A Tale of Two Prints

Digital Photography Sucks

Draw Your Own Conclusions

Enlarger Alignment Laser Module

Fine Art Photography

Knowing What You Want

Miss America and Ansel Adams

Painting versus Photography

Popularity is Overrated

Rare and There

The Art of Printing or Not

The Banality of Ink Jet Prints

Useless Idiot


The Art of Printing or Not – January 24, 2008

I don't mean to pick on LensWork as I do like the magazine despite the fact that it's basically become a digital rag. But it seems lately that every portfolio in the magazine features work that was either shot digitally, or that was shot on film, bastardized in Photoshop, and then printed digitally. That kind of stuff is fine for Popular Photography, but I thought LensWork was supposed to be better than that. At least Popular Photography stopped kidding themselves and is now Popular Photography & Imaging. But I always thought that photography was about both art and craft, and that art and craft extended beyond clicking the shutter. And no I don't think diddling with a mouse in Photoshop exactly qualifies as craft.

But then again I'm an old fuddy-duddy, who is stuck in the 19th century, so what do I know?

But I guess all that is beside the point. I come here today not to bury LensWork, but rather to talk about the one portfolio in Lenswork #74 that shouldn't bother me. And that happens to be the portfolio of one Josef Hoflehner, otherwise known as the Nature Photographer of the year.

It's funny, because for all intents and purposes, I shouldn't have a problem with Hoflehner’s portfolio. After all, the work was shot on film and printed traditionally on silver gelatin. Now don't get me wrong, I really don't have a problem with Hoflehner's work. I think it's quite good, although perhaps a bit derivative. It's not necessarily inspiring to me but I can certainly see how it might be to others. But it's clear he's an accomplished photographer and his recognition is well-deserved.

But there's one thing that still bugs me. In the interview, Hoflehner states that he makes large prints and that while he doesn't do the printing himself, it is done under his supervision.

At first, I wasn't quite sure why that bothered me so much, I just knew that it did. After all, some of the photographers I admire most, such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Richard Avedon, typically didn't print their own work. And what about all the wonderful photographers who work primarily in color, where printing is less about artistic interpretation and craft, and more of a technical exercise? Obviously there work shouldn't be dismissed either.

But the question still has to be asked, just how involved does the photographer have to be throughout the photographic process and still have the work called entirely their own?

For now, let's take color photography out of the equation, mainly because I think the established traditions in color photography are somewhat different from those involved with black and white.

But I find myself asking if the photographer's job is done as soon as the shutter is clicked, or if there's a lot more beyond that?

What about actually printing the work? Doesn't this play a huge role in the overall photographic process? With infinite interpretations of the same negative possible, isn't both art and craft involved in the printing stage as well? With some photographers it could even be argued that printing a negative is just as important as deciding where to put the camera and when to click the shutter. So is it still the photographer's work if he sublets the printing to another individual? Does it matter if photographer supervises that individual and eventually has final say about the result?

If that is the case, isn't the photographer simply a manager and not a craftsman? In other words, how important is the craftsmanship of the actual photographer in the final product?

I you go by the famous statement of Ansel Adams, where he said the negative is the score, and the print is the performance, then I guess printing your own work is important, but not critical. After all, the orchestra that plays Beethoven's 5th Symphony, still gives credit to Beethoven.

On the other hand, Brett Weston famously destroyed his negatives before dying so no one else could print from them after he was gone. I guess you could say in Brett Weston's world that printing was an integral part of the photographic process.

For me, I can't help but go back to the statement about art and craft. Personally, I think photography is fundamentally about both. You can't have one without the other. And while there is certainly craft in setting up the camera and snapping the shutter, there is also craft in making a fine print. At the same time, making a black and white print is not merely a technical exercise, and that is what makes it art. And photography, just like any other art form, requires craft.

So how can any artist claim the work as entirely his own, when he's not the one that actually produces the final product? Sure, they can supervise someone or even stand other their shoulder and guide them, but when it comes down to it something is being produced in the artist's name that is not being made with the artist's own hands. And in photography, the person actually doing the crafting is rarely even acknowledged.

I think that is ultimately what bothers me, a photographer taking credit for work he didn't actually do. And while the vision itself may be theirs alone, the final product was wrought by someone else and that someone else is invariably forgotten. It's a fine line and I think there is no doubt the lion's share of the credit should go the visionary, but the craftsman executing that vision shouldn't be ignored either.

And I do understand why some photographers may choose to leave the printing to others. After all, it's an intensive and time consuming endeavor. But when they do give that task to someone else it's not quite the same, at least to me. I think in my eyes they lose a little bit of respect. When I see a photograph and a signature next to it, I want to know it was made by the artist himself and not by some assistant. To me photography is about the whole process from start to finish. And maybe it's not quite the right word, but anything else seems like a bit of a fraud.