What Is The Final Product?

Back in the days of film, there was a physical object, the film itself. And whether it was a positive slide and thus the end of the line, or a negative which could lead to prints, there was a tangible ‘thing’ that you could point to and say, “That is my photograph”. In the days of digital, we seem to have lost that. Yes we have been the beneficiary of all of digitals advances, such as exact backup copies, cost per shot, maleability in post-production, etc. But I’ve got 46585 pictures in my Lightroom database. Looking at each one for 5 seconds, it would take you over 60 hours to look at them all. Now, how many of them exist as more than magnetic polarity on a couple of hard disks? How many of them do I have prints of?

Lately I’ve been reading books and news stories about ICP finding boxes of Capa’s negatives, or about photographers in the 1920’s purchasing prints from their old timers like Atget. Back then the print was the final product, a final work of art. Variations inherent in the analog photographic process guaranteed a uniqueness to each print. I realize that we’re in a new age, and some could argue we’re in it’s infancy, but I think the subject of what is a photograph, bears some thought. I could sit here and print just one copy of one of my photographs and sell it. A unique work of art. But what if I went and printed 5 of them? Or 50, or 5000, or the extreme case I guess would be that that portrait in Time? Time has a circulation of almost 4 million. Why are each of those photographs worth less than if I had only printed one copy? Isn’t art about getting an emotional response from the viewer? It’s a portrait about communicating the subject to the viewer? Why does there being other pieces of art like it detract from someone’s experience of the work. I guess that’s a big question of Warhol and the people at Christie’s, but I still think it’s an interesting question.

Anyway, lately I’ve had a bit of a conservative streak in me. I want there to be a final product to my work, so finished photographs have started to get printed. Usually 8×12 or so on 11×14 paper. Then they get put in sheet protectors and into print boxes. I don’t know why but it makes me feel better that there is a physical final product at the end of the creative line. Something to show for my work. I guess I’ve just moved the analog further down the line, but it’s still there.

I also notice things, often things I want to change, in printed photographs that I don’t on screen. And I’ve got a good screen and an excellent screen to printer workflow so the two are very close to one another visually. Somehow it’s just different on paper. Some people say the difference is in that light is reflected off of the print, versus being backlit, and that are brains are just more used to processing that sort of visual information. Maybe. That would explain why people print out emails to read them, but I guess it doesn’t explain why chromes look so good through a loupe on a light table. So it becomes an iterative process of print, edit, print. Not the best on ink usage, but it seems to lead to a more satisfying final image.

So prints have become current answer to this question of a final photograph in the digital age. But I’m more than willing to hear other people’s thoughts on the subject, so please, comment away.