Million Dollar Motel Wallpaper

Million Dollar Motel Wallpaper

Something About This Really Stinks

Within photographic circles, there has been a whirlwind on the internet over the last few days. It involves a recent claim of having set a record for “world’s most expensive photograph”.

Ignoring for the moment the many loudly clanging alarm bells set off by this claim, alarm bells that make one want to demand an immediate investigation, I prefer to address the fact that the mere making of such a  claim, true or not, shines a spotlight on everything that is most despicable about the art world in its present incarnation and the egregious ignorance of the public with regard to art in general and fine art photography, in particular.

 Art Is NOT About Cashing In!

Where did this idea come from that art and artists are all about the big payoff? Why do people buy into this nonsense? This is not a variation of Lotto, with paint! Art is not a euphemism for worldwide casino. The idea of artists is not to see how much money you can make. It is a race to see how much good work you can produce, before you die! In fact, most artists are so disinterested in money that it makes it very difficult for them to afford the materials needed to create their art in the first place.

In my entire career, no conversation with another artist ever began with, “How much money did you make last month?” And I have never met an artist who reported having such an exchange, either. We care about money only to the extent that it allows us to continue to work.

These get rich concepts do not occur to artists and are not part of the real art world. They are part of the faux art world created by promoters and gallery owners. The one designed to relieve fools of their money, especially rich fools who have never read, The Emperor’s New Clothes.

Let me make sure I get this point across…

No real artist cares in the slightest about holding the record for most expensive, “anything at all”! It would never occur to an artist to issue a press release about something so meaningless. That sort of concept is foreign to an artist, senseless. It is no more rational than tweeting about the color clothing worn on that day. It is the art that matters, not the money! Money to an artist is simply a tool that makes it easier to produce more art. This doesn’t mean artists don’t think about money. They do. Mostly because they don’t have any. It means that money does not hold a position of importance in their lives, like it does for so many others. This does not arise from any feeling of superiority. It comes as the result of a highly-focused, single-purpose life where money is simply the vehicle that brings more materials and staves off eviction for another month.

The public, and a shamefully large percentage of the art world, apparently believe that artists are driven to produce new work out of a desire to one day strike it rich. No doubt they believe the lucky artists who do win the art world lotto will retire to a tropical island the next day. What a great seg-way into…

 Public Ignorance is Staggering!

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. Most of the public believe that a fine art photograph is simply a technically superior, much larger, more gaudy, more saturated, better composed, but otherwise identical version of their own national park vacation pictures. They see absolutely nothing in a photograph that wasn’t in front of the camera at the time the photograph was snapped!

To most, there is no detectable difference between the two photographs shown below, save color and contour. The fault for this public defect must be laid at the feet of fine art photographers themselves. The public isn’t educated, because we didn’t bother to do it! And truth be known, many so-called fine art photographers don’t see a difference, either!

Grocery Store Pepper
Grocery Store Pepper by Ralph the Produce Kid
Pepper #30
Pepper #30 by Edward Weston







This is the one and only possible explanation for the fact the public so readily believes a ludicrous fairy tale told by a so-called fine art photographer marching down the street ahead of a brass band, proclaiming himself the greatest this, the biggest that, or the highest priced fill-in-the-blank (with the rude reference of your choice). Such a photographer is a perfect match for an ignorant public, because he too is incapable of seeing anything but the literal. He is the day-glo orange paint to their Elvis on black velvet.

An ignorant public is an easily fooled public, and there will always be charlatans who will claim that a dead fish floating in formaldehyde is art. Just as there will always be a wealthy person foolish enough to pay millions of dollars for it.

I would like to think there are no photographers on that same level, but I cannot find rose colored glasses that heavily tinted. I do hold out hope, and strongly suspect, there actually was no rich fool and that this is a case of complete fabrication. If the rich fool does exist, I sincerely hope that instead of paying cash, he traded a Kinkade painting. Then both parties will have received fair value.


The Handmade Silver Print

The Handmade Silver Print

Tomando Diez Minutos
Tomando Diez Minutos

This morning I was looking through a web site that contained images of photogravures, a strong interest and pursuit of mine, and read a comment about handmade prints having more value than inkjet images. This reminded me that the last several years, most of what I have seen regarding discussions of handmade prints has lumped silver-gelatin in with the far more laborious paths that include platinum/palladium, carbon, photogravure, etc., etc.

Silver-gelatin prints certainly do fall under the heading of handmade, I suppose. But I wonder if anyone has really thought about this at length and looked at it dispassionately, rather than out of fear for their personal ox being gored.

It is still in vogue among some, to speak in derogatory terms about digital prints. I began the very painful transition from analog to digital about seven years ago, not because I thought digital was necessarily better, but because I saw the handwriting on the wall and I wanted the additional tools that digital photography offered. Those tools have expanded a great deal in the interim.

In hindsight, I was right about that handwriting. Two (perhaps more now) of the Kodak films I relied upon, no longer exist. In particular, Kodak Professional Copy Film Type 4125, now gone, was a mainstay for me. I would take 30 film holders with me into the field, 10 of which were always loaded with Type 4125. It got used, a lot. One of the two variable contrast papers on which I most depended is also, no more. I would be hard pressed to work in silver-gelatin photography today, merely because of the lack of materials.


For those who do not know my background…

…and because it is probably needed for credibility in this post. I am a well-recognized expert on applied analog B&W photography, the inventor of a lot of techniques for analog B&W and color, have been published worldwide and am a former contributing editor to the recently defunct, Darkroom & Creative Camera Techniques magazine (last article of mine published was about 1997?). I have the knowledge and skill set with a wide margin to spare, and have analog B&W images in museums from here to Argentina. There are only a handful of people who I might find it difficult to out-do in the silver-gelatin darkroom. In short, I think I know what I’m talking about. Others may have a different opinion.


My premise(s) here is that there really is no added value to a silver-gelatin print based solely on the fact that it qualifies, technically, as a handmade photograph and that, based on those criteria which are held up to qualify a silver-gelatin print as handmade, inkjet prints are then also, handmade. That a collector would prefer silver over digital simply because silver is supposedly handmade is just absurd.

There is absolutely no virtue in something being merely handmade. We all have treasures we made in Kindergarten. They are truly handmade and none of them belong in galleries or museums (despite the ravings of morning-show hosts). A handmade object has no particular value as an object of art, unless skill and knowledge are also applied. There are many handmade silver prints out there that had no skill and very little knowledge involved in their production.

So, let’s first define the term handmade with reference to the fine art photograph, as including a high level of skill and knowledge.

Último Fotógrafo Callejero
Último Fotógrafo Callejero

Now we can go through the process…

First, we need to separate the high-level skill and knowledge from the donkey work. Loading a negative into a film carrier, raising or lowering the head of an enlarger on its column, focusing the image and starting an exposure, all require some skill and knowledge, but not anything a child can’t learn in a few minutes. Nothing really handmade about any of that. Anyone can do it.

Likewise, after the paper has been exposed, everything is pretty much drudgery. There is a certain amount of skill in running a piece of wet paper through successive trays without damaging it, but hardly anyone oohs and ahhhs over the fact you didn’t crease a piece of wet paper, even a very large piece of wet paper. And one must know how long to process, how to fix properly, tone, wash, flatten, spot, mount, cut a matte, etc. Spotting in particular requires a lot of skill, not easily acquired. (One mistake while spotting often means a ruined print.) But these are all after-the-fact things that no rational person would include under the heading of handmade, and are really just donkeywork. Backbreaking, intense, mind-numbing donkeywork, but donkeywork, nonetheless. When a painter completes a work, we do not include the coat of varnish he may put over it as a valuable addition to the handmade aspect of the painting.

The only meaningful handmade part of making a silver-gelatin print comes between the moment the enlarger exposure is begun, and the moment it ends. (The paper comes in a box, from a factory. Nothing handmade about that, either.) A lot of things can happen in that interim including dodging and burning, flashing, paper grade changes if using a variable contrast paper, and, well, um, er… not a lot more!

Now, I made that interim between turning the enlarger lamp on and  off, sound very trivial. And it is, on paper (pun intended), about as trivial as many would like to make the digital printmaking process sound. But that supposedly trivial period during exposure takes many years to master. That mastery is decidedly not trivial. What happens between on and off is the real handmade aspect of the silver-gelatin photographic print and has been described by more than a few as being like a ballet. (Somehow, the thought of a fat old man in the darkroom doesn’t quite jibe with ballet for me, but you get the idea.)

What happens in the hands of a master, between the beginning and end of an exposure in the darkroom is truly inspiring, truly creative, truly handmade and truly art. But precisely the same ballet happens in front of a computer screen! The only meaningful difference is that one gets to sit in a chair and has more tools at his disposal.

In the darkroom, most of what happens during exposure is burning. Dodging can only be done for the length of the base exposure and not even that. If your base exposure is ten seconds, you can only dodge for eight or nine of them. Burning can be done for seconds, minutes… there is no limit. In fact, most fine prints are almost all burn and very little base exposure; sometimes, none at all.

There is zero difference between what happens during an exposure under an enlarger and what happens in Photoshop, save that what happens in Photoshop can be done more precisely, with more repeatability and with a greater array of tools. When an image has been created under the light of an enlarger, it is run through the automatic routine of the processing trays. When an image has been created in the glow of a computer screen, it is then run through the automatic processing tray of an inkjet printer. All that printer does is the drudgery of laying down ink where the photographer has told it to. All the processing tray does is develop the image already there.

During an analog exposure, one uses a simple piece of cardboard to add additional exposure to some areas of the image. In Photoshop a broader array of tools is used to do exactly the same thing, but more precisely and with more repeatability. In fact, in Photoshop, it doesn’t have to be repeated. It can be done only once. Oddly, very similar hand motions are used with the computer mouse to burn or dodge an image, as those used in the darkroom.

(I don’t recall any record of anyone ever claiming that a cave painting qualified as handmade, but an oil painting did not, because the oil painting was made with better tools that were more precise and easier to use.)

No less skill or knowledge are required to build an image in Photoshop than are needed in the darkroom. In fact, because of the greater array of tools, more skill and knowledge are probably required for Photoshop, if one intends to take full advantage of them. The nonsense repeated about Photoshop and requiring less skill is just that, nonsense. Digital photography does not take anything away from analog photography. But the reverse is also true.

The image, and the quality of that image, should be all that matters. That a photographer has fingernails blackened by selenium and a bad case of dermatitis brought on by repeated exposure to Metol, does not in any way make his images superior. The mindless automaton aspect that many would like to ascribe to those who today employ newer tools is just as ridiculous now, as it was every time it has been applied to others in the past 100+ years. There is absolutely nothing automatic or mechanical about a fine art photograph made digitally, and no special virtue that can be automatically ascribed to any photograph made by any means, old or new.

For anyone still tempted to speak in low terms about the digital print as opposed to a handmade silver-gelatin print; beware the folks making platinum/palladium, or gum, or carbon or photogravure or Colloidian or Daguerreotypes (Now, there’s some real handmade stuff for ya!) who might wish to make a case against YOUR ox!

It’s not whether you make an image by coating collodion onto a rock whilst whistling A Hard Day’s Night, that matters. Only the final image matters. If it looks like garbage, and an awful lot of handmade prints do, it matters not at all that it was handmade, except, perhaps, to a very, VERY foolish collector.