Friday, October 12, 2007

How People Access Our Images

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.


tcoen said...

Most excellent point. As a hobbiest I do exactly what you mentioned, angonize over minute technical details of banal images.

I think it is because technical details are concrete and easily understandable, and thus easy to learn and improve. The more important emotional and conceptual impacts of an image are abstract and murky, defying neat distillation into rules. And perhaps attempting to define such rules misses the point, certainly at an artistic level.

On the issue of print quality not defining image quality, I agree with you. However, perhaps having only seen low-quality web reproductions is reason why many people do not like the work of greats such as Ansel. For the record, I've never seen an orginal print from a famous photographer, except, of course, yours.

George Barr said...

I don't want to minimize the impact of seeing what a really good print can do and I encourage all to do whatever it takes to see prints from the greats - rather like the difference between hearing Beethoven on your small portable AM radio vs. a really good sound system - there is def. some of that "oh, wow, so that's what I wasn't hearing (seeing). But, I can still enjoy Beethoven on the radio and the fancy stereo doesn't make me appreciate music I didn't like on the radio.

chuck kimmerle said...

George, I gotta disagree. I think reproduction/print/display quality is near as important as the image content itself. That rendition of tones and color (if applicable) is the photographer's interpretation of the scene, and as such is as relevant to the image as is content.

That being said, I do agree that a lot of photographers spend more time fretting over shadow detail than they do composition and subject matter. However, I think all that means is that more emphasis needs to placed on the front end, not that the back end (print, repro, etc) should be disregarded.

Rosie Perera said...

Meaningful and powerful post. Most interesting. I have not spent a huge amount of time agonizing over print quality, because as of yet I cannot print my own photographs at home. I still take my digital images to a lab to print. What has vexed me more, though, is trying to discover what my own personal style is, putting my own spin on the way I see the world and getting that across to people through my photography. I don't think there's an easy way to learn that, short of taking lots of pictures and observing the results introspectivly. I've tried to learn it from classes but that hasn't worked.

Mark said...

It would be really nice if there was some cost effective resource where people could say buy a print that was evaluated by a master printmaker to be of the finest quality. This would allow a lot of people to have some type of benchmark to compare to.