Those who practice the craft
have come to a fork in the road, having to decide whether they will enter
into a new form of expression or find merit in and stick with the former
route. Well, as Yogi Berra once said, "When you see a fork in the
road, take it!" But even if the craftsperson plants a flag in the
new territory there will be those who feel that the old way is better.
That's where resistance comes in, and when a decision has to be
made. Two recent events prompt this discussion, both having to do with
new ways of making prints from photographic images.
The first involves a school in which I've taught over the past 20
years and the administration's decision to close the traditional
darkroom. Many of the teachers at this venerable institution (one of whose
founders was Berenice Abbott) were upset. While there has been declining
enrollment in traditional darkroom classes, many teachers, including myself,
felt that this was a bad move.
While I have not made a print in a chemical darkroom for many years, I
still believe it has a place in a photographic department. Indeed, I think
a darkroom defines a photographic learning environment and the responsibility
of an institution claiming to have a photographic learning center is to
create and maintain such a space. Though silver halide projection printing
might well be declining, it is still a vital part of the art and craft
of photography and a viable form of photographic expression. Abandoning
it and removing it from any photographic department would be a serious
blow to their credibility.
Some teachers felt that even if students later opted to make only digital
prints, the chemical darkroom, and what one learns there about tonal values,
contrast and exposure, is an important first step. I'm not sure
if I agree wholeheartedly with that stance, but I can attest to the fact
that those to whom I've taught digital printing who had traditional
darkroom experience had a real advantage over those who had not. But that's
beside the point. To eliminate teaching traditional printing, or to forget
about platinum, gum bichromate, or even cyanotype printing, would be to
abandon a whole segment of potential photographic creativity and expression.
The second event is news that art shows are increasingly rejecting photographic
prints made with ink jet (or the fancier Giclee appellation), saying that
they are mere copies. This was reported to me by Shutterbug contributors
Larry Berman and Chris Maher, practicing fine art photographers who display
and sell at art shows around the country, and Bill Davis, resident fine
art photographer in Taos, New Mexico. Bill reported a letter that the
arts council in his neck of the woods had sent to photographers saying
that all prints had to be made by traditional means. Bill is an amazing
black and white printer, but only recently began realizing his color work
of many years because of scans and ink jet techniques.
This is, to me, a fairly ignorant stance on the part of art committees,
but one that exists nonetheless. It fails to recognize that making color
prints by digital means is no more or less a copying technique than working
from a negative. It is still in how the print is made, and how the artist
and craftsperson works the image that makes it unique. One could make
dozens of prints from a negative as easily as one could from a scan. Indeed,
if archival quality is the issue one could also argue that ink jet prints
can be made that last as long, or longer, than dye prints from color negatives.
But read the history of photography and this will sound quite familiar.
When photographers were easing out painters, at least in the realist schools,
fine art academies were banning photographers and their work. This debate
began in the 19th century and was only settled by the likes of Stieglitz
and the Photo Secessionists as the brand-new 20th century rolled around.
Now, 100 years later, it sounds like the academies and their art committees
are at it again.