Friday, November 09, 2007

Printing Revolution

The latest issue of Lenswork arrived in the mail today, my day off, so with a cup of tea, I leisurely flipped through the magazine, noting something about Revolution in the lead editorial. Having gone through the images informally, and it's a great collection this issue, I went back to the lead editorial and started to read about Brooks' thoughts on the effects of improved commercial printing on the value and role of the original silver gelatin print.

I strongly encourage you to read this editorial as I think it has profound implications for the future, the way we display our work and even what is going to happen to the whole issue of selling photography.

I'd like to take off on where Brooks leaves, which is to the effect that he has tested mechanical reproduction and it can be every bit as good as original prints and in some ways better and he suspects this is going to radically change photography in ways we can't yet predict.

First, home inkjet printing is advancing every bit as fast as commercial printing, so that with new papers and gloss pigment inks from the latest inkjet printers, black density and resolution and tonality are giving silver prints more than a good run for their money. I have had several excellent wet darkroom printers of reputation comment that they have been able to make better looking prints via Photoshop and inkjet printers than they had ever been able to make in the wet darkroom. This is especially true for difficult negatives, but is becoming true even of good negatives.

That home inkjet printing is moving ahead as quickly as commercial printing is just as well since 99% of photographers will never see their work in large commercial runs, whether for Lenswork or a book, even though they may be quite talented.

Second, original fine art prints require framing. This means that no matter what the cost of the print, there's going to be another $200 or more for framing on top. This, of course, presupposes that a) you want the image on your wall, and b) you have some wall space left, and c) it's an image you want to see every day for the duration of it's hanging. It's possible to rotate your artwork, but frankly, storing the unhung but framed works of art is a pain in the deriere, taking up lots of space and requiring very careful handling and padding.

In truth, there are a lot of wonderful images which are best appreciated when viewed occasionally. In fact, I might go further and say that I suspect the vast majority of photographs are best appreciated when seen occasionally - almost like making a new discovery every time a book is opened.

I happen to be one of those people who thoroughly enjoy seeing movies several times over, but there's a limit to how often even I want to see a movie over a short period of time, before the movie gets tucked away for months, or even years before being resurrected and enjoyed "for the first time" all over again. Why should we assume that an image needs to be seen every single day? Perhaps there's at least a grain of truth in the old "familiarity breeds contempt", or at least, if not contempt, at least a bit of ho hum.

I can store thousands of photographs in a single bookcase. I can pick a book off the shelf, sit in a comfortable chair, cup of tea at my side and look through the images at leisure. I can purchase 40 or more images for $100 or less, making the cost of each image at most $2.50. At that price, not only can I afford a lot more images, I can afford to take chances, push the boundaries, explore styles of photography I don't yet understand or appreciate. I can painlessly test the waters of new to me photographers. I can accept the recommendations of a critic or editor without breaking the bank.

Frankly, when you think about it, the concept of purchasing an image, framing it behind glass and hanging it on a wall seems downright silly.

What does this have to do with those 99% of serious photographers who won't produce a book? Well, for a start, if the images they sell are of modest size, say 8.5X11, then perhaps I can purchase a print for a modest sum (say $25+shipping), and simply add the print to a portfolio box when it arrives. The portfolio box costs me $25 (vs. $200 for framing) and holds anything from 20 to 50 prints. It can sit in my lap, next to my cup of tea, and I can leisurely flip through the inkjet prints I have collected.

To be fair, that makes those prints 10X the cost of the book prints, but consider that I was able to individually select the ones I wanted, so one could make the argument that they are worth considerably more to me - a reasonable tradeoff, and frankly, the only way that I'm going to be able to access the work of less popular (but not necessarily less talented photographers).

So, a story. After I was published in Lenswork with my "city forms" series (Lenswork 57), I was asked to trade prints with a well known New York professional photographer - a very nice boost to the ego). I decided subsequently to see if I could arrange a swop with another photographer who had been in Lenswork. To be fair, his reputation far outstripped mine, his skill too, but none the less, I felt that our common grounds of being in Lenswork meant I could at least ask.

He wrote back nicely declining to swap prints, pointing out that he had no way to deal with all of the prints he received and so no longer participated in swaps. He did however offer to send me a print free, if I would pay the shipping. Given his reputation, this was a most generous offer. By this time I felt guilty and arranged a compromise, I paid for one print that was my favorite, while getting a second print free. So, in time the prints arrived. I wasn't particularly flush with cash (having made large prints for a show) and so only one of the images ever got framed, the other sits in the original shipping box. Some day I'll get round to framing the other, but you see my point, it's always a thought to have to commit that much money to frame each and every print you obtain.

Another time I recommended on my blog, the work of Cole Thompson and he was grateful for me doing so and very generously sent me a print. It arrived in a huge box, superbly and professionally packed, but frankly was large enough, that it too remains in it's box, even though it's a very nice photograph. Had he sent me an 8.5X11, I could have it in a portfolio box, and I could look at it any time I want.

I could, of course, simply take his print and pin it to the wall, and toss it when I'm tired of it - but that's sacrilege and I just can't make myself do it, even though it does make sense and his work would be better appreciated by me than it is now, sitting in it's protective box, taking up room.

I think I might just invest in a really large portfolio box and store received images that way, but large prints are hard to handle and flip through and risk being damaged in the handling, where small prints are stiff enough not to kink or need fingers on the surface when being "flipped through".

I dearly hope that some day I will have my work in a fine art book so that many can afford my work and see it. In the mean time, I think I'm onto something with this portfolio box of small prints idea.

I wish the best of luck to photographers who continue to price their inkjet prints at $500 each, or more, but I think the writing's on the wall, guys, I don't see you doing it for much longer.

I think Brooks is right, there's a revolution and we can't predict how things are going to change, but change they will.


Anonymous said...

Oh yes George, I think you are so right. My $60.00 matted prints are selling well. Only photographers though probably want just a loose print for a portfolio box. But maybe Brooks has it right and lets the customer (photographer or non-photographer)decide whether and how to frame it once they receive it. Then he can really offer prints for $20 like he does and sell gajillions of prints...

Anonymous said...

Depends on the image, for sure. Some photos look wonderful as gem-like 8x11" prints or smaller, and can live happily in the pages of a book or in a portfolio box. For others that just won't do; I have some 2x7' panoramic images that are stunning mounted on the wall, but look cramped and rather less magical at 3x10" sitting in my lap.

Near as I can tell, the prices charged for inkjet prints by high-end well known photographers are not dramatically cheaper than the darkroom silver gelatin standard. Over the long run the actual "value" of an art print will somehow have to consolidate around the artistic interpretation and craft stamped into the digital file by the photographer; the final output printing method will probably matter less as the attainable quality from various printing technologies converges on the absolute limit imposed by paper white and ink/silver D-max.

'Course, I could be totally wrong.

George Barr said...

Geoffrey raises two issues - the quality of the prints, and the size. As for size, I agree, some prints just don't work unless large and dramatic, others fall apart at that size (nothing to do with the number of pixels - simply that things move apart in a large print and relate less to each other).