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The Old & The New

July 28, 2007

In the past 96 hours I have visited no less than ten photo galleries. Where these galleries were will remain a mystery, and so will the pictures that flashed before my eyes. This was not my first time visiting galleries, of course, but each time I go I see things in a slightly different way.
Before we begin, let me stress, I LOVE digital printing, and to blow my own horn, I was, with my friend Paul, one of the first photographers to start using this method, WAY back in the day. In fact, I have a handwritten letter from the National Geographic stating that I was the first person they had seen with this style of print or portfolio. I’m not saying I was the first, but I was in on the beginning of the curve.
Over the years I have had dozens of digital printers, dozens, and regardless of the make I found great things about all of them. Initially, permanence was an issue, still is on many printers, but early on prints would turn pink in less than two weeks, even the laminated copies. But, from the start, these prints were viewed by many using them, as “throw away” items. And this is what leads me to this post.
I noticed something at these galleries. I noticed a progression of sorts, of “old” technology being replaced by “new” technology. Of course you have the trend of the moment, enormous color images, printed this size for no apparent reason other than we now have the technology to do it. I think this trend will be on the outs as quickly as it came in, the same with hyper-small editions. Why? The fine-art world is fickle and changes with the wind, and we have history to prove it. Don’t fret, this is a good thing, or another way of saying the fine-art world is WIDE OPEN. And how many people really have wall space to hang something 96×96? I’m rambling.
Okay, back to the trend.
The best prints I saw this past week were old prints. Yes, old prints, some fifty-years-old or more. The best color prints were cibachromes from a landscape photographer, and the best black and white, without question, were silver gelatin prints.
Again, did I mention my love of digital prints?
The “modern” prints, or digital prints, didn’t compare in any catagory except size. The modern prints were huge, but in most cases had the digital look, and in some cases, were starting to display things that reminded me of my 1995 inkjet prints. Aspen trees with pink sides, flatness and overall color shifts. I noted prints that were made and sold ten years ago, and how they were labeled, which is CRITICAL for collectors, and then prints sold five years ago, one year ago. The terminology had changed, but the method of printing had not.
Now you see modern prints labeled as “pigment” referring to the ink base, which again is CRITICAL to collectors. And what all of these labels prove is just how fast the technology is changing. This is good right? Well, yes and no.
Yes because we have better printers. No because if you are the photographer, or gallery, you must catalog all of this information for your future as a photographer or gallery.
Several months ago I ran into one of the world’s largest collectors of photography. His words to us were, and I’m pulling this out of my memory without notes, so cut me some slack, “If I buy a digital print from you today, and twenty years from now I need to restore it, or work on it, and I don’t know the printer, the inks, the make up of the inks, etc, the value of my print just went way down.” This person, as well as the other collectors I have spoken with, have all been interested in collecting, in my case, silver prints ONLY. They are not fond of the rapid changes in the digital world, the uncertainty of whether or not these prints will be around, regardless of the current longevity information. There are many arguments about permanence and I think for the most part, it is viewed that digital prints could last even longer than traditional prints, but seeing as nobody really knows for sure….. I guess only time will tell. Remember, there are prints sold as “archival” that last for one year because in the viewing conditions they are sold for, that is considered archival.
When I show my fine-art work to people looking for images, for the most part, I am showing digital prints. Why? Because I make them myself, using a 200-year, pigment printer. But, when it comes time for people to buy, they ask for silver. A few weeks ago I asked one of these people, “Why silver?” There response was, “Because I know that no matter how good you are, you can’t make two prints exactly the same, and I know I have a unique OBJECT.” Remember this word, it will be more important later on.
The opinion of inkjet, pigment, digital, etc, is that you can hit “print” over and over and make print after print that are identical, eliminating the idea of the image being an “object.” It is now “just” a print.
Also in the past few months I ran into a museum curator who said, “I’m not looking for prints, I’m looking for “objects.”
This is a very important idea. Making digital prints, in the minds of many, eliminates the craft involved in making images. There is no longer a physical element to the print, there is only the cold, lifeless technical.
I agree. When I make a great digital print, I say, “Wow, that looks great,” but when I make a great silver print I find a far greater satisfaction of having “made” something. Now my friends in the tech world take great offense at this, for some reason, but most of them have not made a silver print in decades. And most of my friends in the tech world were not great silver printers to begin with, so the hours of fumes and frustration were easily tossed aside for the conveniece of making prints while watching You Tube or Springer. Yes, I have friends that watch both.
Okay, my last point in this long-winded mess…walking around a trade show I noticed enormous digital prints being hung in many of the booths. The moment the show was over, the prints were pulled down, torn up and thrown away. Thrown away. Can you imagine someone doing this with a cibachrome, silver print, platinum print?
Trivial. A key word here. Trivial. Trivial is what, in many ways, the “modern” print has become. You can make it, ding it, trash it. Who cares? Make another.
But, I think the “modern” print suits our lifestyle and attention span. Again, they look FANTASTIC, but there is a difference in perception. Who has time to print traditional anymore? Just bang out a few on the trustly old inkjet. Oh, the first one is blue, make another. Oops, this one is red, go ahead, make another.
There is no right and wrong in this world, only shades of grey. This coming week I have plans to make several digital prints, which will be sold, a silver print as well as a ultra-new, digital-silver print, thanks to new technology from Ilford. I think most of us live in a hybrid world, as evidenced by the Prius sitting in my driveway, the world’s dirtiest Prius I should say.
But I think the message I have taken from all of this is that just because it is new doesn’t mean it is better.
Next I will ramble about traditional verses digital capture, another puzzling “advancement.” Since when did blown highlights become acceptable??? Oops, did I say that out loud?
Don’t get me started.

Oh, by the way, during the time it took me write this I made 14 digital prints, cleaned my toaster and chased the neighbor’s dog out of my yard.

Oh, and I failed to mention that all the black and white papers are going away, so we are all going to be stuck with digital prints. Sorry, slipped my mind.

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