View Camera magazine article - Seeing in Silver : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread

In the most recent View Camera magazine I read and then re-read the article by ?Gordon Hutchings: Seeing in Silver?. This has caused me to ponder the current use of a digital darkroom in regards to the time honored method of a traditional ?wet? darkroom. For those of you who have not seen the article there were specifically two points (amongst various others) that raised my eyebrows. The first is that he states "While the basics of Photoshop, for example can be learned in an afternoon, it takes hard work to really know it, and all computer technology is a constantly moving target, requiring continuous learning?" He continues on in his article towards explaining how, just like a traditional darkroom one must spend hours upon hours of learning digital techniques in order to be able to produce a fine quality print.

His second point that has interested myself is that he goes on to suggest that if "One could simply scan in a color slide and push the ?Monet? or ?Rembrandt? button and out of the printer comes a near-perfect rendition of the print" then how long would it take before the person creating the print becomes dissatisfied with the process. He suggests, "By the end of the first half days output I suspect there would be a complete burnout followed by disgust, disappointment and total boredom with the whole project.?"

So let?s start with the second point. I suspect (by reading posts over the past year) that there is more than a few photographers who would rather spend their time shooting rather than printing, and are welcoming and perhaps even embracing the ease with which digital printing is permitting them to produce quality prints with a minimum of effort. Am I wrong about this? Are these people not relieved in that they do not have to use a ?wet darkroom? and that changes are much easier to implement in a digital environment?

In regards to the first point, I personally have found the computer capable of making tasks that use to consume much time and effort to now be almost effortless. I also am not a ?computer guru? and most of these tasks have been quite easy to learn. For instance the creation of this topic in a word processor, which I can spell check, cut and paste to restructure content, and change the fonts, and bolding of words so as to add emphasis where I feel it is necessary. If I had been using an old fashion typewriter I would have found this to be quite a task and one that would not have been done so well. I also feel compelled to point out that the ability to use these features is easily acquired in a single evening just by playing around and experimenting with the software. Would it not also be possible to learn how to do ?digital printing? by enjoying a few evenings of experimentation with a program like Photoshop and the appropriate hardware such as a good scanner/printer combination?

In conclusion I just wish to say that I use a traditional darkroom and have no intention of going digital at this time but felt compelled to question Gordon?s presumptions based upon my own computer experiences. I now seek your opinions on whether using digital techniques requires many hours of practice and after becoming proficient if you thing that you would become bored with the whole process? Please no flames on the spelling or grammar as I am becoming a ?spelling/grammar checking, semi-illiterate, word-processing type of guy? who is trying to kick the habit. :>)))

-- GreyWolf Phillips (, September 29, 2001



Thank you for bringing these ideas to the forum. There seems to be two components to this question: (1) what works fast and well, and (2) what brings happiness. If you are under great pressure to produce something super quick--well, then, you'll sit in front of a foolish screen and get it done. But if it's art that you're after, then you might love screens or you might love darkrooms. I happen to love the darkroom way of working. I think it takes time to understand an image, and often a shortcut would leave the image half completed. I also would find Photoshop (which I work with at my office) amazingly stupefying, regardless of its versatility and power. But I do not love make-work or busy-work, so if there are new ways to come to a correct exposure or contrast-level within the darkroom environment, that's great. I know a writer who sometimes uses a manual typewriter. He wants to enjoy the time when he is writing, and the computer screen is really a problem when it comes to the exercise of imagination. Similarly, I want to enjoy my time with photography. Still, there's a understandable difference of opinion with this issue of technology, and there is no need to reject any technology in all applications. For instance, I value this forum, so I am willing to sit here at a keyboard in front of a screen in order to contribute to it.

-- Michael Alpert (, September 29, 2001.

Hi Grey Wolf, I don't think you are going to get closure this issue. With regard to my own response, I've enjoyed prints from photographers who I've thought of as primarily printers and photographers who I've heard were point and shoot and send it to the lab for processing. My own prejudice is with the printer. And that digital stuff seems a whole different ball game to me. I have no doubt that great art will come from someone using digital imagine making. But I'm not so sure that at some point it doesn't become something different than photography, and I'm not a purist, too much. When the goal is an image, I don't know how anyone can prescribe the way one gets done, but to become a master of a art is hard pains-taking work by definition. If you want to shoot film, scan the product, and do a straight off print through the easy version of Photoshop, if you find that satisfying, who's to say it's wrong? or why would you listen to them?

As an aside, when the heck did this site all of a sudden become interested in becoming picky about English grammer?

Best, David

-- david clark (, September 29, 2001.


I work in a field that has been increasingly dominated by the use of the computer and digital imaging, architecture. In our firm we have one of the most advanced imaging departments in the region and we have one person on staff who's sole responsibilty is to be a photoshop artist. While others can do the same things on the computer that he can there is a significant difference in the level of quality simply based on the fact that he has been a photoshop professional for several years. I can go back through several years worth of computer generated renderings and immediately spot the ones that have been manipulated by him. So the short answer to your question is yes it takes a great deal of time (years) to become more than simply proficient with photoshop and the digital darkroom.

On the other hand our computer images are less valued by our clients than the water colors we hire a renderer to produce. Often the computer renderings are returned to us by clients because they "don't have space" even though they may cost more to produce. I think sub- consciously people prefer something that isn't easily reproducable. This ultimately may be the biggest difference between the digital and traditional darkrooms.

The social critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote an essay titled Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. (or something like that). I think I'm going to re-read it this week.

-- Kevin (, September 29, 2001.

I would have to agree with Mr. Hutchings to a certain extent. I am no expert about computers or software, but i am confident I could buy a scanner, photoshop and quad ink sets for my printer and produce good looking prints in a few days of learning and trial and error. But to produce exceptional or gallery quality fine prints to rival the best that a master sliver printer can print would take a much greater investment in time to learn the nuiances of the software. Once one really understands the software, the porcess probably becomes much quicker but still great time and effort will be involved in making various proofs, applying masks, digitally dodging and burning, adjusting contrast, sharpness etc.

I think you can make a realistic comparison to learning how to print in a wet darkroom. With some instruction and trial and error a person could produce straight representations of negatives in a couple hours of practice with out a whole lot of effort. Yet this is a long way from producing a fine print that coveys what was felt when the negative was exposed. That only comes with learning all the tools and techniques at your disposal and exposing a lot of paper in the process.

It really is a matter of the quality of work you want to produce. Right now my time is so limited I feel I am more productive in the wet darkroom where I can produce quality work. I will probably learn digital someday but right now I would rather spend the time further refining my wet printing skills.

-- James Chinn (, September 29, 2001.

Is there anyone else out there who does their photography in their spare time and who sees the darkroom as a break from staring at a computer? I guess it depend what you do for a living but if you work with computers, as many of us do these days, the last thing I want to do is spend another couple of hours in front of one. I can see the advantages of digital printing and every time I produce something from my 200 Quid Epson I think maybe there's something in this but I have yet to sentence myself to learning enough to match what I can do in the wet darkroom. For me it's the hands on craft thing and the physical effort involved that still wins out as much as anything else. I think it is over simplifying things some what to think that the love or hate of digital methods is down to whether you think that they are better than conventional methods or not...I realise I'm way of the point by I'll call it a day.

Matt Sampson

-- Matt Sampson (, September 29, 2001.

You are right Matt. maybe that is the other reason I don't delve more into the digital realm. For myself there is a certain ritual and serenity in setting up the darkroom for work, mixing chemicals, manually manipulating the exposure with dodging, burning, flashing masking, anticipating the result as the print emerges. All the processes require a patience that is hard to practice for most people. Maybe these aspects of the wet darkroom will be a strength to keep it alive as photographers who in the future know nothing but digital cameras and computer screens return to the slower more meditative wet darkroom.

-- James Chinn (, September 29, 2001.

I normally avoid digital/analogue discussions like the plague, but I couldn't resist the urge to turn off those bold italics!

So, having done that, I may as well add my two penn'orth. 'Kevin' said, "I think sub- consciously people prefer something that isn't easily reproducable." Essentially I agree, although I'm not even sure that it is necessarily subconcious. A hand-made print - like any hand-made artefact - has a uniqueness about it that, for many people, makes it inherently valuable, in a way in which the mass-produced artefact is not.

A digital file may be reprinted any number of times at the touch of a button, and by anyone in possession of the file, whereas if a great photographer only made a hundred prints from a given negative in his lifetime, then that is all there will ever be. They might be copied, or others may print from the negative, but the result will not be an original from the hand of the master.

I can see the digital darkroom thriving as a tool of the commercial photographer, or of the amateur who doesn't want the hassle of a wet darkroom, but for many of those who have pretensions to produce serious works of art it will remain absolutely essential.

-- Huw Evans (, September 29, 2001.

Wlter Benjamin talks of two values of art: Cult and Exhibition. Cult value is magic, a cave painting or a fresco in a church. Exhibition: "In photograpy, exhibition value begins to displace cult value all laong the line. But Cult value does not give way without resistance" (Art in age of Mech Rero) I'd say, silver salt has taken back the cult. The cave dweller, the magic, the alchemist. Probably exhibition, it doesn't mater (or won't soon). The archetect photo-shop artist, I would say whould have Exhibition as its intent, where the water-colour would be some kind of Modern cult value to the Blue Sky past of all thoes archetect dads from the 50's and 60's TV shows -- not the same magic as a cave.

Magic, in my mind sums it up. I'm of the Cult of Silver. Dean

-- Dean Lastoria (, September 29, 2001.

That word is "along" and I can't seem to cult-and-paste (sorry) into the old spell checker today. Dean

-- Dean Lastoria (, September 29, 2001.

In todays world we have art & then we have 'collectables'. The art will last, being up on the wall or on display and when rotated, put back out again and again. The 'collectables' are the commonplace that we put up to cover the bad spot on the wall, give as gifts when brain dead and buy when advertising hype overcomes common sense. They gain in value as the years go by only by virtue of survival. With so many reprints of the same old low quality prints, whether digital or traditional silver, much work falls into the 'collectables' catagory. The hands on aspect of traditional printing gets more respect due to the work involved and much of what is now a collectable will eventually fade due to being poorly printed, using RC materials, etc. The finest prints are going to be in demand always. Weston and others fit well here. The very finest digital will be in demand but my guess is that on a percentage basis, comparing a Uelsmann to a newer digital guru, the Uelsmann will be in greater demand for a much longer time.

The talent and skill needed to produce the highest quality digital can't be dismissed. It takes time, dedication, skill and a certain 'touch', just as silver or alt process printing does. One has to be more than excellent to be thought of highly among a group of people who look at the images & say "I can do that on my computer & printer at home". The old line photogs have a similar line in "I could have done that". In both pursuits few will ever "do that" in reality. While one can clone almost anything on a computer doing so in the real world with a camera in the field, wet hands in the darkroom & the time needed to become good at it will always make the final result worth more in the long run. There is still a major difference in a real Rembrandt or Weston and a computer generated 'similar'.

-- Dan Smith (, September 29, 2001.

I've made a tiny transition over the past year. I used to make an 11X14 of most of my negs, just a work print, and I would go through a love/ hate/ is there any value in this picture phase to decide if it was worth spending half a day in the darkroom trying to actually produce a fine print. For lack of time, or laziness, or whatever, that task has now gone to the computer. But when that one in 500 picture does come along that I think may have the potential to be an artistic piece, into the darkroom I go! And I relish those times, as time seems so hard to get for that. For some reason, God made me a bit of a loner, and I love to go into the dark, put in a tape, and let the creative stuff go.

"Ansel Adams at 100" comes to mind. Swarkowski (please forgive if spelling is incorrect) has made a whole show over subtle differences that he interprets as different phases in the artists motivations over a lifetime! If Digital had come on the scene 50 years ago, that show would be pointless. Once the file is made......just keep pushing the button and each is perfectly (OR NOT) like the last."

I've asked the question before on this forum and I'll ask again; What's the difference between a $17 poster of "Moonrise" in a poster shop, and the $40,000 original? OK, what's the difference between that $17 poster and a good Piezography "fine art" print?

Ultimately, and on a different level, personal preference comes into play. For me the computer is "work" and the darkroom is "play." For someone else, the computer is "play" and the darkroom is "work."

Jim Galli

-- Jim Galli (, September 30, 2001.

Perhaps a little off the subject: I'd like to know what equipment some of you digital bandwagoners are using to make your "exhibition quality" prints?

Aside from service bureau Light Jet type prints which blend advanced laser optics, computer technology and traditional silver-based photography, every other digital print I've seen, I could tell by looking closely at it that it was made off a photo printer, and not under an enlarger.

Even for a budding large format guy such as myself, I'd have to say I'm sorry, but digital just has not arrived yet(even still). The difficulty of contrast control in traditional printing is to me less of a demerit than lack of fine resolution and striations visible in today's top of the line consumer digital prints. Andre

-- Andre Noble (, September 30, 2001.

My friend photographer David Freese has an interesting theory about computer screen work vs. darkroom. We were talking one day about how rare it is to see great digital work in our classrooms and galleries, and he said that perhaps a different part of the brain is engaged when you are physically handling something three-dimensional and tactile (e.g. the paper, filters, dodging tools, and chemicals in the darkroom). Perhaps the brain is stimulated to a greater degree or in a different way than it is when everything is "virtual" on the screen. This makes sense to me. I know Photoshop (though I'm no expert) and use it to prepare images for the web or e-mail, but you'll have to drag me kicking and screaming out of the darkroom for anything else.

-- Sandy Sorlien (, September 30, 2001.

the obvious solution is to move the computer with Photoshop and Epson printer into the darkroom. pour a few trays of Dektol and fixer, ignite the safety light, turn on a faucet, add a fan and the buzz of a few transformers, and start hammering away at the computer.

-- daniel taylor (, September 30, 2001.

The speed with which one achieves proficiency in digital imaging (some call it the "learning curve") will vary widely among individuals. Photoshop and the associated hardware are loaded with idiosyncrasies, subtle difficulties, and extremely complicated features. If you buy the wrong printer, scanner, or monitor the troubles can be endless. I believe very experienced photographers find it easier to make the transition especially if they first seek good advice and training. They bring into the new craft the discipline of the old craft and have a better chance of producing exceptional work. I'm seeing many so so photographers rushing into digital imaging where they become so so digital technicians producing so so results.

-- C. W. Dean (, September 30, 2001.

Andre's question brings me to ask,

Aren't "traditional" methods still MUCH cheaper than digital? How much does a quality outfit run? How does the cost of a scanner and a printer and computer and monitor and software and system calibration and the inks and the paper and zip drives and so on compare to the cost of some trays and chemisty and paper? Even if you include the cost of a cold light head enlarger?

How many prints and how many years would you have to amortize the digital gear over to get a per sheet rate equivalent to traditional silver? In other words, the start-up costs are pretty much prohibitive for a lot of us - which leaves the service bureaus, which sort of begs the question, doesn't it?

-- Sean yates (, September 30, 2001.

Dan. I've wanted to take a hammer to my computer many times.

-- Sandy Sorlien (, September 30, 2001.

Craft takes time, so, yes, it does take some effort to become proficient with Photoshop. LF has its own set of skills, as do both wet and digital darkrooms, too. All are photographic "tools of the trade" and have their own learning curve. For me, the advantage to digital darkroom work is the versatility of the output. In a wet darkroom, you make a print to hang on a wall. In the digital darkroom, you can make a digital print, a digital negative (to print in your wet darkroom), post on the web, create a CD, create a book using the digital prints or if you really want to get crazy, print an iron on transfer for your T shirt. Far from becoming bored, having a digital darkroom(for me) expands photographic horizons. I am now thinking in terms of multiple images, projects and themes that I have treated over the past thirty years of photography. I recently completed a project of making a portfolio of fifty images to send to fifty friends. The output was a CD. This was not something that I could have done economically with wet darkroom methods. One other thing, there's tons more gadgets to buy once you start using your computer.

-- Joe Lipka (, October 01, 2001.

I learned like everybody else with traditional photographic processes, including wet darkroom. For me, it's magical. I have no interest in digital. There's nothing about it that seems attractive. -jeff buckels

-- Jeff Buckels (, October 01, 2001.

Joe Lipka hit the nail on the head. It is the greater variety of end uses for the product that makes digital so appealing to many photographers. Once you learn the rudiments of digital you have so much you can do with it. I would never have been able to have so many people view my work had it not been for digital. Not that I've used it's full potential. But most photographers aren't fine art type photographers. Most don't care to get more than a picture. they are not too concerned with contrast ratios and color balance but with digital they can send it, recieve it, change it, combine it, ect, ect. That's what most do with digital. I think it's great. James

-- james (, October 01, 2001.

I've observed and enjoyed many of these digital/traditional discussions, and feel that the silent majority of workaday photographers simply don't step foward and make themselves heard. I'd wager the vast majority of photographers would not call themselves "fine art" printers, and have no interest in producing that kind of work. Yet often in these types of discussions, we hear from the "fine art" printers who say digital printing has not reached the quality level required by them. I'm not about to argue that point, but for every one "fine art" photographer, there are twenty commercial photographers who rely on PhotoShop or similiar to produce the kind of work required by and paid for by their clients, who require a digital file for web use, magazine reproduction, or printing. This file often needs to be manipulated to varying degrees to suit the job. In raw business terms, clients expect you to have the ability to e- mail proofs, show a portfolio on CD, and communicate with their pre- press and advertising firms in digital media.

-- Michael Mahoney (, October 01, 2001.

There is a use and a place for both traditional and digital. I happen to run a custom B&W photo lab in Cleveland, Ohio, Labwork, where we do traditional processing and printing for both fine art and commercial clients. Depending on the final use the print will be either RC or Fiber Base; digital has it's place primarily for commercial work and the majority of that work is Color, not B&W, so we do not get requests for it. In the end I feel color will go digital and B&W will be traditional for the most part. For the above responses that stated how versatile digital is in that they can do so many different things with these images, well doesn't that just make those images a commodity as opposed to art?????

-- Jeffrey Scott (, October 01, 2001.

I collect photographs as well as making them; whenever I have a successful show or make an especially good sale I use some of the money to buy a print from someone else whose work I admire. (And yes, by the way, I AM a fine art photographer. I've been amused at the umbrage which this useful label has evoked on this forum; it has certainly done nothing to deserve the abuse that's been aimed at it. "Fine art photographer" is simply a job title that identifies a professional photographer who doesn't do weddings, doesn't do commercial work, isn't a photojournalist, but whose work consists in making photographic prints for exhibition. Sally Mann is a fine art photographer. Robert Adams is a fine art photographer. It's what they do. I am a fine art photographer. It's what I do. Being less well-known than they are doesn't make me any less of a fine art photographer, just as the photographer who works for the local paper is still a news photographer even if he doesn't sell his pictures to Time. It's just a job title. I don't think for a moment that I'm on a different plane or that my work is better or more creative than commercial photographers or photojournalists, but what I do is not commercial photography or photojournalism, it is fine art photography. I'm surprised there are photographers who seem to be unaware of this commonly-used terminology.)

Anyway, as I was saying, I do sometimes buy photographs, and I can hardly imagine buying a digital print. To me it would be like buying a page out of a magazine; it's the same kind of mechanical reproduction, whether printed with ink on a press or printed with ink on a digital printer. (And there's my answer to Jim: to me there's no difference between the $17 poster and the digital print). I suppose if I really admired an image by a person who only printed digitally, I might consider buying it but only if the price were very low, as for a poster.

I've earned these strong opinions by virtue of once being the person "pushing the button" to make my photographs into digital Monets, except it was more complicated that because I was using the very first version of photoshop and there were no "Monet" filters, I had to do a lot of stuff with channel operations and calculations and the like to create a "painterly" effect. I must have thought they looked pretty cool at the time, because I framed a bunch of these dye-sub prints and showed them at an art fair, but I am eternally grateful no one bought any, and I have long since destroyed the prints as well as the computer files that generated them.

Some of the discussion here is apples vs oranges. I think most people appreciate how important digital work is to commercial photography and to electronic transmission of images. The question is what place the digital print will have in fine art photography, and I think each fine art photographer has to answer the question for him/herself as far as his/her own work, although in the end it won't be photographers who will make the ultimate determination, it will be the people who buy photographs; whether they will value digital prints as much as traditional photographic prints still remains to be seen.

-- Katharine Thayer (, October 02, 2001.

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