The blank is ‘great photographer’. Now, the printer may in fact also be the same person squinting through the viewfinder, but the end result is still the same. There are also many great women behind quite a few great male photographers, but that’s a different story! The closest I’ve come to my own Charis was when my eleven year old sun sprawled out on the beach like Charis in the sand dunes, except he was having an emotional moment after losing a game of beach tennis (and was wearing board shorts).
I’m of the opinion that you cannot master photography (I dislike this somewhat absolutist phrase, but we all know what it means) without mastering, or having someone else, master the consequent printing. I’m not suggesting that I am a master, or that there is such a thing as mastering photography (a fairly absurd concept), but here is my spin on something I consider extremely important.If you print your own work, whether digitally or in the darkroom, your journey as a photographer is likely to mirror your experience as a printer. While there are some superb printers who are not particularly good photographers, I cannot think of any great photographers whose printed work was recognized as weak for anything other than a short period. It’s fairly obvious why, when you think about it: you need to understand the nature of the output to understand what is required at the input stage. If you do not understand the printed medium, you cannot really understand how your images might look when printed, or how to make sure the capture allows for the desired output. While some photographers are/were notoriously weak on technique, they were still intimately familiar with their printed work, even if it took some darkroom genius to make the silk purse out of the (technically speaking) sow’s ear!
Quite a few years ago, I made the decision to spend serious money getting Robin Bell to print my series, Russians and Royals. I did it because I knew I was not a good enough printer to do the images justice and I was hugely impressed with the magic he worked with some of my test images. Over a short period of time, I enjoyed two things: 1) the synergy we developed, whereby he understood how I liked my prints and 2) the surprises that came from having another creative person inject some of their own interpretation into the images. He’s also a very nice chap, with peerless experience printing genuinely famous images from B&W photographers both alive and long dead. It’s a revelation to see a negative, but it’s quite another to see the print someone else has made from it. It’s another layer of magic that takes nothing away from the photographer, but does inject an exciting element of risk and surprise.
I asked Robin to make me prints, not only for the prints, but also to make mine better. I looked at why his prints worked. I observed them under different lighting. I noted the subtly different hue he achieved as compared to me using the same paper. I noticed the subtle surface sheen developed by flattening them under a hot press and how this affected the luminosity of the print. most importantly of all, I also learnt a great deal about relative print values, rather than absolute ones. I also enjoyed seeing what he did with other people’s negs. I saw how terribly underexposed negs could result in stunning prints, with the right skill and materials (Ilford MG Warmtone is remarkable in this regard). This made me sift through hundreds of old contact sheets looking for images I had perhaps discarded as technically sub-par. A photographer is not judged by what he or she has in their archive, but what makes it through the edit and is presented to the world. Effective editing is a truly gargantuan component of ‘being a good photographer’ and so anything that improves this process positively is good news.
Most importantly, however, I better understood the relationship between the neg (capture output) and the print (final output), which completed the longer chain that begins with deciding what and how to capture in the first place (basic capture, which does not have to be a particularly conscious process). The amount of wasted paper in my own darkroom went down dramatically, the quality shot up over the course of a year or two and so did the quality of the images themselves. All this from seeing what somebody else was doing with my images.
If you ask a professional contemporary photographer (documentary, conceptual) for advice, some will tell you to ‘read as much as you can… learn about the subject, what has been done, what hasn’t be done’ as if it’s a purely intellectual pursuit, but I think the most important stage exists well before that: look at prints; lots of them. Go to every exhibition you can. Buy used monographs like your life depends on it. Shoot lots, but print lots too. Experiment. Light them differently, see how they change significantly once behind glass. Essentially, be like that robot in the film ‘Short Circuit’ screaming for ‘input, input… more input’. By doing this, you are focusing on the print and, by extension, everything else in the imaging chain right down to where you walk when you leave your home in the morning (and what’s in your pocket)! FWIW, I recommend carrying a Panasonic GM-1 in yours, which I did a mini-review on. In fact, sitting here at my keyboard in Bamyan, Afghanistan, it’s about 18 inches away. As I have demonstrated here already, with a completely unnecessary tangent, is that one thought or observation leads to another and they ALL shape who you are as a photographer.
Spending time re-printing your own work can also act as a cathartic relief from the pressures of coming up with new creative ideas. Sometimes the process of printing images will catalyse new ideas for shooting. Spending time with other people’s prints of course does the same, but if you are not familiar with exceptional prints, there can be no better way to spend your time or money than in making lots of prints and looking at other people’s. New equipment, whether cameras, lenses, new software are a complete and utter waste of money if you are not yet very familiar with the entire imaging chain, or in synergistic partnership with someone who takes care of that stage for you.
Ah, but this sound a bit like St Ansel’s pre-visualisation and we all know how some photographers regard his work as sterile and, well, rigid. There is some truth to the notion that fixating upon the technical aspects of the image chain could lead a person in this direction, but it’s not what I am getting at. I am talking about emotional and subjective opinion, as much as the how A gets to B in the technical sense. This holistic comprehension leads to the intimate familiarity that underpins instinct and spontaneity. Nobody would suggest that practicing night and day makes for a rigid, unimaginative footballer, would they? Brilliant sportsmen and women practice so that they don’t have to think; so that they can react based on muscle memory and instinct and stun the world with their exploits. Soldiers do the same and nobody would suggest that Erwin Rommel was inflexible and unimaginative. The title ‘Desert Fox’ says it all. Were Rommel a photographer, he would be making lots of prints and that is a fact backed up by a great deal of firm supposition and conjecture on my part. He would also be using a Leica Monochrom (what else?).
How many people do you hear of with a Leica Monochrom, or Sony A7R talking about what large prints it can make…. but without having made anything over A3 themselves. Seriously? A person spends $7K on a camera, but will not spend $40 making a 40” print to see how an on screen files can be made to print and consequently, what it is like to observe? This is the point where you start to understand what you can and cannot do with a camera, which was presumably purchased for some of its technical attributes!
What about hung prints? Yup, this is important too. Ever considered how much larger a print grows when taken from a large exhibition venue and places in a cluttered home? The converse is equally true, so spending time around the end product in various spaces will help you immensely when considering how large to make your images. This might impact what you put in your camera bag when heading off on holiday!
Everything is interconnected and tug at one end of the chain and there will be a response at the other. If you do, your next purchase might end up being an A2 printer instead of a new camera. It will improve your post processing no end.
Perhaps the very best recent example of this ‘chain of understanding’ took place on the flight I just undertook from Kabul to Bamyan, in the Central Highlands of Afghanistan. I was busy taking shots through the window on my GM-1 and A7R and there was a chap on the same helicopter doing the same with a DSLR. Upon landing, with ear defenders removed, the person next to him made small talk about the view and him taking lots of photos. The man replied, ‘yeah, its fun, but this sort of images are pointless. You take them, put them on your computer, scroll through them once and then just end up deleting them.’ I thought straight away of my short series ‘West to East‘, which I shot using a cell phone on a recent flight under similar circumstances. I took the images, because I knew what they could be. I only knew what they could be because I have spent a lot of time gawking at other people’s images and marveling at what can be done with a cell phone, not to mention printing, printing, printing. Can I remember whose work may have inspired me? No. Was I copying someone else’s work? No. Was the work a product of everything I had absorbed, with my own creative influences pulling these fragments into a clear (emotional, intellectual and technical) vision, shaped by experience? Yes, I think so. Part of that is knowing how beautiful small, well printed, intimate images can be when shown alone or together. That was a product of understanding how these small images might be printed and displayed (which is what I aim for. Web images are just a consequence of this process, not the reason for it). So familiarity with the final part of the process – seeing how the scenes might be processed and displayed – was key to feeling the urge to shoot it in the first place. The man I referred to will probably delete his images; however, they may have been far better than mine. That’s a shame.