Friday, October 23, 2009

How Should We Evaluate Digital Craftsmanship?

Earlier this week, my wife and I watched Valentino: The Last Emperor (here) on DVD. For those of you that haven't seen this film, it is a terrific documentary covering the last year or so of Valentino's reign as the head of his iconic Italian fashion house, including the now famous 45th anniversary retrospective of his work and the glamorous star-studded gala celebration in Rome.

Near the end of the film, there is an amazing scene, where Valentino and Karl Lagerfeld are wandering through the museum show of Valentino's jaw-dropping designs, and Lagerfeld stops, puts his arm around Valentino, and says something like "Compared to the two of us, the rest are making rags."

As I thought more about this stunning comment, I wondered about how it might connect to the world of photography. In the old analog world, the craftsmanship of the gelatin silver print was clear: great printers were obviously better than average printers, and you didn't have to have a particularly tuned eye to see the difference. If we were to try elect a pantheon of master printers, one of my votes would certainly go to Frederick Sommer, but of course, there are many others who took meticulous printing to new heights. There were also those like Bill Brandt who were consistently sloppy, but didn't seem to care.

In the new digital world, I find myself much more confused about how to evaluate prints. If there are obvious imperfections, pixelations, digital remnants or other unwanted artifacts, we can of course single these prints out as less than good. But how are we to tell the difference between average and superior? Can we still pick winners based on elevation of craft alone?

I really don't have any good answers here I'm afraid. If we assume that once a digital image goes to "the printer" it is exactly the same as every subsequent image printed, the only variations then come in the proper functioning of the machinery, the fidelity of the inks and the quality of the papers. Are most collectors really equipped to dive into these details with any kind of knowledgeable connoisseurship? And if the above is true, do we then step back to evaluate a photographer's skill at computer-based manipulation and editing? Is this still "printing"? I'm not sure that it is.

I think what we need is a jargon free checklist/guide of what to look for in the physical endpoint of digital prints, from the perspective of a collector. Perhaps this exists somewhere on the Internet already, or maybe we need to gather together the information and create it here.

So back to Valentino and Lagerfeld. How will we judge the master printers of this digital age? What metrics will we use? Can anyone put forth the two current best who could have a similar conversation, whose skills and craftsmanship put them undeniably head and shoulders above their peers? Is this even a relevant question? As a collector, I feel an uneasy need to understand this better, but I'll admit that I really don't even know where to begin.

30 comments:

J. Wesley Brown said...

Ooh, a tough one and one I'm glad you brought up. As a photographer, I'm constantly looking at prints when I go to show or fairs and scrutinizing their craftsmanship, often times with my nose right up close. I'm sure you do the same and I'd say therein lies your answer.

Taste of course some into play. Do you like grain? Are you ok with it in analog prints? I'm not so much so I shy away from them. Much in the same way digitally, do you like noise? Are you ok with it? Personally, I hate it. I never ever shoot higher than ISO 100 to avoid it as much as I can and it bothers me immensly when photographers print noisy prints or with noticeable artifacts.

These things are easily noticeable. The question is, then, do you as the collector care or are you fine purchasing that image printed too large, shot at too high of an ISO setting and with the levels boosted too much or are you willing to overlook these things (as far too many galleries are) because you like the image content and print quality be damned.

You know what "good" digital prints are because you've seen enough of them, right?

The art is in the printing. If we only had to worry about computer screens, it would make our jobs much easier.

Unfortunately, collecotrs and galleries don't seem to hold all photographers to the same high standards that other photographers hold themselves.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Great questions.

As a photographer, I feel I've learned some of the finer points of making and closely inspecting prints.

What I would recommend to any serious collector is to find gallerists, photographers and even printers who are willing to spend personal time looking at work and discussing prints with them. It's one of those things you can only learn through a lot of personal experience.

I look forward to reading any other responses.

Lorraine said...

This is a very important topic and one that has not been addressed properly. I can suggest three books to begin with - 'The Digital Print, Identification and Preservation' by Martin C Juergens - published by the Getty; the 'Dictionary of Photography and Digital Imaging' by Tom Ang, AMPHOTOBOOKS and of course, Richard Benson's book, 'The Printed Picture' MoMA. These three books are standard references so that we can at least be informed of the processes when we are looking at them.

The giant crater that we fall into everytime is comparing digital to analogue and vice versa. They are two distinct lens based mediums. No one would ever think to compare a water-color to an oil painting because they are both brush based. Or even oil to acrylic (though I'm sure it has been done, it is a moot point unless there are conservation issues.)

Of course we get into an incredibly murky area when analogue negatives are scanned and printed in ink digitally, such as the Walker Evans exhibition at UBS several years ago, where some of his 5x7 contacts were enlarged to monumental proportions (for Evans that is). I contend it became something else. That is shouldn't be compared to it's original form.

The original image is not improved nor is it compromised. It is just different.

Will it hold its monetary value? (I'm an appraiser - this is a question I must ask.) It will never be an original Walker Evans, 5x7 contact print, printed by the artist. It will hold its monetary value in relation to itself for what it is. It isn't a knock-off. It is authentic. It's just different. It's posthumous. Its big. It might have conservation issues on account of its size and light exposure.

Aperture has been producing gravures of famous images for YEARS. No one ever thinks to compare them to the original analogue, non-ink processes. They are gravures.

If the digital print is signed by the artist, one can only assume it is as the artist would have it. It is not easy to make a digital print. What one sees on the screen and what comes out of the printer has to be interpreted properly.

In my update of Lee Witkin's 'The Photograph Collector's Guide' - finally coming out in 2010!...John-Paul Caponigro has written an essay about digital media. His first draft was arguing for its acceptance vs. analogue. I asked him to revise it - leaving the argument out completely - that it was no longer an argument. I asked that he write specifically what a collector should look for when purchasing a digital print. Exactly what DLK brings up. How do we judge the quality of a print within its own media...what are the conservation/preservation questions? How should a good print "look?" - How can a collector be informed enought to know the difference?

I belive that we must do at least a minimum amount of homework, using the three books mentioned. We will then be able to ask informed questions based upon our basic knowledge and vocabulary of a process and and proceed from there.

Chris Raecker said...

Craft is the scaffolding from which a work of art may be constructed. Craft is not art, but it is necessary in making an art object which can in turn, reflect an art vision. To the extent that reflection is clear, craft has served its only purpose relative to art.
Form follows function.

The challenge presented to a craft in service of its function, varies, from work to work. For this reason, a general standard applied to craft within art is problematic.

LG said...

This is exactly what lead me to purchase my own archival, large format printer. I have complete control over the process and I am responsible for the success (or failure) of my prints.

Elizabeth Fleming said...

This is an excellent post--you raise some important questions. As a photographer who has learned (and I hope mastered) both black-and-white and color darkroom printing along with digital inkjets I believe there is craft required for both, just a different kind of craft. I agree with the analogy that it's like trying to compare a watercolor to an oil painting--they are different beasts. But we should look for that craft in both. And it's true, digital isn't necessarily easier--I can spend hours in Photoshop tweaking my image, and once it's printed then I re-tweak until I'm satisfied with the print itself. The time spent ends up being pretty much equal, just in a different way.

It used to drive me mad when I would go to shows and a B&W print would have visible dust spots, so there can be poor craft with film printing; just because a print was made in the darkroom doesn't make it "superior." Details can be overlooked in any medium, and I have seen gorgeous digital prints and horrible c-prints.

Digital is here to stay, and I for one love the look of a good inkjet print. When it's done right it can be a beautiful thing, but standards need to be applied here as they are in any art medium.

Michael Sebastian said...

I think Elizabeth Fleming has generally spoken my stance on this issue.

I'd add that for digital printing, attention to materials is even more important than it is in traditional darkroom printing. It seems to me that there is a much wider range of digital materials available now than there was in the analog world; and quite a bit more variance between them in terms of quality, heft, texture, "richness", etc.

As Elizabeth said, the amount of knowledge and time required to do top-quality work in either medium seems about equal, but distributed differently. For instance, my work is 90+% scanned color-negative film; it is a pleasure and a relief to be able to do color correction and dust spotting before rendering the final output. I spend much more of my time tweaking colors and capture sharpening---because I much more easily CAN in a hybrid workflow---and in matching paper surface and weight to the image.

Good post.

dlkcollection said...

Thanks to everyone for the astonishing variety of comments. There are a bunch of ideas worth teasing out and exploring more fully. A few I'd like to open up further:

1.) Craft versus content: I know MANY "vintage" collectors who would happily trade a great subject/average print for a superior print/average subject; in this case, content is meaningfully less important than craft. These "print junkies" are constantly in search of luminous prints, regardless of their subject. Will this behavior translate to the digital world? Perhaps the answer is no, that craft has been so elevated across the board by enhancements in technology that the difference between average and superior has grown smaller. In the "old days", the gap between average and superior was huge; in the future, it may converge to nothing. Or will it?

Print to print variation: Again, in the vintage world, there is meaningful print to print variation across an edition. Even with Ansel Adams and his meticulous Dodge 3 seconds here and Burn 10 seconds here printing approach, there was still variation from print to print. As collectors, we have many times looked at a number of prints from the same edition and then chosen "the best". In the digital age, has this variation been eliminated? Maybe, if all the "processing" is done before "printing"...

Big prints: Lorraine touches on an analog to digital conversion question that has also been bugging me. What happens when the photographer scans an analog negative and then prints it digitally for the purposes of making bigger prints? Again, as a collector, I'm not sure how to evaluate quality in this scenario.

Prints from labs: This is a relative of the ones above. If a photographer send his or her prints to an external lab for printing (i.e. they don't own a large printer), what does this say about the craft of printing and its relationship to the artist? Again, are we converging to zero? Others have commented in other posts on this site about the idea of potentially evolving toward a print on demand future. Is this really possible? Or will the specifity of a physical print be marginalized as we view art on screens more and more?

Many many questions, and few answers...

dlkcollection said...

One more tangential idea:

In the past, many photographers started out as printers for other more experienced photographers as a way to learn the craft, an apprenticeship type relationship. Abbott for Man Ray, Baril for Mapplethorpe, Kenna for Bernhard etc. etc.

If "printing" becomes "processing", is the new assistant a computer expert rather than an early career artist?

Ken Allen said...

Great discussion! Photography has had great innovations every decade since it's popularization. That evolutionary process continues, now with pigmented ink prints providing the first widely available light fast COLOR image.

But there is also a transition from the artist as scientist/innovator, to where the artist does not have to be a scientist or craftsperson. Today the most successful photographic art is due to the ideas of the artist; the mind, not necessarily the hand. The craft is important, but does not to be possessed by the artist. How many great photographers are supported by a talented craftsperson?
It is the responsibility of the craftsperson to be the active student of the processes (IE. 'The Digital Print, Identification and Preservation' by Martin C Juergens - published by the Getty; the 'Dictionary of Photography and Digital Imaging' by Tom Ang, AMPHOTOBOOKS and of course, Richard Benson's book, 'The Printed Picture' MoMA.) and inform the artist about the medium. The Artist is responsible for accepting whether the craftsperson and the medium have realized their idea in a manner that is superior.

The best of today's digital pigmented ink prints have excellent qualities that a collector should be excited about. Cared for properly a color photograph printed with archival pigmented inks will last far longer than the chromogenic print (c-print), especially the early c-prints from the 70's, 80's.

Collector's should be more critical in looking at a pigmented ink print. The precision of the process allows for near perfection. There is no justification for bad color, over saturation, or dust.

dlkcollection said...

I've been fielding some email questions and comments as well this AM. I few additional thoughts that have come out of these discussions:

It is correct that in the end collectors should be and are evaluating the end product, not the in between process steps. And if you are composition/content focused in your evaluation of art, then the minutiae of printing may be somewhat artificial; but for many collectors, this stuff really matters.

So, for an analog negative printed in the traditional way, not only can I look at the finished product, but I have a decent understanding of the intermediate steps and the craftsmanship that went into that outcome, so I guess as a collector, I can feel somewhat more confident about what I am buying. I understand what went on to create the art and can identify good and bad results.

For the scanned analog negative then printed digitally or the digital negative printed digitally (not to mention the appropriated negative from who knows where), I suppose I am less comfortable with what the intermediate steps are and where the craftsmanship lies. I can still identify bad, but have a harder time separating good from great. This is clearly just ignorance on my part, and can likely be corrected with some education about what steps occur and where the real artistry happens, irrespective of the composition/content evaluation. The original post was mostly meant to highlight that if we are at all representative of how collectors are thinking, many of us don't know how to think about these issues very well, and are confused as a result.

Perhaps the issue at had here is really a semantics one (maybe we need a diagram). We used to use the word "printing" for everything that happened from negative to finished product. We now seem to be using "printing" more narrowly, to define the output of the printer, and all the other intermediate steps are being deemed "processing" or "manipulation" (in a slightly more sinister connotation). And these may now happen in physically different places, maybe by different people. What is perhaps needed is a better definition of what "processing" means, so that we can identify it when we see it in a finished print. This is what collectors need, so they can say, "Aha, I see what went into making this image so successful (or not)".

Chris Raecker said...

For an audiophile, the craft of reproduction is the function, the art of music is the form that expresses that function. An audiophile will seek out art works that exemplify the craft used in making the art work. For a music connoisseur, the demand for fidelity varies from work to work. For instance, an MP3 player may be inadequate for many classical pieces, that is, the reproduction obscures the art vision. Think of Ansel Adams in news paper print. Devastating. Think of an early Cindy Sherman printed by Ansel Adams. Would it be better art or just a better print? Or, would it be better at all?

dlkcollection said...

Chris makes an excellent point above - "the demand for fidelity varies from work to work". I totally agree. We love our Brandt prints, even though they aren't pure and clean, in fact we love them because they are not - they match the artistic vision. "Better" isn't really the issue.

Part of the question here is, again, as a collector, skepticism comes with the territory. One of the reasons I put that diagram up last week about the distance between the photographer and the collector was to remind people that there are layers of spin and interpretation (often almost completely opaque) that sit between a collector and the work at hand. If I'm not careful someone in search of a sale will likely tell me that over enlarged pixelization or grain is actually "painterly" rather than just bad technique (again it depends on the artistsic vision). Sure, I can rely on my own eye/taste, but if I don't know better about the underlying processes, I may be fooled. This is how collectors become guarded and wary; no one wants to make a mistake. And this is how the logic follows to needing to understand the underlying processes; if I know a bit more, I'm more able to parse the truth from the embellishment.

Chris Raecker said...

It's not a dead Parrot, just sleeping.

Lorraine Anne Davis said...

I wrote - last year I think - in my column on appraising photographs in B&W on the resurgence of the wet-plate. As DLK pointed out, we can be seduced by a medium. I have seen really rather pedestrian images appear to be better because they were tin-types, or platinum, or dags. It is very important that we see through a medium, not be mezmerized by it.

dlkcollection said...

I think one of Ken's points above is worth thinking about some more as well. In this scenario, we end up in a Jeff Koons world: an artist creates the ideas and an army of talented craftspeople put them into practice under his guidance. In theory, craft should perfectly match artistic vision in this case; if Koons wants the mirrored baloon dog perfect, he gets it, if he wants imperfections in the spray paint on a lobster, he gets those too.

While a variant of this kind of thinking can be seen in the 1960s aerial parking lot photographs of Ed Ruscha, perhaps in the new digital photography world, this separation of vision and craft can be more prevalent. If so, we as collectors will need to recalibrate our heads in terms of what craft really means and how/whether it is important. Yet another wrinkle to this complicated topic of photographic craftsmanship.

Martin said...

Great topic. In the last year I've seen some pretty bad prints from some of the most well known art photographers in the world. So one of the problems I see, is that too many photographers simply are making too large prints. Also with the digital technology and allthough it has gotten better over the years, is that people tend to add a bit too much of everything, simply because they can.
What I would like to see more is a sense of naturalness in the prints.

J. Wesley Brown said...

I'm not sure that it matters who prints the photo but rather that the prints look good. Phillip Lorca diCorcia uses Pascal Dangin just like Vogue and Steven Meisel do. Same with the post. I do my own for now but would I go to someone more knowledgable / capable with the tech stuff if I could afford to? Maybe.

Crewdson doesn't even operate the camera.

I've long held the belief that the single gift that most benefits a photographer is good taste.

Anonymous said...

J.W.B. just nailed it.

Gabriel Benaim said...

Someone who should be mentioned in this discussion is Brooks Jensen of Lenswork magazine. He's been advocating and practicing the move to high quality digital printing on his magazine and in his special edition prints, and knows a lot about the technical side of things. I'd definitely contact him if I wanted to know more about evaluating digital prints. I ran accross an older issue of LW, #73, where he discusses this topic, and it's well worth the time.

Chris said...

I apologize for the obscure Parrot reference. Ken's comments about shady sales people reminded me of this classic. It's set in a pet shop, but, could just as well be an art gallery. Again, I apologize for the digression.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4vuW6tQ0218

dave pollock said...

I am a photographic artist and also have been printing professionally for over 25 years.I have of course printed custom color analog and have digitally printing others as well as my on work for many years.
I expose film and scan to produce large inkjet prints that far exceed the quality possble from analog because of the control that is possible.I find people frequently have a hard time making judgements about colour print quality. collectors are able to perceive good quality within a B&W print because of experience looking and comparing.
There should be no difference looking at colour;all the same criteria apply except for colour balance.However,because of the transparency inherent in a colour photograph we tend to look through the image and frequently miss the print as part of the content.I have seen prints by a number of artists that are not what they could be but are accepted much the way we accept the off colour imagery of a magazine photo.

Parker said...

As someone who prints every day for a variety of commercial, fine art and portrait clients, I hope I can offer some perspective.

If your monitor is properly calibrated (very easy to do with ColorMunki, etc.) and you embed an appropriate color space (sRGB, AdobeRGB), there will be surprisingly little difference in what you see on your monitor and what is reproduced on a Professional Fuji or Kodak paper by any top quality lab. The pro lab quality control is quite amazing now, and the variations from print to print and lab to lab are totally insignificant.

The point is that all of the contrast, saturation, spotting, etc. can be faithfully reproduced by a variety of service providers who really do nothing other than let your handiwork slide through their print queue.

This same concept applies to a lesser degree with large format inkjet printing, however, it is much easier to get reproducibility if you actually own the printer and have calibrated it around your workflow. You will see more variation from lab to lab and Epson to Canon to HP.

Scanned film offers the ability to provide superior edge to edge sharpness over an optical print (especially at today's sizes), plus the added advantage of spotting, local contrast and saturation, etc. Editions can be made that are exact copies, not just damn close, but absolutely perfect in every way. This is a major advantage for the collector as well as the photographer.

Alec Soth currently has a show at the High Museum in Atlanta. These are all large format inkjet prints on a satin/lustre finish paper. The detail is wonderful and the prints are quite beautiful. Looking at them, they are indistinguishable from optical prints, although they are obviously much easier to produce and reproduce.

Anyhow, hope this helps.

Parker

dave pollock said...

"But how are we to tell the difference between average and superior? Can we still pick winners based on elevation of craft alone?"

"superior".....it seems to me these distinctions regarding quality always comes down to how much experience we have in viewing great prints. It is from this that we bring a critical eye.
Advanced Digital Color print making techniques,when used for artistic intent,should (similar to B&W)involve an acknowledgement of the viewers perception and an attempt to diminish or accentuate
aspects of the image in keeping with the artists intentions.If the intention is to produce a "straight"photograph then there
is no excuse for,pixelization,
noisy shadows,colour crosscurves,chromatic aberation(color ghosting in high contrast areas)less than almost perfect color balance,lost highlight detail,bad retouching and oversaturated colors.

"winners by craft alone"....Ansel Adams, the king of the craftmen,is a perfect example of someone with great skill but with content that is largely uninteresting .Craft is not enough to carry the day.Technigue fullfills a supporting role in photographic practice..

dlkcollection said...

First, thanks to everyone who has so far contributed to an amazingly rich conversation.

I've read through all these comments many times, and the conclusions I am drawing vis a vis my role as a collector are the following:

1.) As I look at contemporary prints (and this applies to vintage prints as well of course), the first objective is to understand the artist's overall vision and the role craftsmanship will play in the achieving of that vision.

If the vision is a worked and/or imperfect look (like the early Kitajima prints now on view at Amador that are grainy, shadowy and covered in chemical residue drips), then craft has to be looked at in this context: are the technical details in alignment with the vision. Perhaps prints are indeed meant to be grainy, or pixelated, or distorted, if that look supports what the artist is trying to accomplish.

If on the other hand, the artistic vision appears to be one of crisp sharpness and perfection in the rendering of the subjects, then digital craft becomes wholly separate from vision. We're now on the side of just "getting it right", irrespective of anything else.

2.) Once we are down the "perfect" side of the decision tree, the comments above have led me to think that there really are no excuses for anything except digital perfection at this point. If service providers can provide excellence and consistency from print to print, any deviation from perfection that I might discover on the walls is a sign of failing technical processes on the part of the artist. I guess there are really no allowances, and collectors should start to realize that it is OK to demand perfection in contemporary digital/color work.

3.) Print to print variation is (or at least should be) a relic of the past, again, unless the artistic vision introduces chance and workmanship into the equation.

4.) It is clear that there are many arcane (at least to me) details of color correction that I will never understand. I will however need to train my eye to better spot egregious errors.

5.) The value of craftsmanship for its own sake, divorced from artistic vision, will converge to zero for contemporary digital work.

I guess the most important takeaway I draw from this conversation is that we have reached a "no excuses" situation. As a collector, I can expect perfection, unless the artistic vision is down another path. This is quite a different reality than where I was a week ago. What it also means is that we as a community should have no tolerance for gallery shows of less than technically perfect digital prints; it seems we should be calling out the shirkers and forcing them to meet the new standards. This will however break the collegial atmosphere of the community however if it is done without grace and humility.

Heady stuff. So now I throw it back to you all to dissect these conclusions and consider other implications I have most certainly missed.

Chris said...

That's about right.

Sometimes I think Photography is where painting was a century or so ago.

"How could he allow the brush strokes to show"? "What sunset was ever that color?" "I can't make out what's going on. Are they haystacks?" "What's happened to the craft?"

Photography is losing it's Academy. It's finely growing up. Fast.

BC said...

Chris prints up an interesting point about photography being where painting was a century ago. Perhaps it is where book making was several centuries ago when the printing press was introduced. When books were hand made they were valuable and could only be collected by the very wealthy. When books could be mechanically reproduced the cost went way down, but many more people could afford them. Authors made a better living because they could sell many more books even though they made much less off each book.

At least until the past decade or two there was a big difference in quality between books, posters, and actual prints. I can recall seeing a few Edward Weston or Paul Caponigro prints in person for the first time and finding the experience completely different than seeing the image in a book. This difference in quality as well as the skill involved and time involved in making a fine print helped justify the much higher cost of prints when compared with posters or books. The quality of mechanical reproductions has greatly improved in recent decades. One can imagine a time in the future (or perhaps we are already there) when there will be no difference in quality between images reproduced in books, posters, and those sold in galleries. How will the higher prices of the images sold in galleries relative to others be justified?

Ironically now that photographs can be much more easily mass produced instead of trying to sell them cheaply to the masses, it seems that galleries and fine art photographers are trying to do the opposite - limit them to very small editions and demand ever higher prices. There are a few exceptions to this of course like Jen Bekman's 20x200.

It will be interesting to see the future of photography collecting - will there be further artificial limits on editions to justify higher prices or will the market change to produce large editions where profit can be made by volume.

dave pollock said...

BC-
Here are the assumptions.
1)that the value of work monetarily is weighted on the side of craft and skill.It is not.
2)that artists are interested
in having their work incorporated into mass culture with volume.I doubt it.(little public interest anyway)
3)That Edward Weston has much in common contemporary photographic
practice.Walker Evans is a better choice.
4)That digital printing is easy and requires less skill.
Much leading contemporary photography is made to be experienced on a gallery wall and is asking to be seen in that context and not solely within photographic history.
The underlining major issue here, even after over 25 years of seeming acceptance, is the credibility of colour photography .
I am a photographer and very skilled professional custom colour printer.I do not expect the viewer to concern him or herself with my
time spent nor am I interested in having him look at the work as craft.All the skills that I possess are for the most part invisible in the work I produce.
Fortunately, contemporary photography is many things but one thing it is mostly not about is the placement of great significance on tonal relationships.

David Simonton said...

Thank you for addressing this topic, which is confusing at best, and sometimes confounding. The questions you raise, and the conclusions you draw, are refreshingly concise and illuminating.

And, thank goodness, to the point. You are, I think, where many of us now find ourselves: wanting to understand the ramifications of a profound and fundamental change in photographic practice.

My own confusion stems from the notion that the change from analog to digital is nothing more than the next step in a long series of technological advances that has defined and driven photography since its beginnings. Well, I know I am far from the first to feel that this has been, instead, a sea change.

But we're adjusting.

I agree with BC that one question that pertains here, along with that of quality, is one of value. Just how is a collector to know, exactly, how to value a machine-made print? It appears, for better or for worse, we have gone beyond the point where a photograph’s object-ness enters into it. And that’s a significant change, especially when one considers that the image and object once shared importance. (The prevailing equation used to be that photography is a 50/50 proposition: 50% art and 50% craft. That was how Mr. Adams figured it, anyway.)

There was a time when the complaint about value and pricing was that, “The photographer can go into the darkroom and just make another print. And another. So, where’s the originality?” Now that uniform replication is possible, however, this question no longer seems to rankle. Exact duplication is a given. Prints by Ansel Adams, you point out, might vary from example to example; differences that can be attributed to when, over the course of the artist’s life, they were printed. Adams’ “interpretation” of his negatives, it is well known, was fluid and subject to modification.

Is anyone arguing that Adams’ handmade prints are less desirable as art objects - or any less valuable - because they are not identical? And is anyone about to argue, conversely, that digital prints are more valuable because, by their machine-made nature, they are?

(As for perfection, I suspect that every print to came out of his darkroom looked “perfect” to Adams when he made it.)

What concerns me as this all plays out is that “traditional” will somehow be devalued, and that technology itself will continue to dominate the discussion. Putting technology front and center - as much as technology may drive things - continues to miss the point. (Some things never change.)

I saw a Lee Friedlander print - a landscape - in an exhibition a few years ago, and it took my breath away. When I moved in close to inspect it, and noticed some (minor) camera shake. When I took a few steps back, and the picture's power resumed.

Lee Friedlander is a consummate artist. I can’t imagine him picking an image to exhibit, out of the many I'm sure he has to choose from, if it doesn't meet his standards.

So what, then, ARE the standards to be when it comes to judging photographs? Can one of them, really, be “perfection?” More proof, then, of how much things have changed. That Friedlander print wasn’t perfect - not quite - but it sure hit the mark with its impact!

“Imperfect, Yet Magical.” That was the title of an article by Michael Kimmelman in the Times on the subject of Polaroid and its passing, and it seems to be apt to this discussion.

Finally, I completely agree with Lorraine when she writes that analog and digital are not better or worse, but different: "two distinct lens based mediums." I for one am heartened by a sense that there’s a growing consensus on that distinction.

Thank you again for raising such interesting, timely questions, and for providing some very helpful answers.

Rest in peace, Roy DeCarava.

Sean Davey said...

I love analogue prints. They have a texture and individuality to them that I don't feel from looking at any type of digital print. Even behind glass, the gelatin silver print will have that silver reflection and "stronger" nature to it... Well, thats my 2 cents anyhow.

I like to have my work printed as analogue prints (when I can, if they are BW prints I do my own, colour ones are made by a printer at a pro lab). However, when time does not afford it I scan bw negs and make either pure pigment prints or lustre c type prints. One reason I like to use analogue as much as possible is that I believe this process will eventually be fully extinguished and I'm keen to have as many of my own photographs as analogue prints before it is no longer an option.

Also when laid next to each other, there is a difference between an analogue colour print and digital one.... I'm not saying one is better than the other, its solely my personal opinion. And I believe whether you are a photographer or collector, one needs to follow their own heart above anything else.

Great website! and thanks.