A number of years ago Steven Ray hired me to go to New York and shoot in a printing plant. The company specialized in printing the boxes that exquisite perfumes come in. The printer in the photo above is holding a thick sheet of glossy black that will eventually become a Chanel box. The printers were masters as foil stamping which imparts a metallic design element to the printed product. Their presses were also works of art. We shot all day long with a Hasselblad camera and three lenses, the 50mm the 80mm and the 150mm. All the film was Tri-X. So what I ended up with a few days later was a box filled with sleeved slivers of negative film and sheets of black and white contact images. Each one a delicated 6cm square with the frame numbers and edge information as a diffused and diaphanous ribbon against the black edge. To a non-photographer the film was unintelligible. It needed to be interpreted and applied before it had meaning. From the beginning of the project there was always the intention that the film would be printed. The secondary intention was that it would be printed large.
The end result was large black and white prints in a display at the Jacob Javitts Center for an industrial graphic arts trade show. The images were almost twelve feet tall. And they were wonderful. No one walked by the prints, which formed the boundaries of the companies large display area, without stopping to stare.
And thinking about this made me reconsider what I think about photography and its transition from analog to digital. Somewhere along the continuum we traded the idea that our work was destined for print (whether the fine art print, the magazine page, the poster, the package or the work print) for the idea that it was satisfactory for people to view our work on computer screens, telephone screens and as very low resolution projections. We talk about losing the magic of film but perhaps what we are really saying is that we lost the magic of the print.
While the iPad screen is seductive in it's immediacy, and the flat screen TV in the living room seduces us into a certain relaxed passivity, neither is a good substitute for a well made print, well seen. But what the electronic displays have done is to make it implicitly "okay" to not follow thru and make the print. And without the print as the final step photography is transformed from something that could always be objectively viewed and talked about into a medium that presents your work differently from house to house and computer to computer. Every screen is different and the proficiency of the viewers in preparing their screens is boldly distributed across the Bell Curve. The ultimate in subjectivity.
How can we talk about images if green here and green there are not the same? If the gamma is different from device to device? And how can we take our fellow artists seriously when they insist on showing us their work on 5 square inches of telephone screen space?
When I pause to think about all this I come to understand my nostalgia for medium format film cameras better than I have in the months gone by. It's really a nostalgia for the entirety of the process, including and culminating in the print. The print is the gold standard.
Screens both hide and reveal many flaws of technique and visualization. Sometimes with a mercilessness that precludes the idea that "loose technique" can also be evocative art. The print is my interpretation. It doesn't matter if the image started life as a digital Pen file or a scan from a twenty year old Tri-X negative, it's the interpretation into print that gives it the final step of life.
When I made the images above PhotoShop had just been on the market for several years and was no where near as sophisticated (and culturally intrusive) as it is today. Any effects I wanted in my prints I did by hand. Done over and over again the eye and the hand (burning, dodging and softening) worked in close concert to draw my intention from paper and chemicals. And, like snowflakes, no two darkroom workers work their process of interplay with prints in exactly the same way. This gave both the image and the print (as a separate part of the equation) their own primacy and singular style. And, try as I might to be uniform, each print that was burned and dodged and toned and nurtured was different, even if only microscopically, from the ones before and after it. That made each print unique and surprising.
In all things artistic, and in all attraction between the sexes and between people, it's not the perfection or repeatability that inspires, intrigues and invests us, it's the imperfection. The thrill of discovering singular nuance. Of savoring something that can't exist in exactly the same way somewhere else. Each finished print was special. PhotoShop, Inkjet printers, actions and all the rest of the new methods rob us of the genuine thrill of discovering and savoring imperfections. The imperfections inform beauty. And the unveiling of beauty is what drives my photography.
My practice is not akin to a printing press where we stamp out identical products. It's about constantly changing and challenging and experimenting. And chance helps us fail better than perfection and by failing reveals a new path to art.
All of this to say: We need to make and share more prints. That's where the rubber meets the contextual road.