The Photographic Printer

One of the most under reported photographic relationships is that of the photographer and their printer.


Adam and Eve (The Fall of Man); Albrecht Durer

Other art genres rely heavily on the artisan skill of the printer –  the person who transfers the original artwork onto paper.  The engravings of Rembrandt and Albrecht Dürer, the aquatints of Goya or the many versions of woodblocks originally created by Hans Holbein the Younger.  These artisan craftsmen were prized for their technical skills as these were an integral part of getting the artist’s creativity onto the final media, and thereby out to their audience and patrons.


Voja Mitrovic at the Coupole, Montparnasse, Paris, 1993; © Peter Turnley.

In the photographic world such relationships have existed, even in an industry that has been extensively built around the solo activity of the photographer who processed their own negatives and printed their own photographic images.  One of the great documented relationships was that between Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) and Voja Mitrovic  (1937-).  Cartier-Bresson was more interested in the creation of a photograph and disdained what we would today call ‘post-production’, where the image is enhanced during the printing stage.

Voja Mitrovic worked for Picto Labo Photo, the legendary Paris based photographic laboratory; and whilst Cartier-Bresson was one of the big name clients, it is difficult to separate him from names like Sebastio Salgado, Marc Riboud, Robert Doisneau, Helmut Newton, Peter Lindbergh or Edouard Boubat – such are the authors of negatives that Mitrovic worked with.  Mitrovic produced images between 1967 and 1997.

The partnership between the Australian artist Bill Henson and the Melbourne photographic academic Dr Les Walkling was borne from Henson’s need to move from analogue based printing to digital editing and printing.  Walkling’s skills are also shared by Melbourne based artist Polixeni Papapetrou, showing that these particular printing skills are in demand by photographic artists seeking the best possible outcome for their work.

Mexican born Maurice Otega worked for Arnold Newman in New York, before moving to Sydney, where he has printed for, and advised the likes of, Henri Talbot and Tracey Moffatt.  It is Otega’s definitive skill in working with the palladium process that has stood him apart – a skill that is rare at the best of times, but almost unobtainable in Australia.  Of course it may be the trade secrets that Otega learned whilst sweeping the darkroom floor at the atelier of Manuel Álvarez Bravo (1902-2002).


Nine Concretions, Koekohe Beach, Moeraki, New Zealand, 2013; © Michael Kenna.

Then we have well recognized practitioners like Landscape photographer Michael Kenna who publicly states that the job of printing (and he is referring to the analogue process) is his and his alone.  Kenna is at home in his darkroom and finds that the process does not finish with the click of the shutter, but rather when he has exposed his print and signed it.

Whilst the work of Walkling and Otega is in the area of fine art, Mitrovic’s work for Cartier-Bresson has a parallel in the oeuvre of Brisbane photographer Darren Jew.  Whilst Jew is known for his underwater camera work (Australian Science Photographer of the Year for 2012/11/09), his mainstay endeavour is custom printing for a select group of clients, as well as his high quality on-line sales of personal work.  Jew practices the time honoured craft of interpreting the photographer’s exposures and placing that onto paper using archival ink.  His recent effort of printing over 90 exhibition quality prints for over 20 photographers entered in an industry awards competition, produced over 30 images receiving awards.  Including the winning portfolio of the 2013 Queensland Professional Photographer of the Year.   This is where the collaboration between photographer and printer is best illustrated.

No less a skill than that of the artisans working under the direction of the great classic artists, partnerships recognising without ego that complimentary skills can realise a vision of perfection; rather than merely achieving a state of workmanlike adequacy.

Somewhat begging the question, why is this traditionally symbiotic relationship so rare these days? Do we increasingly embrace creative DIY for pleasure, for ego or for economy?

And a follow up question, as more applications for imagery move towards display devices rather than surfaces or substrates, why has this enabling ‘printing’ craft not migrated to the desktop as ‘visualising’, fostering a new generation of craftsmen and women enabling, enhancing and perfecting imagery for the screen, much as the printer would have done for paper, board or canvas?

Reproduced with kind permission – p138 July issue f11 Magazine 


One thought on “The Photographic Printer

  1. I reckon one of the reasons the relationship between “photographers” and “printers” is not securely and reliably codified is that the vocabulary available is inadequate, sometimes misleading, and cluttered with tacit assumptions.

    It is not a given that people who do only camera work and make no pictures merit the appellation photographer. Yes, yes I know it’s a long standing fashion to elevate these people to the status of “photographer” but I would propose to name them by what they do. How about cameraman, camera-johnnie, or image-catcher? A lot of camera clickers, possibly most, pivot much self esteem and status on asserting themselves as photographers and I can’t see them accepting reclassification, and the demotion that follows, with any grace.

    And what of people who actually make photographs, the pictures that one looks at in the hand or on the wall? Of them you could say “photographer” with confidence until you remember those who make no pictures at all claim “photographer” as well. Did I say the vocabulary was inadequate?

    It is not a given that a photograph is a print. I would assert indeed that photographs are not prints and photography is not printmaking. At the risk of defacing a fine poolefoto blog I’ll present an argument. It’s only in the reply section of the blog so reading it is scarcely compulsory and agreeing with it even less so.

    The great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951) identified a class of conceptual challenges that arise because of a misuse of language and I think the underlying assumption that “photographs” are “prints”, is one of them. Photographs are so different from prints technically, historically, and aesthetically that to call photographs “prints” is now one of those unconscious deceits that become widely tolerated because they are so frequent and familiar.

    The conflation of “photographs” with “prints” began, I believe, with a 19th century inferiority complex on the part of photography. Here was a new medium with no aesthetic credentials. Art critics and especially dealers burdened photographs with the values of the next best thing: etchings, engravings, aquatints; prints in general. A collector in search of a fine engraving might be persuaded to buy a photograph especially if it were passed off as just another kind of print and a cheaper one at that. I suggest it is time that photography cast off this aesthetic cringe to old print values.

    Most photographers (camera clickers aside) know how photographs come into being but they do not know much about actual printmaking. Compressing the encyclopedia of printmaking into a couple of sentences is tricky but here’s an attempt. In printing the mark-making medium, ink, paint, whatever, is not formed directly in the substrate (as in photography) but is conducted from a reservoir by an organizing matrix such as an intaglio, relief, or planographic printing plate. Silkscreen and lithography are planographic, etching and engraving are intaglio, and letter-press and wood-cut are relief processes. The key thing is that the print medium does not have to be generated anew for each copy. To get another etching one does not have to etch again. One merely has to ink up and turn the press one more time.

    Photography is a very different thing. To get one more photograph you must photograph again right from the start. The subject has to be re-addressed and light collected from it, a sensitive surface must be exposed to this light, and then developed, fixed, washed – you know the drill. People forget (never think?) that the subject for many photographs is an all ready existing photograph, usually a negative. If I make a photograph of that negative on ordinary gelatin-silver emulsion I get a positive. That positive is surely a photograph whether the emulsion happens to be coated on clear base or paper. To call one version a photograph because it’s on film and the other a print because it’s on paper seems absurd. I will admit that the world is big enough that every absurdity will find someone (many?) to champion it but dead wrong can’t be turned into dead right whatever the vote.

    Ansel Adams introduced an attractive and insightful analogy between photography and music and the analogy can be extended to include prints. Prints are like playing a record to get music. Photographs are like playing a musical instrument to get music. A record sounds the same every time it is played. A live performance is unique because even for an accomplished musician it is never exactly the same twice. Many music lovers know and prize the difference. That’s why they will pay more for admission to a concert that they hear only once over a record they can hear a thousand times. Some photographers have a parallel understanding about their own art and will always prize any photograph above any print.

    Our familiar friend Ludwig Wittgenstein would put it another way: if you look at a photograph but say “print” then you are mentally imprisoned into thinking “print” which leads inevitably into seeing “print” where no print exists. Once the seeing is wrong strange things follow. For example, if photographs are prints then surely prints could be photographs. Impossible you say? No, it is already happening every time you are offered an ink-jet print that postures as a photograph.

    Have you ever wondered why print-maker talk fits downright awkwardly with photographic production. Photographers really don’t do “numbered copy”, “limited edition”, “print”, “proof”, “artists proof”, BAT (bon a tirer = “good to pull”), “impression” and all the other print shop vocabulary. Every attempt to force photography into “print making” for commercial gain has a smell of artifice about it; a tacit swindle that can leave photographers, dealers, and collectors marked by a whiff of venal compromise.

    And the only thing at stake is commerce not art. It is difficult to imagine a collector feeling truly fulfilled, getting more joy, in buying a “limited edition” photograph simply because they have been promised that there are a hundred more exactly like it out there somewhere. Photographs don’t derive worth from being “the same” from one example to another but prints do. That’s why extending print spiel to photographs does nothing except cheapen and commodify those photographs.

    There, I’ve had my say and if I can’t change the world I can at least change myself. For the record: I make photographs, pictures fashioned from light sensitive materials, one at a time, start to finish, and in full by my own hand. The nexus between photographers and printers mercifully does not apply.


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