The Importance of Printing Your Work

One of the oft neglected parts of photography in the digital age - even for film photographers - is the actual creation of the tangible object - the photographic print.


I'm not a luddite, in any sense of the word. Technology has had hugely beneficial impacts on enabling photographers to achieve results that would never have been possible in the past. For example, mirror lockup, followed by optical image stabilisation and electronic shutters all allow far greater sharpness in their own way for long exposures that previously couldn't be taken as sharply as they can today. And technology has allowed for the democratisation of photography, so that it's not the preserve of the few.


On the other hand, it seems now, more than ever, photographs never make it into their essential end form - the print - because of the technology available to instantly view your images. When you can so immediately view image upon image on bigger, and better screens, what is the point of printing your work - or having it printed? The end goal for most low level hobbyist practitioners of photography, or for the happy travel snapper, is to see the image - whatever the form. Take it, see it, share it, forget about it.


That's all very well and good and I think sites like Instagram, Flickr, Tumblr and so on are a wonderful resource for gathering inspiration and making your audience aware of your work, and I leverage at least one of those platforms myself, don't get me wrong. However, there's getting your image out there, and then there's getting your image on paper.


The whole printing process is an extension of the darkroom - both development and printing use similar techniques. Before digital "lightwriters", the workflow was all manual, using fully analog techniques - enlarger, chemistry, photographic paper, and negatives. In the case of amateur photographers whose hobby this was, this was a labour of love, in basements, cellars, attics, sheds, anywhere that could be made light-tight for the important processes of developing the film and then printing onto photographic paper. You didn't have Photoshop or Lightroom to make adjustments either. You used physical tools, for instance, to restrict the light or enhance the light (dodging and burning), masks (or if you were really brutal, scissors) to crop your negatives for printing and chemicals to tone your prints.


It was an incredibly tactile process.


At the end of it, you literally watched your creation form on the paper as the chemicals did their work, like a baby being born - a special, magical moment, after a long, arduous labour of love.


And those prints would be mounted and framed (in the case of the good shots that came off well), and hung or sold. But they would be looked at, felt, smelt. There's a depth of sensation with a photographic print that you cannot replicate on a screen. The sheer organic nature of the print actually forming in the paper, being a part of the paper, not ink sprayed onto paper (although "giclée" seems to be more and more frequently being used instead of chromogenic printing), adds a depth to the image that is irreproducible elsewhere.


Nowadays, little has actually changed in the world of c-type printing. The paper is still exposed and developed using the same chemistry as before but the method of exposure - while it still can be with enlarger and negative - is more typically with a "lightwriter" (a machine that exposes using RGB LEDs across the paper) and digital file. This "hybrid" workflow is actually a real boon for the film photographer, and one that I lean on hugely. It allows you to have the control to correct exposure mistakes, crop, colour correct, filter, sharpen, soften... all manner of adjustments to achieve the effect that you desire. Then, you send the file off over the internet to the printer, who then does the work for you and sends it back in a matter of a couple of days.


I can't deny that I am waxing lyrical here about tactility and the process, when I don't actually perform the steps myself, and instead have prints made for me; would that I could and had the space to set this all up but unfortunately not. I still get prints made, and large prints at that (12"x8" from my 6cmx9cm negatives, 12" square for my 6x6s). And every time I receive a new batch of 4 or 5 large prints (which are usually culled from about 30-40 images), it's an absolutely breathtaking moment; unwrapping the packaging and revealing my work writ large on Fuji Lustre archival photographic paper.


I've just mounted, framed and hung my first four prints on a wall in our house, and I can look at them as I go up and down the stairs every day now, and not only enjoy them, but learn from them. The way they look in different lights. How I might compose the image now, as opposed to then. Would I change the exposure?


At the end of the day, I went to the trouble and expense of having them printed and framing them, so for now, it's very much going to be an enjoyment rather than a critique. But having them there in front of me is a magical experience of creation that is more physical, tangible, excites the senses more than an image on a screen.


In an age of image saturation, online news and media, and Instagram, Flickr and Tumblr (yes, those three again!), holding the print, looking at the print, getting the mount and frame, and hanging the print goes beyond, and elevates the image above the noise. That's the end point for me - the ultimate of the joys of photography, and film photography in particular.


The first four prints mounted and framed, and hanging on the wall in our stairway. Apologies for the wide angle shots, there's not a lot of room to move back - which also forces you to look at them up close, rather than flit from image to image and back again from a distance.

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