Q. Why do you print your own pictures?
A. The same reason a great writer doesn’t turn his draft over to a secretary… I will retouch.
-W. Eugene Smith (Interview with W Eugene Smith & Philippe Halsmann)
I am often asked what I do to my images to make them look the way that they do. My response is; “A lot.”
The death of the darkroom brought with it the death of print making and toning – those aesthetic choices, which refine a photographer’s image, and have brought life and cohesion to some of the world’s most famous photographs. Behind most every great photographer was a great printer. Sometimes photographers themselves made great printers – Eugene Smith and Ansel Adams being good examples. This is more rare than one would think, Henri Cartier-Bresson for example, was a notoriously bad technician often wildly over or under exposing his negatives. Luckily, Voja Mitrovic (one of the best printers who has ever lived) worked for him, crafting and refining his images in the darkroom. More often than not, photographers have relied on printers to clarify their vision and bring ‘aesthetic life’ to their work.
(I should mention at this point, when I say ‘print making’ or ‘toning’ I am not talking solely about the creation of physical prints, although in the past this is what primarily occured. What I am talking about now is; the detailed adjustment of ‘values’ – the lightness, darkness and colors – of a photograph to solidify the visual composition in an image. The ‘aesthetic choices’, made after the photograph is taken. Many people would refer to this these days as P.P. or Post Processing.)The evolution of traditional methods of picture making – both the act of photography and print making – moved at a relatively slow clip for the first 150 years from photography’s invention. Yes, new technologies were being developed, and at a rapid pace, but each new technology was built upon the last. This created a fairly linear progression. The digital age, brought with it an exponential increase in technological development and consumerism, which proved to be a complete sea change for the medium of photography. This was revolution, and a complete departure in all aspects, but I am not saying anything new to anyone who has been paying attention. Not only was the process of capturing photographs radically altered, but also how photographs were ‘processed’, distributed, and displayed fundamentally changed.
In the commercial arena (now more than ever) speed matters most. All of the aforementioned changes – brought about by the digital era – enabled the velocity and spread of information to expound exponentially. The faster ‘information’ spread, the quicker things can get done, the more profit can be accumulated. Young photographers, myself included, are often enraptured by stories from older photographers, wherein they developed their film in the field, usually under terrible conditions using whatever was available (I have heard stories of using coffee as a developer). Then, a courier or a fellow photographer, would speed the developed film or prints to a place where they could be transmitted.
Pulitzer Prize winning photographer David Turnley, tells this wonderful story:
“…Before the digital era, we would have to set up portable darkrooms in bathrooms in remote hotels all over the world, where often the only water available to mix chemistry was in toilet bowls… We spent much of our lives trying to figure out how to “pigeon” or carry our film back to Europe or the US. It was an unwritten rule that any photographer leaving would “pigeon” the rest of our film- although this often became a very competitive situation… After making an 8 x 10 image in a bathroom somewhere, we would spend frequently the rest of the night trying to connect the insides of a telephone with alligator clips to an AP transmitter, and then struggle to get 45 minutes of clean telephone line to transmit one photograph back to our newspapers and magazines, before heading back out on the front lines in the morning.”
The countless repercussions of this commercial ‘need for speed’ are too many to enumerate in this brief article. Two important considerations, however, trickled down to loss of print-making and aesthetic consideration;
1) There was a huge shift from printed media to digital media.
2) Picture making was democratized.
Now, I do not think these two developments, in and of themselves, are bad. But, I do think they are partially – if not completely – responsible for the erosion of print making and toning. The speed and quantity, in which the digital world ‘occurs’, does not leave much time for aesthetic choice and reflection. ‘Good enough’ becomes the party line and leads to, even with some of the world top photographers, producing ‘unsophisticated’ images.
The so-called democratization of picture making, was/is not so much about democratization – all though there is some of that – as it is about commercialization. Now instead of aesthetic choices we have canned filters (Instagram, Hipstamatic). These are a prepackaged because they can be sold to vast numbers of people. This is amateur hour photography, and commercialized aesthetics, which is about as far from art as you can get.Inevitably, questions arise; so, what does this matter and why do you care? And, how can this help me make better images?
The next entry in this on-going series will, hopefully, begin to address some of these questions.