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Printing a Negative: let’s be reasonable please . . .

Updated: Mar 24

Printing a Negative: let’s be reasonable please . . .



In an interview Brett Weston said, “Printing is the ultimate moment of truth in photography.” A lot of “artist” photographers say this, or used to say it. At RIT, I heard a lot of this “print is what photography is all about” discourse. I still hear it today. I never agreed with it. It’s not a reasonable view.


Consider this quote by Walter Rosenblum:


Printing the negative begins a creative struggle, because to give life to the silver emulsion on the paper is an endlessly fascinating challenge. In the darkroom, one enters a different world, moving between myth and reality, creating something that never existed before outside of the photographer's imagination.




[T]here is one definite rule that should be followed in the darkroom. . . one should always exhaust every possibility in terms of paper, developers, and exposure in order to produce a fine print.


This is such utter nonsense that it’s insulting.


Here’s another printing story, this time by Fred Picker:


I remember clearly that we found the fifteen second strip too weak and the eighteen too strong. So we made full 8x10 pilot prints at sixteen and seventeen seconds.  . . . Seventeen was still a bit weak, so we tried full prints at 17.3 and 17.6 seconds. We finally settled on an exposure of 17.3. Laugh if you want, but the sharper-eyed students could really see the difference in the high values. It was snow.


More nonsense.


Why? Because it’s silly and unnecessary to spend hour after hour to make a print if the subject is seen properly.


Of course these people are talking about “fine prints.” What’s a fine print? It’s a “west-coast school” phenomenon – simply the most contrasty print that shows most of the tones. For either the haphazard methods of Wynn Bullock, the Weston’s development by inspection, or the endless note taking of Ansel Adams, that was [is] the west coast goal - the most contrasty print that shows most of the tones. And to further that end, these priests and their disciples spend endless hours to make one print. And lots of times it’s done without any thinking about whether that form even fits the content; that is, whether or not a contrasty print is appropriate. The thinking is that Ansel Adams did it, it must be right. He did it so I’ll do it . . . (Much of Adams’ Yosemite work is lovely. That isn’t the point. The point is that too many of his admirers don’t think. They follow.)


There’s no reason endlessly labor simply to print a negative. If some of these “experts” knew what it takes to be able draw or paint well, they wouldn’t evangelize about these things.


Drawing And Painting Take Time - Legitimately


In art college, we learned craft. The craft of drawing, painting, printmaking – all of those disciplines. One day in Art Principles class, the teacher had us bring in a paper shopping bag. We were instructed to crumple it into a ball, uncrumple it, stand it up, and draw it. And draw it 14” x 18” with only an ebony pencil and a kneaded eraser. The goal: to have the drawing of the crumpled paper bag unmistakably “feel” like a crumpled paper bag. Ever try it? It’s very difficult to do. For a good artist it takes hours.[1] Lots of students cried in those Art Principles critiques.


The word artist is meant here objectively. One who understands and employs the craft and discipline of visual art, someone who draws or paints. Not someone who assembles a quilt creatively, or someone who is a good cook. An Artist is meant as someone who uses artists’ materials and creates a piece of art from nothing. It’s an objective term.


An artist – a painter for example – creates everything in a picture: the line quality, proportion, perspective, tonal range, texture, color, the organization (composition) – everything. If she’s a good craftsman, elements in the painting feel like tree branches, water, or hair, or skin, or granite. If he’s lousy, it doesn’t. It’s very obvious if he’s lousy - everything looks and feels like mud.


Without good command of the materials, an artist can’t do much. But good craft in art doesn’t guarantee an expressive piece. Some paintings are crafted well, but they’re lifeless, dead. And good craftsmen who try to force feeling into their work fare no better; like Norman Rockwell – well crafted saccharine.


Maybe Andrew Wyeth was wildly popular because he makes a tree branch feel like wood, and he put something else in there too . . . Maybe he really did deserve all those accolades.


The point is that artists create. It’s simply a fact that they quantitatively create everything from nothing. (That’s different from a good cook who makes fried eggs creatively.) And for an artist, doing it properly takes time. It’s really very easy to know when art is done badly - just as easy as knowing when a trumpet player is blowing sour notes. It’s painful.


(What about abstract expressionists who say they don’t need to draw like Andrew Wyeth does? . . . that attention to technique lessens their creativity? They’re kidding themselves. They don’t do it because they can’t do it.)


For an artist with a pencil, or watercolors, or oils, or tempera, or an etching needle; getting fabric to look and feel like fabric does take time. And artists properly expend time and ability to achieve that, until freshly ironed cotton looks and feels like freshly ironed cotton. If the artist doesn’t do that, the piece fails. That’s not true with photography. Fabric is already fabric in photographs - automatically. Print a good negative competently and that’s plenty good enough. The camera and the film make the image convincing – automatically. That job is already done. Spending hours printing doesn’t help.


What a photographer must do is to see it properly.


Photography Is Seeing And Not Much Else


Lord Snowden was a British photographer (married to Princess Margaret). He said, “Most of us in the old days went into photography because we couldn’t draw.” Amen.


Photographers don’t create like artists do, they see. That’s all they do. And photographs can be very exciting. A beautiful Minor White or Atget photograph is much more enriching than a Norman Rockwell or Edward Hopper painting. But photography and art are completely different animals. They depend on different ingredients for success. Photographers don’t create a picture from nothing. They use something that’s already there, and hopefully they see it convincingly.


Here’s a brutal truth. Most photographers cannot see the world compellingly and their pictures are not very good. They spend days in darkrooms making prints because they think that taking all that time makes them equal to an artist with a pencil - an artist who legitimately needs 20 minutes to convincingly draw a tree branch. So these photographers labor exhaustively in their darkrooms because then - they’re “artists.” I’ve seen hundreds of those overworked prints: 5 star hamburgers. You don’t need to spend 3 hours making a hamburger.


Photographers aren’t artists. Artists must command about 6 to 10 hard-earned skills to paint or draw effectively. Photography depends on one very specific element - Seeing. An 11 year old girl who loves horses may take a very moving photograph of a horse that an “expert” with decades of experience is incapable of. How? Because she feels it more, so she sees it better. But no 11 year-old will ever paint like Caravaggio, or Rembrandt, or Duhrer. Calling photography “art” is an insult to people who can paint and draw well. Photography can be stirring, eminently beautiful, and breathtaking. But it isn’t “art” like painting and drawing is.


Here’s another brutal truth. Photography is pretty easy. Even putting digital aside, and even for a photographer who can see; photography is much easier than painting or drawing. It’s literally child’s play. You see an interesting subject, and use the camera to take the picture in an instant. Contrary to Brett Weston’s decree, a camera is not just like a violin. A violin is useless if you can’t play it, and it takes years to learn how to play it. A 3 year-old can use a camera. Mr Weston was trying to convince himself more than us.


Eugene Atget


Here’s what Berenice Abbot said about Atget:


Atget’s compositions were just about perfect. . . . [First], I loved his insight and flawless judgment of what was worth photographing. Second, he knew absolutely where to put his camera. That has to be very selective. You can put it in a thousand places - -  for the same subject.


Atget was the penultimate creative photographer. He knew what was worth photographing - what was important, and he knew how to organize the elements in the frame - where to put the camera. Atget concentrated on how to see, the only indispensable skill.


Was Atget a “Master Printer”? Certainly not. Some of the prints are a mess – vignetting, clamp marks, visible notations, cracks in the emulsion; harsh sunlit scenes with that blue-sensitive film producing downright ugly print tones. If he didn’t use a view camera and contact print the glass plates, his prints would be even worse. But it doesn’t matter. Atget was a master at what was important – seeing. His seeing was so powerful that the questionable print quality doesn’t matter. No one cares.


David Vestal wrote that “only weak pictures need perfection, strong ones can stand considerable flaws.” Amen.


I think of Charles Pratt’s work. His seeing was resonant and certain, and he printed the negatives perfectly well enough. That’s more than adequate. Was he a master printer? I neither know nor care. (What the devil is a “master printer” anyway? Someone who prints like Ansel Adams?)


In Pratt’s work, the harsh D-76 high value compression is very evident. With better film developer, better paper, and cold light, the prints would be better. It’s a fact. So what? It’s irrelevant. Pratt could wonderfully see. His prints suited his pictures just fine. They were plenty good enough. We are overcome by what he was saying. That’s enough.


Printing is unimportant? No, it’s important. The negative has to exposed and developed properly, and must be printed properly; just as music must be played properly. But if the picture is seen well, and the negative is good, you can make a final print without much fuss. Just as an expressive piano piece can stand (should have?) a few mistakes - even a lousy negative makes a good enough print if the picture is seen well. And an ideal negative isn’t that difficult to make anyway . . .


But – but - if someone thinks that a particular photograph depends on a .3 second exposure difference for the proper print tone for snow, it’s a safe bet that the seeing was lousy, and that the picture is pretty damn uninteresting. Any individual element in any print simply isn’t that important. If you see the original subject powerfully, it’s enough to just get the contrast and overall depth of tone correct. Leave it. It’s probably plenty good enough.[2] And even in a downright mediocre print, the message still gets through anyway.


Let’s Really Piss Some People Off . . .


The west coast clerics will reel in horror reading this. That’s their right of course. But a lot of those California Maharishis made – and make – a lot of nicely printed paralyzingly dull pictures.


For well over half a century, hoards of American photographers have followed Adams and Weston as the founding fathers of “art photography.” They’ve blindly followed. These 2 guys were good photographers but they certainly weren’t divine incarnations. A lot of their recognized work is unremarkable, a fact cloaked by the passage of time, and this “art-photography” distortion. (What do you think – that they never made the same judgment errors that you make?)


Almost all of Ansel Adams’s non-Yosemite work is pretty unremarkable. It’s about photography, not his experience. Edward Weston’s Leaves of Grass and much of the Guggenheim work is commonplace too, often tedious. The Seeing is unremarkable, though the print quality is very good.


Are you carefully considering the pictures you look at? Do you understanding what you’re seeing? - or are you just parroting the praise of a critic, author, or gallery owner, or curator, former west-coast assistant, PBS commentator, former nurse, or Ansel Adams’ former refuse hauler – and then deciding who is an infallible Master?[3] I always admired Caponigro for eschewing that west-coast constraint and searching instead for his own truth.


“West coast” prints? Well, yes, they’re all the contrastiest print that shows most of the tones. And the lemmings spend hours and hours making them. And people who don’t know what they’re talking about will tell you that pictures resonate emotionally simply because they’re laboriously printed.[4] A colossal inaccuracy: someone honoring a naked emperor.


I prefer prints that show no effort to those that shout ‘difficult’! or ‘masterpiece’! Those are distractions. They are also good for sales to collectors . . .. Many dealers, collectors, curators, and other dilettantes have a weakness for spectacular prints, and can’t see good prints that aren’t noisy.     

David Vestal




See the  world as a compelling universe. Don’t spend valuable time printing commonplace pictures. Give real artists credit for being artists, don’t insult them with darkroom gospels. See well and it won’t matter. A stunning Atget photograph is more enriching than most paintings anyway. Ja?




[1] See Andrew Wyeth’s work for examples of an artist as a good craftsman. Look at Hopper up close for an example of a bad one.

[2] Fred Picker’s Zone VI company sold expensive stabilizing equipment that made this pointless fastidiousness possible. Zone VI also sold paper. Rather than pure photographic excellence, the smell of profits influenced Picker’s emphasis on making 3 pilot prints .3 seconds apart..

[3] Vic Damone had an infinitely better singing voice than Frank Sinatra. But Sinatra is much better known. Being famous doesn’t count for much. Jackson Pollock is famous too; that should tell you plenty.

[4] Read the text in Ansel Adams, An American Place, 1936; Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, 1983.

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