Fine Printing Your Photographs: Style in Printing
|January 1, 2011||Posted by admin under Photography|
Reading Ansel Adams in his technical works on photography, it is hard to avoid the impression that there is only one true way to make a photograph – and that this is the way that he does it. For him and others at the time there was a certain evangelical zeal still present for ‘straight photography, the kind of polemic that comes from the newly converted. He came to photography at a time when his friend and mentor Edward Weston was still slowly and at times painfully extracting himself from the realms of pictorialism, and although the dragon had been slain it was still twitching strongly in the amateur movement.
Today we can have a wider perspective and be prepared to let or even encourage different styles and approaches, perhaps even deliberately incorporating them into our own work in the name of post-modern appropriation. Our historical perspective has been enlarged by the much wider publication of photography both from different times and from different countries. We can appreciate the sharpness and tonal clarity of an Edward Weston as well as the European storm laden drama of a fine Josef Sudek or the gummist mannerisms of the early Edouard Steichen or Robert Demachy. Each in its own way is a fine example of the photographic art and craft.
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What then, is a ‘Fine Print‘? We can perhaps start with a simple and wide definition, which, although it may not be complete is certainly a prerequisite: it is a print that moves us, that has a powerful emotional impact. Secondly, although it may not meet the kind of preconceived technical standards that Adams put forward it will display a kind of technical integrity, a unity of expression. As I once heard a fine printer say, “you know when it’s right when it sings.”
Where things go wrong – and went wrong – is where the photographer uses a mode of expression inappropriate to his or her intentions. Weston wanted to be a modernist, so he had to abandon the comforting haze and sentimentalism of pictorialism for the minimalist precision that characterized the modern movement – just as turrets and barge-boards are fine on a gothic architectural fantasy but would be out of place in a geometrically pure Corbusian house.
When Sudek abandoned the enlarger and went to contact printing in the 1940′s he was able to explore both a rich history of processes – including carbon and pigment prints which cannot be made by enlargement – but also to explore the possibilities of using only dimly separated darker tonalities. His pictures became smaller, more intimate and more resonant.
To be a fine printer you need to study prints, and particularly prints by the masters of the craft. It is perhaps too obvious an assertion to be worth stating, although having taught photography for twenty-five years I’m increasingly aware it needs to be stated. To make a living as a commercial fine printer you also need to be highly aware of the current fashions in printing in the marketplace.
Although increasingly we can see photography on the Internet, and book reproductions are now often extremely accurate, there remains no substitute for viewing the actual work, either in special exhibitions or in collections. Most museums with major collections of photography will allow those with an interest to study the many prints which there is not space to show on the wall; the best collection in London, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, is freely available through its Print Room to visitors most days of the week.
Bill Brandt, one of the great photographers of the last century, is a particularly interesting study to the printer, partly because he changed the way he printed his work over the years. In part this reflected a change in the purpose of his prints, with the early work being made for the production of halftone plates for magazines and books, while later prints were made with hanging on a wall in mind.
Literary Britain: Landmarks, Landscapes
From 1948 to 1951, Britain’s foremost 20th-century photographer, Bill Brandt, journeyed into the heart of literary Britain, capturing these brilliant photographs.
‘Literary Britain‘, one of his great books first published in 1951, paired quotations from famous authors with pictures by Brandt on the right half of each double-page spread. His dark, often dull tones have a sombre power. When Edward Steichen exhibited Brandt’s work at MOMA in New York in 1946 (along with that of Lisette Model, Harry Callahan and Ted Croner) he wrote that Brandt ‘creates and emotional atmosphere within the photograph’ which is ‘heightened by the extension of that atmosphere beyond the boundaries of the photograph.’
Steichen saw how Brandt built up this atmosphere by his printing and through allusions, ‘nostalgic suggestions or other periods and influences.’ His successor at MOMA, John Szarkowski, was also a fan of Brandt’s landscape work and ‘Literary Britain’ in particular, both showing his work and writing to Brandt towards the end of his life to tell him what a fine book it was, as Mark Haworth-Booth notes in his afterword to the revised version of Literary Britain republished in 1984 to accompany an exhibition of the work. Booth also quotes an article from Photography magazine on Brandt’s landscapes written by Tom Hopkinson, the former editor of Picture Post for which some of Brandt’s finest work was produced in which he states that an afternoon picture of the Yorkshire Moors could become an evening scene in the darkroom.
John Szarkowski, Old Stock Exchange, Traders, 1954; gelatin silver print; courtesy the photographer and Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York; © John Szarkowski (Plate # 20)
Brandt’s later prints of the same negatives in many cases changed dramatically. From a concentration on the darker tones he moved to a high contrast approach, sometimes with large areas of black and white and little in the middle tones. These prints stressed the shape and graphic design of his work, simplifying and sometimes strengthening his work. In the work of the one photographer we can see two powerful and valid interpretations of his vision.
Another fine printmaker whose work deserves study is Frederick Evans, one of the great masters of the platinum print. Working in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Evans created visions of light in his studies of cathedral interiors, as well as producing a number of fine portraits. He felt so strongly the connection between his printing medium – the platinum print – and his vision that he simply abandoned photography when it became impossible to get platinum paper.
We can also see find bad examples of photography and printing with little difficulty and learn from them. However at times the problem may lie with the viewer rather than the photographer. When I curse at the lack of detail in a pictorialist landscape of the River Thames from the turn of the century perhaps the fault is in my expecting documentary photography. Or perhaps it is just that it is not very good pictorialism, for I can be enthralled by a picture by Alvin Langdon Coburn of a similar scene that could almost be a painting by Whistler. (At least a poor document is still a document!) Coburn, as well as being a fine platinum printer, was a master of the hand-pulled photogravure, spending much time in London studying the tricky process of making the plates and printing them.
St. Paul’s from Ludgate Circus 1905, hand pulled photogravure, 15 1/8″ x 11 1/4″
Of course many great photographers have not made their own prints, but have relied on the expertise of their printers. Even then, many have been quite involved in the printing process, often collaborating with the printer to get the results they wanted. Whether or not you make your own prints you need to decide on the look that you want, to choose, or rather to define a style that enhances your intentions. The starting point for this is to study the work of others, to analyse their styles and also to use their work to gain a perspective on your own. Only when you have a good idea of the possibilities can you make a break from simply following the fashion or doing what you were taught into something that is your own.