I have no idea where this blog post is going. There are several, intertwined issues involved and getting them braided in a way that makes sense isn’t going to be easy. A journalist friend, Elliot Marple, was noted for the clarity of his writing. He rated his essays by the number of “trips through the meat grinder”. At the end of the post I’ll let you know how many trips this one took.
Thread #1: A friend, photographer with a razor-sharp eye who is also a master printer, was asked to review the work of an aspiring (but not by any means beginner) street photographer. When said friend noted that many of the photographs were interesting but that the prints were diminished by blown out highlights, blocked up shadows and muddy midtones. The haughty response was that content was all important and print quality is merely craft that doesn’t matter.
Thread #2: Blue Sky Gallery in Portland Oregon recently showed still photographs, films, and books by Robert Frank. The announcement of the show states:
Conceived by Robert Frank and Gerhard Steidl, this exhibition shows Frank’s work in photos, books, and films in a direct, accessible manner. Frank’s images are printed on sheets of newsprint and hung on the walls or from the ceiling. Frank’s films and videos, which are so often overshadowed by his photographic work, are shown on small portable “beamers” projecting them directly onto the walls. Finally, the exhibition will be disposed of after display, thus circumventing the normal cycle of speculation and consumption in the art market. When the idea for this pop-up show first reached Frank in his small, crooked house in the Canadian village of Mabou, he said: “Cheap, quick, and dirty, that’s how I like it!”
Well, that’s not exactly how it is.
The prints are not on newsprint. However a copy of Süddeutsche Zeitung, in which the prints are on newsprint, is on display in the gallery. The reproductions are no better than you would expect in a newspaper.
The work in this show is ink-jet printed on long strips of semi-gloss paper. Print quality is scattered — from barely ok to what I would regard as throw-away.
I understand, even applaud, the emphasis on availability as opposed to the creation of precious objects only seen by the elite in upscale galleries. On the other hand — I question the assumption that “cheap, quick, and dirty” is an appropriate display strategy. It would have been pretty easy and not at all expensive to tweak the digital files and produce high-quality digital prints. Would that have diminished their availability? No. Would that have made them more compelling? Yes. Would that have compromised the notion of destroying the prints after the show comes down? No — at least not significantly since the digital files would be available to print them again for the next venue in which the show will be shown. (That practice, however, strikes me as pretentious.)
The prints are accompanied by copies of the many small books that Frank produced in his long career. I had no idea how many! In most cases the reproductions in the books, while smaller, are more compelling than the prints on the wall.
Thread #3: Also in Portland, the Art Museum was simultaneously showing early (1938-41) photographs of the Portland river front by Minor White. The great (and I say “great” even though I’m not a fan of his work) Minor White lived and worked in Portland from the late 30s to the early 50s. Before he moved to the abstract style for which he is best known he did a lot of more documentary work. Among other things, he photographed the Portland riverfront and the historic downtown in Portland for the WPA.
Work from that period was on display in the photography gallery at PAM. His riverfront work was up then and the downtown work later that spring.
What is obvious, at least to me, in the riverfront work is that even then White was obsessed with the shapes, the lines, the fall of light on an object as opposed to what the scene showed. With the exception of perhaps four portraits they are totally without living creatures. They see more than a bit sterile to me. What is also obvious is that he was a superb printer!
Thread #4: I subscribe to mydailyphotograph.com — a service of the wonderful Duncan Miller Gallery in Santa Monica. Each day they post a few photographs — one “vintage”, one “emerging” and one or more just because. Most of the “vintage” are not by the top tier photographers but sometimes are. Recently an 8x10 of Margaret Bourke-White’s “Gold Miners, Johannesburg” was listed at $1500, discounted to $950 as their daily bargain. In the same post the “emerging” photograph was a 13x19, ink-jet print of part of the roof and dome of a 1950s vista dome passenger rail car listed at $450 discounted to $400.
Thread #5: Each year I go to the BFA show for graduates of the Cornish College of the Arts and to the certificate-completion show at Photographic Center Northwest. There is a little something for nearly everybody at both of these shows but there is a common thread — the pieces, by hatchling artists without a non-academic show or publication to their name, are prices from several hundred to a couple of thousand dollars.
Thread #6: A photographer in Portland (name on request) makes sensitive, exquisite studio portraits, still lifes, and nudes. He sells them for modest sums, $225 for the platinums and a bit more for the one-of-a-kind wet plate and polymer prints. A second Portland photographer (name on request) does environmental portraits of his friends and neighbors with an 8x10 view camera and contact prints them. I don’t know how he prices his prints — he doesn’t seem to be very interesting in selling.
OK — here goes. There are three issues tangled together here: one is the how art and craft interact in photography, the second is the setting of prices, and the third is how fame influences prices.
How art and craft interact: I don’t know where the “art” and the “craft” collide in photography — or painting, or sculpture, or drawing, or music composition, or music performance, or dance or … For everything but photography my guess is that “art” is seeing or hearing the finished piece in your mind and “craft” is the ability to make the reality look or sound like that. Perhaps the practice of photography as done with a large format camera on a tripod emphasizing pre-visualization of the print fits that definition as well. Maybe it doesn’t even have to be a large format camera — Mary Randlett did pretty well with 35mm.
For the kind of photography that I do it seems to me that “art” occurs twice. The first bit is the ability to see what is before me and get it on a negative before it vanishes. Oh, wait — if I don’t have the craft of camera handling down to muscle memory then how clearly I see what is before me probably doesn’t matter because it doesn’t hang around long enough for me to fumble about with camera settings before I record it.
Second is looking at the contact sheet and deciding which frame should be printed — and visualizing what the finished print should look like. Then craft takes over — in the darkroom or on the computer. Is there room for changing your concept in mid-craft? You bet — another collision with art.
I often wonder how photographers such as Imogen Cunningham could work with a printer without standing over the printer’s shoulder and directing each step. Even Ansel Adams, with his “the negative is the score and the print is the performance” seemed to deal successfully with a printer. Perhaps he was willing to accept Ted Orland’s or Al Weber’s performance in the same way that a composer accepts the performance of his or her music by another musician. Perhaps the photographer has worked with the printer for so long that the printer has absorbed the photographer’s way of seeing. Perhaps the photographer and the printer should both sign the finished piece. Actually, that sounds like a very good idea to me.
What I do know about the collision of art and craft in photography is that craft does matter. The ability to look at a negative or a work print or a raw file and decide how you want it to look is art. Making it “look like that” is craft and without the craft at your fingertips or your printer’s fingertips it is going to take a long time to do so.
Saying that you don’t care about craft is a cop out unless (and this is a very big “unless”) you have good enough chops to make if look any way you damn well please and you choose to make it look it look like that. Salvador Dali once noted “: Learn to draw and paint like an old master. … then you can do whatever you want.” Dali could choose to paint like Rev. Howard Finster but certainly not vice-versa.
The aspiring photographer in Thread 1 has neither the keenness of vision (unlike Robert Frank) to make the content strong enough to carry the day nor the chops (unlike Minor White) to make the prints beautiful enough to carry the day. (I’ve seen quite a few of his prints.) My guess is that Robert Frank does have the chops — and that his choice for the appearance of the prints in this show reflects both his very gritty view of the world and using them to reflect his dystopian approach to recording shape, line, light and shadow.
John Barth said (slightly paraphrased) “My feeling about technique in art is that it has about the same value as technique in lovemaking. Heartfelt ineptitude has its appeal and so does heartless skill; but success comes with PASSIONATE VIRTUOSITY.”
While I understand and certainly admire both the work of Robert Frank and Minor White I would, in simplistic terms, place White on the “heartless skill” side of the fence. I wish I could place Frank on the “heartfelt ineptitude” side but I cannot because I believe he has the chops to make a splendid print but chooses not to do so . While I’m being simplistic I’ll place both of the photographers in Thread 6 and the friend mentioned in Thread 1 as “PASSIONATE VIRTUOSOS”
How fame influences prices: The short answer is “a lot” (no kidding). Photographs are an oddity in the art world (no kidding again). My art purchase budget does not include popping $950 for the Margaret Bourke-White “Gold Miners” — no matter how much I admire that image (a lot). Would I be equally happy with a modern silver print of that negative at, say, $200? You bet. I happen to have a beautifully printed book with an approximately 8x10 reproduction of that print in it. If I ripped that page out of the book (an immoral act in my opinion) matted and framed it and put it on the wall could I tell the difference between it and a silver print? Well, yes — with a careful look. Would I admire it as much as I would the silver print? Well, very nearly — every time I walked by it.
That’s not the case with other mediums — at least not that clear a case. Part of that, of course, is that a modern silver print of “Gold Miners” would be indistinguishable from the original — at least to the naked eye — at least to my naked eye. Moreover, the making of such a copy would be relatively inexpensive, albeit requiring the skill of a master printer to do so. Would the copy carry the same price tag as the original? Of course not.
Paintings, well not so much. Would a skilled copy of “Girl with a Pearl Earring” carry the same impact as Vermeer’s original? Well, when art museums in the United States were being established they often sent copy artists to European museums to copy famous paintings that were unavailable to them. Many of these very expensive copies are still hanging in sundry prestigious museums and the few I’ve seen look pretty good. Would they hold up well when hung next to the original? I’d love to find out. Would the auction price or insured value be as much as the original? Of course not.
Meat grinder count is up to six and I’m still not satisfied with how it wound up but I’m going to post it anyway.