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Saturday, 27 March 2010


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"...I'll bet that edge is exquisite in platinum."

Mike - Could you elaborate on this? What exactly would make it exquisite? How would it be worse if it was a digital print?

Sometimes looking at prints, I struggle to see why they're so great (not the photo, but the print). I know a lot of times people talk (on here especially) about how much better prints are than a computer screen. And sometimes I agree; But in a lot of cases, when I look at prints I don't see what makes them so much better than the screen.

Maybe I just haven't seen enough prints...

I'm not one of those who say that prints are "better" than onscreen images. I prefer looking at prints and they matter more to me, but I don't think they're automatically better. Good ones are, maybe, but it's not a given. Actually, onscreen is a great way to look at some kinds of work. Maybe you could even say MANY kinds. There are an awful lot of awful prints out there.

I think platinum/palladium (pt./pd.) would make that edge distinct in a pleasing way. It would differentiate the texture of the wall from the sky. Granted, I'm just guessing. Maybe Carl will chime in here.

Oh, and you could see it too, I'm sure. There's no magic in what I'm talking about here, at least not the invisible kind.


I know what you mean Mike, I really like that picture too. It was probably taken in New England somewhere, but it reminds me of Texas for some reason but don't ask me why. And the electrical wires and parked automobiles don't bother me, actually the wires seem to frame the scene in a pleasing way. I also love the creamy shades of gray. That guy Carl Weese really knows what he's doing. I wonder how he imagined the scene, and if the actual finished print represented his mind's eye?

David: Emotionalism aside, wet prints of any kind are not necessarily better than inkjet prints. Success with either family of techniques distills to experience and craftsmanship.

I've not seen Carl's contact prints but I have been very fortunate to see many 8x10 contact prints by notable snappers. Some are nothing special. Some are magic. But more than any other printing technique, the quality of a contact print relies heavily on the quality of the negative, as there's relatively little opportunity for mediation. (Hey, it's a "contact" print!) If the negative is sharp, the print is sharp. The finest platinum prints have an exquisite tonality and edge definition that must be experienced in-person to be appreciated. Online 72dpi images of them are nothing more than reminders of the in-person experience.

So since Carl's image is all about lines and planes a contact print should be sharp enough to cut your eyelashes as long as the negative is sharp. If, however, Carl was to make an enlargement (wet) of such an image you can imagine how the lines and edges would begin to lose sharpness. (Perhaps scanning and dry-printing could maintain the sharpness over a much broader enlargement range...but that's another story.)

Mike, thanks for the call-out.

David, what Mike is envisioning is the amazing ability of Pt/Pd prints to differentiate close tonal values, especially in the highlights. The lighter values of a platinum print can convey 'more shades of gray' than a silver print or the thin application of ink in a digital print's highlights. This is a picture where I can make a digital print that looks nice--until you see a platinum print from it. There's magic to the way all the white and near-white values are described.

This is not always the case. If a picture lives mainly for its low values, for the blacks and near-blacks, I can often get a better interpretation with a digital print from a careful scan. Every medium has strengths and weaknesses.

Player, glad you like the picture. We'll split the difference on location. It was made in the hill country of far western Virginia, early in the morning on a summer day with haze already veiling the distance. And, as is frequently the case working with an 8x10 inch view camera, a simple, "straight" Pt/Pd contact print comes very close to what I saw in my mind's eye that morning.

"...that edge distinct in a pleasing way."
Thanks Mike - but there may be some "magic" there in the subjectivity of what "a pleasing way" means. Maybe it all just comes down to preference - and I'm sure looking at more prints would probably help me better figure out what my preferences are.

"Thanks Mike - but there may be some "magic" there in the subjectivity of what 'a pleasing way' means."

I guess since Carl just used the word "magic" I can't really argue with you, but I'll just say that I think you would easily see what I'm talking about. Hell, I think *I* would easily see what I'm talking about--as I say, I haven't seen this print fer real.



Embarrassingly, I have never "gotten" Carl's work. Lately, however, I have been thinking a lot about New Topographics. Finally, after exercising every cell of my art-enfeebled brain, I "got it". Geoff’s review really helped. Landscapes -- two schools -- both valid. I tend to favor the naturalistic/majestic school of St. Ansel, but now I understand the other side of the coin. Thanks for this post and Carl, a belated thanks.

CW (my new nom de plume since there are all those other Chris’s)

I don't know if you like it for the same reasons I do, but I got lost in this photo for about five minutes, and that was just a first glance! I'm sure I could probably indulge for much longer, and frequently.

OK, I am sleep deprived today, and I may have simply dozed off, but there's wonderfully complex rhythm in this, with accents, lead-ins, grace-notes and syncopation. There's also an amazing gamut of tones, and triangles and quadrilaterals, yet all arranged in harmonious patterns and progressions, with plenty of guiding lines to lead one around, and just enough curves and texture to relieve the tension and avoid harshness.

A geeky sort-of hobby I have when looking at photographs is finding golden sections, especially nested ones, and there're plenty of that here, too.

A very pleasant diversion.

So where can we see the real thing (I mean the print)?

"The finest platinum prints have an exquisite tonality and edge definition that must be experienced in-person to be appreciated."
Thanks for the explanation Ken. I've seen some pt/pd prints, but wasn't any more amazed with them than other types of prints I've seen. Maybe they weren't good, or maybe I don't know what I'm looking at. Maybe if you haven't tried printing with a particular medium, you don't really understand the difficulties and accomplishments of what you're looking at. Or maybe I'll just never care about the things that others see in certain types of prints.

Only one way to find out though - keep looking. Because I can certainly appreciate the content!

One key to the tonal quality and seeming range of platinum and other printing out paper processes is that since they are self developing they are also self masking. As an area is exposed it darkens and thus reduces it's sensitivity to light. This produces a similar effect as the judicious use of the shadows / highlights feature in photoshop. In some ways this makes exposure of the prints easy , you simply keep exposing them until the highlights look about right and the shadows will literally take care of themselves. This works nicely with super contrast over exposed over developed negatives. A/B development and developer exhaustion techniques in silver based photography can do something similar to that as does the unsharp masking tool in photoshop.

You should keep in mind that there are several approaches to platinum tonality. Irving Penn for example tends to be pretty bombastic emphasizing the shadows.

It's funny to hear of platinum printing referred to as a "wet process" these days.

I admire Carl Weese work, since the famous article on PT/PD, by the time Mike was Phototechmag editor. The Connecticut Woods series are at the top quality of ANY landscape work I've seen. But this Virginia image is, to my eye, nothing more than a representational photography.In its original, it may show all the beauty that a master can handle, but it's far from magnificent to justify som much attention.
May I have missed the point??

I just love this kind of photograph and I can't really explain why either. I'm sure I've taken some shots that are similar in many ways...and then immediately discarded them. Clearly there's a gap in my aesthetic thinking: if I make a shot in this vein I just don't get the emotional charge I get from seeing another photographer's work in the exact same mode.

This is why it is metaphysically impossible that I will ever be Henry Wessel.

A thought about prints vs. onscreen viewing: at least with a print you know what the heck you are seeing. Displays vary so widely that knowing what the photographer really intends is a crapshoot. Last August I started working on a MacBook Pro and its screen idealizes just about anything displayed on it; it just can't be used for "reference" image tuning...yet some of my "reference" images prepped on a calibrated monitor doubtless end up being displayed on MacBooks. You can't win this game.

Is a photograph like this - and response to it - more about the content than the quality of the photograph itself? A scene like this can be in just about any rural area in any state in any time, but it feels more like fifty or a hundred years ago, so it might draw people in more strongly who are looking for a sense of history and the past? And down the street in the small town of a couple hundred people are three bars sitting across the street from each other. Always..

Mike Bailey

Assessments of Carl Weiss's work aside, what the original TOP article and the resulting correspondence demonstrate is the continuing, very American, involvement (I won't say obsession) with "the print" rather than "the image".
I recognise there is a great deal of craft involved in producing a fine print, by any process, but prefer the prevailing European attitude which tends to be that the image is the first and most important thing.

Turning the ordinary into something special... art. I love this because it is an ordinary scene as seen by an artist. Yes we can get lost in it for minutes, looking at all the details... the ordinary way of living in rural Virginia, rural Quebec or many many other rural places in the world. I like this. I'm too amateur to see the distinction between a platinum print or any other kind. But one thing is sure, to photograph daily life and daily landscape in an artistic way sure is a challenge. Well done. Inspiring.

Carl Weese's comment—"every medium has strengths and weaknesses"—perfectly summarizes the fundamental issue with representational images. Platinum/Palladium prints do a fabulous job of rendering delicate highlights and dealing with contrasty images. Well-made digital prints do an excellent job of tonal separation in the shadows, and provide unparalleled fine-grained control of tonal distribution. LCD screens actually have their own virtues; they're crude in terms of fine detail and tonal subtlety, but the contrast range and rendering of neon color are unique. I'd argue that the "Flickr aesthetic" is gradually evolving to take advantage of these virtues, such as they are.

The whole point of quality photographic printing is to optimally process the image to match the strengths (and minimize the weaknesses) of the medium used to render it. That's the 'art thing' of a fine print.

Hugh, you're right there's no single "look" to platinum prints. I recently saw some Penn platinum prints at the AIPAD show--they had massive areas of pure black and very little in the way of middle values. Works fine for Penn's pictures but I'm not sure they were gaining much from being in platinum.

Then there's the famous night picture of a gas station and looming water tower by George Tice (several at AIPAD) that makes an absolute virtue of the 'muddiness' of platinum shadow separations. There was also a seldom-seen silver contact print of the same picture at a different booth. It had clearer, "better" shadow value separations and wasn't as interesting as the platinum version.

Helcio, I'm glad you like the "Connecticut Woods" series. However I'd call those pictures representational photography, too. Really all my pictures are just attempts to describe visually the people, places, and things that I find interesting. A foggy morning in the forest and a hazy morning by the roadside both seem interesting to me.

Carl used to offer inkjet prints of the photographs he posted on his blog. I bought one last year and was immediately struck by the wonderful understated colors. I haven't framed it yet and maybe never will (the few photographs I've framed and hung have convinced me that this is not how photos should be seen) but I take it out every now and then as a treat to myself.

Anyone who liked the little house above should check out the last February photo in Carl's blog at http://workingpictures.blogspot.com/2010_02_01_archive.html . It's a more complete scene, and a little less Walker Evansish.

Carl has been scanning many of this 8x10 and 7x17 drive-in and other landscapes for what I guess are 3-4x enlargements as digital prints. He seems to like them this way as well


Re this prints vs images thing...

Recently I've had the chance to see two exhibitions: one Ansel Adams, one Steve Mccurry. Adams work I vaguely knew, but not in detail - just some of the famous works. The prints were just astonishingly good - I've looked since and there is absolutely no way any of the jpegs I've found online do them justice.

For the Mccurry exhibition, I was more familiar with the images both online and in books (I have The Unguarded Moment and Looking East). Here I think the prints were actually very poor - too big (46cmx70cm was the minimum) so the detail wasn't there and it looked like they had been digitally processed. Some film era ones looked oversharpened, many had the contrast and saturation pushed off the scale into hdr-like territory (some really were horrendous). At least one of large, highly processed pictures was a 1/3 portrait crop from a landscape pictured in the Unguarded Moment.

Here the books and online jpegs are much superior. On a rainy overcast day, the monk's robes don't look neon orange.

Prints can be done different ways, so are not necessarily the best.

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