17 July 2010

The Real Revolution, Part 1

LensWork is a fine art photography journal. A very simple publication, it publishes fine art black and white photo essays, typically three per issue, along with a couple of editorial columns, occasional interviews, and, well, little else. I bumped into it in the periodical room of our library several years ago for the first time. I had no interest in b&w photography then, and just browsed it, but one photo essay on Jerusalem really struck me as unique and beautiful. I've thought about it so often since then that I finally went back a few weeks ago to find it again.

Andrew Beckham, The Holy Sepulchre

The portfolio was by Andrew Beckham, titled, "Questions from the Whirlwind: Temples and Monuments" (LensWork 53, Jun-Jul 2003). These were striking photos, not in spite of being in b&w but, it seemed, because of it. I was struck first by their subject matter, but what really impressed me was their richness and contrast. The tonal range was exceptional, with deep, sucking blacks, and the images were dangerously sharp. Like you could cut yourself on them.

Sharpness is much discussed in photography. Razor sharpness is a holy grail. It's one of two reasons why photographers still haul massive 8x10" view cameras to the tops of mountains to take photos. (The other, probably more compelling reason is bragging rights.) I understand why such a premium is placed on sharpness. It is a striking aesthetic quality, largely unique to photography, perceived partly through the optical resolution of detail and partly through strong distinctions in contrast. This is why a high contrast photo may look sharper than a low contrast photo that actually contains more optical detail. Beckham's photos were strikingly sharp on both accounts. In fact, they looked almost as good as darkroom-made gelatin silver prints. In some ways better.

In traditional criticism, a photograph is not a photograph until printed. Traditional film photography was as much about skill in printing as skill in picture taking, and even today, many photographers spend as much time processing their photos in Photoshop as they do taking pictures. A darkroom printed (or Photoshop processed) photo may look much different than the shot photo, and printing is a large part of the artistic process. That's why most reproductions have traditionally been made from the photographer's prints, not from the negatives. (Digital of course has changed all this.) This is also why prints made personally by a master photographer are worth more, even dramatically more, than those made from the same negatives by a different print maker.

A photo is a photographic print and any other reproduction is just a reproduction. Gelatin silver b&w prints have traditionally contained much more visual information than even 300 lpi art press reproductions. (Forget about 96dpi computer screens.) Prints have finer grain, broader and more subtle tonalities, blacker blacks, denser detail, a much greater and easily perceptible sharpness. I asked hypothetically the other day why anyone would pay $8000 for print they could buy in a $10 book. Most of that is just art value, but the rest is a premium paid for the mesmerizing depth and acuity of a master-made photographic print.

When we talk about the digital revolution in photography, usually we refer to digital cameras replacing film. But equally revolutionary, or moreso, is the death of darkroom printmaking and the rise of digital printing. Even people who still shoot film usually scan to digital, postprocess in Photoshop, and make their prints using inkjet printers. For less than $1000 you can buy a 9-ink photo printer that will produce darkroom-quality prints up to 17" wide. For $300 you can get a 13" photo printer that is, if not professional, still very good. These printers are fussy and expensive to run, but compared to a wet darkroom, there's no contest. We just ordered thirteen large art prints for my office building. It took the photographer just an hour a piece to prepare and print them. No contest.

Next: Back to LensWork. If we can get that kind of quality on a desktop inkjet, what can a commercial art press produce?

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