Many of us go around trying to freeze moments in time. For a lot it takes the form of happy, smiling images to post to social media to prove (to us?) what a great time we are having on vacation, graduation, the wedding, etc. Or we may freeze great landscapes or seascapes or sunsets so we can show their beauty.
But what is your experience when you share these moments with other people? You pull them up on your phone to show your buddy. Flip, view a few seconds, flip, flip (faster now), flip…. People only look at images on screen for a couple of seconds.
As someone who shoots thousands of images and makes prints I can say from experience that an image is not really complete and meaningful until a great print is made.
Digital images are impermanent
Digital images are impermanent in several ways. They are just bits on your hard disk or in the “cloud”. Unlike in the days when we had albums or even shoe boxes of prints, our pictures now can disappear in an instant. Hard disks fail. I know very well. I have thrown away dozens of them.
My main storage devices now are all RAID drives. This means they have multiple drives in each and the information is partitioned so that if one drive fails, everything can continue with no data loss. But that is just mitigating the problem.
Technologies change and become obsolete. How many of you have some pictures on a floppy disk or CD or some other media that you can’t read anymore? It happens. Fairly frequently.
And your cloud provider can go away or stop serving you if you don’t pay. Or if you don’t keep up with the never ending system updates for your computer and they stop supporting your version.
Another problem with digital images is that most people do not have a good cataloging system for them. Are your images stored in chronological order in Apple Photos? How do you locate that great photo of Grandma you took once? Do you even remember the year? It sounds harsh, but if you can’t find it, you basically don’t have it.
Digital images are fluid
Another property of digital images is that they are fluid. That is, they can be changed at any time. That can be useful sometimes. Break up with that loser? Edit him out.
On a more serious note, it also means that the look of the image can be changed at a whim, depending on your mood or your developing Photoshop skills. Your digital image will be content to exist on your disk in an easily editable state. By its nature, it is perpetually a work in progress. It does not require you to ask or answer hard questions. It is not forcing you to confront your feelings or interpretation. But a print commits the image to a hard media.
When you make a print, you are compelled to think it through in more depth. You are not going to take the time and effort and expense of printing unless you know how you view the image. You work on it more that if you are going to put together a slide show. It has more permanence and It represents our convictions about the image at a point in time. This forces us to think about it more.
When the ink is laid down you have created a piece of art, not just some bits. It means something different to you and your viewers.
A good print is compelling
Have you been in front of a well crafted original print by Ansel Adams or Dorothea Lange or John Paul Caponigro or any great photographer you like? It has depth and significance that is impossible to create on a screen. We assume from our experience that images on screen are fleeting. But these great prints are different.
People look at images on a screen for a few seconds. They study great prints for minutes. The print can grab you; stop you in your tracks; confront you with something you can’t ignore. It is a piece of art, not just flickering bits. It is real.
Prints are the gold standard
I talked before about how transient bits can be and how devices fail and technologies go obsolete. Good prints, though, have substance. They are physical. They are a real object with weight and texture and size. A well done print can last 100-200 years without degrading. It is something that can stand the test of time.
Ansel Adams stopped printing over 40 years ago, but one of his prints is as impressive today as it was then. And it will probably be as impressive 100 years from now.
A print is a frozen idea
As I mentioned, you are not compelled to “finish” your digital images. It is far easier to shoot than to finish them. You can leave them sitting there on your computer with only a fuzzy notion of how we really feel about them.
When you commit to creating a print it forces you to confront your feelings or interpretation. You go through some serious self-examination. Once the ink is on the paper it is not going to change. It represents our idea about the image at a point in time. We have to go through the work to decide how we really feel about the image in order to print it. And we spend a lot more time bringing it to a high level of perfection.
This is a good thing. We are creating a real, permanent object. It represents us. We feel pressure to make it our art. It is our expression for the world to see. We are creating something that will probably outlive us. We want our viewers to see what we saw and feel what we felt.
It is quite possible to return to an image years later and make a new print that is very different. That is quite common and healthy. It means we have grown and developed new viewpoints. If we rework the image and create a new print, it is a new work of art. It could hang proudly beside the original as portraits of the artist at 2 different points in his life.
It is the only physical result of photography
When I press the shutter of my digital camera, not much really happens. Some photons are exposed to the sensor and some electrical change is read and converted to bits and transferred to the memory card.
Even when I import the digital files into my computer, they are still just bits – minute, almost unmeasurable units of electrical or magnetic energy. I can hit the Delete key and they are gone without a trace. My main photo disk has over 6 TBytes of data on it (6,000,000,000,000 chunks of 8 bits). But it does not weigh a gram more than it did empty.
I can argue that I have not actually made anything of value until I make a print. The print is something real. It is physical. People can see it and feel it and look at it as art or garbage. But regardless of how they feel about it, they can’t see or feel anything until it is a print. The print can be framed and hung on the wall and passed down to generations or sold. The bits cannot.
It completes the cycle
And printing is good for you as an artist. It completes the process. It brings art to life. You have to work at it, wrestle with it, make mistakes and do it over. You have to make hard decisions that shape the final result. The print is a commitment of your vision, frozen in time.
And when you get done, you may be disappointed. You envisioned more. You hoped, when it was just bits, that it would be more. The reality of the print can be cruel. You have to reexamine everything from your conceptual idea to your technique. It is what it is. Learn from it. We want people to see and feel what compelled us to take the picture. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.
But you won’t know what it really is until you have made the best possible print. That is your art. If you revisit the image later you may see it differently and print a different interpretation. Printing is a key expression of our art.
I reference Ansel Adams a lot in this article. In closing, he famously said:’