12.24.2015

Thinking long and hard about the relevance of "old school" print versus a new paradigm of photographic presentation.

Just a few thoughts about the direction of the fine art aspect of photography. The litmus test has always been "the print." A physical, paper print with all kinds of parameters involved; from archival keeping quality to issues having to do with the surface of the paper. Since the days of Ansel Adams the holy priesthood of photography has made the print the test of a photographer's ultimate relevance within our own culture of photographers.

In the days of CRT screens and the days of 13 inch monitors this made a lot of sense. But try this little experiment: Find yourself a friend or colleague who has made the plunge into working on a 5K monitor. A big one. Something like 27 or 30 inches. One that's perfectly calibrated. Find your absolute favorite photographic image. Make the file large and meaty. Make the best print you can. Then put the image up on the 5K monitor.

I can't vouch for your response, reaction or point of view but..... I will say this: If I were to have a show of my work next month and budget was no object I would not spend the time or money getting each of my precious images printed out on paper. I would buy or rent twelve or fifteen 5K systems and put a rotating selection of high res images on each one. I'd put them up on the walls in a gallery, just as we did for hundreds of years with prints, and I would watch a fascinated audience stand in front of them.

If the audience liked the images on the screens I would arrange to make a duplicate file of their favorites and put it onto a memory device and charge them exactly what I would charge them for a print. They would get a license to show the work on their own 5K system for the rest of their lives.

Yes, in some respects the print is a wonderful thing. A beautiful artifact. A collectable souvenir of a vision shared. But the last ten years of artists working on screens has mutated our understanding of what it is to make art and what it is to make....a print. And those two things have been revealed to be separate processes with separate methods and separate aesthetics and rules. Optimize for one or the other in your mind but you can't really do both.

Just a few thoughts upon seeing some of my recent work displayed in the new manner. YMMV depending on how emotionally dependent you may be on the nostalgia for the existing/older process. We are now evolving into two segments of artists; the traditional printmakers and the media agnostic photographers who have grown up wedded to the screen.  It changes everything.

Where was your subconscious aiming?




23 comments:

John Camp said...

I disagree with this idea on several grounds.

-You've got this rotating series of photos -- some people might want to look at it longer than you've allowed, and some might want to look at it for a shorter time. Some people might want to actually contemplate the photo for a substantial time, or some back and look at it repeatedly, and fish all the meanings out. How do you allow for the viewer's individuality? In your scheme, you're not showing your photos, you're advertising them. You idea has all the appear of those "slideshow" things on the net, where you have to wait fifteen minutes for the image you want to come back.

-You've put yourself at the mercy of technology. How many times do you shoot a photo and then do nothing with it?Like maybe, never? You can do that -- shoot on full auto -- and the photo will be reproduced to the best of the ability of some very intelligent and clever engineers at Nikon or Sony or wherever. But is the photo theirs? Or is it yours?

-Who should decide on the exact presentation? Do you plan to reconfigure each monitor for each photo, so that a photo that emphasizes shadows isn't treated exactly as a photo that emphasizes highlights?

- When you make a print -- or many, many test prints, followed by one final print -- the end product is exactly and precisely yours, however good or bad that may be. You took the photo, you picked the printer settings, you chose the paper and the frame. It's all your responsibility. Displaying these photos properly is enough of a problem in most galleries; I can't even imagine the problem of looking at monitors with flashing photos on them, when there are more monitors with more flashing photos in the background. A separate viewing booth for each one, perhaps?

It's been said (by some) that paperback books are a much more advanced technology than digital books on iPads and so on. Look at the paperback tech -- paperbacks are cheap, disposable, easy to share and pass on, it can be resold if you wish to take the time, don't require batteries or chargers, and if you drop them in the lake, you can fish them back out -- they float for awhile -- dry them out and still read them.

Photographic prints also have powerful advantages over digital display -- not for everything, of course -- but for most things, when it comes to actually looking at a photo, appreciating it, and thinking about it.

amolitor said...

This is a very interesting position to take. You're well known to be a serious guy with a lot of talent, all the chops, steeped in the olde schoole.

The print is more than image quality and viewing experience, it's physical, not ephemeral.

The Kids are of course way ahead of us, but to see the old guard as it were step away from the physical is interesting and noteworthy.

Kirk Tuck said...

John, I don't presume to make viewers stand in front of a slide show without giving them complete control to stop, re-start or move around the selection of images, via a remote in their hands or a menu driven touch screen. I would love for someone to pull up a comfortable chair and spend hours looking at each image, or, since multiple stations would be available, to put similar images (or dissimilar images) on adjacent screens in order to compare and contrast.

I don't have all the answers for how to implement the most effective gallery situation but sitting in front of a 5K monitor is a very immersive scenario. It is different than print. Like a paintings are different from photographs and made for television is different than projected movies.

We'll work out the details as we go along just as we did with print based photography.

I think the power of work presented in a transmissive media is equal but different to print. But to my essential point, the new generation is working in transmissive every day. It's how the work evolves, it's their "darkroom." To go through the whole process in a transmissive environment and then "translate" to a reflective print is a disconnection from the genesis of the final image. No way around it.

Digital to inkjet print is so.....illogical.

The medium, to a certain extent, creates the presentation and our media, right up to a certain point, is all predicated on viewing transmissive images on screens. It's just that now the screens rival the quality of the prints...

Thanks for the thought provoking comment. I'm still ruminating over all the implications.

Kirk Tuck said...

Andrew, We were experimenting with a tangent of this idea in the 1980's with multi projector slide shows. In 1999 I did a mixed media show of images from Rome. The 36 x36 inch black and white, fiber prints were hand painted in places and around the edges with opaque oils, etc the prints were framed and hung on walls. At the other end of the gallery 1200 images played on a 3 second per image loop, accompanied by a Nino Rota sound track. Once people wandered through the prints they parked themselves in front of a big Sony Trinitron and watched the images play. They were mesmerized. Two different media. Each captivating in it's own way....

Michael Ferron said...

Well how do we all view most photography now? For me it's either a computer screen or maybe someone else's photography in a magazine. Most of us share photos via monitor, phone or tablet. Personally I have a hard time making my prints looks as good as they do on a back lit monitor. So yeah a high end, high rez screen might be the future of viewing. Oh how about slide show stills including complimentary background music? For me more entertaining then viewing a single print for sure.

Sean Staples said...

I have to agree. I look at the scene in a big beautiful electronic viewfinder even before I press the shutter. It only gets better when transferred to my screen. While I value the print in hand as a final product these says it can be a let down in terms of viewing.

Paul said...

I used to love cibachrome for similar reasons. maybe a compromise is something like:

http://www.epson.com/cgi-bin/Store/ProductMediaSpec.jsp?BV_UseBVCookie=yes&infoType=Overview&oid=-15661

I think Fuji have something similar

John Krumm said...

There's something about an image on a good screen that's both beautiful and insubstantial at the same time. I get the same feeling when listening to high-res digital music. I'll buy a print, but I won't buy a file.

Anonymous said...


When the print disappears photography will be dead. Watch young people looking at photographs on a train, click, click, barely a few seconds to see each one. A great photograph should make one return to it constantly to see something new. So called street photography is already dead as it has nothing to say, no point of view. I am thinking of masters in the past like Raymond Moore.
Perhaps its all the fault of H.C Bresson with his phrase the decisive moment.

Aged old man, Alan

Markus Spring said...

I agree to John (both of them actually). For me a print is the "work in flesh", the file is an agglomeration of bytes which needs a lot of technical crutches to appear on our retina. The print-on-paper has more and different characteristica than the volatile image on the screen.

Maybe it's because of the ephemeral character of our lives that I enjoy the object character of a good print so much.

Noons said...

I do make a point of once a year getting a selection of my best photos of that period printed professionally in at least A4 size. A lot get printed in larger sizes and a few select stitched panos go into big wall size prints.
But I agree entirely: for normal, day-to-day view, the quality of screens is getting right up there. One of the reasons why my "portfolio" is now on a 8.5" Samsung Tab S - those things have a fantastic high definition display. It's now my "pocket" photo album and with the little micro-SD card, it's child's play to have one with photos and another with videos. For videos in particular, I find it a superb carry-around platform.
My photo printer at home now sits idle most of the time...

Alan Barnard said...

Print versus screen is no different than vinyl versus streaming. The delivery mechanism is different, but ultimately it's the content that matters the most. That said, a finely crafted print mounted in a beautiful frame has a unique appeal that cannot be duplicated by an image on a screen.

Kirk Tuck said...

"That said, a finely crafted print mounted in a beautiful frame has a unique appeal that cannot be duplicated by an image on a screen." Alan Barnard.

Can not? Or was not possible before now? The technology evolves and what was and wasn't possible is a moving target. It's also important not to disregard the audiences as they have changed as well.

Anonymous said...

Sounds nice and EXPENSIVE.

Try viewing the electronic image when the power is out.

Michael Matthews said...

The true artist working in this realm will sell a time-limited license rather than full ownership of the file itself. That transaction will require the buyer to provide evidence of a contract with a THX-certified (video division) maintenance organization responsible for calibrating the viewing screen at least annually. Without it there would be no way to assure the viewer is actually seeing what the artist intended. As a matter of fact, that may well provide a second income stream --selling the THX maintenance contract itself, the term concurrent with that of the viewing license. And -- oh, yes, wait! -- there's the limited edition series, which includes access to a tightly curated group of, say, four truly superior images and which requires a monthly maintenance agreement. Oh, the nano-acuity!

rexdeaver said...

Recent advances in thin film displays point to just this outcome; relatively inexpensive displays that can be wall mounted, with resolution that is indistinguishable to the human eye from print, wirelessly connected. Photography will not die, but photographers who do not understand they are producing ephemera, and change accordingly, will.

Mike Rosiak said...

Photograph - writing with light. Writing on what? For me, something permanent. I've experienced at least five waves of obsolescence of digital storage. If my power goes out, I have a generator, but then the gasoline runs out. If power loss is widespread, and long term, the gasoline runs out. A print on paper is not as vulnerable.

Curmudgeonly yours at Christmas, and I hope that you're having a happy one.

Alan Barnard said...

"Can not? Or was not possible before now? The technology evolves and what was and wasn't possible is a moving target. It's also important not to disregard the audiences as they have changed as well."

I have a 27" 5K iMac, so I understand what you're saying regarding the ability to display an image at very high resolution on a computer monitor. I also regularly print on a gorgeous Canson fine art paper that brings a certain subtlety and tactility to an image that I've never seen replicated on screen. IMO, in the way that an e-reader will never match a handmade letterpress book, an electronic image will never match a beautifully crafted print. YMMV. Happy Holidays!

Anonymous said...

Hey Anonymous, try looking through the print gallery when the power goes out...

Or just move to a place where the power never goes out. Most first world countries rarely have black outs these days. That's one of the many perks.

Douglas Knisely said...

I'm an oddball, I guess. Ever since childhood, the way my family's images were presented was projected slides, and I have always found projected displays to be far more strongly compelling to prints, and active display images (on high res calibrated monitors) to be the best of all. Some of my fondest memories are of dragging out the Argus slide projector and screen and viewing once again all the cartridges full of slides.

Light projected to the eye simply wins out in dynamic range and emotional impact to my eye. Unfortunately, assigning "art value" to a work depends on scarcity of the end product, thus leading to the ongoing claims that only an archival print can be "art" from a business perspective. However, if you think about it, digital information can be preserved perfectly for eternity, whereas any physical media is bound to a destiny as dust. The true "art" that will survive into posterity will be digital, but there's almost no way to pay the artist for a bucket of bits with zero physical value and no scarcity. :/ Artists, like performing artists and authors, will have to find ways to monetize their reputation in indirect ways rather than via sales of physical media.

bpr said...

Digitally presented art is of course a viable option. Major galleries and all sorts of collectors have been buying into video art and screen based art for decades. It won't fully replace printed media, it's just another option, but I think it's going to get harder to convince folks of the value of such work as time goes by.

People, even digital generation kids, still want to own artefacts. I work near London's flagship Apple Store but the biggest lines I see outside a shop are not for a new iPhone but http://www.supremenewyork.com/ launches a new season. I also see a lot of kids who are excited by craft and the thingness of real objects as opposed to virtual stuff.

There's also the photobook thing, which is a very big deal right now and perhaps the main way many interested and engaged photographers and consumers of photography now experience the photo as artefact. Here in East London there's a vibrant scene, he'll there's a photobook stall on my local street market, and the prices of recently out of print books can skyrocket.

Digital Platforms like blurb, photobox and Bob books are empowering people to make printed books of images in a way that was impossible a few years ago and a lot of family events weddings/ birthdays/ anniversaries/ holidays are being bookify'd from a selection of images off sharing sites.

So, while I'm sure that most commercial images never arrive on paper and the means of consumption of images are changing constantly I do beloved that you are greatly exaggerating the death of the photo as physical artefact.

Thomas Rink said...

In my opinion, it's down to the difference between a physical manifestation of the picture(a print or a slide) vs. a computer file. Creating a file requires nearly no rational or emotional involvement on the side of its creator, since the storage requirements and the cost are negligible. I think it is for this reason that the huge majority of these pictures are only viewed once and superficially. Things change completely if one makes a print. For me, the decision if a picture is print-worthy is a deliberate one, as I am going to create a tangible artifact (and have to pay for it). I believe this makes my work better. I also enjoy the tactile feel of a nice paper (I print myself).

If the goal is a portfolio of pictures from a project (which is mostly the case for me), these prints can be attached to wall painted with magnetic paint using magnets - this makes it easy to check if the pictures go well with each other.

Last but not least, printing helps against GAS, since even an older 12 MP camera can create nice 17x22 prints.

Mitch said...

How come we're still clacking out our thoughts on a qwerty keyboard transmitting them to each other with dark characters on a light page? All of our comments and your blog could be voice recordings, complete with hired-in actors with "better" voices and maybe some scripted nuance.