Printing photographs. On actual paper. Say what? Yes, I know, in this modern era of high resolution wireless online digital everything, maybe it seems a little antiquated to bring up the subject of paper. But hear me out for a minute. If you’re a photographer who’s not already printing your work much, maybe I’ll win you over to try it.
I’m All About the Digital
Let me be the first to admit that, as photography goes, I’m definitely a product of the digital era. I never photographed film other than as a young kid goofing around with basic 35mm, Instamatic and Polaroid cameras. Nor did I spend any time developing or printing in the traditional darkroom. So I don’t have any natural bias towards printing that would come from a history with film.
After 30 years of working in information technology, I’m also very comfortable in the digital darkroom. My photographs all start digital (for now) and I develop them on a computer with a big screen. Image processing software has brought me an amazing array of creative controls, and digital has allowed me to ramp my learning curve as fast as I want to. I definitely wouldn’t trade away my digital workflow.
Along with digital photography, we have the Internet with its massive array of blogs, online portfolios, image sharing and social media sites. The Internet is a massive learning library, and also gives a photographer unparalleled reach in distributing digital photos. For the photography viewer, the net delivers a true abundance of new photos to find with ease. What’s not to like?
The Missing Link
Well, I have a confession… the more I work with photography, the more I think we’re missing something if we experience photographs only in electronic form. What’s the missing link? I believe it’s two sides of the same coin: having a ton of complex and distracting technology involved in my experience of a photograph; and losing out on the simple pleasure of being able literally to get to grips with a photograph when I can hold it in my hand or regard it presented on the wall of the space where I live.
I’m talking about prints, here. Not smartphones, tablets or digital frames. Even these new, portable image display devices are immature for photo presentation purposes, and they don’t cut it for me.
Perhaps because I’m so aware of the underlying technology, I find that looking at photographs on any kind of screen feels like I’m getting the experience second hand. It feels less real somehow. I know a lot about technical matters like bit depth, color gamut, compression, angle of view, pixel density, glossy vs. matte, refresh rate, LED vs. CCFL and a host of others. My digital tools and workflow give me incredible power managing and working on my photographs… but for experiencing them? Not so much. It’s like I’m experiencing at least as much about the technology as I am about the photograph itself.
A screen has a stack of tech behind it that delivers an image. I know the technology, but I don’t warm up to it; I find it fairly cold and mechanical, and those qualities can create overtones. The wrong side of my brain is being engaged, the one that’s all about logic, process and analysis. Plus, all of that tech needs to be set up properly and working well to show an image in a reasonable facsimile of what the artist intended. If it’s not all working right, who knows how a photograph will look on any given screen.
Technology often drags a lot of other distractions along with it, too. Our fast-paced, infotainment-consuming culture – which is heavily enabled by technology – encourages us to have a kind of attention deficit disorder. I know I’m generalizing, but I’ve been around long enough to see that we seem to be increasingly conditioned to consume electronic media in little snippets, and click through quickly to the next thing. Thoughtful regard over time seems rare, replaced instead with small, quick jolts of something new, or whatever the latest “viral” share is this minute. We watch briefly, and maybe hit “like” or “+1”, but after an hour it’s all quickly forgotten.
In the end, I’ve concluded, technology gets in the way of me really seeing photographs the way I want to see them. Something is missing.
So… I’m Also All About the Print
A photograph in print changes this equation in a big way, I believe. That’s why I’m a big fan of old school paper. First, prints command attention. Most of us have limited time, money and wall space, so working with prints immediately brings the need for selection and choice. Only a small number of prints can get onto my wall, and they cost me something. Because of these characteristics of choosing, cost and scarce space, I pay more attention to prints. Only ones that I think are meaningful are going to get up there in the first place. Once they do, because I’m paying attention, those photographs may become even more meaningful, perhaps in ways I didn’t originally expect.
Second, unlike looking at images on electronic displays, a print places the thinnest technical layer we’ve yet discovered between me and a photograph. A piece of paper is one of the oldest technologies in human experience. While modern printing is itself going heavily digital (though traditional methods remain alive), nobody really thinks about the production process or technology when looking at a good print on paper. We just think – wow, that’s a great photograph! Perhaps we’re moved by the power of a scene, or relive personal memories, or get caught up on a moment of imagination. Whatever our response, we think mostly about the photograph and what it means to us. I find in my case, the other side of my brain gets engaged when I’m looking at a print. I respond to it more with intuition, subjectivity, creativity and emotion.
Third, prints let us develop our experience with a photograph. Electronic images come in an endless deluge, and just as quickly scroll off the bottom of the screen, usually never to be seen again. For the most part, we don’t ever live with them. We may look at electronic images, but from what I can tell we don’t often take the time to read or experience them. With a print, we have the opportunity for experience to build up hour after hour, across each day. We live with a print through the different qualities of light, weather and seasons. We can think about it in the different states of mind we go through as life happens. In short, we get to know it.
To me, these kinds of qualities describe the way I want to live with photographs.
Life with Photographs
In fact, “life” is a good way to think about it. As much as I use digital tools, I don’t live in a digital space. I live in a real-world space. A small collection of prints can be present in that space as I go about my life, and the effect is much more lasting than simply seeing some images for a few seconds on a computer screen, or when I glance at a status update on my smartphone. With photographs physically present in the places I live, I can consider them a lot more deeply. My real-world space is where I actually live my life, and I want photographs to be there, too.
A print is a physical object in its own right, so we live with it as it is. If a photograph stays only in electronic form, there’s always the temptation to keep tweaking it, or to click away from it to something else in the stream. Or there’s the concern that seeing it on some other kind of display will render it differently. But a particular print is fixed in time when it gets made. To print is to say, “This is how I want to show this piece of work. Maybe a future print will be different; maybe later I’ll change my mind. But for now this is it.”
Once I have a print, I can hang it on my wall, put in on my desk, slide it into the photo slot in my wallet or open to that portfolio sheet or photo book page, again and again. It’s simply there, and my experience of it is direct. When I look at a print, there’s no technology needed to serve it up. I don’t need to put in my unlock code, power it up, calibrate it, upgrade it to stay compatible, reinstall it after a crash, or recharge its batteries. A print simplifies my life with that photograph.
After thousands of years living with the “technology” of paper, we’re so familiar with it that I think we’re not even really consciously aware of it… and for me that makes for an excellent medium in which to present photographs. It’s just us, the photographs and whatever they mean to us. To my way of thinking, the real proof of a photograph is in the print. In some ways, a photograph doesn’t live until it’s printed. An electronic image is just a template of what a photograph could be once it’s born; the print is the real photograph.
Wrapping Up – Just Print It!
For me, printing photographs is about getting them out of the dusty digital shoebox where they’re rarely seen, or out of the cage of the electronic screen where they’re paraded in a zoo-like stream of 2-second snippets. Printing is about getting photographs back into the world where people really live. It’s about getting quality time with a choice number of photographs that are meaningful art objects in their own right. It’s about living with moments in time that have their own physical tangibility that I can touch and experience… even as I look at what is depicted, taking in and relating to whatever stories those photographs tell.
If you have photographs you want to experience instead of just click or swipe through, get them as prints and put them up where you live. If you’re a photographer who hasn’t really printed much, you may find printing your work, and living with those prints, will give you a whole new perspective on what you photograph and how you do it. Maybe even why you do it.
Digital technology has brought a tremendous explosion of creativity and accessibility to photography. But not everything new is the only good thing; and not everything old school is obsolete and ready for the junk-heap of history. Yes, there’s a lot to learn in printing, or even in selecting a good printing service; and there are some costs. But I believe the pay-off is totally worth it.
Printing a photograph puts life back into the photograph… and puts the photograph back into life. Vive le papier! Print that photograph!