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Against Ease: or How the Inifinitely Reproduceable Pushes Us Further From the Source

Does Richard Serra work with steel because it’s easier than aluminum? Does Lucian Freud paint with oil because it’s easier than spray paint? I can’t understand why an artist (in any field) would choose a particular medium because it’s easier to work with. You choose your medium because it’s the strongest, most expressive tool for delivering your particular message, right?

Last weekend I spent a full day in our new color darkroom. A few of us here in Atlanta have pooled resources, formed a collective, and rented a studio space. We purchased and installed a massive color processor. We are making beautiful 30×40 prints the old-fashioned way, with enlargers. It takes time and attention. The resulting prints (those from my studiomates, especially) are some of the best color prints I’ve seen.

6 20x24 Oprahs

Not all photographers are artists, and not all photographers want to make art. There’s a difference between taking pictures and making photographs, I guess. But one thing I can’t understand are fine art photographers who choose their particular tool(s) based on what’s easy. What’s that about?

If you were to interview a random cross-section of photographers who shoot digitally, and asked them why they shot digitally, most would say, “because it’s faster, cheaper, and easier.” I came (back) to photography via digital, but soon migrated to mainly/only film. I prefer how film looks, across the board. I’ve found the right tool for me.

There are those who don’t prefer either film or digital — I wish I were one of them, but I’ve seen one too many poorly printed (and overpriced) exhibitions of too many oversharpened, fashionably unsaturated, over-processed jpgs. (The exceptions are those who use digital to their advantage, to create work that couldn’t be made otherwise, work that speaks to the particular nature and strength of working digitally, but they’re few and far between.)

So, I’m back in the darkroom. It’s slow going, and it’s an anachronistic step backward in many ways, but just because digital photography was invented doesn’t mean analog photography was an exhausted medium. There’s still so much room there to work and explore and pursue. Yes, it’s cumbersome and relatively difficult, and the lure of the new (and everything fast, cheap, and flexible) is strong, my child.

I like prints that speak to the entirety of a photographer’s talents. Prints that show-off the ability to put image to paper, to create something real, something that will last and be a living memory, be infinitely ponderable. But frankly, aside from the great folks at 20×200, or fellow blogger ZS, I can’t see why anyone’s purchasing editioned digital prints. What’s the treasure in owning something that’s potentially infinitely (and inexpertly) reproduceable? I mean, how different is a digital print of your fantastic photograph any different than this? Because it’s sprayed with luster?

An aside: in some ways, the pricing of digital fine art prints seems to be a shift-away from paying for an actual print to paying for all the expense that went into creating the work that led to this actual print, because making the actual print is relatively cheap. And there’s something a lot less seductive in that, to me, as someone who might like to buy a print. I want to pay for the worth of the thing itself, not the artist’s overhead. I’m off my argument here, but I hope you’re still with me.

I want to see the artist’s hand, and I don’t see it in arbitrary edition sizes of digital prints. An edition of 1 makes sense to me, but beyond that, why stop at 5, or 10, or a thousand? (Please don’t say, “to create the appearance of exclusivity and desireability, my friend.”)

I’m in the process of printing two shows. One will have digital prints, in part, but the work is about digitalness, even if the original photographs were shot on film. The second show will be all analog prints, each created by hand, and the process has been incredible. The satisfaction of printing in the dark on Fuji Crystal Archive rather than google searching for some obscure Hannehmuelle printer driver cannot be measured. Which is why most photographers outsource their printing altogether. Leave it to the experts, I suppose.

Mine are cranky old arguments, usually voiced by someone whose been in the business decades longer than me. As someone relatively new to it all, I find it interesting to see so much of the photography culture fall under-the-spell of the ease of shooting digitally, both professionally, and for fine art projects. A critical exception, and a fine example of a photographer who can really write, here.

My impression is that the business of photography exerts too much influence over the easily-influenced artist, from the printer-cartridge rep, to the stock photography buyer, earnest photo editor, and gallery owner. Each and all have created a playing field that requires photographers to produce work that’s faster, cheaper, and easier. As a whole, the handmade, carefully considered print is becoming obsolete.

If you miss the magic of photography, it’s still out there for the price of a few ingredients. Craigslist is a remarkable resource, and prices for darkroom equipment range from cheap to free. Processors can be had too, as labs are getting rid of them left and right.

There’s something about the stew of doing-it-yourself that feels sustaining. Suddenly, your work feels like real Work, not “work”. And bonus! You spend less time with your eyes crossed, whileseated at a computer. The result is completely controlled by you and your intention, not by the whims of Joe Laser at digitalprintville.com. (Like I said, there are great exceptions to this, and amazing people doing great things with digital prints, but they’re too few and far between. They’re not printing the majority of shows I’ve been seeing, that’s for sure.)

If you’re inclined, take photography back, a print at a time, while you still can, and show us what the business has missed. It’s easier than you think.

I meant this. See you at (or from) Invesco on Thursday. Be well.

Tag: MDM, No Street Photography, Tidbits