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Thursday, 03 June 2010


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This topic may be one of the defining differences between photojournalism and art. With a photojournalism degree and 20 years in the business, I very rarely printed my own work. I traveled a lot for different publications and frankly, this was not fine art. I had a printer in Austin do basically everything; develop and make contact sheets. Then she and I would sit down and I could order work prints if needed, but more typically I would order final prints off the contact sheets.
Now that I am shooting for myself, I am printing far more in the digital era than I ever did during the heyday of film. "Developing" more too ;>)
One of the things I have learned in this business is that photographers have very different opinions about photography. As cited in the blog, some photographers would fall over dead if someone else touched their negatives. I was not that way. I wasn't necessarily "right" and any other process "wrong", I just picked a different way to work.

Loss of control seems to be the underlying theme here. But what happens if I choose to use a print maker whom is extremely good at making beautiful prints? It's still my photo, but the print has become a collaboration of sorts. Sometimes you need to have someone else's eyes look at something to make it really pop.

This is obviously not true in all cases. I have had plenty of instances where another printer just didn't get the idea, and I had to print myself. (Which I do enjoy, BTW).

Thank you, this is a great topic of discussion!

I made my living, some years ago, as a custom printer. I still print my own black-and-white photographs, and while I can't claim Ctein's expertise, and would never consider myself a 'master printer',
this post certainly voices ideas that I have never seen put into words. Although thoughts like them have been running around in the back of my mind for a long time...thanks for that.
And having seen many of David Plowden's prints, I have a hard time imagining how they might be improved, by anyone; they seem quite marvelous to me, and express their images perfectly.

Does this thought experiment illuminate anything?

Say you're a photographer who's been collaborating with Ctein for years. And someone says to you that the prints you produce are not entirely yours anymore, you have to share the glory with the printer.

Now, say some guy in his basement comes up with a Photoshop plugin that does for the photographer everything that Ctein does now (some new age AI app; we're just dreaming this up so what the hell). When you now print that picture using the plugin, instead of Ctein, is it now really all yours? Should you share the glory with the software developer? Should the software developer, in turn, share his part of the glory with Ctein for providing the guiding principles behind the AI app?

Your comments on printing others' work reminds me of what Ansel Adams said, that he would like photographers in the future to be able to make prints from his negatives. Not just for the learning experience, but because they might be able to get something from them that he had not.

Jack Dykinga rarely prints his photographs, and I never have any trouble recognizing a Jack Dykinga picture, even in a magazine reproduction.

You give award to movie by different dimension as movie is a joint project. Actors, Make-up, Director, Script, Computer imaging, Filming, ...

Photography seems a bit unusual. Even if it is a big project, as I saw in the DVD of Annie Leibovitz, no one would say that those photos are not hers, even though she cannot make many of her later image just on her own. Why then we would still say that it is Annie Leibovitz's picture instead of, say, directed by Annie Leibovitz instead. It seemed we like the illusion of picture taken by one person even if it is not possible for one person to do it.

Having said that, many of us go solo as we can easily do it now. To the basic of iphone to flickr, D700 to Epson printer, Deardroff 8x10-V700-Epson printer, ... you can and hence you do it solo is a technical possibility that enable such an issue - is not going solo meant it is not your Artist creation?

I think as long as we are transparent and say outright, it should be ok for solo project or joint project. In fact, is there any competition or museum would reject joint project? Would a picture just because it is not printed by HCB not considered for collection?

I think it is just a decision for the "artist" to make a choice but one must be transparent of what you or you-as-a-group has done.

A few years back, Dick Sullivan (of Ziatype fame) was mentioning that at the beginning of the XXth century, French visual artists whose work was printed using some of the esoteric processes of the time would, obviously, sign their own image. The signature of the printer also appeared followed by "Imp." for imprimatur. Makes sense using a music analogy: score by..., interpreted by ... Why not?

I once got into it with a printer who printed one of my MF negs. He cropped it, against my express instructions, and I read him the riot act. My point was the image had ceased to be mine AS PRINTED. He was not impressed with my point of view and I never went back.

Ruth Bernhard's negatives were touched by multiple printers but the artistic vision always remained Ruth's.

Michael Kenna was Ruth's printer when he introduced me as his replacement. A few of Ruth's iconic images I printed rather drastically (blasphemously?) different. Michael printed Ruth's work, as with his own, with a celebration of the grain. I, as with my own, printed some of Ruth's images with a minimizing of the grain. Tonally the two versions were near the same but the grain change could be likened to comparing stone to flesh.

Ruth liked both and requested me to continue printing with a softened grain. Regardless, the images were consummately Ruth's. The vision is what mattered.
Joe Dorsey

You have alluded in the last part of this articles to the two areas of artistic variables that are analoque and unquantifiable: the photographer and printer's vision. For instance have you ever tried to calibrate your printing from one day to the next. Impossible because you are human and fallible. So getting another person's vision on print would be that much more difficult. Returning the premise of this article: What if the printer/editor instructs the photographer what to shoot? Who owns that picture?

Whenever this conversation pops up I think back to something I read a while ago (possibly here, on TOP). That is, the musical metaphor that the negative (or the digital image) is the score, and the print is the performance.

I think that metaphor fits really well. As you can imagine, some performances are made with full collaboration with the composer (or at least with respect to their perceived tastes and desires) and others are made (or, some would say, "appropriated") by a conductor who has his or her own ideas about the score and plows ahead with them.

The same is true with photography. Consider Cartier-Bresson, who never printed his own images. He shot with the expectation that the final "print" would be in the form of a page in a magazine. That doesn't make an HCB photograph any less his.

On the other hand, in these modern days of digital media, there's the idea of the mashup, where people take bits and pieces of other peoples' media (be it music, video, or photographs) and use it to mash together something that they call their own. But that's a far stretch from someone making a conventional photographic print according to their preferences and not those of the photographer.

This leads to the question of degree. If I make a print one way, and Ctein takes my RAW file and makes a print another way, how much difference will there be? It depends on how sharp your eye is and how visually literate you are on these things, but if we both set out with roughly the same intentions for the print, then they will look quite similar (although I have no doubt that Ctein's would be much more refined than mine). But that in no way means it isn't my photograph. It's my photograph as expressed through the masterful printing of Ctein. My score, performed as I'd like to, but better.

In contrast, if someone took my RAW file and spun it into one of those garishly overprocessed HDR images, then it would clearly no longer be my image -- which is to say I would disown that interpretation of it. This is more akin to a mashup (i.e., take image, combine with Photoshop, LSD, and a juvenile aesthetic). It's like taking a Bach cello suite and playing it with tambourines and kazoos.

But what if I liked that awful HDR version? The fact remains that the performance is so removed from the score that I could not claim full credit for it.

So, as a relative youngster, I never did any darkroom printing and have only recently begun doing my own inkjet prints. I'm wondering how specifically this article applies to digital printing. A lot of what is described comes under what I think of as photo post-processing, i.e. going from a RAW file to a TIFF that's ready to hand off to a print shop, or print yourself. That part is clearly a creative effort. I've always thought of it as part of photography rather than part of printing, and I'm sure a lot of people these days who "don't do their own printing" still do their own post-processing work in Photoshop or Lightroom.

And then there's the aspect of getting what you see on your computer screen onto a piece of paper. Even (especially?) with modern inkjets, that's a pretty challenging task if you're fussy about the end result. But it feels more like the role of a technician than an artisan.

Or am I somehow missing the point of what it is that a master printer does?

I find it interesting that the issue of "ownership" of a photo is unidirectional. None of us thinks the act of using paper or film or software created by someone else lessens our right to call a photograph our own. Ultimately art that no one has seen is just masturbation, which argues we not only need someone to help us make an image--to make it worth the effort we need someone to see it. Steve Willard

Previsualization does not result in a bunch of words you can then give to someone else to carry out. It is often a feeling or sensation or suggestion of a possibility that has to then be revealed through processing and printing, sometimes requiring many iterations. And for me at least, it can be partly a process of discovery of additional or alternative possibilities. I am not a documentarian.

To Dennis:

"Would a picture just because it is not printed by HCB not considered for collection?"

I am just guessing here, but I think if I printed one of HCB's negatives, nobody would offer me a dime for it much less collect it. It does matter in this process "Who" prints the image. The skill of the collaborators or the photographer printing alone is a strong and important factor.

I see the issue as akin to the author/editor relationship; the author may, or may not, thank his editor in the acknowledgements ... but the editor has never to the best of my knowledge appeared on the cover of any book. Yet most writers would tell you the editor makes a LOT of suggestions to realize the author's artistic vision.

"creative vision doesn't originate with the printer." That sums it up for me, photography isn´t comparable to an oil/watercolour/etc painting, dificault to imagine two artists working on the same canvas. Ctein and other printers are there to enhance and reinforce a beautiful image previously created.


Very interesting insights, as usual.

May I extrapolate only a little beyond your last point and propose that every print is a collaboration, even when shooter and printer share the same body? To me, this seems consistent with Adams' score/performance analogy.

One perhaps obvious point: the collaboration as such is necessarily limited by the weakest link, whether we are speaking of one or multiple persons, and in proportion to the weakest link's role. I would also think that when multiple personalities are involved that compatibility, on multiple levels, is an important factor.

Another point worth making, I think, is that many photographers who do their own printing tend to tailor their shooting process to their printing process and/or vice versa, potentially integrate it all as more or less a single process. This may be conceptual or technical to varying degrees, of course, and may happen intuitively or consciously.

Which is not to say that this isn't possible with close collaboration between two or more parties, nor is this necessarily the route to the "best" prints in any case.

Which brings me to my question: who (or what) is the ultimate arbiter, anyway? A "better" print is something of a judgement call (as you note). While there is overlap and consistency, judgments vary, and may depend as much on context and circumstances as taste and discernment. I imagine, for example, that a master printer prints slightly differently for different known purposes (album vs framed in a home vs framed in an office, e.g.)?

"Yet most writers would tell you the editor makes a LOT of suggestions to realize the author's artistic vision."

A friend of mine was an chief editor at a publishing company that published books in a certain field of expertise, meaning many of the authors were not professional writers. He used to say that he should really have been credited as co-author on many of the books he edited.


In the pro audio industry, a mixing engineer may work on the final mix (from the multi-tracks) for days, weeks or even months (usually, but not always in collaboration with the producer and/or artists). The process is controlled by a system called "automation" in which every adjustment of a fader or any control on the console is memorized. Over the course of the process the "perfect" mix is achieved that presents the artistic vision of the music perfectly.

Yet, in almost all cases, the final mix is presented to a "mastering" engineer, who takes these "final" mixes, and with a fresh set of ears makes further tweaks to what was previously the perfect mix. And it is usually done by him or herself, not in collaboration with the artist or producer.

I mention this just to present a different collaboration "workflow" that is used in in the production of commercial music.

A couple of relevant quotes (from memory so not exact):

David Vestal--I have to print my pictures myself because I need to print them to know what they should look like. I wouldn't have the faintest idea what to tell someone else to do with them.

Bill Pierce--When you find yourself doing quarter-grade contrast adjustments or 1-CC color adjustments, it's time to stop printing and go have a beer. You will never see those differences in the morning.

In my case, I've always printed my own pictures, for reasons that resemble Vestal's, as well as simple economics. I've seldom been in the position where the opportunity cost of spending time in the darkroom was greater than the cost of hiring prints done, even if I'd thought it a good idea. I've also never printed other people's work, for much the same reason I've never done portraits or weddings. The idea of "retail photography" or printing other people's pictures is just a place I don't want to go.

But that's just me. Many photographers who do very good work rely on printers to make very good prints from that work. I don't think there is any place for an automatic value judgment in this.

Since we're invoking Ansel Adams, let's further invoke his analogy of photography with the artistic situation in music: that the negative is the score (say, the piano music that the composer wrote), and the print is the performance. Sometimes the composer/performer or photographer/printer are the same artist, sometimes two artists. It doesn't make either one less of the kind of artist that they are.

As a musician and photographer, I have to say that Adams's analogy gives me a lot to think about.

IN the documentary "The War Photographer," James Nachtwey is shown interacting with his printer. The conversation seemed to me to make two points: Nachtwey knows precisely what he wants, in his head, and expects the printer to get it; and he couldn't do it himself, because he doesn't have the requisite chemistry skills to do that.

I'd also note that in other arts, like painting, even with the greatest painters, there is very often an interaction between them, and long conversations about the use of color, texture, brush stroke, etc. In other words, they feed off each other's ideas, often very explicitly (Braque and Picasso, Monet and Renoir). The resulting paintings are not considered collaborations.


I've had to consciously work at being able to "look through" prints that suck.

Being a custom printer meant I had to have a very refined idea of good printing. But being a writer and critic means I have to be able to look with an open mind at work that is sometimes crafted very poorly or indifferently.

I've done a pretty good job for the most part, but in a few cases I have to admit defeat.


Ctein, a little off topic comment. I like your collaboration work with Laurie Toby Edison. Interesting, very intersting.


And then, of course is the photographer who has vision, but just can't print. I've known many photographers that had great vision but couldn't print to save their lives. (I'm one of them. Had a darkroom for 15 years and made my first "great" b&w print on an inkjet printer, but managed to commercially print Cibachromes?) And some of them tried very hard. For these artists an association is essential if their "vision" is ever to see the light of day. If these photographers print no one sees whatever it is they're trying to say. But with the help of a good printer their message is heard loud and clear.

So maybe, if the photographer directs the printer it's still a principal work of the photographer and if the photographer lets the printer go "wild" then it's a collaboration.


Mike J. said

"A friend of mine was an chief editor at a publishing company that published books in a certain field of expertise, meaning many of the authors were not professional writers. He used to say that he should really have been credited as co-author on many of the books he edited."

I volunteered to do extensive technical review and editing of my friend's book, and managed to make a number of areas much easier to understand for "ordinary" readers. My friend did add me as a co-author, which I appreciated very much. I had not directly written any word that got inserted into the text.

My father was a very good B&W photographer. He always sent his film to a man in Japan to develop and print. This printer knew just how my father wanted the pictures to look, and a lot of good prints came back from Japan (Dad wouldn't have been able to print a picture himself, nohow, no way).

When this printer retired, Dad found another, also in Japan. The prints were noticeably lower in - I won't say quality - appeal. To my eye, they didn't quite look like my father's pictures any more.

When this second printer also retired, my father stopped taking pictures.

When I think about it, I realize that the first printer's work was essentially transparent - Dad's notion of how his pictures should look came through effortlessly - while the second's was less so.

It looks to me as if we are at a point where two skill sets are necessary to get a picture onto paper -- a good eye with the camera and a good command of Photoshop or equivalent software, and an intimate knowledge of the inner workings of a printer.

In my parallel life, I'm a textile junkie and go to quilt shows. Fewer and fewer quilts are quilted by hand these days. More often than not, the quilt top (pieced by one person) is turned over to another person who has a large and complicated, long-necked sewing machine. That person does the machine quilting. Many of the quilts in exhibitions will have the name of the person who did the machine quilting displayed along with the name of the person who pieced the top.

I wonder if photography and printing are headed in this direction -- recognizing the artistry of the photographer and also the technical skill of the printer.

Just an observation.

Dear Robert Roaldi,

Oh I know exactly what would happen if someone invented the "Ctein plugin." All the naysayers would run around whining that this wasn't real art because "the machine did all the work."

Like we've never heard that one before.

What's intriguing is that while mulling over a response to your post, I realized that I *could* come up with an algorithmic structure that would automate a substantial fraction of what I do as a custom printer. Absent the development of the 36 hour day I have no interest in putting in time to do so, but this is not as far-fetched an idea as you might think.


Dear Ken,

One of the necessary skills for a successful custom printer is that they need to have a fussier eye than their clients do. The day-to-day variations that bother me would be invisible to most people.

I don't see the point of your inverted question, nor can I even make sense of it. Why, as a printer, would I ever be instructing the photographer *what* to shoot? I don't understand how this bears on the discussion.


Dear Cameron,

I'm not going to answer your questions this time because you have anticipated a good deal of what my next column is about. Patience; next week we will go there.


Dear Mark,

One of the other necessary skills for a successful custom printer is they have to know how to be able to ask questions that will elicit useful responses from the photographer. As a fallback, they can generate printed variations on a theme, present them to the photographer. and ask the photographer to tell them which one they like best. From that they can divine what the photographer's after, even if the photographer is too inarticulate to express it. I know labs that worked that way. It was too inefficient and wasteful for my taste, but it is a successful approach.


Dear Robert E,

You are absolutely right that a master printer prints differently depending upon the ultimate venue for the print. In fact, it vexes me some when I don't know the ultimate disposition of the print; then I have to tailor it to my own best-guess average, which will likely bear no relation to the eventual reality. I shrug and do the best I can, knowing that nobody else could do any better without having a crystal ball.

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

Previsualization does not result in a bunch of words you can then give to someone else to carry out.

What is previsualization? Surely just 'visualisation'* without a 'pre' is already something done in advance.

(* Proper English spelling!)

"If anybody can print a photograph, is photography really art?"

"Do 'real" photographers create the images on their web sites?"

Mike - What proportion of the photographic prints in your own collection are printed by the photographer? Bonus points for statistics for your own photographs, if statistically significantl. And excluding books, in this instance.

- Tim

This is a long-established etymological niggle. It's true that "visualize" does 100% of the work of "previsualize," making the latter redundant, but despite this it's the longstanding term of art in photography for visualizing the end at the beginning, the result in the conception, however you want to put it. It makes it into a specifically photographic term, which I guess makes it useful enough to tolerate.


Robert Roaldi's analogy with the Photoshop plugin points in a direction that I already thought of reading the former post. When custom printing takes away (at least partly) the artistic ownership, what about the film emulsion, darkroom chemicals, papers, the lens, sensor design, raw processing, design of printer (heads and firmware), profiles and printer driver?

Ctein, you drew a very balanced and rich reflection over an interesting topic. Maybe another aspect in the discussion about printing is that it is just possible to do yourself. Lens design and all the other factors relevant to rendering usually are not, so no one questions if it is still your picture when it was made through a XY-lens or printed on Z-paper.

However I can see the attraction of controlling as much as possible. But then again, the day has only 24 hours, and sometimes you get lost in minute details, instead of producing more work or just having a beer, which sometimes leads to interesting pictures as well ;-)

'No doubt you're right; but it would no longer be my photograph.'"

I wonder how that would apply to writers.

I mean, I could write a book but if I didn't print it myself, it would not longer be my book. Huh.

Regarding Ed Kirkpatrick's qoute:

"Would a picture just because it is not printed by HCB not considered for collection?".

As I recall HCB did no printing of his work; it was by a custom printer in Paris (Magnum's?).

However, I don't recall hearing anyone challenging his work's originality.

This is a bit convoluted, so let's see if I can get it on the page.

In collecting circles, there's some preference for prints made closer to the time the photo was taken. I'm unable to remember the term right now, or anything close enough to Google it up (everything I think of is so generic it gets millions of hits).

Why is that? Well, different collectors / authors have different ideas about that. It also varies by photographer. In some cases, it's likely that an immediate print was by the artist, and a later print was by somebody else, and the immediate print is then worth more (even if the later print is clearly better).

But this carries over into photography in general. Why is that?

Well, I suspect it's a form of recognition that the print IS a collaboration; even if it's between the Ansel Adams who took the picture one year, and the Ansel Adams who printed it 10 years later. The closer they are together, the more they can be seen as implementing a SINGLE artistic vision (10 years later, you're somewhat a different person).

But maybe it's all just spillover from the uncertainty about who made later prints for some photographers (as they get more popular and richer, they're more able to hire somebody to print).

"In collecting circles, there's some preference for prints made closer to the time the photo was taken. I'm unable to remember the term right now"

"Vintage print."


Is this really about printing though? Surely a crop has nothing to do with printing - it's a compositional device. Doesn't take a printer to suggest a crop - show a photo to some colleagues and they'll all be at it. Similarly there are many ways that two parties can collaborate on an image. I recently had a fellow photographer make some digital "enhancements" to one of my images. In an instance like that they can range all the way from almost undetectable to wholescale manipulation.

All of this (and other scenarios) involve conscious collaboration between two or more parties, so surely they should just agree on the ownership between them.

An additional interesting thing that this throws up concerns arguments about the difference between a painting (or drawing etc) and a photograph. A source of some discussion on occasions. Re-jigging a painting doesn't normally enter the equation - although Duchamp maybe improved la Gioconda - but does the current discussion illuminate these arguments or not?

Thanks Mike, that sounds right to me.

Andre, the whole process of publishing a book is certainly complicated, and probably does have some relationship to working with a custom printer. A good editor can help the author realize what they're groping for in ways analogous to a good custom printer. The physical object is realized by instrumentality entirely outside the physical control of the author or photographer, and yet they're accepted as the creative force in the work.

However, it has to be the whole PUBLISHING process; just the PRINTING (which is the word you used) is nowhere near the right analogy.

Lots of writers will agree that their editors made significant contributions to the quality of their work. And that the copy-editor now and then saves them from looking really stupid, too, by catching various kinds of mistakes. Because of the history of printing, going back to hand-set metal type, the industry developed without the option of reliably and accurately just printing what the author sent them.

(My wife has had 6 books published, most in multiple editions, and we've got lots of friends in the SF/fantasy writing and publishing world.)

(Tor books, by the way, gives editors the option of being credited on the title page of the books; you can't choose book by book, just once overall, so an author can't get insulted by their editor refusing to publicly acknowledge editing just their books.)

"I could write a book but if I didn't print it myself, it would not longer be my book."

As soon as I buy it, it's *my* book. ;)

Dear richard,

Yes, cropping really is part of printing. Many of the important adjustments made by custom printers are compositional ones. For instance, most dodging and burning-in gets done to control how the eye moves over the print. Is it drawn to the portions of the scene that are important? Does it get dragged out of the frame by something distracting in the margins?

That's a compositional issue. Similarly, changing the crop on a photograph will exclude distracting elements or move them far enough into the frame that they don't draw the eye out of the picture.

I've often suggested slightly different crops to photographers I print for. They don't accept them as often as they do my suggestions for dodges, burns, and other local corrections, but they're not universally rejected.

It doesn't really matter whether it "takes a printer" to suggest a crop. It doesn't take a printer to suggest a dodge, burn, or a change in color balance. Anyone can look at a photograph and critique it. If the photographer has respect for the viewer, they will give consideration to the suggestion instead of rejecting it out of hand.

The difference is that I get paid to kibbitz, and I'm expected to be right more often than not.

In no way, though, do I think this results in a collaborative work nor one that I have any ownership in.

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

Hello Ctein - thanks for the response. I should have said that I was in agreement with you on the main point of your article, so I apologise for going off-topic. It's just that it got me thinking about the different ways in which photographs are presented. The most obvious being crops for publication, either for aesthetic reasons or whatever. Burri's Che, Nick Ut's Vietnamese napalm victim for example. Photojournalism is different from the relationship of the fine art printer and photographer of course. In the art world, if paintings are reproduced even with a small crop they are usually marked as "detail" - this is an explicit acknowledgement that there is only one definitive version of the original. Just another indication of how far photography is removed from the other "mimetic arts" (Sontag)

Richard: Cropping happens in the darkroom, in the traditional workflow. It is in that sense part of printing.

And it is as much part of printing as anything else is -- exposure, contrast, local exposure correction, image tone, paper surface, size.

It doesn't "take" a printer to suggest a crop, but, in darkroom printing, it takes a printer to IMPLEMENT one.

"It doesn't "take" a printer to suggest a crop, but, in darkroom printing, it takes a printer to IMPLEMENT one."

And, as many of us know, just leaving instructions for a crop is no guarantee the lab is going to get it right.


David. MAybe you misread my point, or more likely I mis-wrote it. Of course if the end product is a print then cropping is part of the printing process. but I was thinking about photographic collaborations in other contexts than the photographer/printer relationshiop. It was off-topic though, because Ctein's post was specifically about printing

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