Printing for a Purpose
You recently mentioned "The pile of prints continues to grow, the problem deepens". In this era of digital media, I'm curious about your approach to printing. Do you print "everything?" I don't mean that literally, but rather in a figurative sense. What do you do with them all?
When I worked in the wet darkroom, I did print — literally — everything. That is, I made contact sheets of every negative I developed. I had to do this just to see what there was in the negative and to determine if I wanted to proceed with making a finished print. The contact sheet was a way of viewing and surveying. That function is now done in Lightroom, so I no longer need to print everything I shoot just to see it. Thank goodness!
After viewing those contact sheets, I'd select a group of images to print, typically taking them directly to a final presentation stage. This is critical and filled with assumptions of the day:
- I had a few standard sizes that I printed to — and only to those sizes. The first decision with every negative was do commit to a print size.
- Next, I would try to make a print that I was satisfied with. I'd work tirelessly to make a good print. Lots and lots of negatives simply failed to produce "keepers." The few that did, would progress to the next step.
- The keeper prints would then be finished for presentation, typically for wall display — spotted, mounted, and then over-matted. I'd almost never frame a print until I was sending it for exhibition or display in my home.
- With every print, my objective was to make the best print I possibly could. Often, this process involved decisions that ultimately led to a conglomeration of print styles — different papers, different toning methods, even different matting. They were dissimilar enough that they would often appear to have been made by different photographers. There was little, if any, cohesiveness to my work.
- The matted prints would then be safely tucked away in an archival storage box for use. Someday. Maybe. If I was lucky. But, probably not. Ever.
In essence, printing was a gamble on some undetermined future use. I was not printing for a purpose, but rather for a potential.
Today, printing has morphed into an entirely different sort of activity for me. It is no longer random printmaking as it was in the old days. As I say, today I print for a purpose. In fact, I almost only print for a purpose. Printing is associated with a specific finished product — a folio, a chapbook, an exhibition, or individual prints I offer for sale or give away as gifts. I no longer have a random pile of prints that someday might be used for something. Everything has a destination before I print it.*
Any printing I now do is for a specific destination — even if that is simply a little back stock inventory. I print folios, for example, 4-up on a parent sheet of 17x22" paper. Just for the economy of labor, when it's time to print another copy of a folio, we end up making four by default because it economizes the labor involved. With this in mind, I always have some inventory on hand, but only because it saves time in the production workflow. Same with individual prints. Once I decide to release a new print, we typically print a few of them, just so we have them on hand so we can ship immediately when an order arrives.
There is a critically important assumption that differentiates printing in the old days to how I work today. In the wet darkroom, there was a psychological fissure between production and distribution. I made prints because I wanted to make prints. If they sat in the closet in perpetuity, so be it. I saw myself as a photographer/printmaker and the distribution/marketing was someone else's chore. My responsibility to the artwork ended when I placed it in the morgue Light Impressions box. I was unknowingly condemning my work to obscurity and oblivion — the proverbial "pile of prints." As the pile grew, the evidence mounted to the futility of this strategy.
Once I engaged the truth that no one will ever care as much about connecting my work with an audience as I will, I began to embrace the challenges of finding an audience for my work. Production was no longer disassociated from finding an audience — they became a single process called "my art life." Printing-for-a-purpose is a consequence of this shift in thinking. I no longer make prints for the sake of making/having/owning prints. I print because there is a path that will move the print out into the world where it can, hopefully, breathe freely and live a long and rewarding life. (Okay, a little thick, but you get the point.)
In addition, I now use so many different kinds of media for my final artwork that I don't always need to print anything to finish a project. When printing is involved, there can be a lengthy series of test prints to get each image a perfect as I can, but that's not really printing. I consider this testing — and is essentially no different that all those test prints we used to do in the wet darkroom. As has often been said, a shredder and large trash can are the most valuable tools in any darkroom — or digital studio.
* I also will print so I have "samples" to show — still a purpose, I suppose. For example, in the upcoming LensWork Road Show, I'll have a complete set of folios for folks to see. Rather than risk soiling a finished folio with repeated viewing, I'll print samples that I'll repeatedly use so people can see and handle it until it is too damaged for use. These are then destroyed and replaced by new samples.