Back To The Print – A Counterpoint

June 18, 2016 ·

Andrew Molitor

Back2Print-810-pixels

We’re getting back to the print, the physical manifestation of the photograph, and that’s a good thing. Enabled by the digital revolution, the Internet, the Cloud,  we’re printing more than ever and in more formats than were dreamed of 20 years ago. Luminous-Landscape is making this explicit with their series, and that’s also a good thing.

The physical object matters. Its permanence, and I do not mean archival permanence (more on that later) changes the way we perceive the picture. We can touch it, hold it. We can carry it around with us, put it on the wall, on our desk. It’s present in a way that the digital image is simply not. I could make an argument that this is important, but I don’t have to. Virtually everyone already agrees, as noted we’re printing more than ever. People love these physical things, and there are probably as many reasons for that love as there are people. If you want a lengthy philosophical discussion, consult Susan Sontag and the critics who followed her.

The counterpoint is this: there is more to the print in 2016 than there was an 1985. In 1985, we’d all learned that The Fine Print was the sine qua non of printing. It was the endpoint, the only real endpoint. You could do books, but let’s face it, they were a shabby second best. Of cource there were also the grubby masses, the unserious snapshootists making endless snapshots and putting them into shoeboxes. We tried not to think much about those people. The Fine Print was the thing, with its perfectly balanced tonality, detail all the way down into the shadows and up into the highlights, archivally processed on graded fiber based paper, or if you must use color, please use one of the good processes. Cibas or Dye Transfer, perhaps.

Don’t misunderstand me. I love the Fine Print. I spent lots of time trying to achieve them. I own these items, among many similar ones:

AnselDiptych

(the print is not from the master’s hand, it’s a Special Edition Print I bought in Yosemite years ago). I have opened the book within the last year, and dare say I could find my way around a wet darkroom even now.

This one hangs on my wall. If you recognize it, I’m going to have to ask you to stop sneaking around my house, since this is the only print of this negative that exists.

MyPrint

But there is more to The Print, now, than The Fine Print.

Even in 1995, though we didn’t like to think about it, most prints were “vernacular”, which is to say, snapshots. These went in albums in the organized homes, and boxes or envelopes in disorganized homes. Like, say, my home. These were typically one-hour-photo (remember those?) prints, cheaply made, a few pennies a pop. The pictures were awful. Blown out, blocked up, underexposed with the machine producing a grainy mess to compensate. Heads chopped off, weird expressions.

And yet, these are precious. These are the shoeboxes of memory, those fragments of time saved if not forever at least for a time. For me, and probably for you, those handfuls of pictures have a value completely different from and infinitely greater than any Fine Print.

Snapshots

Today, the vernacular photographer is mom with her phone. She is embracing the photo book. She orders 4×6 prints, but also 3 copies of a cheaply made book she pulled together one evening (1 for her family, one for each grandmother). She makes slideshows. She uploads collections into digital picture frames. She doesn’t know about the Fine Print, and if she did, she wouldn’t care.

Not only the vernacular photographer, the working artist is embracing the do-it-yourself book, whether it be on a self-publishing platform, or some handmade ‘zine, or a portfolio box of small prints. The working artist may or may not care about permanence, or tonality, or detail. Most artists will care about some of that, but in this, let’s call it a post-Adams era, we have permission to choose what we want to care about. We can care about shadow detail if that’s important to the work, but we might not care at all about permanence because we’re showing the prints outdoors anyways. We might care about permanence but not sharpness. Tonality might be an irrelevance, because we’re embracing a cartoonish look appropriate to the subjects. We’re allowed to, it’s 2016.

These attitudes in photography have grown up, have flourished, with the digital age, and as such, they fit this modern era remarkably well. We have:

  • Self-pub platforms at every price point available over the internet. I can do an excellent coffee-table book that costs multiple hundreds of dollars, I can do a small ‘zine for two bucks a copy, and I can do anything in between. And I can still buy 4×6 prints for pennies a copy, I can still buy custom printed large prints for more money, and for still more I can make my own.  I can treat these prints as is, or I can make them into a book by hand, or cut them up and weave a new artwork out of the strips. The world is wide.
  • Crowdfunding platforms of various stripes have grown up, perfectly suited to pre-selling so and so many copies of my self-published object, whatever the price point. I can sell Fine Prints if I like, but I can also sell my ‘zine, my book, my print-of-the-month subscriptions. If I can think it up, I can try to pre-sell enough to fund the operation.
  • Social media platforms exist to self-market, and to refine, in  the first place my Art as I make it, and then later my crowdfunded publishing project. I can find like-minded people, connect with them, help them with their projects and get help back on mine. In the end, some of them will be interested enough to buy a physical artwork from me, be it a FIne Print, or a handmade ‘zine, or anything in between. Is that three people or three-thousand? That depends.

By all means, buy the high end printer, the good inkset. Color manage everything to within an inch of its life, and start making Fine Prints, or Finer Prints, if that suits you. I love The Fine Print.

But the world is bigger than that. It always was, of course, but there was a gap between the snapshooter with the box of cheap little prints, and the Artist making Fine Prints. That gap is now filled. Stuffed to overflowing with an endless variety of options.

If you doubt, go to kickstarter.com and search for fully funded photo book projects. Or you can just talk to me, stop by my house and see my books.

I’ve hand built books and book-like objects in editions of 1 to 4. I give them away.

HandBuilt

I’ve used self-pub platforms to make myself a couple of books.

SelfPublished

I made this installation for my wife’s office out of 35 cent prints from my local shop, glued on to foamcore with ordinary white glue. I neither know nor care how archival they are, these pictures will eventually get destroyed by the children shown in the pictures anyways, and we still have these photos digitally, and probably in some book someplace anyways.

Installation

I’ve collaborated with photographers on social media to produce a self-pub book that all the collaborators are free to buy copies of at cost and distribute to friends and family, or to sell, whatever they like. I don’t take any profit, because that’s me.

Collaboration1

Collaboration2

Now I’m organizing a scheme in which we mail book-like (flat) Art to one another, passing it along from person to person until, ideally, it returns to the owner.

And that’s just me. These ideas are not purely mine, I stole most of them from other people, changed them, fit them to my desires, my life, my work, and executed. I’m just some guy who hardly has any friends on social media, I have barely reached out to try to build a following, although I have been around bloviating online for a few years now. And yet I find it almost trivial to drum up a half dozen or a dozen strangers  who want to do something cool with photographs.

Have I made any money? Heck no. Which means I’ve made just as much money as most people who make Art in this modern era. I’m having a whole bunch of fun, though, and I’m making the pictures and objects I want to make. Sometimes I let someone see one, and sometimes they say something nice. That’s pleasant. As a bonus my home is not gradually filling up with Fine Prints, which was a little bit of a problem in my wet darkroom days.

I’m getting back to the print, and I don’t even own a printer. How about you?


Andrew Molitor
June 2016

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Andrew became a mathematician about the time the internet became the world-wide-web, but fell in to software development by accident. After 25 years of that he's just Dad. All along, Andrew took pictures, some of them small ones, and formed opinions, some of them big ones. He lives in Bellingham, WA, with his beautiful wife and two small daughters. Andrew's slightly unorthodox ideas for the beginning photographer can be found here: http://intro-to-photography.blogspot.com/

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