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Thursday, 16 January 2014


I go, thou goest, he/she/it/photography goeth.

Also, just to get really picky, I think most people would refer to "pictorialism" rather than "impressionism", when referring to the dominant pre-WW1 photographic aesthetic, though it's true that "impressionistic" does convey that soft-focus, worked-over look and feel better than "pictorial".

The thrust of your argument is surely true, however: it's a version of the classic Marxist position that the material base always drives the ideological superstructure, and not the other way round.

That said, I have always admired the Golden Gate Bridge. Just out of curiosity, how much are you asking?


Dear Ctein, you could become a millionaire by selling bridges to photography purists. I bet you've already got orders for the Golden Gate and Brooklyn Bridge.
The evolution of photographic expression has always been largely driven by the evolution of equipment and techniques such as the ones you mention in your article: I have no doubt they have the ability to influence aesthetics and create schools of thought. It's always been like this. The invention of the 35mm film camera changed the way people photographed, and so did digital.
What we are living these days, with the advent of camera phones and social networks, however, has nothing to do with artistic trends and aesthetics: it is the obnubilation of photography as an art form. Surely there are lots of people making great photographs with their iPhones, but they're the exception. Camera phones are mainly used to share images of unimportant moments on Facebook. The world is literally smothered by meaningless pics and artistic photography is choking to death in consequence. (The 'OD' metaphor also applies.)
No wonder, then, that some are going back to the times when making a photograph was a demanding task, evoking days when you couldn't waste a photograph and had to think it over thoroughly. It is hardly a surprise that Nikon seeks to appeal to these people by using the somewhat looney slogan 'pure photography' to sell the Df, and that many are returning to film photography. Surely there's a hype factor to it - the 'retro' thing must not be taken out of the equation -, but there's also a quest for something more authentic than selfies and pictures of birthday cakes. (There is something of a wild goose chase here: as you imply, there was hardly ever any authenticity in photography.) But at least those people are trying to get some meaning out of photography. The world needs them.

One thing that annoys me with the advent of digital is the obsession with "sharpness" - unless you can read the fine print on a poster on a wall a hundred yards away, the image is immediately dismissed as "soft".

The problem is that people, even people who should know better tend to fixate on particular aspects of an image rather than looking at the whole picture.

Interesting. I have been making pictures since the early 1960's also.
I think that when a communication technology is superceded by a tech with more utility, the older tech becomes seen as art. Sculpture was in ancient times, communication, teaching and PR. Painting had the same role until the advent of photography. When color became a reliable process, B&W became artistic. When roll film became available, sheet film came to be considered more artistic. For example, in the world of Ansel Adams collecting, i think the view camera pics sell for higher than the later years-Hasselblad ones, With possibly the exception of the really famous half dome one.
Digital has had a similar effect on film. I assume that when video and holographics dominate, the still , flat image will follow suit.

I would sugest that the f/64 movement was not more convienient than what it attacked. It was a reaction to pictorialism, the making of a image that recalled the victorian styles of painting. I think pictorialism relied on intentionally soft or softened lenses, and certain printing paper surfaces. What came to be dubbed f/64 invovled sharper lenses, glossy paper surfaces, and a fair amount of darkroom manipulation. Interestingly enough though, its creaters were influenced by the cubist painters, and early moderns.

I just can't buy the idea that the f64 movement was based on convenience in the darkroom. eliberating photography from the esthetic of the painted image was more than that. convenience came with it, I can't believe that it was what GENERATED the movement - but I may be wrong, of course...

Karl Marx would have agreed with you:

"The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness."

I absolutely agree - a wonderful post that summarizes it very nicely.I have long maintained that digital photography is a construct.The developers of it at first, and probably still, are trying to imitate film photography and darkroom prints. However, I do not believe this will continue for much longer and the technology will take off, and who knows where it will go.

goest- second person, you want the third person "goes"

This is the best thing you have ever written, Ctein!

Where by "best" I mean of course "most aligned with things I like to think about" ;)

Excellent points.
In my work, the cost of framing a print is substantial, and time consuming. With the cost of HDTV falling, we are getting to the point where mounting a TV on a wall is less expensive and easier than framing a print. Given that no additional lighting is needed, I can forecast self lit TV photographs becoming very popular. I just need you to coin a name for such art work.

Good column. From my own experience, all through my film days I considered myself a black and white photographer, though I did a lot of commercial color work. It was not until digital came along and gave me full control of color printing with very little more time and effort than B&W that I began to do much personal color. And realized my old preference had been based largely on convenience, to use your word. It was not that I didn't like color or didn't "see" in color, it was that I never before had full control of color.

On a larger scale, I was around in the 1980s when newspapers switched from slides to negatives for their color. Officially the word was "negs are easier to scan," but in fact negative was cheaper and easier at almost every step of the process, from exposure latitude to mixing chemicals to scanning. The biggest hitch was viewing and editing, but viewers quickly became standard equipment and photographer learned to read color negatives.

The future of prints is anybody's guess. I see more people viewing photos exclusively online, but I also see more people making photo books. I also see people learning through hard experience just how ephemeral digital files can be. I think there is a lot to be said for "prints in a shoebox" and I wonder if that idea may have a small comeback as more people live through hard drive crashes and cell phone failures.

I don't think that the print is going away. It will be joined by other display modes, such as digital frame displays, but hard copy (=prints, on any substrate, in this comment) has characteristics which make it unlikely to fade away.
1-It is relatively permanent. True, archival materials were not always available to early photo printers, but that is changing. I haven't seen any evaluation of new aluminum substrate dye sub prints for stability, but this could be the next big player.
2-The artist/photographer/printer wants permanence because he/she wants others to see the image, and in particular
3-That image is to be seen exactly as the printer wants it to look, and doesn't want any changes over time.

The screen display doesn't provide these characteristics. True, lighting, if extreme, can change the appearance of a print, especially a color print, but this is normally minor. And extreme environments can cause changes in print appearance. There is no other display medium which comes close to meeting the three characteristics at this time, and I don't forsee one in the near future.
HOwever, the screen display has characteristics which will appeal to many viewers. Mainly, it is infinitely variable. Want the grass greener? Tweak the RGB controls. Want to change the images often, say to suit the mood of the moment? Call up another file. But if you have an image you want to keep permanently, you need to get a print. Your image goes away when the power goes off. If you put it on a different screen, it may not look the same, if the two screens are not identically calibrated. So yes, our display options are expanding, and that's good. But hard copy may be displaced in some situations, but it isn't going away.

Now it's 50-ish megapixel digital backs and head-on lighting that give that "look" to 8 1/2 x 11, 150 DPI magazine printing.

Hard as it is to make good predictions, especially about the future, I frequently risk it.

I imagine that before too many years have passed "electronic paper" will become commonplace. By electronic paper I mean fairly thin films that can work as high resolution displays. They will be rollable, if not foldable, and sizes and the accuracy of color reproduction and dynamic range will improve from generation to generation. You will be able to buy a book of, say, 50 such pages and it will be able to show you 50-pages of any digital files, downloaded wirelessly like today's e-readers and then you can use a gesture or press a button to replace the current 50 pages displayed with the next 50 and so on. In this way the "print" will disappear and be reborn. Nooks and Kindles will become much more book-like again.

Initially photographers will cavil at the surface qualities of these films - over time they will get better and/or we will adapt because our customers will take to them (or both). In a sense the print will be dead - they won't be permanent and it won't make much sense to hang them in galleries (except for interactive or multimedia shows) but in another way they'll be back.

Or not.


Good column. I would add that economics also drive "aesthetics," if we can even call them that (sometimes I'm not sure.) I have a very nice "Moonrise" hanging on one of my walls, and I've thought, what if I had a really nice thin 4K-resolution screen hanging there, and it cycled, every day or two, through a hundred or so famous prints. Wouldn't that be better? Well, I don't know. But anyone could have that, while only a few hundred (or is it thousand?) people can have a handcrafted Moonrise made by Adams himself. It's the handcraftedness that is counted as an "aesthetic," simply because it's rare. And that's why I think prints will persist -- because not everybody can have them. What's the point of owning a palace if the local peasants can have the same artwork, a TV, hanging from the walls of their hovels? So prints will continue to be art, and TV will continue to be TV and not art. Wait...did that sound cynical?

So this question has probably been asked many times, but Ctein's point about making a virtue of practicality means it's worth raising again.

Is there a point at which you would prefer screen-display of your work to prints displayed? (Assume we're talking light-emitting screen. The not yet invested hi-res color e-paper would presumably be close enough to paper that the question becomes uninteresting.)

If so, what would it take?

For the purposes of this discussion, presume that theft by duplicating files is not an issue. Only image quality and the glowing vs reflecting issue matter.

"Technically it was nonsense. . ."

Oh how that sentiment can be applied to soooo much canon!

Following up on the realism theme, I read an article in pro photographer a few years back entitled "Has Düsseldorf Ruined Photography" or something like that.

It was a Hickey-esque rant bemoaning the fact that the Düsseldorf School (which created such luminaries as Gursky after all) and it's insistence on absolute objectivity had dominated the art-photography market for a long time, even spilling over into post-modern examinations of social issues (always gritty and anti-aesthetic).

I certainly think this is still a strong element of that in contemporary exhibitions, though I see signs of change, a certain softening of the edges and a more reflective, poignant aesthetic starting to emerge. After all, painting is no longer any threat to photography so its role is increasingly universal.

This year's Taylor Wessing prize was certainly less obsessed with controversy and more theatrical and sympathetic than usual, though not a patch on last year's.

Having worked as an advertising photographer since the mid-80s, I can tell you the real reason transparencies became the dominant medium was because we spent tons of time w/ color cards, color meters and cc filters, fine-tuning our capture color so that when processed in the constantly-calibrated chemical baths of 'professional' labs, our transparency colors remained 'neutral' according to Macbeth card/lightbox standards. That was our only defense against 'sloppy, off-color' output from the press houses. Because whenever there was a color problem during a press run (and with many thousands of dollars per minute at stake), the pressmen always tried pointing their fingers back toward the photographer. But 'neutral gray' is easily measured in a trans, unlike in a negative. Also, making 'repro' prints from negatives before sending those prints to press always added extra days that our clients 'never had' in their production schedules. That's why E6 ruled in advertising photography until DSLRs took over.

What heady stuff!

As always, Ctein, I learn something. The commenters before me espouse a diverse range of viewpoints and philosophy, raise fine philosophical arguments, and use words I have never before encountered. My favorite of them all is "obnubilation," though, having looked it up, I suspect it might not pertain in this context.

I, a hobbyist with little evidence to lay claim to any artistic motivation, printed in B&W because it was what I could afford, and it was what I somewhat knew how to do.

Practicality thus preceded philosophy.

(Long-held opinion: logic is what you use to explain a decision, AFTER you make it.)

I think that the making of prints is a personal statement and making a fine print is something the photographer can say, "I made this", even if its never destined for the walls of some gallery. It's also interesting to see the trend for some people going back to film photography, perhaps for some of those folks there is a sense of accomplishment or self satisfaction, by using something that takes some skill to achieve consistently good results.

Dear John,

… And vice versa: sometimes the “aesthetics” drive the “economics.” Or, more specifically as you're talking about it, craftsmanship drives economics. It has an almost overwhelming hold on buyers' psyches.

A telling example of this is my collection of signed Jim Marshall prints. Half are digital prints, half are dye transfers. So far, most of the inquiries I've received and ALL of the sales have been of the dye transfer prints.

What makes this telling is that by every ordinary metric of print marketability, even in the rarities market, that shouldn't be the case. The digital prints are several-fold less expensive and larger. More importantly, they are artistically and aesthetically better and more true to Jim's original slides to a degree that's pretty obvious to even a casual observer, and they are considerably RARER––in most cases exactly 2 signed digital prints exist in the entire world, with the estate owning one and me owning the other.

I make all this clear to potential buyers. But the digital prints go begging and the dye transfers get the interest. It's that craft thing.

People's love of craft, to the point of irrationality, can be very useful and lucrative for artists. It doesn't have to make sense, it is just what it is.

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

I wonder how cheap high-res displays will get? If a Retina display at the all at 16x20 image area becomes fairly cheap, I think using it to display art will become the norm.

And after a generation of people looking at that, I strongly suspect print prices will drop precipitately, because the people buying art at that point won't pay print prices for something that looks less good than what they're used to (and without very good lighting, the print loses badly).

But I'm not at all sure that technical point will be achieved soon.

I believe this utilitarianism and article are most true for "mass market" photography (high volumes, low price). Aesthetics has, is, and will continue to trump practicality for "fine" photography (low volumes, high price). There has, is, and will continue to be materials, expertise, and economic opportunities for both types of photography and in some cases overlap (like low volumes, low price) so pursue one or the other or both, now and forever.

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