~ pax \ Ctein
[ please excuse any word salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's online Gallery http://ctein.com
-- Digital restorations http://photo-repair.com

Ctein, Tim was talking about photographs in particular, not paintings or art in general. There are some subtleties to the problem that are distinctive to photography as compared to, say, painting.

Tim's "contribute to a devaluing of photography" framing sounds to me like a variant of "why don't people take photography seriously as art?" angst.

I think we're straying perilously close to Sontag territory, here, updated for the digital age.

Maybe we should just post some pictures of pretty flowers, eh?

I agree with Ctein. Even if there were a danger of believing that looking at a web image of a daguerreotype can convey what it is like to look at a real daguerreotype, what follows? Ban web images of daguerreotypes? Will that bring more people to appreciate the beauty of a real daguerreotype? Carried to the extreme, people should never look at pictures of things if they haven't seen before the thing itself because they may believe that the picture shows what the thing really looks like.

And I believe that Mike's statement "A photograph of a mountain means nothing to you if you've never seen a mountain." is way off. What if the photograph is, in effect, the only way for me to able to see what something looks like? Such as photographs of Mars? I was fascinated by Taryn Simon's book "An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar" precisely because these were pictures of things and places that I did not know existed, had never seen and, most likely, never will see.


There's no reason not to post manques of daguerreotypes online, no reason to limit one's viewing of reproductions to things one has actually seen, and my "mountain" statement is indefensible on its face. What's worthwhile to guard against is confusion: the idea that because you've seen pictures of the surface of Mars you know what the surface of Mars looks like. You don't, really; you've just seen some partial evidence, and have gotten a partial idea; it's a lot better than nothing and a lot less than if you'd experienced it yourself, which you can't do in that case, obviously.

Reproductions of some photographs are in some cases BETTER than the original photographs (in the past I've used the example of Roy DeCarava); in other cases they are workable substitutes, for instance when they are the same size and carefully mimic the original in all or most observable respects; in some cases they are different but equally expressive of the artist or photographer's original intent, as Oren points out; in some cases the photographer doesn't care anyway so there's no original intent to respect in the first place. But sometimes reproduction doesn't serve. I've written elsewhere that I've never seen good reproductions of August Sander's prints, for instance. I don't even think that Gerd Sander's modern reprints from the original negatives are adequate substitutes for August's prints.

I might also note that onscreen JPEGs can have their charm--I actually enjoyed looking at photographs in that form in the early days of the web, although that sense of pleasure has worn mighty thin with familiarity. But in many cases the reproduction or onscreen JPEG is a report of the original that's simply inadequate. It is only partial evidence of what the original looks like. This isn't only because the original has technical properties that can't be duplicated or communicated in the reproductive medium, but because the reproduction misses the aura of authenticity and historicity that imbues the original--the same reason why replica antique furniture is never quite the same, or quite as satisfying as, actual antique furniture, for instance.

You might argue that such qualities are not a VALID part of the meaning of the object--John Berger circles around just such a case repeatedly in his writings--but I hardly think one can build and defend such an argument while remaining innocent of any direct experience of the real thing! All that we need to guard against is the misapprehension that, because we have seen the online JPEG of the daguerreotype, we know what the daguerreotype looks like. That's all.

Mike J.

You say "a digital image of a daguerreotype seriously fails to do it justice", yet I am astounded at how the opening portrait looks 3D on my small screen. it must be the light or something else, but that portrait is amazing.

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