What makes a photograph? Is it an image? A thing? An emotion? When it comes to fine art photography the issue is clear to me: all of the above and most importantly a photograph is A PRINT.
According to Dorothea Lange the print is not the object, the object is the emotion the print gives you.
Be is at it may, what kind of print actually is best suited to convey emotions? That is the question that has kept me busy lately.
It depends on the kind of image obviously. Most photographs simply benefit from a straight technically correct approach: one that will deliver a “good” tonal scale with blacks and whites and an interesting array of greys or colors in between. A glossy surface is sharper and has a wider tonal range, and there are rules that relate the format of the print to the distance at which it will be observed in relation to the angle of the lens used to take the photo, so that perspective can be experienced naturally. But when it comes to creative photography the aim is not to be natural but to be suggestive and inspiring. If Roland Barthes can be right in stating that the photograph as an object is invisible, as it is merely the carrier of the image that is what we are looking at, on the other hand the experience of the print as objet d’art, coexisting armoniously with the images it carries and maybe even with its blemishes, curls, and frame, enhances the final result to greater effect. So finding the right way to the “perfect print”, the most effective for the picture at hand, is not simply a matter of technical prowess but requires a deeper approach and sometimes many trials and errors along the way.
A failure to recognize the necessity of trials, and the unavoidability of errors, can lead to maddening frustration: these matters can take time to clear, both in one’s mind and in one’s darkroom. Printing is often a sobering tale of fatigue, pain, exaltation and potentially cruel disillusion when we turn on the white light, or look at the prints the following day and find that what we thought of as a successfull session has been a complete failure, goes in the bin, needs to be done over. If we are lucky, we can learn from it and eventually nail the result. Much can go wrong, as only printers know.
Not all photographers are print makers. In fact the smart ones stick to taking pictures, possibly out and about, to hustling their models and counting their dollars, and leave dark matters – and digital retouching – to the mostly unsung and underpaid heroes of photo finishing. Still I believe that the really dedicated photographer can not be but very concerned with post production matters, ideally to the extent of doing his or hers “dirty work” as a necessary part of the process. Definitely so if they want to call themselves artists. Only direct experience can teach us how difficult it is to do it all, and will change our way of looking at fine art photographs forever.
Print making is mostly a lonely endeavour, and trying to find somebody to help us with it a very sensitive matter. Confronted with a huge series of 97 11x14 inch negatives I have started to seriously doubt my own strength in ever getting to the bottom of the printing process. Not only is it a daunting amount of creative decisions to take (finding people to chat about those is not very hard though, on a rainy day and if your coffee is good, but you need to be selective as to which advice to follow because these were given as freely as often unthoughtfully) but of very hard physical work. Hard meaning downright painful. So I went to look for a possible brother in arms, to break the spell of loneliness and share some of my thoughts and problems.
Behind an unassuming glass door on one of Amsterdam’s central canals I have met Wim Dingemans, a fellow photographer and a printer. His place is congenially old fashioned, it screams ANALOG from every corner but is as soft spoken as Wim himself. The quiet familiar darkness of the classic photo studio, lit only by the light boxes that shine on our spectre like bleak faces from below, and a few desk lamps, intriguing bits of equipment glistening all around in the shade. We start talking about our business, about printing and about our lives, finding much common ground as we amicably share anecdotes and information that range from developer recipes to sore feet and evening claustrofobia remedies. I leave one 35 mm negative behind for Wim to try, some prints to spot, he’ll call some time next week.