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For this series of articles, I’ve asked museum curators, gallery owners and photography collectors to help clarify the relative importance and value of different types of photographic prints. So far, we’ve discussed photographer-printed and vintage photographs. Today, we address computer-generated images.
There is a universally accepted premium placed on vintage photographic prints. In contemporary photography, is there a similarly clear difference in value between hand-printed and machine-printed photographs?
Phillip Prodger, Curator of Photography at Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA says, “I try not to think about it on that level. For me, it’s about meaning and message resonating, whatever the artist decided. That’s like saying, do you prefer paintings in acrylic or oils?” Sounding a similar note, John Scanlan, partner at Verve Gallery in Santa Fe “respects the artist’s choice of medium for the image.” He elaborates, “More important to me is the physical condition of the print; is it produced properly so it won’t deteriorate if safely displayed or stored? I’m looking to ascertain the longevity of the print.” Veteran photography collector Jim Fitts concurs, “The media in which the artist produces an image should be his or her choice. To me, the level of print execution is paramount. The route an artist takes to get there is up to him or her.” Paula Tognarelli, Executive Director of the Griffin Museum of Photography in Winchester, MA affirms, “The photographer does not have to have her/his hands in the chemicals or adjust printing curves. I may ask if they print their own work, but that does not influence what I buy or what I exhibit. I have no issue exhibiting digital prints over tray-processed prints. I personally purchase archival pigment prints all the time.”
A growing contingent of photographers argue that, far from degrading worth, computer-generated photographs offer significant improvements over darkroom prints. Renowned landscape photographer Joel Meyerowitz used to have darkroom assistants hand-print his gorgeously nuanced chromogenic prints. Now, he is a champion of computer-printing: “We do all the preparation for printing right here in the studio. We scan everything and we fix everything in Photoshop and we output it on the HP printers that we use. And it’s a process that allows us to have greater control than one could ever have in the darkroom. I’ve always felt that the darkroom was a compromise, no matter how good you were, whether you were Ansel Adams or Edward Weston, there was always that little compromise when you wave your hands in the light.
But there’s something you get when you work on the computer screen that gives you a kind of, ah…an expansiveness. You have real time to work with the images and you can see them through so that everything—every detail, every hidden bit of information in the shadows—is yielded to the print. So I feel that the prints I make today are better by far than anything I’ve made in the past.”
When it comes to printing contemporary work, it seems that anything goes. As long as the quality of the photographic print is first-rate, the vision and intent of the photographer reigns. This bears no relation to the old masters and the aura that still surrounds “vintage” prints. But it does provide a silver lining for the otherwise unobtainable work from some deceased artists. Jason Landry of Panopticon Gallery in Boston contends: “Digital scanning and printing make it possible for early photographers like Vittorio Sella, whose Alpine mountain landscapes were made on 11”x14” glass-plates, to have their work reproduced and sold to museums and collectors today.”
Next time, experts offer their advice to today’s collector of photography.