by Gerald Boerner
I just received my latest issue of LensWork, a photographic magazine that is now only available by subscription, and started to read the editorial. As usual, Brooks Jensen touched upon a very timely topic: what is the future of photographic prints, especially those from the “wet” darkroom. In this day of digital imaging’s ascendency, can the regular paper prints be maintained as an alternative to digital displays with their multimedia elements? I thought it hit on some very relevant topics. I am reproducing it here for your benefit, since it will not be available to the general public.
Please visit his web site (linked above) and, if you are a serious photographer, consider subscribing. It is interesting that he publishes a paper issue and has an extended issue on DVD using Adobe Acrobat. He is in both worlds and uses the digital for some very nice extensions to what can be published on paper. GLB
“Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still.”
— Dorothea Lange
“Photography to me is catching a moment which is passing, and which is true.”
— Jacques-Henri Lartigue
“Photography, alone of the arts, seems perfected to serve the desire humans have for a moment – this very moment – to stay.”
— Sam Abell
“Photography started as a means of getting reference material for my paintings of nature subjects.”
— Nigel Dennis
“Photography, as a powerful medium of expression and communications, offers an infinite variety of perception, interpretation and execution.”
— Ansel Adams
“Photography records the gamut of feelings written on the human face, the beauty of the earth and skies that man has inherited, and the wealth and confusion man has created. It is a major force in explaining man to man.”
— Edward Steichen
“So when I became interested in photography and further being inspired by the work that I saw of Ansel and others, it was a natural extension to go back to these places that I knew as a kid and explore them with my camera.”
— John Sexton
“Photography suits the temper of this age – of active bodies and minds. It is a perfect medium for one whose mind is teeming with ideas, imagery, for a prolific worker who would be slowed down by painting or sculpting, for one who sees quickly and acts decisively, accurately.”
— Edward Weston
This posting is intended for the educational use of photographers and photography students and complies with the “educational fair use” provisions of copyright law. For readers who might wish to reuse some of these images should check out their compliance with copyright limitations that might apply to that use.
Paper As Medium (Editorial by Brooks Jensen)
Dateline: LensWork, No. 87, Mar-Apr, 2010
I’m sure the buggy whip makers were pissed. As a bit of a buggy whip maker myself, I can relate — at least as far as my roles as a publisher and fine art print maker are concerned. My entire life has been involved with the photograph on paper, either as a reproduction or as an original print. So, I suppose it’s understandable that I have some concern about the future of images on paper.
To complicate matters, I’m also a pragmatist. you’d have to be purposefully blind to not be aware of the technological march of non-paper-based photography. It may have started with the computer monitor, although even the humble television has given us non-paper-based images for decades. But look now at the latest hardware innovations — the Amazon Kindle, the netbook, and the just-announced Apple iPad. All of these employ technologies that can present photography without paper.
And then, amplifying the threat is the accumulated “training” that we are all subtly receiving as we see more and more images on webpages, PDFs, iPhones, and other forms of digital distribution. The more we see, the more we get used to seeing images this way, the more it becomes accepted, then normal. There is an undeniable momentum that, although perhaps not yet dominant, is building. I understand it, but sure do hope it isn’t a race to complete and total dominance.
There is yet another component that is putting pressure on paper as the medium of choice for photographs. As I’ve observed escalating paper prices for publishing LensWork and the environmental pressure on both paper manufacturers and printer, I can’t help but foresee a time in which paper costs will escalate beyond the tipping point. We could find ourselves — both as photographers and as a society — irrevocably pused into paperless photography. We are starting to see it in text-only publishing in the form of the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader. Novels are less expensive to produce and can be instantly beamed into your e-reader hardware without cutting down a single tree. This has to be seductive for publishers and consumers alike. I can see a time when paper books will fall the way of 8-track tapes and LP records. Without embarrassment, I will weep on that sad day.
Intuitively, I know that such sentimentality cannot prevent the tide. As a pragmatist, perhaps the best thing to do is to try to understand our attachments to paper and our reflexive resistance to the digital image. As a publisher, I have a foot in both camps with LensWork and LensWork Extended. We strategically parallel-publish specifically so we can learn the advantages and disadvantages of each; so we can compare the experience of both producing and consuming fine art photography created as original folios on paper, reproduced with state-of-the-art offset printing in LensWork, and presented in this new media in LensWork Extended as pixels on a computer screen. We’ve learned that each medium has its strengths and weaknesses. More importantly, we’ve seen firsthand how each medium imparts its own context to the artwork.
Paper is tactile; digital media are searchable. Paper is interface-free; digital media use neat gadgets that offer more powerful interface possibilities. Paper is simple; digital media are experientially rich. Paper will still be able to be viewed 100 years from now; digital media can be seen and distributed everywhere in the here and now. You don’t “curl up with a good e-reader.” You don’t take fifty books, twelve magazines, and a dozen blogs with you on a plane — in you pocket. You own a book where it resides on the shelf for as long as you want. You can purchase, download, and begin reading an e-book moments after you decide you want to — without leaving you recliner chair.
Is you is, or is you ain’t? Tomato, tomatto. The digital genie os out of the bottle and it ain’t going back in there. So, what can we paper-lovers do?
I’m led to conclude that it is the artifact nature of photographers on paper that appeals to me the most. The paper is physical, tactile, real — in a way that electronic beams in RGB monitors seem unable to reproduce. I want photography to be real and the sensual part of my brain craves a photographic medium I can touch. Long live the photograph on paper!
Then again, I know that the power of an image is in its intellectual content, too — not just its molecules. I have been moved deeply by images I’ve never seen other than on-screen via my computer monitor. With those images, it is their intellectual content alone that is so satisfying. Welcome to the world, digital images!
In short, I am bifurcated. One and zeros, I suppose, is an apt analogy — all of which leads me to conclude that this truly is one of the best of times for us photographers. As publishers, we can provide both media. As a photographer, I can use both paper and pixels. For our generation at least, we have a foot in each camp — like posing on the equator astride the line of demarcation. Perhaps we can have our cake and consume it, too. Nice.
I am comforted by another thought: I suppose if history teaches us anything, it’s that once a technology exists it rarely disappears completely. When hand-written illuminated manuscripts on sheepskin vellum were replaced by Gutenberg movable type printed on paper, the art form of calligraphy did not entirely disappear. We still see hand-calligraphed artwork today. And it should also be noted that now the only people who practice hand-lettering are people who love hand-lettering. Their reverence for it gives it life. The same can be said for cowboys, totem carvers, fly fisherman, knitters, potters, and platinum/palladium printers. None of these “outmoded” technologies are necessary in light of today’s technological advancements, but they are fun, pleasurable, and rewarding. They are practiced with enthusiasm by passionate and caring people who nurture these long-outdated crafts.
It’s possible that this is the future for photographs on paper, too. There is a contingent of photographers who still produce gum bichromate prints, Woodburytypes, tintypes, etc.
I suspect photographs on paper will diminish as the years go by. It has to. But, I fear not, for there will always be an option to make image on paper if we so desire. If so, I’ll be the guy in the back corner of the shop, with the inky fingers and the irrepressible smile, surrounded, hopefully, by stacks of paper and piles of prints. I was born and matured in the age of paper photography and it will always be with me, no doubt.
If I’m lucky, however, I’ll also be found occasionally staring at a wonderful image beamed into my eyeballs from some beautiful display using some yet-to-be-invented technology which allows me some sort of rich experience that paper alone cnnot provide. Like the horseman with a car in the garage, like the vaudevillian performing on television, like the novelist publishing a blog, I hope to find myself equally comfortable in both worlds, appreciating the unique values and experiences inherent in each of the divergent media available to all us photographers.
/signed/ Brooks Jensen
Some Additional Thoughts
I, too, have had the experience of running a printing operation and getting printer’s ink underneath my fingernails. I started out in the late 1960s using a film SLR and developing the film myself. Over the years, I have used a variety of digital cameras and web cams, developed and maintained websites, and used social media sites. I have presented papers at conferences, written articles for magazines, and now maintain this blog. More recently, I have been completing a program in photography at my local community college; most of that program required the use of a “wet” darkroom. I have grown to appreciate the qualities of both film and digital darkroom techniques, including non-traditional printing processes in the “wet” darkroom and Lightroom and Photoshop in the digital darkroom. But what does this have to do with the above editorial?
I just want to express my appreciation to Brooks Jensen for his delineation of the problem in such an articulate manner. I would agree with most of his points and encourage all photographers to consider carefully what he has said.
Photography has changed and will continue to change. It was only twenty years ago that I had one of my students, a yearbook advisor at a local high school, start asking me if digital cameras were as good as film cameras yet. Invariably, I had to respond “Not yet…”
Well, today we have professional dSLR cameras every bit as powerful, if not more powerful as 35mm cameras. Are they as good as medium format film cameras? Yes, of course, if you have the money for the digital backs. But, in the final analysis, it says something when we look at the software available as plug-ins for Photoshop to make your digital image look like different types of film images!
Perhaps we have come full circle and should embrace the technologies that work for our particular photographic needs. GLB
Brooks Jensen, “Paper As Medium", LensWork, No. 87, Mar-Apr 2010.
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