How did you really intend to have your images seen? Who would you like you ultimate audience to be?

When professional photographers go out to shoot they always have an audience and a venue in mind. The acknowledgement of this audience and venue inform the way they shoot technically and, if they are smart, it also informs the way they take the images. If they know that the highest and best use of the material will be a point of purchase display they take special pains to use the highest resolution camera and lens system they can in order to make a product that withstands inspection from as close as you (the consumer) want to examine it.

If the work is for the web and needs to be delivered and used quickly the professional photographer may dial back the promise of ultimate quality and use jpeg files at medium resolution settings to deliver a product that's quick to use and still has oodles of quality for the intended medium. The audience still informs his aesthetic intentions.

But what happens when the professional photographer takes off his "pro" hat and settles into making art for his own enjoyment? What is his target then? And as an amateur or hobbyist (or full time artist) who isn't constrained into hitting a specific, final target what is the way you want your images to ultimately be viewed? How do you want your audience to savor those images that you spend so much time and effort on? What is your highest and best display aspiration?

Most of us have a choice. We can aim for the widest audience imaginable and put our wonderful work up on the web. Potentially millions of people will have a chance to see it...but what are they seeing? At the other end of the spectrum we could go for the highest intrinsic quality but we'd have to be content with a tiny (by comparison) audience. In this scenario we'd capture our images as raw files and we'd practice our best techniques and our most present attention. We'd print as large as the image wants us to and we'd choose a medium that insures the integrity of our work.

For many that might mean shooting with a full frame camera at its lowest ISO and using a well made lens at its most effective aperture. To take it a step further it would mean being locked down on a tripod. The resulting image might start life as a 14 bit file and be meticulously post processed and then optimized for a well profile printer. We'd print it on the paper that matched our original intentions and then we'd matte the print and frame it appropriately. The final step would be to put the print into a gallery environment that allows our audiences to view the work without distraction. This would require attention to the height of the work, the angle and distance of the illuminating lighting and even the ambient light of the gallery space itself. If we are really meticulous we would carefully regulate the temperature and humidity of the space for the optimum viewer comfort.

How incredibly different that viewing experience would be, in terms of experiencing the work, than flipping open a 13 inch laptop screen at a noisy and frenetic coffee shop and trying to see work at 1,000 pixels wide while mixed light sources bounce off your screen. Even worse...imagine that you spent months researching a venue. You traveled and spent a fortune. And then, after days of waiting and looking you shot a really wonderful image with lots of energy and layers of meaning....and then you had to reconcile yourself to the idea that most of your audience was looking at your Pietá on the fingerprint swirled screen of an older iPhone. Or worse.

All that work and intention smashed into the never ending blender of images coming directly to your audience tiny, compressed, unprofiled, and, well.....just a mess.  Yes, you may reach millions but with what? 

I come from a generation to which the finished print, hanging on a wall, or the printed page in a book or magazine in front of you, were our ultimate aesthetic targets. We wanted to always share the highest and best representation of our work with you. And it seems that in art circles that presentation imperative has never gone away. The exodus toward all content being solely on the web is being undertaken by the masses but not by the chosen few, the artist. In the realm of fine arts the paper print still reigns supreme as the Lingua Franca of the collectors, gallery owners, museums and enlightened viewers.

Two years ago I was on a photographic assignment and a fellow photographer joined me. We knew each other from the web, from seminars and from casual coffees. His exposure to my own work had been, up to that point, exclusively here on the blog or on my website. Perhaps also in projected images at talks and lectures. That day, when we ended up my work for the client at hand we walked back to my car to pack up. I also wanted to show my friend a printed book of 10 by 10 inch black and white portraits that I'd carefully printed. He was shocked. He was absolutely shocked by the presentation. He took the book and wandered back into the country club we'd been shooting at and sat in a chair and looked through the book several times.

"It's so different to see this work in print." He exclaimed. "There's a sensuality to the images that's incredible in the prints." And at that moment I knew I would never abandon the printed image. Because while authorship on the web is efficient and empowering by dint of sheer numbers it loses something real and vital in the translation. Maybe when we're all looking at 30 inch Retina ™ screens it will all be different. But right now? I don't think so.

I'm not saying that anyone needs to make a choice and certainly they don't have to make my choices. I share images with you on the web because, effectively, that's all I can do to stay in touch with most of you. But in the back of my mind, with every frame I shoot I find myself thinking, "Would this be worth printing? Would this shot merit my time spent working the files and making a large paper print?"  I'd like to say I never push the the shutter button unless I can answer "Yes!" but we all know it's not true. But that doesn't keep me from aiming at the ultimate quality or making files that can stand up to the technical tests. I think photographers and artist should have an intimate show of their physical work about once a year. 

In this way you have to have yourself and your resources invested in the process. And instead of typing and uploading in a dim room you stand, nervously, in the middle of a room full of people and await their judgement of your work. 

On the other hand if you look for other people's approval you put yourself under their control. Better to enter the whole idea of a show as a sharing instead of a judgement. So the question really becomes, "Do you have the balls to share your work directly? Face to face with your audience?" If you do I think you'll find ample new energy to create your vision. And refine it. And create again. An intimate show with a real and present audience beats yet another dropping into the cavernous and insatiable jaws of the anonymous web. At least in your physical gallery space a nasty critic will have to really summon their courage and spleen in order to even try and make a nasty remark. And if the wine is really flowing you can answer their irreverent critique with a kick to the seat of their pants as you propel them out the door. That's got to provide some satisfaction... But seriously, a good show is one of the best highs an artist can get. And each showing raises the bar for the next one.

In fact, 
I don't think you'll ever know just how good your work is until you 
print it large, frame it and put it in front of 
a real human audience.

They (the audience) won't tell you. 
they won't need to.

You'll know.

Images from 2013 Eeyore's Birthday Party. Camera: Sony a850
Lens: Minolta 24-85mm 

Intention? To share.

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Marino Mannarini said...

Hi Kirk, i am 46, and come from film, now 8 years into digital photography. I went through the process of learning myself fine art injket printing, and in the end, although my commercial work ever more seldom requires prints, a print IS the King medium for photographs. Whatever you see on a screen, a 20" nice print is simply another thing. and 30x40cmfinely printed photography book also, and a real exhibition with real prints another experience. A photograph was borne as an object in itself (the neg/plate or the print), virtualized inside a screen it looses something, well, a lot.

Peter F. said...

Kirk, I hope to receive in the next day or two (from Mpix) my first 30" print. (It's one of those lighthouse pictures on the Maine coast that I shared with you a few weeks ago.) Stuff looks so much nicer in ink and at 250 dpi, compared with viewing at a maximum of 1920 x 1080 (less than 2 megapixels!) on a computer or TV screen with much less density of dots/pixels. Mat and frame and you've got an image displayed at its very best!

Peter F.

Chris Pattison said...

I am in a photography club in England. We run monthly competitions. There used to be a projected slide competition and a print competition. That has been replaced by a digital projected image competition and a print competition. The result has been a decline in the number of print submissions. Members find it infinitely easier to submit a digital image then to spend time buying mountboard, cutting to size, experimenting with different papers etc etc. I think they are missing out on so much.

Brad Calkins said...

I have typically shared with friends on the web and email, but last year for my 40th birthday I decided to have a 'show' of sorts. I self assigned a project of creating a new image for each of my 40 years that somehow evoked the year in question. While I didn't have the luxury of attending to every detail in the mounting and display, there were many images that I'm sure my friends and family would have flipped by on their Smartphone that suddenly held their attention in a larger print. Some compositions demand being seen large! It was fun to hold some prints in my hands, and it makes me want to spend more time doing it. Sharing on the web is not all that satisfying as the audience is not usually that critical, and subtlety is lost. The web reduces us all to 72 dpi, and technical perfection and careful composition are lost in a thumbnail...

Kirk Tuck said...

So true. "The web, that's for people who can't print..."

Paul Glover said...

My goal is to start processing fewer photos and print the ones I do select. Probably up to about 20x20 on actual silver gelatin paper for the 6x6 medium format work. I can't afford to do many of those, so it'll be my absolute best photographs by necessity.

I appreciate that the web lets us exhibit to a staggeringly huge potential audience, but after putting in the effort to make it look the way I want, it's disheartening to know that people are seeing what amounts to a bad reproduction.

cidereye said...

I just want to hang more photos on my walls at home, photos I am proud of and that friends & family will enjoy viewing. Nothing that ambitious really I guess but it means the world to me and makes what I do worth doing I guess.

Stuff the web! Photographs need to be on walls end of. :-)

Craig Yuill said...

This is a really good, thought-provoking post.

Your title is made up of two questions I really should ask myself on an ongoing basis but don't. I do occasionally have good-quality 4x6 prints made up, and I do post photos on various Internet sites. My audience, such as it is, has mainly been family and friends. I have printed and displayed framed photos in the past, even exhibiting a couple of them at a small gallery show several years ago. But I have found storing framed prints to be a bit problematic in a household that is generally rather cluttered and in need of some downsizing. I have been toying with the idea of making a few albums of prints sized 5x7 to 8x10, or so. The album you described above might fit the bill.

IRA said...

Boy, this hits close to home. I'm getting ready for my first group show and I'll be presenting the most personal work I've ever done. The thought of standing there in the room while friends and strangers look at it makes me a bit queasy!

atmtx said...

Your printed works are indeed beautiful. Especially your square black and whites.