Musings on Photography


Posted in art is a verb, process by Paul Butzi on July 6, 2007


In the comments on Process, not Product, Ed Richards asks:

Where do prints come into photography as process? Is looking at the images sufficient? Are you treating it like fishing without bait?

They’re interesting questions, questions, all of them.  Until recently, if we wanted to share a photograph with someone else, we did it through the medium of the print.  Making a print varied between being pretty easy, all the way to being very hard.  Because creating the print required a skilled person to invest quite a bit of time, the cost of a print was pretty high.  And as a result, people generally treated prints as valuable objects.  It was easy, then, to get sidetracked and view photography as being about creating these valuable objects. 

Everyone handled these prints with great care – wearing white cotton gloves, sealing them away in special archival mylar sleeves, stacking the prints in specially made archival boxes and storing the boxes in temperature and humidity controlled cabinets.  And that, too, provided this feed-forward loop that said “Prints are just immensely valuable, and so OBVIOUSLY they are what photography is all about.”

Then along came digital cameras, and inkjet printing, and although getting to that first print was just as hard as before, suddenly it became trivial to make a second print, and a third, and so on. The value of a print as an object could be a lot lower – see  here for a deeper look at my thoughts on that.

And now, lots of photos serve their purpose without ever being committed to a print – they just get sent via email, and viewed on a monitor. (“Look, Mom.  Here’s what your first grandchild looked like when she was ten minutes old!”)

So I’d say that the place of the print in photography in general is pretty much in flux.  I don’t think there’s ever going to be a time where the photograph as a physical object becomes a rarity – a print is a lot more convenient than any current display device.  As display devices become more paper like, eventually we’ll have smart paper – a sheet of stuff that’s capable of displaying images that has the look and feel of a sheet of flexible paper.  At that point in our science fiction future, the distinction between a ‘displayed image’ and a ‘print’ disappears, really.  So in the somewhat distant future, I guess we end up back with prints, albiet a more active sort than we usually think of, and the cost per displayable image drops close to zero.

From a process value point of view, though, none of that really matters.  It’s not the print that’s valuable, it’s the making of it.  I learn things, sometimes important things, from the process of making the print.  The actual physical structure of the print doesn’t matter much to the process, I admit.  I like doing it using a computer, but I also liked doing it in the darkroom.  The process of exploring the image, of figuring out how to make it be what I want – that’s a high quality experience to me.  But once again, it’s the engagement in process that I really value, and not the physical object at the end.  Sure, I invest thought and effort into the physical properties of the object, because why invest all that effort just to make something that’s unsatisfying to hold in your hand?

But for me, it’s not enough to take the photos, and never look at the results.  It’s not enough to just look at the results, either – I want to fiddle with them, make them look the way I want them to look, and make actual physical prints, because doing that is a valuable part of the process to me.  Even worse, despite my conflicted feelings about it, I have a weird and inexplicable compulsion to regularly mount shows of my photographs.

I can imagine photographers for whom that isn’t true, but I’m not one of them.

3 Responses

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  1. Prints at Imaging Insider said, on July 6, 2007 at 12:06 pm

    […] Read More… […]

  2. Ed Richards said, on July 7, 2007 at 9:01 am

    How do you feel about prints as objects? Things to feel and touch, the effect of different papers? There has been a split between making prints and making images for a long time: I shot a ton of Kodachrome, starting when I was kid in the early 1960s, up through the 1980s. (I stopped when it became important to prints for family reasons, so I moved to negative film.) Think of all of those vacation slide shows people did. (Not to mention the entire genre of movies.) So this division between prints and images had nothing to do with digital.

  3. Michael Poster said, on July 7, 2007 at 9:21 am

    > I have a weird and inexplicable compulsion to regularly mount shows of my photographs.

    I work in series, projects lasting for months or years. While I’m involved in that process (always) I make prints and hang them on my studio walls. At the moment there are 30 – 18” x 12” prints hanging on one wall waiting for the final cut and another couple dozen 12” x 8” prints at a more preliminary stage.

    Single images are completely out of context for me and worse yet, on screen at web size they seem preliminary at best and dumbed-down at worst. The need to mount a show is the need to see a body of work all at one time. It’s damned near as satisfying for me to live with groups of prints in the studio. It lets me think about the story-telling and personal implications of the work and allows me to edit with a higher degree of confidence since by the time I get to it I’ve lived with the images for a long time.

    I have issues with the lack of substance of on-screen images as well, but so far the real deal killer is the computer enforced inability to group, re-group and make relationships between pictures that is so easy when you hang the prints on the wall.

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