WHAT HAPPENED TO THE ART OF THE PHOTOGRAPHIC PRINT?
I may be aging myself a bit, but when I was an undergraduate I spent countless hours printing in the darkroom. I was taught, by Joan Powers not only that 'Less is More' but that a technically perfect print was paramount. My fellow students and I would work a print in the darkness with a bit of red light and emerge to see what it really looked like in the daylight (it always looked better in the dark). We would apprehensively approach Joan to see what she thought. Inevitably, the first five or so prints wouldn't even be close to final and you would turn back around with your tail between your legs to make another, admitting to yourself that you shouldn't have showed it to her in the first place. You knew it wasn't good enough. After a while, you didn't show it to her until you were about one print away from perfection (in your opinion). When she finally said 'yes' it was a huge relief until you realized that you had to print nine or so more for your final project.
It taught me not only how to make a beautiful print, but also what one looked and felt like (emotionally) and that photography was about more than just hitting the shutter, it was understanding that it wasn't done until you had worked your ass off in the darkroom to 'birth' it.
The pursuit of this print, started with a well-exposed negative. When looking at the negative, you needed to see detail from the blacks to the whites and you learned very quickly that dodging or burning a print of a poorly exposed negative was futile. You also learned what a well exposed negative looked like and how incredibly hard it was to get one.
Even when you were able to properly expose your negatives; choosing the right paper, the age of the chemistry, focusing the enlarger and toning it afterward had a lot to do with the result of final print. There were no shortcuts, as Joan explained. You couldn't use heated Dektol to try and get detail out of the white clouds (yes we all tried it) and no matter how much you dodged a print of a deep black forest to try and see the trees that you knew where there when you shot it; without a well exposed negative, all you would get is a deep gray forest.
What I notice now with many digital photographers who never stepped foot in a darkroom is that they don't understand how important the end result is. Maybe it's because most of the billions of photographs out there today (thanks to digital) are never printed. They are sitting on a server to be viewed only on a screen and for them this is the end result.
I am lucky to have worked in a darkroom and fallen in love with the tangible prints I worked hard to create. That is not to say I don't print digitally, but my appreciation for traditional processes and my respect of the photographers who choose to use them is valued far more than the current modern methods.
Tulips (platium print)