Printing Theory 1

See if you can follow this logic: the photographer has hiked for hours to the destination, has set up the camera on a tripod, has carefully adjusted it to frame the image the way he/she wants, has waited for the light to be right, for the clouds to be in the best position, the water in the foreground to be still, metered the subject carefully, cocked the shutter on the view camera, pulled the slide on the film holder and, finally, clicked the shutter to take the picture.

When back home the photographer develops the sheets of film shot on the trip carefully, "pushing" or "pulling the processing to expand or diminish contrast, makes contacts of all the frames shot, and begins to make prints, working diligently to vary contrast and exposure to produce as many tones in the black and white print as possible. At the end of a long darkroom day he/she has a print or two that is luminous, contains a full range of tonalities from black on up to white, has a  luscious silvery look to it in the reflection in the water and is very sharp. The photographer ends this day with a real sense of accomplishment and can't wait to show it to his/her gallery, colleagues, significant other, students, etc.

The image on this very beautiful print is banal, derivitive, mundane, boring, and totally without significance. 

To continue: this photographer is educated, sophisticated, knowledgeable and has had shows and been published. He/she is also superior, condescending, narcisistic, overbearing and conceited.

Simply stated: high craft, refined and skillful printing of unredeemingly banal subjects do not a good photograph make. Ansel Adams? He did all the above steps througout his whole career and made exquisite prints of subjects that have great drama and impact. They didn't call him the "Wagner of photography" for nothing.

Wynn Bullock? Another exquisite craftsman who imbued real mystery and intrigue into his work:

Attributing great significance to a banal subject by using large format and superior craftsmanship has its place (see Lewis Baltz's " New Industrial Parks Near Irvine, CA, for instance), but in most contexts simply results in a good print of a bad image. 

Lest you think I am only pointing my finger at others here, I am certainly guilty of making wonderful prints from bad pictures. In fact, it seems I do it all the time. 

Next up? Stay tuned for Printing Theory 2 where I will write about works by Lee Friedlander, Gary Winogrand and Robert Frank, small format masters of "anti-fine art" printing. Pure genius.

Topics: Printing theory,Commentary

Permalink | Posted November 9, 2013