Can a prints technical brilliance overtake the subject matter?

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Sean

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Do you think in some cases a print that is too well executed can have a negative impact on the overall subject matter? Do you strive for technical brilliance in your prints automatically, or instead give the subject matter only what it needs to convey it's meaning? Do you try to find a balance here? Just curious on your thoughts, Sean
 

Jorge

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Not IMO, one should have enough technical expertise to extract all that one wants from the negative. But then I have seen as many opinions on this as there are members on this forum.

I would rather see an excellently printed photgraph of a great subject matter, than a print that lacks either content or technical proficiency. Then again, what is a good print? Some people like the Meriel prints presented in Lenswork...I thought they were horrible..... :smile:
 

James Bleifus

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Sean said:
Do you think in some cases a print that is too well executed can have a negative impact on the overall subject matter?

I think that certain printing syles don't lend themselves to certain subjects. The print has to match the style of the photographer and the subject. An example is Ansel Adams' book Born Free and Equal which were photographs of Japanese internees during WWII. Compared to the FSA photographers of the time Adams' pictures feel too pretty. I don't feel a sense of outrage or frustration when looking at them. Some images almost seem like commercial portraiture. Walker Evans' images, or Dorothea Lange's, or Gordon Parks' have a much greater impact on me. There's something iconic in their images that matches their printing style whereas Adams' prints feel too smooth, if you will; they lack an edge. This even though (or because) I feel Adams is a better printer. Conversely, I feel that Adams printing is perfectly suited for his landscapes and I doubt Evans, Lange or Parks could touch him in that arena.

Cheers,

James
 

Joe Lipka

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I just try to get the best technical print to convey the mood and intent for the image. If the image calls for soot and chalk, then that's what it gets. Full tonal range required? That's what it gets. The major concern with given this choice is the SUBSTITUTION of technical brilliance for aesthetic content.
 

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If the print requires a style that it APPEAR roughly executed, then technical ability would enable that to be created.

Ian
 

Flotsam

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I see prints all the time that make me wonder, if it hadn't been so beautifully printed, would the subject have been interesting enough to to make the photograph worthwhile? Then again, the photographer that made that gorgeous print specifically chose that subject out of many others so who's to say?
 

Will S

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I believe that there was an exhibit or book done by Aperture where the photographer specifically asked that the prints not be done nicely since it would hurt their emotional impact. Can't recall what it was offhand though...

Personally, I've been noticing a lot of comments in the critique gallery lately like "great tonality" and "wonderful detail" and never comments like "this image really moved me emotionally because of xxxx" or "I can identify with the photographer because of yyyy" or even "I really like this picture" without some allusion to the superior printing method and use of staining developer, etc. To me, this is the same as the digital pixel peeping that goes on on those "other" sites. Here, the equivalent is choice of paper and developer and contact print vs enlargement.

Speaking of equivalents, I believe Alfred Steglitz once replied when asked if a particular print had been taken on panchromatic film something along the lines of "that has nothing to do with the picture!"

I was given a similar question once in a history of music theory class. The idea being discussed (from a 19thC. German theorist) was that any piece of music contains within its notes, chords, rhythms, etc. the "meaning" that connects it to the world and makes it beautiful. So, is a bad performance of Beethoven's 5th (for example) which contains all of the same notes, chords, rhythms, etc. that are given to us in the score by Beethoven just as capable of conveying the beauty of the print as a superb performance of the same piece? The only real difference between the two is tempos, subtle variations in volume, attack, tone quality, etc. (only about a gazillion elements).

In photography, as well as music, I think that a possible answer is that the meaning of the piece is better conveyed to those less attuned to its particular means of communication if the execution of the performance (or of the print) enhances and supports that inherent meaning. In most cases this will mean that a print that is superior in quality will convey the meaning of the photographer more so than one inferior in quality. In some situations, however, the meaning may depend on sloppy execution, but those are difficult to pull off and rare.

best,

Will
 

Tom Stanworth

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In response to the original question, NO.

Photographers may find it fascinating, enthralling and enlightening, but is has no enduring merit other than the cold perfection of its execution (which to me only has value when combined with a great image for an overall 'package'. For non-photographers this is usually not even noticed if teh image is not interesting in the first place!!!! For me, this is a route many contact printers have taken. I am astonished at the awful subject matter some LF/ULF users commit to AZO. It may be a beautiful PRINT, but that is like a beatiful car that has no engine, gearbox or steering wheel. pointless. The effort would have been better spent on something artistically interesting. After all surely this is why we take photographs ni the first place. Whilst I greatly respect the contribution of Michael and Paula, I personally find their work some of the least interesting from a photographic perspective. To me it is dull in the extreme. Their technical brilliance is superb, but for me, that is not nearly enough. Would a painter spend his time getting perfect brush strokes and fine detail and then paint boring images......? some do, but nobody will remember their images only their 'tuition'. Perhaps there are many great printer, many great photographers, but few great at both. By the way, I dont profess to be any of the aforementioned.

Tom
 

TPPhotog

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For me showing another photographer is the same problem as inviting a chef around to dinner. Photography like any other art is about passion and as such the technical merits are secondary, but should never be sloppy. So in answer to the original posting Yep it sure can if it's another photographer who is looking at it, as for Joe public they are more interested in what the picture is.
 

John McCallum

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An image that is printed well and conveys what the photographer intended, I usually find to be much more enjoyable.

This doesn't relate to a chosen style. There are so many differing styles in photography, and I don't think saying a print should be "well executed" needs to be prescriptive or restrictive.

I have more respect for the work of a photographer that shows some mastery of their chosen medium. Personally I think (some) pinhole work is just as valid as good ulf contact printwork. But some photographers do show sloppy printing practices with the rider "this is my style, my art". I can't understand this approach, why would you attempt to control and gain mastery of other aspects of making the image (i.e your choosen equipment, materials, composition, exposure etc) and then employ poor practiced printing technique and say "it's my style, my art".
 

Jon Shiu

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Here's a quote I just read in David Vestal's column (Photo Techniques July 2004):

"A poorly-made picture that moves us is worth hundreds of empty masterpieces of technique. And when good photos are made well, that's even better."

In my own work, I go back and forth between large format and pinhole/toy camera work. Most people like the toy camera work better, except photographers...
 
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"Can a prints technical brilliance overtake the subject matter?"

In my opinion, a print is a way of communicating, a way of showing. If the print is brilliantly printed, then the subject matter is better represented not overtaken. I could never be.

Think of all of Edward Weston's prints. All of them were masterfully printed, and by his excellence in printing he was able to bring a soul out of most of his prints regardless of subject matter. How can a pepper be so beautiful, it is just a pepper. No it is not the pepper, it is how it is seen. Printing is just a way to show what you have seen.
 

rbarker

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As with many aspects of photography, I think the potential of a print's technical brilliance overtaking the subject matter is all a matter of semantics. At one end of the definitional spectrum, one might say that "technical brilliance" prints the image exactly as it should be, thus conveying all of the photographer's intended message, interpretation and emotion. Or you might see an image that is well-executed from a technical sense, but the subject is totally mundane and devoid of meaning. The, of course, there are those images that are both poorly printed and poorly conceived - pure crap.

Somewhere in the middle, though, are subjects that require a particular treatment to "tell the story" and achieve full emotional impact. Choose the wrong film, the wrong lighting and styling, or the wrong processing, and the technique grabs the viewer's attention, rather than the intended subject.
 

Ed Sukach

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I hate to get into semantics, but sometimes it is necessary to clarify.

I read the question as, "Can the adherence to a concept of "technical perfection" have an adverse effect on the way a photograph "works" (oh, Lord, don't expect any kind of attempt by me to explain why anything "works"); is that conformance invariably a "good thing"?

If that is the essence - Yes, the slavish conformance to any set of values, can be detrimental. Sometimes, the lack of a "perfect black" or "perfect white" works - see Joyce Tenneson's high-key work. Sometimes distortion is very useful. I have seen work from prints exposed to light in developing become acclaimed works of art (see Man Ray and "solarization").
Is solarization a "printing fault" or ..?

I have, in my portfolio, an image where I `screwed up' in printing - I inadvertently exposed the print for half the ColorStar indicated time ... resulting in a "high key color". In my estimation, it "works". I also have another "disaster"; I placed the enlarging paper on the easel upside down, backing side up. Realizing the error, I replaced it, right side up, and exposed it again. Enough light penetrated the backing to produce "cross-hatching" from the diagonals. It "works".

In all of those cases, to have done it "right" would not have resulted in an image that "worked".

I can think of two other examples, without getting into surrealism: Obviously the Master of "Sloppy", Jackson Pollock; and someone whose work would have lost *everything* with "proper" perspective, Grandma Moses.

What about spinning this off into two other, related questions: 1. What, in each our estimations, makes a photograph "work"?; and, 2. What out-of-convention characteristics do we consider as fair game to use in the process of making our art?

I personally do not assume that a "strange" (read: out-of-the-ordinary) print is always the result of "sloppy - inadequate care" in printing", or lack of technical expertise on the part of the printer. It may not only have been deliberate, it may be the result of extensive experimentation and countless hours of attempts to "get that specific effect" - or it may be a "fortunate accident". Who was it that said, "Thirty percent of the world's great photographs are "fortunate accidents"?
I seem to remember him as a pretty darn good printer ...
 
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"Can a print's technical brilliance overtake the subject matter?"

What is technical brilliance anyway? Do too many people confuse good contrast with technical brilliance?

No, If you believe the print is the subject (not the peeling paint on the wall), as Aaron Siskind did. Others believe content is king, and the idea of the picture is more important than the actual "thing". The "thing" is simply a work on paper.

BUT, it really depends on your view concerning the use the camera.

For some, the beautiful quality of the print is a crucial element to the overall vision. It is what turns a picture of a field or a pepper into a rhythmic, moving experience.

Tom Stanworth, what pictures of Michael's and Paula's have you really seen? Are you referring to the ones on their website that are in the Tuscany books? You may find their work boring from an illustrative perspective (mainly because their photographs are not intended to be illustrations of a thing or place). Do not confuse illustrative with "photographic perspective". The dullness you feel might be due to your own asepsis.

As for their technical brilliance, what is that? Are you confusing technical brilliance with aesthetic brilliance? I was thinking earlier (as I was watching Paula print) that people perceive their prints as perfect not because they only have wonderful tones, but because all the tones relate and interact with one another. The beauty of the tones is only inhanced by their using Azo.
 

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Richard Boutwell said:
You may find their work boring from an illustrative perspective (mainly because their photographs are not intended to be illustrations of a thing or place). Do not confuse illustrative with "photographic perspective".
This is an interesting statement Richard. Could you expand upon it a little?
 

Jorge

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Richard, you are taking it out on Tom for expressing an opinion that is very common with many people. Arguably if one sees a photograph in a web site that takes away all the technical brilliance all that is left is content. Many beleive that once you strip away their printing technical expertise you are left with little content.

Having said that, and after discussing this with Michael many times I have come to the conlusion that it is a matter of style. I prefer photographs where the photgrapher has destilled all superfluos elements and all that it is left is the main subject that attracts my attention. In contrast Michael likes photographs that cause or force the viewer's eyes to roam over the picture. Who is to say what is right or wrong? but from a personal perspective I find Michael's pictures too busy and in a sense "disorganized". IMO There is no clear reason as to why the picture was taken.

I dont want to make this thread about Michael, and that is the reason I did not mention him in my response, but after I read Sean's question, he was the one who immediately came to my mind as an example of a photgrapher who in my opinion uses printing skills to elevate what I feel are ordinary photographs.
 
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The illustrative is concerned with making a likeness (accurate rendering) of some thing (usualy an idea) or place. There is little imporance outside the context of the thing illustrated.

"Photographic seeing" has to do with visual elements coming together spacialy in one instant, making a unified picture. They are similar concerns most painters and printmakers have in the making of their work. On the most simple level it is arranging elements in a determined space.

If Michael and Paula's work from Tuscany (and everywhere else) is about anything, it is about space. I, as do others, find that very exciting.
 
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Just a few brief thoughts:

A "good" picture is one that fulfills its intended purpose.

Every picture needs a given level of technique to communicate its content. The technique in question needs to be adequate (not necessarily brilliant or perfect).

Technical perfection in terms of sharpness and tonality may well be an essential means of communicating a certain type of content.

Technical perfection without an artistic intent may be impressive in terms of craft-skills bravura but will in all cases be ultimately emotionally sterile.
 
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Jorge said:
Richard, you are taking it out on Tom for expressing an opinion that is very common with many people. Arguably if one sees a photograph in a web site that takes away all the technical brilliance all that is left is content. Many believe that once you strip away their printing technical expertise you are left with little content.


No, I am not taking it out on Tom. I was only addressing him and his comment.

I do not want to make this about Michael either, and I only responded.

If it is a widely held opinion here that Michael Smith is purely a craftsman then I think that too many people do not understand the abstract nature of the work.

"leci n'est pas une pipe"---"this is not a pipe"
 

Jorge

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Richard Boutwell said:
If it is a widely held opinion here that Michael Smith is purely a craftsman then I think that too many people do not understand the abstract nature of the work.

"leci n'est pas une pipe"---"this is not a pipe"

I dont know that it is a widely held opinion here, I am only stating what I have been told by many people here and in other forums.

OTOH, I dont buy this notion that we dont "get it" or that we dont understand the work....perhaps we understand all too well.
 

Tom Stanworth

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Jorge is on my wavelength. I knew that my post might cause a reaction. I posted not because I desired to upset anyone but because I did not wish to shy away from my own opinion for fear of others who I suspected would wish to discredit it. I will not respond to the suggestion that my opinion of certain work is 'my problem' as the thread may disappear into pastures unknown. Actually it is totally irrelevant whether it is a deficiency on the part of the photographer or view (or neither) because it does not change the perception that an individual viewer has about the 'creative capture' compared to the printing for a given image. I also agreee with Jorge on the issue of images and websites. A website will give a very good idea of the 'construction' of an image from the point of view of subject matter, composition, space, relationships etc. It will not show how good a print it is. I am 100% happy that if one finds the web image boring in the extreme on the issues mentioned above then no measure of fine printing can sew perceived non-content together to perfection! All of us have produed prints which really sing from subject matter (or bad composition etc) which we find 'misses'. It never to me comes close to an stunning image printed reasonably. Yes I too like the technically great prints of mine (rare) and keep them around and may love them as part of my individual photographic journey, perhaps representing a quantum leap in printing. Personally I tend to keep them to myself and long for the day I can bring the same emotion from a more interesting image.....or I go back to old negs which I was too inexperienced to print well enough. Conversely, it is when viewing the prints where the image is special, but I have made a gross error somewhere technically (thankfully getting less common) that I get a big rush. I'm sure like me, many have mentally superimposed the intended tones onto the bones of a bad print from a bad neg and had a rush of excitement because the subject matter was selected and dealt with well.......'next time I'll nail it'.....

I have seen numerous photographers work in the flesh and on websites. Most of us are plenty experienced enough to know what a website gives and denies us. I have yet to see a print that I thought dull on a website that has became wonderful just because it 'glows' in the flesh. Glowing nothingness. I have seen plenty of 'very nice' images on websites that become masterpieces because they are printed to that same standard and the togetherness is brought home further. There has to be something to be sewn together.....

Tom
 

chiller

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Sean said:
Do you think in some cases a print that is too well executed can have a negative impact on the overall subject matter? Do you strive for technical brilliance in your prints automatically, or instead give the subject matter only what it needs to convey it's meaning? Do you try to find a balance here? Just curious on your thoughts, Sean

Sean, From my viewpoint any print must receive maximum technical care to allow the viewer a free entry into the artist's space. Technical brilliance cannot replace content but content can easily be degraded by poor attention to detail.

To me maximum technical detail doesn't mean razor sharp from foreground to back ground all the time. It often can mean a print that is intentionally out of focus but correctly exposed and printed to the point that the drama of the image isn't compromised by shoddy workmanship.

The technical brilliance of an image should support the content and not lure the viewer away from the moment.

I think a true artist has to be able to master the media used both emotionally and technically.
 
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Richard Boutwell said:
If Michael and Paula's work from Tuscany (and everywhere else) is about anything, it is about space. I, as do others, find that very exciting.

Indeed.

And that can generate very opposite reactions in viewers. For instance, I bought both M&P's books on Tuscany and bought one of Paula's prints from the series. I (obviously) like the work but I showed the print and books to a "photography-savvy" friend who said in a semi-discussed response to the work: "They went all the way to Tuscany to take pictures of that". By "that" she was referring to their choice of subject matter in general. This person was left completely unmoved by the work. The "technical" richness of the work had no impact whatever in this case.

And neither should it. Only photographers care about the presence, or absence, of technique. It is up to the photographer to impart as much, or as little, technical prowess as deemed fit to his or her vision. The final print should be accepted, or rejected, solely on the emotional electricity generated by it.
 

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The first workshop I ever took was with David Vestal. I had been doing photography for a number of years, and was very proud of my technical accomplishments. (Naturally - I am an engineer!). After looking at my portfolio for a while, David's comment was "technically perfect, pictorially empty")

Talk about ego-busting! I felt like I had a bulls eye painted on my T-shirt, and David had hit it dead center.

It's altogether too easy to make technically exacting prints that demonstrate the range of tonalities that can be achieved in a traditional silver image. It's like music - there are a number of piano pieces that are called "etudes" - studies. Pieces that are intended to give the pianist exercise in critical technical skills but that are not necessarily outstanding music on their own. Pianists should play them over and over - as part of their practice, but rarely if ever part of performance.

This may sound heretical - but a lot of Ansel Adams' work falls into this category, at least in my opinion. Technically breathtaking, but the subject ultimately leaves the viewer cold.

On the other hand, a print that indicates that the photographer had an emotional connection with the subject, and helps the viewer establish a similar (although probably fundamentally different) connection, will be a very good print even though it may not be technically perfect.

That said, there is no excuse for intentional sloppiness, and I don't know of anyone whose basic self respect would allow them to show as final work, pieces that they knowingly could make better. Note the phrase "that they could make better" - the work should be the best that the photographer himself can do, not necessarily the best that anyone could do with the subject. Also, the technical skills of a photographer should increase over time, so the best print that I make today from a given negative may be quite different from the best print that I made 10 years ago.
 
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