Tuesday, March 5, 2019

“Here’s a Thought”

Warning: grumpy post follows.
Brooks Jensen is publisher, editor, designer, and probably janitor of the magagine “Lenswork.”  There is a lot to admire about him.  He and his wife thought up the idea of Lenswork and made it happen – and keep making it happen – with a barrage of marketing ideas, some luck, and a whole lot of hard work.  They moved Lenswork from a home-printed rag one step above a memeographed newsletter to a very high quality, tri-tone printed monthly with state-of-the-art reproductions of photographs and a high-quality digital edition that even publishes color.  He does workshops on project development, has a podcast and even gets some of his own photography done.
He writes a column for Lenswork and his latest project is a “usually daily” short video – a minute or less – called “Here’s a Thought” – available free to Lenswork subscribers. 
All that said – his field of view on photography is very narrow and he is very prone to grabbing an idea and pushing it to what I consider an outlandish extreme.  Which statement brings me to the grumpy part.
I watched a sample edition of “Here’s a Thought” in which he was discussing how big a print can be made from a given sized negative (and, by extension, a given sized digital file.)  His going in position is that a well-exposed and carefully developed negative can make a 3x print.  That is, a 2 ¼ square negative could be enlarged to 6 ¾ x 6 ¾, a 35mm negative to about 3 x 4 ½ inches.  A fine negative can go up to 4x and an exceptional negative to 5x.  Beyond that the smooth mid-tones begin to break up, the grain begins to show, the print isn’t critically sharp.
He has just dismissed nearly every photograph not made from a 4x5 or larger negative.   Cartier-Bresson, Kertesz, Eugene Smith, Helen Levitt, Eisenstadt, Boubat, Doisneau, Ronis, Mary Randlett  – you folks all missed the boat.  I’m sorry (no I’m really not) to say that I have seen spectacular prints – not only content but print quality – made by each of these folks and many others in sizes way more than 5x.   Even some of mine look pretty good.
The problem here tracks back to an observation made by Ted Orland in the book “Art and Fear”.  Orland was Ansel Adams' printer for several years and his own photographs were, by his own statement, baseline west coast, tack-sharp, 10-zones, fine-grain prints with lens-cap-to-horizon depth of field.  But then, in a blinding lightning bolt of insight, he realized that he doesn’t lead a tack-sharp, 10-zone, fine-grain life so that kind of print does not express what he wants from his photography.
All Jensen had to do was to add “To make the kind of prints I want to make …” to the beginning of his pontifical statement to make it an expression of his taste rather than a sweeping generalization.
I am often annoyed by his apparently narrow view of photography but this one really got me.

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