Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Preciousness of The Print

I don't mean "precious" in the good way, and I apologize in advance to my readers who in some sense or another revere the print. I will attempt to not mash too hard upon your toes.

There was a column Ctein wrote on ToP a good long time ago. In it, roughly, he sent some prints off to auction, they did not sell, and when the auction house returned them they were "ruined" and Ctein went to a great deal of trouble to get some money back for them. In reality, he did quite well, essentially ending up "selling" the prints to the insurance company rather than simply filing them away again to, perhaps, never be sold.

In this piece, he discusses the damage. Little creases here and there. Certainly this is damage, no question about it. Are the prints ruined? Certainly not. Dry mount those bad boys down and the damage would be virtually invisible and, after all, you'd still be able to see the picture. I wonder, sometimes, what Ctein actually did with the ruined prints. Did he, as he ought to have done, shred them? Or did he salt them away somewhere?

Anyways. Ctein's prints, being dye-transfer, are kind of special. You're not going to be seeing any more dye-transfer prints, after all, and you don't exactly stamp these things out like donuts in the first place.

Most prints, though, you stamp them out like donuts. Ctein's attitude is typical of Standard Photographic Attitude toward prints, and it is bizarre.

I am pretty sure this comes out of photography's ongoing neurosis regarding its status as Art. By elevating The Print to something akin to a painting, by making it a special, super-awesone, limited edition, yadda yadda, we collectively hope to aid photography's position as Real Art.

The truth is that ever since the positive/negative process was devised, making more prints has been an essentially mechanical process. If you can make one, you can make 100, or 1000, it's just work. In this digital era, you literally just type a different number into the little box, and load in more paper. In the digital world, if you want to make another 100 a year later, assuming everything is calibrated or re-calibrated correctly again, you should be able to stamp out another 100 that look exactly like the first batch.

Prints are mass-produced and inexpensive objects. They are not paintings. They are not precious.

This does not mean that they are not marvelous. Of course they are marvelous.

This also ignores economic realities, for a few photographers. If you need to make your money selling prints, some sort of artificial scarcity is necessary to support a high selling price. Do not lose sight of the fact that the scarcity is artificial -- your buyers certainly won't lose sight of that fact. Ponder what this costs you, if anything. Are you selling pictures, or a more or less fungible scarce object to someone who merely wants things which are hard to obtain?

This fits in neatly with my various remarks made earlier this year, to the effect that at its core photography is selection rather than creation and that photographers ought to cease being neurotic about this as well. Selection in this sense deserves to be seen as fully a peer and partner of creation, it is different, but ought to be equally valued. In the same way, the mass-producible print is just as marvelous, is just as valuable in a non-economic sense, as a painting. The print is different, it is inexpensive. The marginal cost of making another one is trivial. But none of that alters its essentially marvelous nature.

There are many things a photographer can do, but one thread of activity is to purely select viewpoints, press a button, and then quickly and easily produce masses of identical pieces of paper with a 2 dimensional index of whatever was in front of the lens. There is no creation here that matters, there is no tremendous labor, there is no particular expense. It's easy and cheap.

But well done, it is marvelous, amazing, wonderful.


  1. "In the digital world, if you want to make another 100 a year later"

    ...good luck finding a device that can parse your 100-yo data (though if a hard copy exists, presumably it can be duplicated).

    1. That was "one year later, make 100 additional copies" which is a somewhat easier problem ;) I admit it's written sloppily, sorry about that.

  2. You mean that guy doesn’t have any clothes on? Hmmm, what a radical idea. I remember from my early days of photo education that there was a concept floating around of photography being a democratic medium and that the idea that prints could be mass produced and ergo would be cheap was also touted as being a good and democratic thing. And then the concept of signed, numbered, limited edition’ prints started to crop up, and elitism reared its ugly head. And then digital printing came along and lo and behold inkjet prints all of a sudden became Giclée prints. I thought I would vomit, but figured the term would not last long, boy was I wrong.

  3. My sense is that use of the term "Giclée " to describe inkjet printing seems to be waning in the Fine Art (capitals) world. That's unfortunate because, I am unreliably told, Giclée is slang in France for "ejaculation". I enjoyed knowing that little nugget whenever I saw the term used by Serious Artists.

    To your larger point, there's no way you or anyone else can duplicate my precious prints because I mix my own inks for black and white, and I have to recalibrate the whole setup each time I mix up a new batch. Plus there are adjustments I make at the printing stage within the RIP I'm using.

    But ultimately it doesn't matter because the "differences" I know exist are pretty small in the end. A person who knew what she was doing could probably take one of my files and make a print that looked the same as mine to most people. When I used to print in a darkroom, each print was definitely "unique-ish" in that the Dance of the Dodge and Burn was different from print-to-print for the same negative, no matter how carefully I made notes. But the general point still applies I think.

    Anyway, I still love printing.

  4. I think Ctein has said that the insurance company kept the prints, he didn't get to keep them. I only wish that I could make all of my prints look the same; it seems that every time Adobe upgrades things in the LR printer engine change a tiny bit.