I can trace the path that led me to photography. It was in 1996. I had just completed a 1-credit elective on photography in architecture school. The one assignment we had to do all semester was make a class-long presentation on a photographer. I didn't know anything about photography when I took the class. I had been taking photographs, but I knew nothing about photography. I went to the architecture school's library and started perusing books, trying to figure out who I could talk about for an hour. I froze when I saw this image.
I couldn't stop looking at it.
I chose Harry Callahan. It seemed to be fate that just after graduating college in St. Louis and heading home to Washington, DC, a huge retrospective of Callahan's work was waiting for me at the National Gallery of Art.
Whatever I had felt looking at that old publication of his work in the library held nothing to the prints I saw at the National Gallery. They were simply, stunning. I hadn't seen anything like them before. Maybe I just wasn't looking. I didn't care. I stood in front of some prints from Cape Cod, mesmerized, trying desperately to analyze them, thinking, how can I do this? how do I learn to create pictures like these? this is what I want to do...
It was his ability to interpret a scene, in print, that had captured me. I have been trying, since then, to emulate his, and others' abilities to re-imagine reality in print form. It is the never-ending challenge, believing that not only is it my responsibility as a photographer to capture something interesting, but my responsibility as an artist to interpret it in print form as well. If I don't do that, if I don't take that responsibility, then I am just a technician using various pieces of equipment to determine what it is I am trying to say in my work. It is this challenge, not the learning of new software, not seeing my work on the walls, not even publishing, that keeps me interested in photography, the directing of image into print.
I worry though that what I saw in past masters, that desire or drive to re-interpret reality is dwindling. I see so many bad prints shown in galleries that I just stop looking sometimes. I get so angry that someone could print images so poorly.
A friend told me a story about Jon Cone, the innovator and creator of Piezography. Jon was looking at a print, held it up to the light, said How could you possibly think this is acceptable?, and then tossed it down. I find myself wanting to ask that more and more lately. And it has bothered me, up until now, because I didn't understand a potential reason or explanation for why this was happening. Was it a loss in artistic intention, education, caring, responsibility? It seemed to be most evident in digital prints and I couldn't figure out why that was. I didn't want to bring it up except with people I trusted because I didn't want to spread the already accepted notion that digital output was in some way lacking. I do not believe that. And yet, it was in digital prints that I was finding myself most frustrated.
Then it hit me.
It happened when someone sent me a RAW file from a digital capture. I opened the file in Photoshop and thought, this ain't too bad! What RAW had given me was a file that looked pretty decent. It looked remarkably close to what I would imagine the scene had been. And it got me wondering whether those photographers out there that are shooting digitally and being given files from software as a starting point that are pretty close to "acceptable" are swayed by that initial view of their image? Could it affect how much actual manipulation or adjustment they end up making?
I immediately thought about my own process. I am still a film shooter, but I scan my negatives and print digitally. The difference though, is that what I start with in Photoshop is usually a severely flat image. It's as close as I could imagine to starting with a blank canvas in photography. I can do anything with it, I can go many different directions. In many respects, I think that this aspect is where the greatest amount of artistic intention comes into play. When shooting, I have limited choices sometimes in terms of composition, lighting, etc. But with printing, I can do anything, the choices are wide open. And I guess this is what upsets me... when I know that there are some out there either ignoring or in some cases, shirking this responsibility. Not in every case, but in some, there is an attitude of acceptance rather than insistence.
Here is a starting scan from my friend Tyler Boley who has spent decades photographing the Northwest landscape. He shoots mostly large format 5x7 and is the best digital printer I've come across.
And here is the image after he adjusted it Photoshop.
What I wonder, is if another photographer had gotten this image below (which was generated by applying the “auto” curve in Photoshop to give you a sense of what the computer thought this image should be)… right after capture… as the starting point… whether the adjustments that I know Tyler has made (both large and small) would have been lost along with the whole mood and subtle beauty of the print because it's a close enough situation? (thank you Tyler for letting me ruin your image).
I hate to say this, but I feel like there is a generation of photographers breeding out there who would have seen this and thought good enough.
And then of course, there is the classic example of Moonrise over Hernandez, one of Ansel Adams' signature images. The before and after from his capture to print is also astounding.
Here's what happened when I applied the same "auto" curves command in Photoshop to Adam's original file as I did to Tyler's.
Not too bad as a starting point... Maybe lighten up that foreground and I'm done, right?
Here's what it comes down to for me. I love a lot of the new technologies available to us. But I seriously question whether we are pushing hard enough to keep the level of craft in printmaking at the level it has clearly been at since the beginning of this medium. I get questions all the time from people who expect their new digital printer to produce the level of craft and quality produced by the best darkroom printers. But, they don't want to work or invest in truly understanding how to get achieve that level out of Photoshop, scanning, printing and especially critiquing their own perception of what a print should look like.
I hear more and more a defense of digital printing and an acceptance of it. I want it to be accepted too.
But not at the expense of the craft of printmaking.
This post is dedicated to my friend Carl Dahlke. Carl, I hope you find inspiration in this, I know others have found it in you... Be well.