As photographers we agonize over print quality, we try dozens of papers, change printers, strive to achieve the goal of the perfect paper and print. Look at all the fuss over finding the equivalent of glossy dried matte. Think of all the furor over silver prints vs. digital and whether digital should even be taken seriously (I think silver is steadily losing that battle, people like Bruce Barnbaum not withstanding).
Here's a though though. The more successful the photographer, the greater the chance that 99.99% of the people who admire their work have never ever seen an original print, never mind owned one.
What does it mean, what does it say, when only .01%, one person in 10,000 who like your work have ever actually seen it in the original?
I happen to think it says a lot. Below are some things I think it tells us:
1) It's not print quality that causes people to decide whether they like your work.
2) Good images show through poor book printing, small online jpegs and bulk magazines with iffy reproduction.
3) If it's our goal to be known, more than to make sales, surely this says a lot about where we should be putting our efforts.
4) This kind of viewing ratio says a lot about what kind and quality of equipment we need to make good images - ie. we don't need to spend a fortune on the highest quality equipment. Unless you are already selling a substantial number of 24X36 inch prints, you don't need the top of the line cameras and forget medium format digital.
5) It says a lot about the qualities we should be emphasizing in our prints - composition over tonality, interesting subject matter over shadow detail, a unique way of seeing over blown highlights. This is almost the exact opposite of what the average hobby photographer emphasizes, agonizes over and puts most of his effort, practice and studying into. It's a lot easier to improve shadow detail than to see better.
I have been fortunate enough to see original prints by Bruce Barnbaum, Michael Kenna, Ansel Adams and Edward Weston and I highly recommend the experience to you. That said though, I had a strong liking for each of those photographers images long before seeing the originals. It's almost as if print quality and photographic quality are two almost entirely separate issues, superb print quality being an extra bonus, like getting a free coffeemaker when you purchase a new microwave.
Perhaps the message here is to stop agonizing over sharpness and resolution and print quality in general, at least for a while, and work harder on the less concrete issues of making meaningful and powerful photographs that are first and foremost interesting.