Johannes Gutenberg and the Advent of Digital Photography

November 24, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

In Issue No. 121 of LensWork, editor Brooks Jensen contributed an article of his own, “Lessons from Gutenberg,” in which he commented on the similarity between two historical transitions: the transition from illuminated manuscripts to printed books in the 15th century and the move from film to digital photography in our time. Before Johannes Gutenberg's introduction of movable type, book-making in the Middle Ages belonged to calligraphers who had the skill to draw each letter in a manuscript by hand and to adorn the pages with exquisite embellishments. When printing presses and movable type displaced the calligraphers, the artistic contribution to the making of books shifted from the creation of beautiful pages drawn by calligraphers to the presentation of compelling content written by authors. Books have become commodities. Everyone knows who Stephen King is; nobody knows who designed his latest bestseller. Similarly, before the advent of digital cameras and processing, the making of fine art prints belonged to those few who had spent the years necessary to master the art of darkroom photography. As digital photography has displaced film photography, Photoshop has displaced the darkroom, and the making of fine art prints is less about development time and paper grades and all the other tools of darkroom magic and more about what we now refer to as “post-processing” in the “digital workflow.” The flood of new images on the internet dwarfs the daily release of new books, both physical and electronic.

For Jensen the advent of digital photography offers us the opportunity to follow the path charted by Gutenberg, to shift our attention away from the “complexities of physically producing a worthy image” to “developing ourselves, our insight, our photographic and artistic depth.” In other words, the advent of digital photography challenges us, to put it in 15th century terms, to move from being accomplished calligraphers to becoming eloquent authors. I'm not sure what it means to Jensen to develop one's self, one's insight, and one's photographic and artistic depth. In fairness, I should point out that he freely admits that he is not sure either. Nevertheless, the similarity between these two historical transitions is important and suggests possible changes in how we make, display, and market fine art photographs.

(The analogy between book-making and photograph-making has its uses, but it is not perfect. In the 15th century the roles of maker and author were separate. Though some printers, like William Blake and Benjamin Franklin, wrote what they printed, in general the person who manufactured a printed work was not the person who authored the content. When considering the advent of printing presses and movable type, it makes sense to describe the transition to printed books as a process of enhancing the role of the author and diminishing the role of the bookmaker. Digital photography is different. Since the invention of the darkroom, the print maker and the image maker have usually been the same person. Few of us who made photographs during the film era had the luxury of a skilled printer to make our prints for us. The image maker and the print maker were the same person. We lugged our view cameras into the mountains, made some exposures, lugged our equipment back to our darkrooms, developed our film, and made our prints. The march towards digital photography has not changed the photographer's dual role. Now we lug our DSLRs into the mountains, make 10,000 exposures, lug our SD chips back to our offices, process our RAW files in Photoshop, and make our prints or, more likely, post our images on our websites.)

It seems to me that the real value of Jensen's comparison of digital photographs to printed books lies in the fact that the digital revolution has turned photographs into commodities like paperbacks. Photographs have become disposable, but we continue to treat them like illuminated manuscripts. We mount them with acid-free tape to acid-free mat boards. We store them in acid-free boxes kept in cool, dark places (under the bed). When we display them on a wall, we encase them in frames behind Conservation Grade UV Protection glass that meets the requirements of ISO 18902 and 18916. We spend $250 to frame a $20 print. This is completely insane, but, as Jensen aptly observes, “It is always difficult to recognize the larger trends in history when one is living through them.”

When print buyers and photographers come to a shared realization that one can replace a faded or damaged inkjet print almost with the click of a mouse, I think that we will stop treating prints like illuminated manuscripts and start treating them like replaceable commodities. It will still make sense to mount prints for display on archival mat boards because there's no point to accelerating their decay needlessly, but I expect that print owners will gradually stop mounting prints behind glass. We display photographs behind glass because glass blocks ultraviolet light, which damages photographs and causes them to fade. Displaying photographs behind glass preserves their appearance over time. No one displays photographs behind glass because glass improves a photograph's appearance. No matter how high the grade of glass employed, no pane of glass allows the level of enjoyment that one derives from viewing a print directly, without any reflections or distortion. I expect that photographers will sell prints with the understanding that if the print fades due to exposure to ultraviolet light or acidic mounting materials or is damaged some other way, the photographer will exchange the damaged print for a fresh print for the cost of printing and shipping the new print to the buyer. This is part of the bargain I make with customers who buy my prints.

(In 1991 I attended a Friends of Photography workshop during which John Sexton gave the workshop participants a tour of Ansel Adams's darkroom. During the tour, he showed us a lovely Adams print with a water stain running through the middle of it. During a storm, the owner's roof had leaked, and water had run across the print, which was hanging on the wall. Sexton explained that the print had been a gift from Adams to the owner, who was a personal friend, and that Adams had replaced the damaged print with a new print. In those days, printing, mounting, and spotting a print was a lot of work. The print owner was lucky that Adams was so generous that he replaced the damaged print without charge. Nowadays replacing a damaged print is trivial, and there's no reason why a print buyer should not expect to be able to replace a damaged print at a nominal cost.)

I expect that limited editions will likewise fall out of favor as we come to view inkjet prints as infinitely reproducible commodities. When an artist uses a traditional print-making technology, like lithography, to make a batch of prints, he knows that he can only make a certain number of prints from the same materials before those materials degrade and yield inferior images. For prints made by these processes it makes sense to inform the buyer of the total number of prints made and the position of the buyer's print in the list. An early print (e.g., the 5th out of a 100) will command a higher price than a late print (e.g., the 99th out of 100) because a print-making stone or plate suffers wear with the making of each print, and early prints are therefore believed to be sharper and clearer than later prints. Also, limiting the number of prints constrains the supply and relieves the buyer's anxiety that if his print becomes highly sought after, and therefore more valuable in the resale market, the artist will run off another hundred copies, thereby expanding the supply of prints and undercutting the resale market.

Photographs do not degrade through reprinting. If anything, they get better. When I get an order for a print that I have sold before, I reexamine the image, and if I see a flaw that I overlooked in the first print, I fix it. Through the process of reprinting an image gets better and better. Later prints should command higher prices than early prints because later prints have received greater attention from the photographer than early prints.

There is still the matter of protecting the investments of early buyers. After all, someone who is willing to invest in the first print of an image deserves a reward for taking the plunge before a stream of sales has confirmed the collectibility of prints from that image. There is no need to impose an arbitrary cap on the number of prints to be made of an image in order to protect the buyers' investments. One could, for instance, agree upon the sale of a print not to offer the next print of the same image for an amount less than some fixed percentage more than the price of the preceding print of that image. For example, if Buyer One pays $100 for the first print from a raw file, then Buyer Two would pay not less than $110 for the second print of the same image. The seller's promise would protect each purchaser's investment in a print by guaranteeing that the photographer would not undermine the value of that print by selling later copies at a lower price. This approach has the added benefit that an elevated price would signal to later purchasers that an image looks as beautiful on paper as it does on screen: the fact that previous purchasers kept their prints and did not demand their money back would indicate that those purchasers were satisfied with their prints. An elevated price would also reassure the anxious buyer that the marketplace shares his opinion that the image is worth collecting.

When we come to regard inkjet prints as commodities and not as illuminated manuscripts, I think we may alter our attitude towards papers with optical brighteners. Paper manufacturers routinely add chemicals to their papers in order to cause the paper to fluoresce when illuminated with ultraviolet light. Ordinary daylight contains some ultraviolet light so when we view a photograph printed on a paper containing these chemicals, a slight amount of fluorescence occurs, causing the paper to appear whiter than it otherwise would. Fine art photographers, however, have commonly shied away from such papers because they are not archival. In time the brightening chemicals loose their effect, and the print will not sparkle the way it did when it was freshly made. Instead, we have favored “natural” papers that do not contain optical brighteners in order to minimize the change in the appearance of our prints with the passage of time. If, however, we come to regard prints as disposable, then there is no reason to forego the pleasing appearance of prints on papers with optical brighteners. When a print on such a paper begins to look drab because its optical brighteners have faded, we would simply treat the print the way we would treat a damaged print and exchange it for a fresh print at cost.

There is, however, one fly in the ointment. A photographer's promise to replace a faded or damaged print with a fresh print at cost is only good as long as there is someone around to make the replacement print. If no one is willing to step into the photographer's shoes after he dies, his customers will not be able to acquire replacement prints. It would be useful if some Silicon Valley startup would create a digital vault in which a photographer's photo files could be stored after his death. For a modest commission the proprietor of the digital vault would replace damaged prints with fresh prints after the photographer is no longer able to do so himself. The existence of a digital vault would also provide photographers with a solution to the problem of keeping their images available to the public after their deaths.

I think that Bruce Jensen has correctly identified the similarity between the transition from illuminated manuscripts to printed books and the transition from film photography to digital photography. For me, the importance of this similarity is what it says about the transition of photographic prints from treasured artifacts to disposable commodities. Treating prints as commodities frees us from practices that have limited our enjoyment of prints, like displaying prints behind glass and shunning papers with optical brighteners, and have limited the supply of fine art photographs by encouraging photographers to sell their prints in limited editions. In our digital world there is no reason why persons of modest means should not enjoy the best that photographers can produce.


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