A couple of years ago I had a few prints in a group show along with a gaggle of other local photographers, several of which are friends from Group f/5.6 (www.groupf56.com if you are interested – or even if you aren’t.) One of these friends, looking through the show, said to me “Well, your photographs are all about content and not print quality.” I was rather taken aback since I happened to think that the prints I had hung were pretty well made. However, when I looked carefully at his prints (he is a very good printer indeed) I believe that I understood what he meant.
To me, print quality is a means in the service of better expressing what I want the print to show. To him, print quality is an end – his goal is to produce a print of eye-popping quality and stunning size. The content is secondary.
Barbara and I saw the traveling show of “late” Edward Weston prints at the Art Institute of Chicago. Frankly, many of his prints strike me as kind of sterile – though spectacularly well printed. Brett Weston printed many of the prints in this show under his father’s supervision. [How two such towering egos could work together so closely and seemingly so amicably has always been a puzzle to me.] One such featured the surface of a shallow salt-water pond. Brett Weston had rendered the surface of the water with such skill that it seemed as if it would drip off the bottom of the frame. The surface itself, the leaves floating upon it, the aquatic weeds growing beneath it were all in their places. The bed of the pond was “zone I dancing with zone II” as Ralph Gibson says. I was dazzled. Barbara caught up with me, looked at this print, muttered appreciatively – and walked on. Talking about it later, we concluded that you have to know how hard it would be to do that before it is dazzling.
There is music like that. The Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto (known as Rack 3 to pianists) is a technical tour-de-force but at least to my ear not as emotionally engaging as numbers 1 and 2. Not that any of them are within reach to most pianists. Perhaps we’re back to the Barth quotation about PASSIONATE VIRTUOSITY.