Monday, June 28, 2010

Paper and Flame

(Silver gelatin fiber print of half-frame enlargement)

I was once again thinking about the photographic image (a subject my thoughts frequently return to), this time in terms of an art object -- the "objet de art" frequently found in the art-speak-laden writings of reviewers and critics -- and once again return to the conclusion that the art object, as the "finished" form of the abstract photographic image, takes on the attributes of the physical medium within which it is incarnated.

Much, if not all, of the photography that I am privileged to witness is in the form of the self-illuminating screen of a netbook computer, from gallery websites, discussion forums, blogs -- and my own digital photography. I can only imagine how these remote images, teleported into my personal space via the magic of subatomic particles and waves of energy, might appear as silver gelatin prints behind glass, carefully illuminated upon the walls of a gallery space, like I have seen at places such as the Andrew Smith Gallery in Santa Fe, NM; in contrast to the more primitive attempts at fine art photography that are found to be the product of my own darkroom work.

But the backlit LCD screen of a computer is not the same as the frontally-illuminated surface of a fiber-based silver print. They have different optical properties; they are different media entirely; one of paper, the other of flame.

There remains, within the world of traditional photography (and it may come as a surprise to some to know that such a world still exists), an appreciation for the "fine art" (a term of dubious provenance, but, to quote Bert Reynolds in the film "Semi-Tough", " will know it when you get it...") fiber-based silver gelatin print. This is not mere elite snobbery masquerading as art appreciation, like a pair of shoes or handbag would be esteemed of certain value merely for the brand name affixed there upon. The fiber-based, silver gelatin black and white print is a complete viewing system, when engineered to be coupled to a specific indirect lighting source, such as one would find in a well-engineered gallery space; as complete of a system of image display as that found on an iPad, netbook or laptop computer display, for example.

The darkroom practitioner has the task of achieving a finished print, sufficient to satisfy his artistic vision, within the parameters of the particular quality of light that the finish print will be displayed under. The printer makes test prints during the printing process that, when sufficiently dried (yes, wet prints appear brighter and of different contrast as compared to a fully dried print), will achieve one's desired tonality when viewed under specific lighting conditions. In daylight illumination a print will appear higher in contrast and brighter in appearance than when viewed under incandescent lighting, for example; and fluorescent lighting gives a different effect entirely, considering that some photographic papers incorporate optical brightners that flouresce under UV light.

The photographic print coupled with its source of illumination functions as a complete reflective imaging system; the specific surface properties of the print's support paper, emulsion and the application of chemical toning are modulated by the spectrum and quality of illumination provided by the light source itself.

The photographic print is a mirror, both figuratively and literally; figuratively because the image contained therein subjectively mirrors the objective world from which it was derived; literally because the viewing mechanism of the photographic print involves the reflection of ambient light, from the print's immediate environs, upon the surface of the print. This dual nature of the print-as-mirror represents an intrinsic dilemma to the darkroom craftsman because, while desiring to reflect the photographer's deepest intents fully revealed upon the delicate paper's surface, the types of photographic prints which possess the widest tonality -- glossy-finished papers -- themselves become too-efficient light reflectors, obscuring the emulsion's image contained therein; conversely, prints that posses the least problems with reflectivity and glare -- matte-finished papers -- have the narrowest tonal range, the most subdued dynamic range. The reality of the darkroom craftsman is that the choice of one's materials as a silver gelatin printer are always a compromise between image tonal range and surface reflectivity.

Though subjective differences are as varied as there are individual artists, many printers have come to some sort of ad hoc, common agreement that the air-dried, glossy-finished, fiber-based print represents the finest balance between these competing interests of tonal range, surface finish and reflectivity. There are, however, additional subtleties associated with choosing the right print paper (and the available range of choice in printing papers has steadily diminished in recent years). The weight of paper (single or double weight), the coloration of the background support (brilliant white or a creamier tone), the coloration of the emulsion itself (warm or cold toned) in response to a variety of developers and the degree to which the emulsion's coloration responds to post-development chemical toning (sepia, selenium, gold, etc.) all become available as modulators of one's creative intent.

Within the world of silver gelatin printing there are also various opinions on how best to arrive at optimal image contrast (as determined by individual artistic taste, not some objective sensitometric measurement) relative to the dictates of each individual image; some argue that graded papers deliver the widest tonal range, but such a choice locks one in to fixed contrast grades; while others argue that variable-contrast papers offer wider flexibility with nearly the same tonal range (variable contrast papers offer a variety of print contrasts based on the color spectrum of the printing light source being used, modulated using either colored filters or a multi-color printing head). Within the choice of variable contrast papers there are also a variety of methods for achieving the best tonal range, including "split-grade printing," wherein the print's exposure is made up of a combination of two separate timed exposures, one at the lowest contrast grade and the other at the highest contrast grade, achieving a fineness of print contrast unachievable with colored filters of specific contrast grades.

All of this minutiae of information contained within the craft of the silver gelatin print means very little to the uninformed initiate, where the physical qualities of the print medium, and the abstract image contained therein, work together in a unity of purpose as a finished work; they may like the image, or not, but may not know why; it either works, or it doesn't. For the silver gelatin aficionado, a print may be appreciated for its surface finish, dynamic range and tonality, while the subject matter may in fact disappoint; the two aspects of the photograph (as abstract image and physical art object) can coexist yet function separately.

The fact that photography is increasingly being viewed through the electronic display screen is a given; what is perhaps less appreciated is the affect this new photographic media has made upon the appreciation of photography, especially black and white.

There are a variety of electronic display technologies (CRT, LCD, LED, OLED, etc.), and much variation in the quality of implementation of these technologies (including intrinsic manufacturing differences, coupled with local display preferences and individual calibration variations), all of which offer such a variety of viewing experience that the photographer, working strictly within traditional printing methods, may not be prepared for the seeming lack of control over the final image quality that comes with using these new communication tools.

The electronic image is a light source, not a mirror of some physical environ; like primordial fire it is self-illuminating, and therefore as much of a unique medium of display as the light source-coupled reflective print is a unique medium. Just as the silver gelatin printer has to fashion his work to be optimally viewed under a specific spectrum and intensity of light (yet cannot guarantee in actual practice that to be the case, with the exception of those privileged few who work in direct union with a specific gallery), so too the contemporary photographer has to fashion his digital image to be viewed under a wide variety of view-screen settings; yet, too, cannot guarantee the quality of the final results. The effect of this uncertainty has been that, while mainstream, successful photographers have had to rely upon curatorial guidance to guarantee a consistent gallery viewing experience, there are no such guarantees today, unless the viewer go to the trouble of accurate monitor calibration -- which only the aficionado would do.

The net effect of this transition to new display media places much temptation upon the photographer to bypass the subtleties of the finely finished printed image and instead pursue the visual photographic gimmick, subtle sophistication exchanged for loud, bright and shocking. This comes as no surprise to us when we consider the nature of the electronic display is essentially that of a bright light source, fire itself, intrinsically glaring, visually loud and shocking, like television itself, its progenitor.

I enjoy viewing photographic images on my computer's screen; but I also know that this is not the same experience as viewing the subtleties of the photographic print, in person. In some ways, the reflective print disappoints; it does not emit its own light, instead merely reflects that of its environs. Within a dark room it is all but invisible, whereas the computer's screen illuminates the otherwise darkened room, overwhelming in its presence. To illuminate a print such that it is as bright as the well-tuned electronic display would drown out all but the finest of crafted prints in a sea of glare and harshness; it would lose it subtlety. Photographic prints don't shout, they whisper. And sometimes we come to find out that we cannot hear their whisper, for our aesthetic eye has been so attuned to the loudness of the electronic display's visual volume, its blare and glare.

Prints are a medium of the past, as much as typewritten pages are to the written word. Kodak, the Great Yellow Father of modern photographic materials, ceased manufacture of black & white silver gelatin print paper in 2005, including Azo, the silver-chloride contact printing paper that had been in continual production since 1895. As their choice of offerings becomes thinner, we are reminded that there is a quietness required for the silver gelatin print's fullest appreciation, like sitting meditatively at lakeshore's edge, devoid of the distractions of the mechanical and manmade, listening for the invisible hand of the wind upon the water, the sound of birds distant or insects nearby, quiet enough to hear one's own heartbeat, the rhythm of life itself. We are required to linger, for a time, in order for the print's fullest effect to be absorbed. A quick scan, say 1/30 of a second, as one would view an electronic display, is entirely insufficient. The photographic print is not the supernatural-like fire of the TV or computer screen, thrown into one's immediacy for quick reaction, like fire upon the back wall of some primordial cave, but rather becomes part of one's immediate personal space, requiring not a visceral, physical spasm, but an internal, contemplative, emotive response. It is within this context that photography, its tools and accoutrements, has fundamentally changed; it is a new medium entirely, distinct from the past, truly a brave new world.


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