The disconnection between what we see online and what we see in a big print.

©1995 Kirk Tuck

It's so hard to have conversations about what we show and see on the web. Sometime in the future, when everyone has a Retina screen and everyone's computing machine auto-calibrates that screen and we all adjust the rooms we sit in while viewing on screen artwork to the same basic parameters, we'll be able to have meaningful conversations about technical issues with imaging. And by extension more in-depth discussions about aesthetics, but right now? It's all a crap shoot. 

This is an image I shot in Rome with a Mamiya 6x6 camera and their amazing 150mm lens on Kodak 400 CN film back in 1995. When I got back home I headed into the darkroom and worked and worked on getting a perfect print of the image. I exposed so the highlight areas had plenty of detail and I dodged at least a dozen prints to open up the shadows and get detail into the dark area of the young woman's hair just to the right of her face. I also dodged and dodged to get more discernible detail from the trees that line the steps in the background, in the upper middle and right side of the frame. I'm looking at a final, vintage print of the image right next to my desk. It's 24 by 24 inches of double weight fiber paper and it has an apparent depth that I can't adequately describe with words. 

The web image is made up of infinitely fewer points of information. The whites are on the verge of blowing out and the trees and hair shadows go to black way too quickly. But, frustratingly for me, the web image is the only venue most people will have to look at an image that I really love. I love the actual print not only for the visceral sensuality of the young Russian woman's look but equally for the complexity of tones and the sense of depth I see everyday when I walk into the studio and look at the print. The web representation is like placeholder or an avatar for the image on the print. A thumbnail representation of the original intention. 

In art history classes I had been shown a large number of Caravaggio paintings via projected slide copies of the original paintings. I understood intellectually what my professors were saying about chiaroscuro and the dark to light translations but I didn't really have an affinity for the painter and his work. The slides were generally copies of copies and didn't deliver the power and detail of the actual work. A few years later I had the opportunity to see a good collection of Caravaggio paintings in Florence and I was spellbound by the work. I went back to the gallery again and again to soak in the work. The work itself was worlds different than the slides we looked at in representation. 

Last year I confronted for the nth time just how big a disconnection there is in our lives between the screen image and reality. I heard that there was going to be a show of Arnold Newman's work at the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. It was a comprehensive show of his work; hundreds of prints perfectly presented. I spent some time re-acquainting myself with Newman's work in the books I own of his images and also on various web sites. In fact, even though Arnold Newman had presented a slide show of his work to my ASMP chapter here in Austin back in the 1990's I don't think I had ever seen an actual presentation print of his in person. Photons bouncing off the front surface of his paper prints and hitting the rods and cones of my own eyes unimpeded by layers of technology, current or primitive. 

When I went to the show I was stunned at how wonderful the actual prints were. Not just the content of the prints or the composition but the prints as objects themselves. They were remarkable. It had nothing to do with relative size because many of the images were shown as 8x10 inch prints. But the prints were engaging and captivating because they possessed what seemed to be an almost infinite range of tones and effortless transitions between those tones. The heart of the work was more than just good printing or prints as jewel like objects. It was the combination of a artist so far beyond the need to overthink technical details that he was able to concentrate almost solely on the engagement with the people in the prints coupled with a time in our culture when people could take time to make images in an unhurried and thoughtful amount of time. A luxury of temporal space in which to come to know the subject and thoughtfully interpret the subject. 

I still have the memory of just how wonderful the prints were and how different they are from our experiences of seeing things on the web. Yes, the web is flatter and more people can experience an artist than ever before but the experience is diluted and reduced. 

If you've grown up with photography being exclusively a web based construction it might really be an amazing and wonderful thing to go see real prints well displayed. In Austin the logical thing is to go see shows at the HRC or the Blanton. But everyone would be well served standing directly in front of actual art as many times in a year as they can. A trip to NYC will give one ample opportunities to see a wide range of photographic shows and collections. For about the price of a decent new camera body one might just have an eye opening and transformational experience that adds new levels of awareness in their own pursuit of this most curious art form.

What one sees on the web is not what one sees in real life. In art this is a critical thing to understand. 


Anonymous said...

This is true for all forms of art, be it visual or otherwise. I remember listening tot some operamusic before going tot a concert with an Armenian soprano. The CD was great tot hear, the live performance gave me chills and made me cry.


CKDexterHaven said...

Fantastic post. I, too, recall being gobsmacked by Caravaggio. I had studied fine arts and such in college, and even took an entire course on Van Gogh. But, seeing those masterworks in person is entirely a different matter. I loved and appreciated the paintings in the textbooks and in slide presentations, but when i first stepped into the Pitti Palace and saw floor-to-ceiling Renaissance jewels, it was an emotional, unforgettable experience. Same with seeing my first Modigliani at the MoMA.... I literally walked into the room, saw it, and had to sit down.

Smaller disconnect, for me, with photography, though. But, still. I loved Elliott Erwitt's books. But, seeing huge blowups of those prints at ICP in New York a few years ago — an unimaginable impact. I didn't expect those photographs to be so beautiful, and so amazing at those sizes. Similar experience with a Sally Mann, also at ICP, i believe.... I wasn't really 'into' her or large format portrait work at that time. But, one shot changed all that.

The computer does get in the way of appreciating photography — ironically. We get to see so much more photography, but it becomes trivialized. We typically see only thumbnails, to begin, and that alone diminishes the work. I recently started viewing my collections of 'found-online JPGs' via Plex on my 58" plasma tv. That is a wonderful thing. Even snapshots somehow become 'magnificent.' No substitute for a gallery visit, but it's something.

Kirk Tuck said...

Most people know that the experience might be different but they don't know enough to realize what they are missing and not knowing means there's no motivation to try a different approach. Sad time for art.

JereK said...

Food for thought as usual. There is an exhibition by Nick Brandt in my hometown which is where I will be going next. I believe those should be suberb in print. The africa series done with medium format film I believe.

Carlo Santin said...

Reminds me of a Dali exhibit I attended when I was traveling in London. I have some Dali art books, nice ones, and I'm glad to own them. Of course there are the cheap posters of his work and the cheesy tshirts. But standing there in that art gallery face to face with the real thing was really a life changing experience. I ended up staying all day and I walked out of there really just buzzing.

Now recently I made a portrait that I'm really proud of. It looks great on the computer screen, but I decided to print it large and frame it. I am stunned by how much better the print looks. It's 16x20 and it puts a grin on my face every time I look at it, which is every day. The computer screen or tablet is handy and convenient but it really does place us even further away from the work.

Cpt Kent said...

Off to get a print made. At the local camera store. Been due for too long.

aurèle said...

"Pictures are nice. But prints ... they give a whole another dimension to your photo"

Started to print larger and larger some photo made on various format, film, or DSLR.

Clearly, this is another league :D

amolitor said...

Yet again I find myself the contrarian!

While I can and do perfectly well see the differences between a good print and a bad one, or a copy in a book, or on a screen, it doesn't much matter to me.

Apparently I am more content focused? Or something.

Another data point. I have some 4x5 contact prints on my wall. They have, of course, shockingly deep detail and tonal subtlty. I can see it just fine.

The number of times anyone has commented on this is zero.