Coleman on Adams or Not

As always, when A D Coleman posts about photography what he has to say raises issues, and his Cowflop from the Adams Herd (1)  is no exception.  That (1) on the end of the title is I think an indication that he offers to host and hopes to get a response from Ansel’s grandson Matthew Adams,  as much of the feature is taken up in demolishing “his astonishing statement that prints made from these negatives would somehow not be “original prints””  as well as from photography dealers – AIPAD members – over the issues surrounding the idea of ‘original prints’.

As always, Coleman’s points are carefully and densely argued and I won’t attempt to summarise them here – he writes so ably it would be a shame not to encourage you to read the original and impossible to do it justice.

It has been argued that you can divide photographers into ‘image makers’ and ‘print makers’, although I think most have at least a foot in both camps.

Many photographers have chosen not to print their own work not because they were not interested in how the print looked, but because they acknowledged that others  could perform those particular craft aspects better. Others worked in industries where time constraints made it difficult or impossible for them to print, or where they could make considerably more by taking more pictures in the time they would otherwise have spent in the dark than it cost to have them well printed.

Ansel Adams certainly was one of the greatest of darkroom geniuses, and many of us owe much to the skills that he imparted in his ‘Basic Photo‘ series, from which I learnt to print in the early 1970s. It is arguably something that stopped him becoming a truly great photographer, enabling him to pass off many of the more run of the mill of his images by the addition of a pinch or two – often several too many – of bravura.

But as Coleman states, he was content during his lifetime to describe and sell prints made in his darkroom by other printers as “original prints” and it is only recently that the Ansel Adams gallery has changed to referring only to prints made by the man himself as “original prints.”

Back in pre-digital days, it might have made some sense to use the term “original print” to describe any print made using the original negative on photographic paper. Of course some photographers chose to make their “original prints by processes such as photogravure or other methods that did not involve photographic paper and I think most would allow those to be called “original prints”.

Now many of the best prints are made by scanning the original negative and  then printed either on photographic paper or by inkjet. Are these still by extension “original prints”? Or is the term “original print” not a very useful one in photography?

It isn’t really a photographic term but an art market term, and like most such is more about talking up prices than real substance (indeed sometimes about hiding the facts.) Back in the 1980s I wrote about the work of Bill Brandt which at the time was really just beginning to appear in galleries at what seemed to me then as ridiculous prices, particularly for some “vintage prints”. My argument then was that these had been made not for display as prints but for the plate-maker, and that the real Brandt original was the magazine or book page for which he worked.

I’d be happy never to see the term “original print” used in photography again. The only photographic original so far as I’m concerned is the negative or digital file (or daguerreotype, Polaroid etc) that is made in the camera.  And while we are at it let’s get rid of “vintage” too.

4 Responses to “Coleman on Adams or Not”

  1. Verichrome says:

    ‘Original print’ was considered of rather lesser value by Adams himself than by those who make their living off his works today. Indeed, he reprinted many of his early works with substantial differences in later years, printing darker and contrastier which he came to prefer.

    Does it matter that he preferred later prints than those earlier prints which are more valuable to collectors? Only about as much as it matters if someone he trusted printed his negs to his satisfaction such that he called it an ‘original’.

    In other words, it matter most to those for whom distinctions considered minor by the artist are judged differently in a monetary/aesthetic context, and for those who disagree with the artist’s own intentions and preferences.

    It matters to those who need signs of an original hand because doing so establishes the necessary scarcity an artwork demands to have a high monetary value. This is a basic problem with photography: easy printing diminishes market value, the removal of the artist’s hand removes market value, older prints are worth more than newer ones (which may actually be superior as better papers come into being or as the artist improves as a printer).

    It boils down in large part to bull$hit artworld valuation. It’s why many galleries taking on new photographers recommend limited edition sizes for prints, too.

  2. Thanks for your comment. You are exactly right, “bull$hit artworld valuation”.

    Its a topic I’ve often written about in the past, particularly over the idea of limited editions which I’ve always thought foreign to the nature of the medium. I have produced limited editions of screen prints, but those arise naturally from the process.

    But while reproducibility is as you state a “basic problem” it is a basic problem not with photography but for dealers. I regard it as an intrinsic strength of photography.

    I own half a dozen prints by a reasonably well-known (dead) British photographer, including one of a very small number that he actually printed himself (unlike many of those available as high priced original prints that despite what the dealers say he paid other photographers to make.) The others are considerably better modern ink-jet prints, that cost me the equivalent of around $20 each rather than the several thousands the original would fetch at auction. Anyone who wants one can afford one of his prints but you would have to be mad to buy the original!

    There was a good example showing the difference in Adam’s printing style over the years in Ansel Adams at 100 which I reviewed when it came to London in 2002. At the time I wrote:

    “Szarkowski discusses the changes in printing style shown in the later work of Adams, dismissing the idea often suggested that it was a result of failing eyesight as the changes are not coherent in visual terms. He suggests that they definitely reflect a change in the way that Adams saw the world, perhaps a more mature vision. Although it may be more mature in the sense that it was the vision of an older man, to me it often seems more shallow. The later prints often seem to sacrifice mood and resonance for a more superficial approach, suggesting a printer carried away by his own remarkable and still developing virtuosity in the darkroom.

    There are two versions of the ‘Aspens’ print in the show ‘Ansel Adams at 100’. The earlier print has slightly less overall contrast, with the trees at the right in particular standing out less from the dark background. The later print undoubtedly has more impact, and is a fantastic example of printing pyrotechnics, with each trunk brilliantly outlines, but somehow lacks the mood and depth of its duller companion, where we go into the darkness of the forest behind rather than being stopped in our tracks by the brilliant row of trunks.”

    Also earlier in the very long piece (spread out over around 10 pages on the web and no longer available) I’d applauded his decision to make his prints available more cheaply to a wider audience:

    “In 1957 or 58, Ansel Adams prints were selling for $20, well beyond the budget of many visitors to Yosemite. He wanted to enable a wider audience to enjoy the inspiration he had found in the natural beauty of the area and created the ‘Yosemite Special Edition of Photographs’. These were made by his assistants, carefully inspected and approved and sold more cheaply.

  3. Verichrome says:

    Adams was a good printer (and had good printers working with and for him) and the pyrotechnics could have been him trying to avoid boring himself with an old negative he’d printed many times previously, and it could have been him changing as an artist.

    I could be wrong, but it could also have been him under the influence of the modernist movement. In his later prints Adams seemed to often mimic a b&w style that reminded me of Harry Callahan’s, with deeper (often pools of) black, higher contrast, and simpler compositions. Callahan actually met Adams and took a class with him in 1941 (it’s what made him become really serious about photography, and he became a photography instructor 5 years later), but in a few years the Chicago School would be in its ascendency… around the time Adams began changing his printing style. Just a coincidence? Possibly.
    I have to say that I do tend to prefer the earlier, slightly gauzier Adams prints that held more detail; when I visited Sotheby’s in June to see the prints for the massive Polaroid auction they were also auctioning several large Adams prints of the same negs hung side-by-side, and you could see real (if subtle in some cases) differences in cropping, dodging and burning.

    Adams was as much a promoter, teacher, raconteur, bon vivant and general mensch as he was a photographer, and he’s got a good PR team upholding his (can I say middlebrow?) brand. I think he was a very good photographer of the types of landscapes he was interested in, although I’m generally not a fan of the heroic, unpeopled outdoors shots. (In this day and age I guess I prefer Burtynsky.) That said, he had an enlightened opinion about making art available and affordable, which would be anathema to those in the ‘biz.’

  4. Interesting about Callaghan and Adams. Though I guess he had others around he could have learnt from such as Minor White and Edward Weston, both of whom I think printed in the time in a more modern way, so I think he was perhaps a slow learner in that respect.

    But styles in printing do change and it seems often to be a more general kind of movement. When I started in photography in the early 70s almost every show I saw in the UK was pretty gritty and high contrast and most were flush mounted, though I didn’t follow either trend.

    You can certainly say middlebrow here, and I certainly admire Burtynsky though my tastes in landscape run more to Robert Adams.

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