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.

27 thoughts on “Against Ease: or How the Inifinitely Reproduceable Pushes Us Further From the Source”

  1. I wouldn’t say I use digital tools purely because they’re “easier”; more that they are an easier way to serve that elusive vision thing. I’ve shot for a long time, and was a very good printer in the BW darkroom; I can get better results from current digital tools than I ever could traditionally.

    I’m not terribly interested in that discussion, though; as far as I’m concerned, they’re different brushes, and godspeed.

    What I’m curious about, though, is why you think editioning wet prints makes more sense than editioning digital prints. Because it’s more laborious? You can still make an infinite number of prints that will be indistinguishable to even the most educated viewer.

    I’ve personally always found editioning photos ridiculous for that reason; unless you punch your negs after you’re done, you (or your heirs) could always make more prints.

    Editioning makes sense for a mezzotint, for example, because you can only get a certain number of prints out before the plate starts to degrade. It’s inherent to the medium.

    Editioning photos has always been an artificial conceit, an attempt to give what’s fundamentally a mechanical, modern art form the constraints of an older, more respected medium.

    Phew, re-reading that comment makes it sound like I’m railing against you. I don’t mean to. In person this would be a passionate statement as part of a friendly conversation.

  2. Thanks for swinging by, David – I appreciate your view.

    It’s not the “laborious” factor, exactly, but it definitely has something to do with the handmade appeal. I’ve done enough work with bits to know that printing digitally is essentially a programming feat. You get to know the machine enough to get it to do exactly what you want it to do. Repeatedly.

    As much as I want more mystery in photographs themselves, I think I want more mystery in the printing of them, too. In the unknown, the unscripted, the uninstalled.

    I’m operating on my assumptions largely through feel, rather than experience, quite frankly. My intuition tells me something feels right, and that echoes and multiplies until becoming a post like the one above…

    Great work’s being done with digital printing, both in the quality, and in the conception, but I’m so dumbstruck when I encounter reasonable photographers who say they do what they do for the ease

  3. from a painter point of view: it will be so easy to write the same argument you are using, but against your printing technique.

    in such subjective themes, it’s better to keep the low profile and work hard, so that your work will talk for yourself

  4. Well, might I be shooting large format if I could afford it? Perhaps. BUT, the fact is, I can barely keep up with the funds required to shoot digitally. My seriously-must-have-in -order-to-complete-projects/ideas wish list is about 8 grand, which I don’t have. So, my options are to shoot a roll every 2 weeks, or go with digital and print whenever I can and well and guarantee I get the shots I want. I take exception to the “let the pros handle it” line. You forget that the artist’s hand is in every step of the process, from the subject choice to the technical aspects of the shot, to the editing and so on and so forth. I think, from my experience (lacking the budget to work with the real pros whose services I cannot come close to affording) that the labs need quite a bit of guidance and I’ve gone as far as 5 test prints to get the desired result. The real problem is people letting photogs get away with sub-par prints derived from the internet age of viewing and probably, in part, from these people never having printed in a darkroom. The experience is helpful but need not be replicated ad infinitum for nostalgia’s sake or because effort should be valued. The end counts. Not how you got there.

  5. Couldn’t agree more. While digital is “easier”, I find the whole process completely unfulfilling. The film process is hard work but I cherish the end result so much more, even if the process drives me nuts sometimes. Quality over convenience.

    On a slightly related note, Sally Mann in an interview with the ever awkward Charlie Rose said she chose photography over writing as a form of expression beacuse it was easier.

  6. WB – the end counts, yes. I thought I was writing about quality above, but that part fell out.

    AD – I realized my argument was swiss cheesy halfway through. Thanks for recognizing it. This space acts objective, but, like everyone, isn’t.

  7. How many of your photographic heroes had/have someone else make their prints for them? How easy is that?

    A negative can be reprinted just as many times as a digital file.
    Editioning either is just about marketing.

    “I want to see the artist’s hand…”. I want to see his head.

  8. If digital is so “easy” wouldn’t we be flush with great prints?

    I have never color printed in the darkroom because I never had the facilities. But I find your attitude similar to other color printers. The harder photography is, the better it is. I could be misreading you, but that is what I get from what you wrote.

    I was a decent black and white printer, but when I went back to it after a 12 year absence, I realized that printing with photoshop is how I think. But getting it on the paper is another issue.

    I take pictures. With digital I take more, possibly some I would not take otherwise. Each camera responds differently. Digital and film look different, but for me what matters is how the image is visually constructed. That part is never easy. A print is a print. I am more interested in the next picture I am going to take.

    One could argue that you are taking the “easier” route by using color neg, maybe. Why not chrome? Or wet plate? Or gum bichromate, that is big pain from what I understand.

    Thanks for bringing this up, it really helped me clarify where I stand. Have fun in the dark.

  9. I can only speak for myself.

    I used to spend hours in the color darkroom with my ridiculous looking, custom made burning and dodging tools. I enjoyed every minute of it. I switched to digital because I can do the exact same thing without exposure to chemicals or having to store them. My clothes don’t reek of developer. Neither does my house. My hair. (Important for us ladies, no?) No fumes. No stains.

    I shoot the same way I did then. I dodge and burn and crop the same way I did back then. My eye is the same (better I think) then it was back then. Only the tools have changed.

    Digital or traditional, it’s just a tool.

    I’ve seen wonderful digital work and horrible chemical based work, and vice versa. I know oil painters who say the same things you did about those who use acrylics. I know a Canon shooter who turns their nose up at my Nikon. To each his own. Whatever gives you the freedom to create the image that you want is whats’ important.

    I should mention that I own my printer (HP Z2100 44″). Sending out files to be printed is not acceptable to me. I must control every aspect of the final product. I guess we all have lines we won’t cross, eh? :)

  10. Photography is a lot like music. Even though electronic keyboards have been around for a long time, musicians haven’t abandoned acoustic instruments. All kinds of instrumentation is being used in music today. I think that’s the point some of the folks have made above.

    I combine traditional and digital approaches by scanning film and working on the photographs on my computer. Since I don’t have access to darkroom this is my only choice right now. But, having worked in the darkroom for many years I have found that I can accomplish a lot more in less time with this approach. Yes, nothing looks as good as a silver print, but there is no way I could have gotten as much work done over the past few years in a traditional darkroom as I have on my computer.

    Good point Gary, many of the masters did not print their own work, including Robert Frank.

  11. I’ve seen a lot more “fine prints” than most people, yet I would still say that the crushing majority of photographic images I’ve seen were in books, in magazines, on the boxes of packaged goods, on the sides of buses, buildings, or billboards. One-off’s are the oddity, a bit like family snaps before the age of “double prints.”

  12. No offense, but it is kind of weird to hear a photographer talk about hand-made objects. Anyway…

    Somewhere somebody is making a cave painting, someone is sculpting rock, someone is etching copper, and someone is exposing tri-x. Wonderful! But a shity image is shity whatever medium and conversely, a good one (whatever that means!) is good. Seventy-five years from now, vintage pigmented prints from the “turn of the century” will have a cache that is admired by image-makers and collectors alike, not that that is the goal. For me, expression is the goal, and the medium is the means. (I will leave it to the McLuanhanites to determine whether the medium is the message.) I put as much intellectual and emotional energy into my inkjet prints as I ever did into my B/W prints.

    Matisse was asked in his later years (by a collector no doubt) about one of his simple gouache collages (I paraphrase): “How long did it take you to make that Mr. Matisse?” Matisse responded: “Eighty-two years.”

  13. Michael, I am happy for you that you were able to realize your new darkroom. Also I share your point about how digital can be prone to let people get careless and sloppy about their pictures. My D70 is my best-hated camera, but sometimes it just helps me to practise, so it does have its place. As for printing, scanning my film and outputting my work digitally is the only way I can afford. To me it means printing (and learing something in the process) or not printing at all. So maybe this all burns down to whatever tools you use you need to know why you use them and for what purpose and and to always put your best effort into it.

  14. Michael, you hit the nail on the head. For me, there is a certain quality to color darkroom prints that is very difficult, if not impossible, to replicate digitally. Digital prints always seem to look..well, digital. As folks point out above, this is neither good nor bad by itself. The image is the important thing. But I think we should acknowledge that it is there. There IS something about color darkroom prints that is special, that makes them worth doing.

    I recently printed up a color portfolio, for which I had the option of using a high quality HP printer or a color darkroom. I chose the darkroom. I wasn’t sure I’d made the right choice until I watched the first 16 x 20 glossy exhibition print roll out of the processor. It was Beautiful!

    You mention editioning. The logic of editioning is convoluted, even in reference to darkroom work. But at least in the darkroom it meant something. What is the point of editioning when each print is simply the push of a button? It’s a completely artificial construct imposed by the market. Which is fine, but let’s at least acknowledge it.

  15. You can’t “push a button” and get a great print.

    You can’t blame inks, cameras, chemicals, paper, processors, printers, etc (if you are using quality products) for poor results when it’s a lack of skills that are to blame.

    Expertise in the wet darkroom does not translate to instant expertise in the digital age, and the opposite is true. These are two completely different skill sets. I know because I have worked with both. Like anything worth doing, you have to do it a while before you get the hang of it, understand the intricacies and the tools, the right tools to use, etc.

    Nothing worth doing (or done well) is easy.

  16. Great post!

    I’ve been to several exhibitions lately with chemistry b&w prints. They often have a kind of quality that I like.

    Chemistry-based technologies won’t go away. Look at the music industry: digital synths came along in the early 80’s but you still find lots of Korgs, Moogs and Prophets in use. In fact, some bands have made a niche for themselves puruing analog synth technologies.

    Lots and lots of people do digital photography, but some will retrograde into film after beginning with digital, especially in art and portrait photography.

  17. I think digital photography and processing for the vast majority of photographers have lead to a substantial improvement in simple self expression. I am taking far better photographs now than I ever did in the ‘age of film’. I am not talking about gallery quality photos, but photos that get closer to the vision of what I was seeing.

    I can do this now because of the relative cheapness of digital photos(it is cheap to experiment) and the ease of editing. In terms of quality, for me, digital processing has produced far better photos because I neither had the time, temperament or funds to personally use a darkroom.

  18. I just spent one hundred and ten dollars on a box of 50 4×5 color sheets. Considering the cost of development, that’s $210 on 50 pictures, or, $4.02 per pic. The irony is that I will then scan those into my computer and print them on an epson inkjet printer.

    No, it is not the most cost-effective way of making art, but for now, and for me, it is what I am comfortable with. I know that the 4×5 will capture a large(20 square inches) slice of the world and I know that I pull a little of the beauty of the world from those negatives.

    I think someone has already said this, but my medium just a tool of expression. The fact that I’m dropping a McDonald’s value meal on each shutter-release just makes each picture more important, and I hope, more sacred. It’s not that digital snaps can’t capture beauty, or wonder or the sublime aspects of light, but that I haven’t found the skills to use it that way. Kudos to those who have, could I borrow a couple hundred?

  19. to me, what matters most is what ends up on the print, it’s the subject matter and the results that matter most, no matter if produced via a brand spanking new dslr, a tried and true 35mm, a toy camera, a pinhole or whatever means you utilize to end up with an image

    BUT, there is a certain character and prose that a film-based print has that was developed in the darkroom that simply cannot be overlooked or ignored, nor outdone by anything digital

    I do agree 100% with a comment above, “don’t let the medium become the message.”, what resources you have at your disposal and what you chose to create an image should not be, nor ever be, the focus, what matters most is content, visual impact and appeal and purpose with a dash of passion mixed in

    focus on the subject and let the resulting frames speak for themselves!

  20. Photography doesn’t work like that. The photograph is not the material it’s printed on. It’s something more.

  21. Digital photography, in the strict scientific sense or the more far-reaching philosophical one, is not photography. It may be imagery but it is not photography. And, first and foremost, it has absolutely no worth as a historical document. None.

  22. What about Jerry Uelsmann, Gregory Crewdson, Ralph Eugene Matyard, Les Krims, many others?? Traditional methods. Not historical documents. Who cares? Maybe in court. Where else?

  23. If you were a real photographer, you’d be shooting on glass plates. Anything else is just laziness for the sake of convenience.

    “What’s the treasure in owning something that’s potentially infinitely (and inexpertly) reproduceable?”

    For the same reason that it is still a treasure to own great music.

    You can take pleasure in the object of vinyl, the object of a cd, the object of a tape… but its a different pleasure than the music itself.

    Taking pleasure in the print is taking pleasure in the object, not the image itself .The experience

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>