Musings on Photography

The impact of printless photography

Posted in aesthetics, the art world, web issues by Paul Butzi on May 8, 2007


For the entire period I’ve been involved in photography, the photographic print has been the ‘end of process’ point.  When I was a kid, my Dad taught me how to work in the darkroom – how to develop film, how to make prints.  I learned the basics of image control – contrast selection, burning, dodging.  And always, the basis for the decision on how an image turned out was how I felt about it when looking at a print.  This attitude that in the final analysis, it’s the print that matters – for me, that continues to this day.  Right now, I’ve got 18 prints up on the wall in my work space, where I can see them and think about them every day.

Watching the online photographic world over the past few years, I’ve noticed that more and more, I’m seeing people who seem to be pretty involved with photography who have little or no experience with prints.  Here’s an example – Paul Lester, who wrote recently about his decision to start printing some of his work.  If you’d pointed this out to me before, I’d have said that Paul was behind the curve.  Now, I’m not so sure.

In the past, there were basically three endpoints for the photographic endeavor – the ‘drugstore’ print (which was the display medium of choice for millions of photographers), prints made by the photographer (the choice of almost all high end amateurs, and a fair number of pros), and transparencies (the choice for a lot of amateurs and pros).

Those ‘drugstore’ prints were (and often still are) horrid.  The photographer had little control over the process, process control was often not very good, and the photographer couldn’t make ANY adjustments to his/her work.  If you cared about what your work looked like, you had a LOT of incentive to either get it printed by a custom printer, or else learn to print it yourself.

In contrast, today, lots of people get good control for what they consider to be the obvious final destination for their photographs – the screen of their computer.  In fact, the control they get is quite a bit better than the control I had in the darkroom when I was a kid.  The downside seems to be that no one ever looks at the images for very long – it’s up on the screen, people look at it, then they move on to the next one.  The image on the screen isn’t like the image on a piece of paper on the wall, or in your hands.  No one sits down and gazes at an image on the screen of their computer for five minutes straight.  No one looks at the same image every day for a week while the electric kettle heats water for tea. The primary attribute of the image on the screen is that it’s not persistent.

So, despite the fact that digital photograph has dropped great controls into the hands of a large number of photographers, I have some doubts.  We have tools like Lightroom, marketed as the be all tool for photographers, that lacks local controls (dodging, burning, local contrast control, etc.).  I see a lot of work on the web, done by people who seem to be quite serious, that’s essentially the straight image.

Anyway, I’d expected that the digital revolution – digital capture, digital editing, and digital output – would result in vast numbers of people who would be freed up to take the next step with their photographs – to take control of how every aspect of it is reflected in the final presentation.  Strangely, the same digital revolution seems to have pushed things toward a much more ephemeral presentation, and as a result, everything seems to be drifting away from the creative process that I think is the most exciting part of a multi-step process.  Why invest a lot of effort in getting the image just right when it’s just on the screen for a minute or two?

UPDATE: See Paul Lester’s comments.  I have to apologize for pretty badly misreading the thrust of Paul’s post, and badly mischaracterizing Paul’s photographic history as well.  And I think that Paul advances the discussion a great deal when he points out that a) photography can be different things to different people, and there’s no reason why a photogapher who views prints as the final destination is better than one who doesn’t, and b) the fact that someone doesn’t view a print as the goal of the process doesn’t imply that they aren’t engaging in what I used to think of as ‘creating an expressive print’ but will now have to find a new name for.

12 Responses

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  1. paul said, on May 8, 2007 at 6:23 am

    Well, Paul. I don’t think that I would consider myself behind the curve, but who knows, I may be! 🙂

    I guess that what I should have said, to make it a bit more clear, is that I’m just starting to get interested in printing color images. I’ve had a lot of good success with printing the black and white images, which I prefer.

    Printing color is a different beast. I had to get something to profile my monitor, test different papers to see what I like, and then make sure that everything comes out right. It’s a different world printing color … and, truthfully, I’m not all that sure that I’m so much in love with color prints.

    Way back in the day, circa 1980s or so, I used to have a darkroom and would spend countless hours printing, burning, dodging, trying different papers (rag, polycontrast, you name it) and I had a blast doing it. Now, I spend that time in Photoshop with layers, curves, etc. I have a decent handle on CS2 and use Lightroom for the quick and dirty processing and mundane tasks such as adding keywords and other meta data.

    I have some prints in the office that I like to look at, all are black and white. So, no color management needed. Every once in a while, a friend or coworker asks for a color print of something and then that’s when I find that I don’t know much about color printing. It takes me a few times to get it right.

    This is the same as in the darkroom when I used to print color prints, too. Sometimes their would be a little color cast, etc. It would depend on how old your filters were, how accurate was your color meter, how old was your enlarger bulb, how much temperature variation you had in the tank, how accurately you mixed your chemicals, and any other number of things could cause a drift in color.

    So, all in all, I have lots of experience at color printing, in the darkroom, but I don’t see that there is much difference in the ‘lightroom’, there are still a number of things that can cause the things to drift. I’m a low hassle kind of guy, preferring to spend more time photographing and less time fiddling with the printer! 🙂

    Lastly, even though my images are ephemeral, I still enjoy the process of tweaking them in CS2 and if the images strikes me as worthy of printing, I’ll give it shot, by a ready-made frame and mat, and hang it on the wall.

  2. Frank Armstrong said, on May 8, 2007 at 6:52 am

    Paul: there seems to be a whole generation of photographers who never accepted the responsibility for completing the process of making an image. They would take the picture and then turn it over to someone else to make the final choices of what the print would look like. This is especially true for those who were brought up shooting slides. Now faced with labs closing their E-6 lines and going over to full digital output, these photographers are somewhat lost and bewildered by all the new technology. You and I came up wet-handed through the darkroom and the printing process, and are somewhat undaunted in transferring those hard learned skills to digital. The problem for those not brought up as we were, is they don’t have the underpinning of doing it yourself. They don’t understand the process of seeing an image and then MAKING it happen as a print. They shot images with a highly sophisticated SLR and a lab gave them back wonderfully colored transparencies. They never made the connection to the image as a print, and merely accepted what they were given. When faced with having to make the final decisions about the emotional content of what hangs on the wall, they are essentially lost. Now they have a highly sophisticated dSLR that seemingly make wonderfully color images that display on thier computer monitors, but don’t have a clue what to do next. I still like and work in my darkroom, but I like printing my digital files, also. In the end, it’s the print that interest me, and I willing to endure whatever process it takes to get me that print. We both know that making a finished print informs us to the limitations of the medium while making an image in the field.


  3. charlottekings said, on May 8, 2007 at 10:25 am

    Frank, I think that it is a bit presumptuous to say that if someone doesn’t print that they don’t understand the process. Perhaps they do understand the process, but don’t enjoy it, or perhaps they have never been interested in the process.

    This doesn’t make them less of a photographer or make them clueless about what they need to do next. Perhaps that is true for some, but certainly not for others. It doesn’t make you a better photographer because you know how or want to do the same, either.

    The print doesn’t so much interest me as the act of taking the photo and being able to express, whether on the printed media or the monitor, what I saw or felt. I don’t have to have a print to ‘prove’ that I’m a photographer.

    I have many years of darkroom experience, but choose not to do it any more. I’ve printed lots of B&W prints, but have not much interest in color. It’s all in what works for the individual, not some canned notion of what makes a good photographer or good technician, IMHO.

  4. paul said, on May 8, 2007 at 10:27 am

    Sorry, Paul, that last post by ‘charlottekings’ was actually by me, but WordPress had me logged in as another user. I manage the other site.


  5. Martin Doonan said, on May 8, 2007 at 10:59 am

    For me it has always been about the print. I never did darkroom; never learnt. Ultimately i was always frustrated on relying on someone else for the printing. Digital Has brought me tools that I am familiar with and given me the control I always wanted.
    For me, the screen is a way of giving a broad view of a large number of photos but the really good stuff is in print. I never spend much effort optimising the photos that will remain digital.

    Printless photos are the equivalent of prefering a gallery catalogue over the real paintings. Or maybe suggesting that the sketch book or field study is so much better than a painter’s final work.

    IMO, putting it on paper is where a photo is truly realised, everything else is pretty much doodling.

  6. chuck kimmerle said, on May 8, 2007 at 12:21 pm

    “IMO, putting it on paper is where a photo is truly realized, everything else is pretty much doodling.”

    Can’t say I entirely agree. The importance of an image is in it’s existence, not necessarily the final method of output. After all, it wasn’t too long ago (and still does happen) that the digital images and inkjet prints were relegated to the “doodling” category.

    We’re entering into a different era. The computer and the Internet have changed EVERYTHING. In a few years we may not be printing at all, but rather uploading our images to a framed LCD screen for display. It’s already happening for snapshots and family photos. Will it ever be acceptable for fine art images or art gallery shows? The way things are looking, the answer is probably yes….someday.

  7. Bryan Willman said, on May 8, 2007 at 12:40 pm

    I don’t think this admits a “debate of merit” – rather, it’s an Observation.

    One meritful end result is a static print, that can be hung on walls and so forth. Can be Very Very Good. Cheap to hang, carry around, move it. Somewhat hard to store.

    A different meritful end result is an image that looks Very Good on a high quality digital display. Can look better than a print because of the emissive nature of the display. But costly equipment required. Hard to move to places that don’t have displays. Easy to store.

    For a long time, one Bill Gates has advocated that the way to view “art” is to have lots of big high quality screens in your house, each of which is showing a very good image of the art. Until literally last night, I thought Bill was kind of full of it on this, even ignoring the Infinite Budget aspect.

    But I saw one of Katrina Kruse’s shows on my large Apple monitor. And:
    a. It looked as good as it ever has, and I’ve seen a lot of Katrina’s stuff on slides, as prints, etc.
    b. 6 of us could see it very clearly (though sitting in the desk chair I had the preemo view)

    I do not know that these most excellent works could be displayed any better in my dwelling.

    Likewise, I get to see Paul Butzi’s work both on paper and on screen. I don’t typically get to see it on-screen at full 2500×1200, while I usually get to see it as good sized paper print.

    I would not say that either of them is *better*. Some images come off better in one place or the other.

    The paper prints can cover a wall. And be quiet. But the screen images sing with emissive power of the monitor.

    I suspect that for many of us, both modes will be very important, and the real issues will be how to tune images for “different monitors” versus tuning images for “different display lighting”.

  8. seeingthedetail said, on May 9, 2007 at 6:10 am

    It’s funny that this should come up now – I just had a friend with one of those nice Epson A3 printers do me a couple of quick prints to reassure me that I can actually take half decent pictures that don’t just look good at 600 pixels wide! I’ve had an awful time trying to reproduce what I see on screen as a print, and felt like I was only half of a photographer. I suppose from that point of view I do feel like the print is the final product – as you say when it’s on your screen it’s just so fleeting, and you can’t view it out of the corner of your eye as you’re making a cup of tea!

    I was, however, equally frustrated when I used to shoot velvia and couldn’t get a print that had the same luminous quality as the slides. I do think that the result is within closer reach with digital though.

  9. Chris Haelg said, on May 9, 2007 at 9:20 am

    For me, too, a “hardcopy” is the final stage of a photographic image. But I never print all the pictures (nobody does) as I never did with all the black and white negatives I still have. The digital picture has great advantages over film: Stored on a computer, it’s much easier to look through, sort, classify, delete and archive. Compared to this, contact sheets are virtually useless! My “Lightroom” has completely replaced my “Darkroom”. But the latter is still in use for developing large format negatives.

    There is one new output media that has become very popular, at least here in old Europe: Photo books. You design it yourself using digital or scanned images, layout patterns, background and text, send the whole to a finishing company and receive your book after a few days only. During carnival, I did some portraits of our group and had a book printed. The feedback I got was so enthusiastic that I had to reorder a dozen copies! My books usually lay around on the table several weeks before I put them into the shelf.

  10. timatherton said, on May 9, 2007 at 11:26 am

    Paul: there seems to be a whole generation of photographers who never accepted the responsibility for completing the process of making an image.

    You mean like Walker Evans? or Cartier-Bresson?

  11. cc willoe said, on March 13, 2009 at 12:57 pm

    one of the benefits of going printless is that one is not consuming reams of paper or dispensing chemicals and test prints (old school) into the waste disposal systems.

    it saves trees – and that’s a green thing to do

    on the other hand, it does take a computer to go electronic – and i suppose that all adds up to our dependance on energy, doesn’t it?

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