The print is the performance-an opinion piece

The print is the performance-an opinion piece
MacKenzie Country, to the 9south-east. Nikon D800, 70-200/2.8 VR II. ISO 100. 1/400s @f9

MacKenzie Country, to the south-east. Nikon D800, 70-200/2.8 VR II. ISO 100. 1/400s @f9

The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print to its performance. Each performance differs in subtle ways.

~Ansel Adams

“For me the printing process is part of the magic of photography. It’s that magic that can be exciting, disappointing, rewarding and frustrating all in the same few moments in the darkroom.”

– John Sexton

I recently had the opportunity to help judge a photographic competition, which is always a joy and an excitement. It is also a lot of hard work. Remaining focused as we work our way through a huge number of entries is draining.

We had over 400 entries. I cannot remember the exact number, for, by the end of the day, their number was legion and the passing parade became something of a blur. What struck me however, was that there were about 340 digital entries supplied for projection, and around 70 prints, a ration of around 5:1 in favour of projected images. The printing was, by and large, pedestrian in quality and quite a number had been produced in a commercial lab, where quality often takes a back seat to speed and facility of production. A small few were beautifully-crafted, a tribute to their creators and to their obvious excellence in print-making. The majority made it quite clear that their authors neither knew nor cared about whether the final print matched their vision. Some of the prints were dismal, dull things that did the authors’ vision no compliments.

I can understand why print-making is not as popular as it once was.

It is expensive. A beautifully crafted print costs money. An A1 produced by a top lab will cost upwards of $NZ80 each. A great lab will charge more, and there is a reason for that. They factor in the time to set up their equipment and the wastage in time and materials while working with you to produce something which will please you. They expect to have you on their backs until you are happy. Of course if you accept their first offering and walk away, you have done wonders for their bottom line. You shouldn’t.

Even a lab print of a reasonable size costs money. Remember that prints of this type are made to a price (and sometimes a standard). The old adage holds: if it’s too cheap to be true, it probably is.

Printing it yourself is neither easy nor cheap. You will invest in a good monitor, calibration equipment, a quality printer, take careful note of issues related to your workspace and allow for all of these. You will research and buy different papers (there are many different papers available) and spend a small fortune on ink to make that elusive, perfect print. You will need to master colour management and learn to solve computer/screen/printer mismatches. You may even have to pay money to have custom paper profiles written. Like all crafts, mastery takes time and effort and money and perseverance.

For photographic printmaking is a craft, just like making violins or fine furniture. There is an apprenticeship to be served. There are skills to be learned. There are understandings to be gained. For example, when assessing a test print, it is important to know whether a particular image on a chosen paper stock lightens as the ink dries or whether it darkens. Some papers dry in a few minutes; others need 24 hours before you can properly assess the print density and make changes to your output file. You will need to explore and consider the effect of different paper surfaces and learn (usually by trial and error) which ones “lift” your work and which ones detract from what you are trying to say.

All of these are sensible reasons to avoid making prints. Why would you, when you can simply export your picture as a jpeg from Lightroom, attach it to an email and send it off to a competition? Fame and glory for little or no outlay. Easy. 5:1 in favour. And anyway, that masterpiece glowing on your monitor looks way better than the dismal result you got from Hardly Normal…

It seems to me, however, that a digital image is only 2/3 of the way there, living in a digital womb somewhere between conception and birth. The idea is formed, the process is underway, but the baby has yet to arrive on the delivery table. It is unformed and unfinished.

Photography is a craft. It is a technology applied artistically, and for ideas to be successfully realised, craftsmanship as to be learned and developed. You see, there are three parts to mastering the craft of photography: there is capture, and the skill set that goes with that, such things as mastering focal length, focus, depth of field and exposure; there is postproduction, and the skill set that goes with that, such things as learning about your computer, software, and all the arcane techniques that go with realising that idea; and then there is printmaking, the often forgotten and ignored third child.

However these are not three different children; they are the same child at different stages of Genesis. The baby does not exist until it can be picked up and held. A digital image is simply an idea without form, a collection of electrons or numbers, energy in transit. It has no substance, it has no form. It is simply incomplete. It is only once realised in concrete form that a print that it moves from idea to object.

Our forefathers knew this, which is why so often the print remains as the only evidence of a different time and place. Look into your own family archives and notice how those treasured family memories really only exist in the form of prints. So often the negatives have been lost, and only the print remains as the objectification of personal past or family memories. Now, however, we are content to have these half-formed, half-realised ideas floating in our computers, lost in an electronic void, where they are at the mercy of power cuts or hard drive failures.

When we make prints, we are creating an object, giving an idea tangible form. And when we gain sufficient knowledge to confidently make prints, then we are closing the loop, finishing the job. We are making objects which have meaning and value. I love my Kindle, especially when I am travelling, because it allows me to take a lot of books with me on the road. However an e-book is not a real book, it is simply a convenient way to transport virtual knowledge (which Amazon can take back at any time that suits them). A book, made with ink and paper, is an object, and a completely different experience. I can pick it up, I can enjoy how it looks and feels, I can scribble on the margins (I do not), and I can spill coffee on it. It looks great sitting in the bookshelf with other like-minded books, and when I eventually tire of it, I can send this object away on an extended trip to somebody’s holiday home, or pass it on to another reader. Because it exists, it has substance and form and a life of its own. It is finished and complete. A digital file is not.

A print is like that. Whether it is framed on the wall, printed in a book, stuck in an album, or simply filed away in a drawer, it exists. It is an object which can be picked up, examined, and considered. It exists in a way and in a form which a digital file can never do.

A well-made print tells a story about its author, both about their ideas and about their mastery of craft. While it sings its own song, and tells a biography of the person who brought it into being. It has life and it has form. And, for that reason, it has a greater intrinsic value both here in the present and in the future.

Mastery of craft, it seems to me, comes when we are able to stand in the field and, before we press the shutter, plot the path from capture to the finished print, to that exquisitely tactile object which will emerge on the delivery table at the end of the process.

I have a good friend who usually ambushes me whenever I go around to call. He will offer me lunch, or a bite to eat, in order to make me lower my guard. Inevitably, as I am sitting there happily (he is a great cook), an evil smirk will cross his face. Would you like to see some prints? He usually says (the sub text is: you will look at my prints). While that may sound a chore, it almost never is. His printmaking skills are light years ahead of my own, and his digital files have been so exquisitely resolved that, try as I may, I can never find fault with their execution. They are as finely-wrought as a piece of exquisite jewellery or a Swiss watch.

And, each time I look at his stunning prints, it comes home to me how important it is to finish the job off, that the idea or moment in time we captured must take form before it can truly be considered a photograph.


16 Responses

  1. Sam SHC says:

    I enjoyed reading your blog. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. However, I must say I have spent more time looking at the picture of MacKenzie Country at the beginning of the blog. I may be biased because I also use a Nikon D800 DSLR. The point I wanted to say was, despite the small size of the image, I think I can see so much detail in it. One thing I have found with good images captured by the 36 megapixels of D800, it is just addictive to look at the detail on a big screen. I am sure I’ll spend a lot of time with your image if I have a chance to see the full size picture. It will be even more interesting to see it printed big. Sam

  2. Tony Bridge says:

    Thanks, Sam. After a week on the road, I am looking forward to printing it myself and seeing it as a finished work. Interstingly, I remade it in CApture NX 2, and the results are finer. This may be the first manufacturer’s converter that exceeds what aftermarket converters can deliver.

  3. Sam SHC says:

    One thing I have been telling Nikonians in the last six years was the ability of Capture NX2 to render NEF files better than many other raw converters. I especially like the sharpening function in revealing micro details. Its main deficiency is the recovery of highlight areas. ACR is better in that aspect. The sad thing is there may be no new development of Capture NX2 by Nikon or NIK. However, at least it has been maintained to run in recent versions of Windows OS. You may be interested to use VIEW NX2 as an image browser. I think it can show more metadata than other applications. Sam

  4. Tony Bridge says:

    Thanks, Sam…

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