Transitional Forks In The Road

Editor's Notes

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.