A famous quote by a famous photographer:
“I have often said that the negative is similar to a musician’s score, and the print to the performance of that score. The negative comes to life only when “performed” as a print.” *
This oft repeated and paraphrased saying by Ansel Adams resonates with me, as it were, since I was trained as a musician. I paid my way through music school in part as a professional photographer – no irony there.
A lot of work goes into making a truly good print, whether in the darkroom or by digital means.
Too often, film photographers denigrate digital photography by saying that digital printing is easy. Well, yes, pushing a button is “easier” than rocking trays and washing prints. However, the work, the performance, of a print comes well before pushing the button or dipping the exposed paper into the development tray.
Yes, it’s fairly easy to print a digital file just as it comes out of the camera. But that may (and often should not) be what the photographer wants. It’s not that hard to make a straight print from a negative, either. Get the print exposure right and you’re done.
However, anyone who thinks making an exhibition quality print from a digital file is easier than making the same in a darkroom has never made an exhibition quality print from a digital file. But, I digress … (another blog post someday, perhaps)
Some examples. I am currently printing negatives and digital files made in Iceland in 2013. The light was often flat due to rain and clouds, but the clouds could be spectacular. Here is a “straight”, un-manipulated proof print and the final image after I worked on the performance a bit.
This one is not even that complicated. Make the clouds darker and the church building lighter. A little crop. But, it makes a difference.
Here’s another, straight, then final
Those were not even that extreme. This photograph, from the Texas Church Project, is one of the more complicated I’ve ever printed. I do not have a straight print to show you, you’ll just have to take my word for it. Looking up into the tower of this church, the light is stronger through the windows on the sunny side. Each of the four walls had to be evened out a bit. The most difficult part was the four portrait medallions. Each one required a difference print exposure via dodging or burning. They’re still not exactly the same in the print, but then that would have had an artificial look anyway. But a straight print was only going to show one of the four. Pick one!
* Ansel Adams, The Negative, (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1983), 2.