f/Egor: Fauxtographs

In 1952, pianist David Tudor stepped on stage to perform composer John Cage’s latest work, 4’33”. He sat at the piano, closed the lid over the keyboard and, for the next 4 minutes and 33 seconds, played absolutely nothing.

The point of this — John Cage’s most notorious composition — was to illustrate that ambient sounds are also music, and that we need only listen to the world around us.

The same could be said for photographs. Each and every second, in each and every geographic location, there are thousands of photographs left untaken. Maybe no one had a camera. Maybe there were cameras, but no one observed. Maybe everyone was too busy chimping photos on their LCD to notice the new possibilities flashing before them. It’s a philosophical avenue worth exploring, but it’s not the reason I’ve decided to emulate Mr. Cage and publish a photography article without any photographs.

Rather, this article is unadorned to illustrate a different point — that online images are poor approximations of photographs. They are, in fact, fauxtographs.

Obviously, uploading fauxtographs to the internet enables photographers to disseminate their images to a wider audience than does an individual print or gallery show. That’s a good thing. But too many photographers use video imaging as the final medium, rather than an interim one. And that’s not a good thing.

It disheartens me to talk with other photographers and discover how few have bothered to make real and true prints of their images. But in a world where live music is on life support, and many have experienced songs only via an mp3 file squeezed through tiny earbuds, I shouldn’t be surprised.

For several years now, camera companies have been selling the notion that digital quality has surpassed film quality. And that’s true — if by “quality” they mean “resolution.” The resolution fad has been in full swing for over a decade, closely aligned with its partner-in-crime, the “sharpness” compulsion. I swear, if I read one more lens review in which the writer trots out the tired old “so sharp I almost cut myself” cliché, I might just be inclined to grab a razor and do exactly that.

OK, so resolution and sharpness are trendy. I get it. But what I don’t get is the fact that the very medium now used to display and distribute photographs — the internet — is completely unequipped to realize the benefit of all this resolution.

What good are 20+ megapixels if your final product displays only 540,000 of them? Today’s cameras record 40 times more image detail than today’s typical 900 x 600 fauxtograph displays. Sure it’s good to have some extra pixels to shove around during post-processing — but 40 times as many? Sure it’s nice to have a little elbow room in case you need to crop an image — but 40 times as much? The curious reality is, with so little resolution displayed in web-based fauxtographs, photographers would actually benefit more from improvements in tonality and dynamic range (the benefits of film) than they would from megapixels.

Up until last year, these stones I cast would have shattered all the windows in my glass house. Having abandoned wet printing over a decade ago, I rarely bothered to print my digital photos. It was wrong. And I knew it was wrong every time I looked at a quality print. At its best, an image displayed on an LCD might reach out and slap you. But the best printed images do more — they caress you. They pull you in and hold your attention. They invite you to explore their deepest blacks and delight over their delicate highlights.

If you read these words and think to yourself “that dude is high,” then you probably haven’t spent much time examining quality photographic prints. They simply captivate in a way that a video monitor cannot. Somewhere down the road, when retinal display technology becomes the norm, the situation will change. But for now, there is simply no comparison.

That’s why I finally stopped dabbling with occasional printing, got serious, and purchased an Epson 3880 last year. Even though the bulk of my prints are only 6″ x 9″, they display a luxuriousness that far exceeds any fauxtograph I ever bothered to post on the web. Tiny details leap forth, shapes form within shadows and the image takes on a third dimension — depth. This also explains why there are no photographs with this article. It’s impossible to illustrate how much better a printed photograph looks next to a web-based photo when this article is, itself, web-based.

Unless you print your photos, you haven’t done them justice. It’s fine to post fauxtographs on the web, but if you’re serious about your photography, then there’s absolutely nothing that will delight and dazzle like a quality, pigment-based, inkjet print — except, maybe, a silver halide print. But that’s another can of worms to be opened on another day.

-grEGORy simpson

 

grEGORy simpson is a professional “pounder.” You may find him pounding on his computer keyboard, churning out articles for both the Leica Blog and his own blog at photography.ULTRAsomething.com. Or you may hear him pounding on a musical keyboard, composing music and designing new sounds. Frequently, he’s out pounding city pavement and photographing humans simply being. This third act of pummeling has yielded a new photography book, Instinct, which has given Mr. Simpson a fourth vocation — pounding on doors in an attempt to market the darn thing. Follow these and other photographic exploits on the ULTRAsomething facebook page.

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12 comments

  • So very true. I spent a year with my M8.2 shooting actively and never printing a single image. Now with a new Epson those images are completely reborn with the amazing depth and range the 2006 sensor can still deliver.

    Got me thinking. When will Leica bring us a digital M with no LCD screen? Its a distration to the whole experience of photography. Its not a necessity in any way. Set you M on auto-nothing, DNG-only and the screen has no purpose.

  • One the best articles I’ve read for some time. This “dude has his feet firmly in the ground”, unlike other fauxtographers.
    I print my digital stuff, just 6×4 mainly for hard copies and to appreciate them. I’m building another darkroom so I can print my b&w negs on fibre paper, where they can be truly appreciated.
    I’m also part way through a draft of my own blog on why Im building another darkroom. It’ll be similar to this article, for the same reasons.

    http://stephenfell.wordpress.com

    Steve.

  • I think displaying images on the internet has its purpose though – not all images are worth printing after all. I encourage people to keep pictures of their cats and feet on the internet, that way there’s less chance of them being actually exhibited (yes, let the flame wars begin). But I guess less and less people take the time and go to a gallery anyway, and even less photographers actually think about the photograph they take. Not to mention the fine art of enlarging, which many of those who call themselves photographers don’t care for, even though it is in itself, art. So let photos stay on a hard drive somewhere, if this means people will become more selective with their photographs, I’m all for it.

  • Egor, this article is just what I wanted to see! We use Web for exposure (pun intended) but at the same time we often get so busy doing it that we forget what exactly we wanted to expose in the first place, as the properties of our artwork remain unseen unless it’s printed. Photography without printing is an unfinished journey, undigested meal… It is like watching the travel channel on TV instead of going on the actual trip to an exotic place. Thank you for reminding me of that.

    Cheers,
    Greg Shanta

  • Very insightful article. Unfortunately, actually printing photographs requires a whole skill set of its own, and an some understanding of color theory – which is probably the thorniest aspect of digital photography (unless one is doing only b/w work).

  • Great article, Egor. I’m often pestering my friends to print their images because, as I explain to them, even though we have the greatest proliferation of recording devices in the history of humanity, we are at risk of losing it all in a matter of years. In the wake of the Japanese tsunami, hundreds, if not thousands of lives have ceased as if they never existed. Records kept at centralised locations have been washed away with rescue workers saving the physical prints they come across because for some, they were be the only records of existence.
    Timely article!

  • Printing does not have to be complex. Leica cameras run the range of C-Lux point and shoot to pro S system cameras. Printing likewise can go from 1-hour prints to pigment to film pro-lab to wet darkroom. I’ve been happy with prints from my pro lab as well as from the quick-prints as well as just popping out a memory card, taking it to the drug store, popping it into the printer and getting dozens of prints. And the people who looked at them were pleased with all methods. In fact, the employee at the drug store is also a photographer, listened to what I wanted, and gave me prints that rivaled many from the pro lab at half the cost. Master photographers have often left their works to master printers, and we can also determine our level of involvement.

  • Yes, exactly. +1 for me. This is where digital totally fails. Basic printers might be inexpensive, but Epson could help photographers by finding ways to make the pro printers, papers and inks less expensive to operate.

    I’ve also started developing film printing b&w in an improvised darkroom about 3 months ago.

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