Ctein & Prints & Slides

Ctein is a printer and photographer whose thoughts on photography I’ve occasionally read and been informed by for many years, once upon a time in print and now on the web where he has a weekly column on The Online Photographer. His latest post there, Fashion and Fad in Fine Photography, is what he calls “a quick, anecdotal look at history” in particular related to prints and photography, and makes some debatable points about prints and the history of photography.

I don’t fully agree with much of what he says. Prints became important from the start of photography, when the in many respects highly inferior Calotype process soon dominated the Daguerreotype largely because it enabled the production of prints, crude though they were compared to the minute detail of the silvered plate. Prints enabled photographs to be shared, to be made into books, stuck onto cards, and in the first 50 or so years of photography artistic concerns were generally hand-in-hand with technical advances such as the albumen print and wet and dry plates which enhanced finer reproduction of detail, better tonality and also ease of use. Even processes such as platinum printing were prized for their ease and convenience, and even photographers with a somewhat cavalier attitude to sharpness and detail in making their artistic negatives printed their work in a straightforward manner.

Contrary to what he suggests it was only after some fifty years of largely straightforward print-making that some photographers, wishing to distinguish themselves as ‘artists’ from the common herd of commercial photographers began to aspire to “prints that emulated, in some fashion or another, painting or drawing.” And for some twenty or thirty years this became the dominant fashion in art photography.

Ctein is I think wrong to suggest about the move back to realism represented by f64 (and of course others), that “Although wrapped in the flag of artistic sensibility, it was at least as much a pragmatic decision.”  Having myself dabbled in some of the darker arts of alternative processes, I think in many ways processes such as gum bichromate are considerably more forgiving than the making of fine ‘straight’ photographic prints. Anyone who thinks otherwise is invited to study the Daybooks of Edward Weston and the Basic Photo Series of Ansel Adams.

But less contentions and more interesting to my mind are his comments about colour printing, and particularly on working for print publication. As he says until some time in the 1950s, “printing houses and press operators swore that you couldn’t get good reproduction from a slide; you had to work from a print.” But by the time I came to photography in the 1970s “most printing houses had forgotten how to deal with prints and slides had become the canon.”

At that time, colour negative film was almost entirely seen as an amateur medium. Anyone serious about colour worked with slide film. I spent 15 years cursing it, and paying good money for bad prints when I wanted to frame work – or struggling myself with the toxic chemistry of Cibachrome and cursing its over-high contrast.  Spending hours making unsharp masks or trying to get sensible results with Agfa reversal print chemistry. Ctein became well-known as a maker of dye-transfer prints, and remains one of very few printers still able to offer these, but that was something out of my price range.

I saw the light in the mid 80’s, largely as a result of the adoption of colour negative by a number of fine-art photographers, but also because I realised that since so little of my work in colour was actually being published it made little sense to sing to the publishers tune when colour negative would give me better prints. It still remained a tricky job to print from colour neg, involving considerable investment in a roller processor and expensive enlarger as well as a lot of cursing to get colour balance right, and there is something in what Ctein says about black and white remaining as the preference for photographers because it was easier to produce. Certainly now it has become easier to produce good colour prints than good black and white, with digital camera and inkjet printing, I can find little reason to want to work in black and white.

One major development for me was the introduction of film scanners. At first an expensive option through a lab, and later with a high quality desktop film scanner of my own, it removed the difference between whether  you worked in negative or transparency (except for the inherent defects of both types of film) or even if you worked in black and white. What publications now wanted was not prints or slides but a digital file.

Now I’ve moved completely to digital cameras. Even the few niches that I used to think I needed film for I’ve now found ways to do them with digital, either as well or better.  I can make prints on my own inkjet printer – black and white or colour – or send the files to a lab on-line and get prints – inkjet or C-types. Though more and more I’m working for the screen rather than paper. Though I’m still working on books of my work I’m intending to publish them as PDFs rather than in print (with perhaps the option of a print version of the PDF for anyone still addicted to paper.)

Ctein is right to conclude that for photography “the sensibilities and pronouncements are likely to continue to change with technology and convenience” but there is more to it than that. It isn’t just about convenience, but that technology enables us to do things better as well as easier, makes new opportunities possible.


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