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The Power of the Photographic Print

During the time in my photographic life when I used film, prints of my photographs were not only the end result but also an integral part of the process of getting there.

The standard for showing and sharing your photographs rather than sharing on a screen was an actual collection of finished prints in a portfolio to be carried with you. Prints were required to be dry mounted to a backing board with an over mat containing a “window” which allowed the photograph to be viewed but also offered a layer of protection around it. Alternatively, the prints were framed and hung on a gallery wall.

Sound like a lot of time and effort? You’re right.

Using trays filled with developer, stop bath and fixer, the film was developed by hand. After I processed my black and white film, I would use the same tray chemical processing sequence to make contact prints of every frame. I then studied each frame, selecting images that I thought “worked” and needed to be enlarged. Once quick, enlarged draft prints were made, I would pin them up on a wall and live with them for a while.

 

Contact sheet of old black and white film negatives on traditional photo paper

Then the magic and the real work began!

After a few weeks, I’d decide which images warranted more time and effort, making “work” prints of this select group. I spent time creating different versions of these work prints – adjusting exposure and contrast, lightening and darkening different areas of the image. I kept detailed notes on all these adjustments. I’d also share these prints with friends and colleagues requesting input on which images spoke to them. Based on all this input I would then complete the process of making final prints of each negative.

Once again using trays filled with developer, stop bath and fixer, the final prints appeared. After development, each print was washed for at least an hour and then air dried overnight before they could receive a final evaluation.

There would always be a few final prints that needed some adjustments to improve them, which meant that the entire printing process for each of these images had to be repeated. On each print, any white spots caused by dust on the negative had to be filled in by using various shades (black to light gray) of Spot Tone, manually applied using a very fine thin brush. It wasn’t unusual for this “spotting” to take thirty minutes to an hour for each print.

When someone showed their work, everyone realized the time, effort and thought that it took to share their images.

It was also costly. An 8″X10″ or 11″X14″ print were considered standard sizes, and 16″X20″ prints required larger trays/sinks/enlargers and more effort to print.

Digital changed all that.

Ten years ago on a Wednesday evening, I attended an open critique of images here in Atlanta. One of the presenters introduced their work by telling the group that they had gone out photographing the previous Sunday afternoon and now, three days later, was showing us sixteen final images from that outing.

In a future post I will discuss how this abbreviated time-frame affects the visual quality of today’s photographs, but for now, let’s focus on the making of prints in the digital age.

Although I used film until 2006, I started printing digitally in 2001. I would have high-resolution drum scans of my negatives done, bring the file into Photoshop, adjust the image, quickly remove any dust spots and make an inkjet print which would come out of the printer in just a few minutes.

The negatives I was printing were all from final projects I had worked on over my career. I had printed them extensively in the darkroom, so I knew what I wanted them to look like. Digital printing just made the results easier to obtain. Although initially, I did all my own printing, for the past ten years I have used a local fine art printer.

Since making the full switch to digital, my workflow has completely changed. My darkroom – still fully equipped – has been replaced by my 17″ Mac laptop. Instead of making contact prints and work prints to evaluate my images, I use Adobe Lightroom to review, rate and process the files. I can make changes to a file whenever and wherever I choose. I share my photographs via my website and social media. When I want feedback from colleagues on a select project, I use Flickr.

A recent experience made me realize that the one thing I don’t do anymore is make prints of my new work.

My photography is represented by Lumiere Gallery in Atlanta. I recently received an inquiry via my website about the purchase of a new image I captured digitally ( the lead image in this blog) which isn’t in my portfolio at Lumiere. The collector wanted a 20″ X 30″ image.

Buffalo River, Buffalo, NY. Leica M9-P w/ 35mm Leica Lens © Mark Maio

When I picked up the print, a strange thing happened. I was physically taken aback by it. It reflected the feelings I had when making the image – something that is generally lacking on a device screen.

It was then that I realized that for almost a decade, the largest size I had seen of my new work was limited by the small screen of my laptop. In the case of the vertical image above, that meant a maximum size of 4″ X 6″.  My travel schedule dictates that most of my workflow is conducted away from the office, and even on a larger monitor, the effect cannot compete with viewing an actual print.

Seeing and holding a paper print, at a larger size, brought home what I have lost in interacting with my work. Viewing an “enlarged” paper image, rather than a smartphone, tablet or computer screen version is an experience that gives me a completely different emotional feeling towards my work.

My New Year resolution for 2018 is to start making prints as part of my workflow, and once again acquaint myself with my work on an entirely different level.

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3 comments

  1. Very nice post that reflects the journey of older photographers. The darkroom days are treasured, but not missed.

  2. YEP! and I expect that you are not alone. Me? I am still printing….

  3. Prints, especially large prints, can be so much more emotionally charged than an on screen image. Absolutely every time I make a print I remember all the times I have been encouraged to “print it bigger”. I never regret doing so.

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