Original Prints?

In a recent post I linked to a video showing Richard Benson, and there is an awful lot more interesting material on the The Printed Picture site, produced in conjunction with a 2008 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art  and a book, The Printed Picture by Benson, the former Dean of Yale Art School and an acknowledged guru of photographic printing.

Perhaps there are some people who don’t recognise his name, but the photographic community owes a huge debt to him and his work over the years. If you look in the small print of almost any finely printed photographic book – one that really stands out for the quality of its reproduction – you will find his name somewhere in the small print. Picked almost randomly from my bookshelves – arranged vaguely alphabetically – I came first to Atget: Modern Times, the fourth volume of a fine series published by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1985, and there on the final printed leaf found among the various credits ‘Halftone negatives by Richard Benson’. He also gets a mention in the front of the book as ‘special consultant and supervisor’ for the series, responsible together with Tim McDonough from the museum ‘for the quality of production of these volumes.’ And there are many other books on which he has worked.

I’ve seen prints of many of the works in that series made by Atget himself, and if there is a fault in Benson’s handiwork it could be argued that the reproductions at least in some cases improve on the originals. The books give us something arguably better than the prints we couldn’t afford to buy.

In a video on his web site, Richard Benson looks at this rather curious situation using a Paul Strand print as an example.  Perhaps on the video it isn’t possible to see that his final version costing a few cents is superior to the original platinum, but I’d be prepared to take his word for it.

Years ago, as a fairly young photographer, I watched Lewis Baltz looking through the proof prints for ‘Park City’ (you may have more luck than me in seeing this work on the California Museum of Photography site, where only some of the pictures display for me), which he had just received while giving a workshop in the UK, and he was comparing them to some of his original prints. I made the mistake (as I often did when young) of saying what was obvious to me, that the images in the book – by the Acme Printing Company – were even better than the artist’s own fine silver prints. Looking in particular at the treatment of the highlights, I’m sure Ansel would have agreed with me. But it certainly wasn’t tactful and wasn’t well-received. It probably didn’t help that I’d already pointed out the tonal effects of the particular spectral sensitivity of the film he was using.

Unfortunately although I admired the book I didn’t buy it when it came out a few months later, as I couldn’t afford it, though it would have been a decent investment, and I think it is perhaps the most interesting of his works. Even at what then seemed a high price for a book, each of the images would have only cost around 50p each. I suppose I could have afforded the massive $600 reprint collection of Baltz’s works from Steidl last year, but replacing a lens and other necessary photographic expenditure seemed more urgent. Although I have a stack of Robert Adams‘s books the only Baltz books I own are Nevada (with his illegible signature) and Maryland.

We work in a medium that allows production of prints both as relatively low cost artisanal works in the darkroom or inkjet printer or their mass production for pennies. Although of course we need to find ways to support practice in the medium and reward those who excel in it, I’ve never felt happy with imposing such artificial restrictions as ‘limited editions’ or ideas about ‘vintage’ prints.

What we make as photographers is essentially not an object to be valued for its intrinsic properties but as the expression of an idea, an intellectual property. It makes the proposals for changing the UK Copyright laws, currently the subject of consultation, vitally important, and the proposed changes would be disastrous for photographers – and in the longer term for our culture. Many of us will belong to unions and other bodies that will be making our views on the proposals felt, but you can also download the consultation form and make your own views known before the closing date of 21 March 2012.

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