In Service of the Print

Winter Trees

‘Not every printer is a great photographer, every great photographer is a great printer’

Ansel Adams

I came across the quote attributed to Ansel Adams a couple of weeks ago and couldn’t help but wonder whether this is really true today. There have been seismic changes in photography and technology in the last 10 or so years – the shift to digital, decent cameras in most mobile phones, great tablet devices and on and on – that makes me wonder what was true when Ansel Adams made his comment is still true today.

How many people feel the need to print? Sure not people who are stock photographers. They deliver their content to the stock agencies digitally and it is further distributed digitally. Wedding photographers? Again another example of a group that are focused on high quality with high productivity, that would most likely today have some if not all content delivered digitally with the remaining photographs and associated wedding books printed by specialty print services. Editorial photographers, similar story – digital delivery to their editors.

Does this mean that these photographers are not ‘great’? Of course not. The successful photographers in these fields have exacting standards that when coupled with creativity and a capacity for hard work has been the foundation for their success.

So is Ansel’s comment still relevant today? I think so but we should modify it slightly – ‘Every great fine art photographer is a great printer’.

It’s never been easier to print your own photographs. Prices of really good ink jet prints have dropped precipitously and are well within the range of most serious amateurs. There are a huge range of ‘substrates’, papers and other specialty surfaces, available for printing. The standard printer drivers and paper profiles give good results without needing tweaking. Finally there are a tremendous range of resources available to help you along the way – George DeWolfe’s Book ‘George DeWolfe’s Digital Photography Fine Print Workshop‘ is one that I would particularly recommend. It’s quite possible then for us all to make good prints and with a commitment to the craft even some great ones.

A Breakthrough: Getting to the Why

What’s your question? We were having a round table discussion with the new head of the research institute.  This was what she had asked the person sitting closest to her, and now were going to go around the table with our answers.

What’s my question? I didn’t have a question.  I had a research project, but not a question. I eventually realized that what she wanted was to know about my research project and I survived the encounter.  As a student I was still at a point of developing an understanding of the tools and a perspective of the field to be able to ask a meaningful question.  It was another couple of years before I reached that point.

This episode came back to me recently when I was thinking about vision, voice and style. I’m getting to a point now where I feel that I can operate the camera reasonably well and occasionally make some images that I’m pleased with. I have a messy process but I’m getting there.  I now have the tools to be able to ‘ask a question’ or in essence to realize my vision.  For me, this is both fun and scary at the same time.  I’ve focused very much on learning how to operate a camera and the basic rules of composition, ‘the how’, that ‘the why’ didn’t enter into my thinking.  It’s hardly surprising really.  We are continually bombarded with technical articles and books and yet there are very few that focus on the why.

Why are the so few books that focus on ‘the why’?  Perhaps because ‘the why’ is much less tangible and less amenable to a cookie cutter approach.  That if you are to go beyond the obvious there needs to be an understanding of who you are, what resonates with you and how you wish to present that to the world.  This is where I find myself now, at the beginning of a new phase and very much looking forward to the journey.

Close to Home

I’ve been reading, or rather, re-reading Stuart Sipahigil’s e-book ‘close to home’ in the last few days. Stuart makes a compelling argument that you often don’t have to look much further than your own backyard to make engaging photographs. Granted I would love my backyard to look like his – see page 10 in the e-book for an example – but I am fortunate to live in New England, an amazing part of the world. We take home for granted and stop seeing what is in front of us everyday and as a result miss opportunities to hone our craft without having to travel thousands of miles. This practice stands you in good stead when you do travel and have an opportunity to make photographs that you would have otherwise been unable to make.

William Neill in a recent post on the luminous landscape blog articulates this point nicely. I think I live in a great place, just south of Boston in the heart of New England. William Neill has live in or very close to Yosemite for over 25 years. Yet it took many visits over the course of a number of years for him to begin to make images that were unique and expressed what he felt. What particularly rings true for me is that the better you know and understand your subject the more likely you are to make a unique image. Focusing on subjects close to home allows us to visit frequently, to experiment with making images at different times of the day, different seasons and different weathers. Making it more likely that you’ll capture the essence of the place.

Stuart describes an exercise in his book of limiting your self to a particular area ‘Close to Home’ in an effort to spark the creative juices. My reaction to Stuart’s exercise rather than to initiate such a project, was to think about how far from home I consider still to be close. I’ve been shooting close to home for the last 3 or so years.  I attended a workshop in Acadia NP and while I had a good time, I didn’t end up with many images that I was happy with.  I realized that I needed to put some time in behind the camera if I’m to stand a chance of getting the images that I hope to make.  After 3 years of working the same subjects in different seasons, weather and light, I now feel that I’m likely to get reasonable images when I venture farther afield.  The time is right for me to expand what I consider to be my home territory. After some consideration I decided that for me ‘home’ is now up to an hours drive or about 50 miles for morning shoots and perhaps 2 hours or 100 miles for evening shoots. This gives me an enormous range of potential subjects that I could explore. To help me focus I am going to begin a couple of projects – one of which is to get more images of Boston. Even though I live close to the city and travel there every day, I have very few images that go beyond the standard tourist shots. This is the year that I will work to build my Boston portfolio – watch this space!