Is the print dead? Was analog photography really about print? Is digital a different medium altogether?

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.


Jeff Damron said...

Amen. Very well stated.

Timothy Gray said...

Everything you said here is spot on, Kurt. And no, for me, the print is not dead...not even close.

The proof is in the print. It has been and always will be.

As more and more art exhibition submission processes move to digital, curators and jurors alike are realizing(sometimes too late) prints trump jpegs.

Eduardo said...

We have been bombarded with the idea of print and printed media to be dying, it is only natural we see people being more selective with what they read, see and finally buy, in this crisis, cash flow isn't running as free as before. Thus with this the weaker newspapers/magazines will fall, the stronger will stay with changes to offer better quality and new ones will rise, that is the nature of this phenomenon.

The magazine/newspaper digital stand of the Ipad and similar devices is still too expensive because it requires you to buy the gadget, pay monthly fees for being able to be wi-fi free and of course the suscription too, is it really a cost effective solution?

As for printed work prints as you say triumph because of a common problem: Monitor calibration, an Eizo coloredge will display differently a photo than an Apple Cinema Display and an Android phone/tablet, Iphone/Ipad/Ipod, or from the everyday person´s laptop/netbook/desktop computer, it is impossible to show our work in the same way on these options maintaining uniformity, it can't be done.

Thus within constraints that the nature of the digital world puts upon us, ad agencies, newspapers, magazines, etc. the only thing that can give us the same viewing quality and experience is a print, it will look the same in NY, LA, Madrid, London, Dubai, Hong Kong.

People who were adamant defendants of the Ipad, Kindle and other electronic gadgets are now going back to the ol' good paper because it doesn't needs batteries, wi-fi connection, viewing angles, display´s color constraints, etc. we were only complicatiing an experience: sit down open your magazine, book, box of prints and watch them.

Funny thing that the experts claim the death of something only to be a way to promote x, y or z product entering the market.

I don't see the same quality of a beautiful print vs an Ipad/Android tablet showing the same photo, it isn't some kind of romantic nostalgia which leds me to this conclusion: it is the way things are and will be.

Anonymous said...

My generation, raised on digital, is like a gourmet food reviewer who prefers Coke to fine wine. If you don't grow up with it you don't know it. But once you see the difference you understand that your generation (now adapters) got screwed.

I bought a film camera recently and started having big prints made. Night and day. You old farts had a few things figured out right.

And Tim, his name is "Kirk" not "Kurt". Let's respect him enough to get his name right.

Anonymous said...

My second college course in photography was a study of the Zone System. We were taught to Previsualize – working backwards from the PRINT to the scene at hand. I work this way today regardless of Film or Digital as the media. I have a print in mind, sometimes a big one – never monitor or iphone screen. I print much of my work, sometimes really big. I think this experience is important if you want to better your visual skills.


Bill Millios said...

It's funny, I've showed people an image on screen, and then showed them an actual large print of the same image.

The large print is riveting, tactile, and immediate. It has substance. It cannot be casually ignored.

After I noticed that, I started printing my photos more - and printing them larger. I think the preference for printing, as well as the ability to print large, is yet another characteristic of the professional.

I am reminded of a video I saw when Annie L. photographed the Queen of England. The proofs were huge - 11x14s. I don't think the images would have the same impact if Annie had pulled up a computer monitor and said, "Hey, let's check out the online gallery."

sey said...


Jan Klier said...

Well, I could join the chorus of 'well said'.

But I do think it deserves a small caution - while I enjoy a large print for much of the reasons stated, and do semi-regularly make them, it's only a small percentage of population that shares our sentiment.

While a large print was something that was part of the commercial world of photography, it is on the path of becoming something for the collector, not the everyday user. That is totally fine, and a craftsmanship to aspire to. But we have to realize that this is not a market dynamic that returns professional photography into a profession that people can make a living off, because that require a much broader acceptance and appreciation. And markets move forward not backwards.

In a different blog post by Paul Melcher (http://blog.melchersystem.com/2011/09/25/for-a-buck-or-two/) he observed at the end that a more advanced type of photography should emerge to reinvigorate the profession.

So while we're enjoying all of our large prints, we should also be thinking of how we can accomplish this same 'wow' effect a printed image has on us for the digital generation. I don't have the answer, I'm throwing this out as a challenge.

I'm not sure this is the perfect example, but as food for thought - for their 10th anniversary celebration of their online presence Ralph Lauren created a unique light show at their NYC flagship store: http://nymag.com/daily/fashion/2010/11/ralph_laurens_4-d_light_show_i.html

This is the type of work that captures the imagination of image making in the digital area. This is the type of work we should be aspiring to for the same reasons photographers aspired to make large prints decades ago.

Paul Glover said...

I find it ironic that this apparent cultural move away from photographs as a printed artifact to being something viewed on a relatively low resolution display coincides with the great megapixel race, where marketers have successfully sold the idea that more resolution on the sensor is a must-have.

Anyone else think that's just a little mixed-up?

Personally, I'm becoming increasingly disillusioned with the robotically perfect digital process and the digital back-end of the film + scanning process I do now. It's great that someone on the opposite side of the world can look at my modest efforts in photography, but like any trade-off which gives us more convenience, there's a price to pay in quality and control of the final result.

Besides, I like the idea of creating an actual physical object which is guaranteed to be unique in some way simply because of the level of human input involved in its creation.

Doug said...

I love prints but admittedly do not make nearly enough of them and am not as good at it as I'd like to be.

There will always be a place for the fine art print but you can't beat the accessibility of the digital image. It's true that todays monitors are still relatively low resolution, even 2560x1440 is only 3.7 megapixels. Technology continues to move forward and resolution will continue to improve. Even calibration technology is moving forward and it won't be too long before we see self-calibrating monitors, with built in sensors.

Even if everyones monitors are high res and perfectly calibrated, vision is still subjective. Everyone views an image with their own eyes which are subject to the limitations of their own biology (I'm partially color blind for example) and their own artistic interpretation !

emmanuel said...

I love print photography but I spend as much time on screen quality as I do on print. I dont understand why there are photographers who do screen images only when they should be checking print quality too - matt, pearl and glossy each have their own strengths and quirks... but then I did start out in 1987 as a B&W photographer!! Oh how I miss the smell of the fixing agent, hehe.

Sean said...

I agree like everyone else. Images on your computer, or a photo gallery on the web, should be considered like a tray of slides. For the enthusiast photographer, your guests will much more appreciate a few good large prints, or a photo book, than huddling around the computer...

CGSwanson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
FM said...

What a fine commentary. It seems that "picture a day" exercises have become very popular.

You've inspired me to engage in a "print a week" project, and I'm not talking about spitting out a quick print, I'm talking about laboring to get it right.

John said...

I've always enjoyed a real print over a screen. Since part of my photography business is retail sales, I always make sure to show potential clients a print compared to just an image on a screen. I also try to point out the differences in print quality.

Put one of those little digital frames on the wall with a couple dozen photos scrolling across, and put a good 16 x 20 next to it. See which one people talk about more.

Prints are not dead. Some people just have an agenda to push in their own best interest, others just think that because it's digital it should be super cheap/free.

Timothy Gray said...

My apologies to Kirk for getting his name wrong in my comment above.

I have a friend named Kurt, also a fine photographer in his own right.

Will try not to let it happen again.

Thank you Anonymous for bringing the error to my attention.

kirk tuck said...

Timothy, not a problem. Thanks for the comments.

John Krumm said...

Reminds me that I'm behind on my printing. One reason we (at least I) don't print as much as ideal is that it takes up a fair amount more time than the rest of the workflow. Putting the final touches on the image (in my case that usually means de-saturating a bit for printing), dealing with printer and paper problems, and of course running out of ink. Nothing much to whine about, so perhaps digital has just made us too lazy to print.

Richard Wasserman said...

Hmmm, I just finished framing 35 B&W 16x20 silver gelatin prints from 4x5 negatives for an upcoming show. Nothing else compares to prints! They have a visual and tactile solidity that a computer monitor certainly doesn't—I think they are much more serious. I don't consider a photograph finished until it is printed. That said, I am not a commercial photographer and concede that that world probably works differently.

Jet Tilton said...

many people will wish that they had made prints of their favorite photos when/if their hard drives or pc fails! i can still pull out a box of prints or an album to enjoy, but it is much harder to get family members to go to an online gallery.

As far as print photography magazines go, the October 2011 issue of Shutterbug has a review of the Canon 60D, which was a camera I had bought Nov 2010!

Alex Monro said...

Although I probably shoot at least 95% digital, I have this strong feeling that a photograph isn't "real" until it's a print, preferably at least 10x8". Viewing on a screen is a bit like holding a negative up to the light - you get a rough idea of what the picture might look like, but it's not quite all there.