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“Fine art prints created by the artist, or the artist’s collaborator, are important because they best represent the artist’s vision” – Mac Holbert

Defining an original painting is pretty straight forward. The artist painted it and it is one of a kind – the strokes of oil and the color mixtures are obvious and there is only one — it can’t be duplicated. There might be prints of the painting, but the original is an original.

Limited Edition Photographs as Originals: But what is an original photograph when a photograph can be printed numerous times? That’s why many photographers limit the number of prints they make and create what is known as a “Limited Edition.” Limited edition prints are the most valued type of fine art photography by virtue of the limited supply of the prints, and their direct “connection” to the photographer who made the image and oversaw or made the prints themselves. With each limited edition there are usually a couple of “artist’s proofs.”

The Story of Ansel Adams’ Moonrise Image: Of course, for every rule there are aberrations, and because of the evolution of photography in the art market, some early situations don’t quite live up to the general rules noted above. For example, let’s look at Ansel Adams’ image Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico. It is perhaps the best known and most sought after photographic print in the field of fine-art photography. On October 6, Christie’s photographs auction saw a landmark result for Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941, which exceeded its high estimate of $700,000 to sell for $930,000, the highest price ever seen at auction for this iconic image.

The story of its making is legendary including how Adams had a difficult and challenging day photographing in the Chama Valley, north of Santa Fe, and had not achieved any images he was satisfied with. Driving back to Santa Fe, he saw this town where the low sun was trailing the edge of the clouds in the west, and shadow would soon dim the white crosses. Struggling to load up his equipment, unable to find his light meter, Adams made a calculation in his head and hoped for the best, with a plan to take a second shot at a different exposure. The sun set and the second shot could not be made. You can read more about the chaos and chances taken at the Ansel Adams gallery website or check out this video. There is also a good story here.

What is interesting about the Moonrise print is that our understanding about “the original” and the understanding of limited editions falls apart. First, while Adams had a weak negative to work with, he knew he had a great image. He just could not quite get the prints where he wanted them to be. Over the next forty years, Adams continued to tinker with the prints in the darkroom, including experimenting with different chemicals and papers as darkroom technology advanced.

As you can see, different eras of the print look very different. Adams noted that it was not until the 1970s that he achieved the print equal to his original visualization of the scene. This begs a question – what is the original? The earliest prints or the later versions of the print that Adam’s was more satisfied with? The Ansel Adams Gallery defines original as “Each original photograph we sell has a Certificate of Authenticity that states it has been authenticated by the Adams family as composed, exposed and printed by the artist himself. “

Secondly, Moonrise breaks the rules on “Limited Editions.” All versions printed by him can be authenticated. However, between the 1940s and the 1970s he produced prints whenever an order for a copy of the image came in. The most common size was 16’’ x20’’. There is a rarer group of prints at the mural size (30’’ x 40”). Adams kept no records, so no one really knows how many copies of this image were made. It is estimated that are anywhere between 900 and 1,300 prints made over 40 years – perhaps worth a cumulative $25 million. Ansel Adams said, with all that tinkering and various alterations, “it is safe to say that no two prints are precisely the same.”

In that respect, perhaps they are all originals.

To convey in the print the feeling you experienced when you exposed your film – to walk out of the darkroom and say: ‘This is it, the equivalent of what I saw and felt!’. That’s what it’s all about – John Sexton

 

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“When you look at a photograph that is printed, you are free of distraction allowing you to really engage and experience all that it has to offer. The experience triggers an emotional response very different from simply seeing an image for a fleeting moment on a screen. The print is a finished product that engages the viewer. People want to move closer and even touch a print. Viewing a print encourages the viewer to travel into the frame imagining the experience of being in that place.” – Seth Resnick

Whether it is the social feeds and stories on Instagram or Facebook, the unorganized photo album on our phones, flipping a page in a magazine or book or the onslaught of visually enticing advertisements that we see every day, we are awash in a world of images.

However, photographic prints are not the same kind of fleeting and temporary experiences. Prints are tangible.  Prints bring scale to the image. A small print forces us to look more closely and a large print creates an immersive experience.  Prints bring details in the photograph to life.  Prints encourage us to view images in different ways — to reflect and to see more.

Photographers make lots of photographs. But we print the ones we think are best and most important. Prints bring our work out of the camera and digital work flow or dark room into the world where the image can be shared and experienced in a more complete way.

Prints are a demanding part of the process that take a photographer’s vision and bring it to completion.  Determining what kind of print to make is one part of the complexity. For example, prints can be made using processes like dye-sublimation on aluminum or pigment ink printing on archival paper or in traditional dark room processes or by making a negative of a digital photo in order to make platinum/palladium print.  Take a look at all the options.

Whatever process and size of print is chosen, the photographer then works hard to ensure that the light, tone, color and composition are coming to life the way they want.  For example, a print I wanted to do on clear aluminum did not work and so I had to change the media it was printed on.  Ansel Adams worked on printing “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” for 40 years making adjustments along the way.  Making prints is a complex part of bringing the vision of an image to realization.

Prints offer viewers the chance to consider not only what the photographers saw and how they saw it, but also the way it has been printed to be shared. The final print is the object and the carrier of the story.

 “A print is much more than a mere reproduction of an image.  It is the culmination of the inspiration and vision of the photographer.  It is the clearest, most direct and powerful form of the image and has the ability to move beyond words, ideas and concepts to touch and move the viewer”  — Christopher Burkett

or, as noted here, just start printing

A random little collage, behind the scenes of making prints….

 BinhammerPhotographs, printingBinhammerPhotographs, prints, 

 

Stumbled upon this Epson America video of photographer John Sexton talking about bringing photographs to life through prints.  He notes that he sits with a print and lets it whisper to him.  I, too, often make prints and let them sit for two or three days, going back at them to work on aspects of the image and making sure the vision truly comes to life.

He sees the print as an experience, like a fine meal or theatrical experience.  It is the fulfillment of the photographic image making process and the fulfillment of a photographer’s passion.

You can learn more about my thoughts on prints and about my “small batch” Limited and Personal Exclusive edition prints here.

I hope you too enjoy the video.