Does the Print Matter in the Digital Era?

There’s been much talk lately about the demise of the photographic print and the rise of its would-be replacement, the electronically presented digital image. Some will tell you that the battle is already over and that soon there will be no printing and no prints. After all, they say, we already view most of our photographs on laptops, tablets, or, lordy-me, our smart phone screens.  I’ll admit that back-lit, digital photographs viewed on today’s lcd screens are stunning, but I’m not ready to write the obit for the traditional photographic print.

Although the trans-illuminated image and the photographic print each inform and communicate, they affect us in fundamentally different ways. The electronic image is powerful but transitory, depending on electrical charges to exist. It’s elusive, like a dream that’s gone when we awaken. On the other hand, the photographic print is tangible and persistent. We can feel it’s solidity, sense it’s presence. It is there when we want it, accessible as long as there is light. Each serves different purposes–one represents art, the other is art.

Prints are a feast for our senses, whether framed, jewel-like, behind glass, or available to hold and touch from their folders and boxes. I love the way they feel in my hands, their weight and texture. I even enjoy their signature scents. It’s good that they’re still there when I walk in a room and look up at the wall. I also like knowing that I am looking at the image the way the artist wanted me to see it. I just feel more connected to prints than I do to the digital images that appear and disappear on my computer screen.

Nevertheless, digital images on my lcd screen are indispensable to my work. I use digital imaging both for the creation and representation of my artwork. I know that these electronic images are not the actual art, but rather the processing tools for the finished pieces, my  prints. And it is deeply satisfying to express my feelings and thoughts using this technology to create real and enduring artifacts. I keep clear the distinction between digital image and print, not confusing one for the other.

I love the fact that these digital images do become tangible–appearing in a book, a folio, or a frame–for us to see, hold and touch. And, over time, the enduring presence of a tangible print on our wall, will grow with us in a way that a fleeting image can’t.

So, the next time you reach into your wallet to fish out that precious photo of someone you love, be glad that we still have and can make photographs on paper. It’s a tradition that isn’t going to go away anytime soon!

18 comments on “Does the Print Matter in the Digital Era?

  1. I agree totally.
    I would add that I don’t hear people saying that collectors of fine art are satisfied with just looking at digital image of a painting. I doubt that it will be very long before artists will be able to produce canvas size works digitally — maybe even with a paintbrush. I do think that those who are serious about their art will want something different, the original or that which they can feel. It is one thing to have your family photos on a rotating digital screen and another to be satisfied with viewing Ansel Adams work on an LCD screen.

  2. I can’t ever see the print going away completely. I like the idea that even if I have no electricity I can still see my art on the walls. Technology is a wonderful thing, but it’s a two edged sword. If it’s not working for some reason, we’ve got nothing.

  3. Reblogged this on JKFrancis Photography Blog and commented:
    I couldn’t agree more with Marty Knapp has written and that’s why I decided to share his article. Prints will never go away completely. They look and feel different from digital and they don’t depend on electricity to be able to enjoy them. Let me know what you think. Prints. Dead or Alive?

  4. I agree that back-lighted digital prints are stunning and I love to look at them. However to me the art of matching ink, paper and technique on a printed image is equally as impressive. I print many of my favorite images and display them in my Whistlestop office for all to see. I print them on 11 x 17 stock and just tack them to the wall. They evoke commentary and discussion. But most importantly I like to carry around one or two of my latest 7 x 10.5 favorites to show when someone asks what I been up to. Yes, I could pull out the iPad but the ability to hold the photo and to only look at and study one image has a lot of merit versus sliding through 20 images on an iPad in 15 seconds. So I also print!

  5. Not to bash what you have so eloquently stated, but I would like to represent the other side of the story. What you might not realize, Marty, is that most of us, no matter how hard we work or how good our work is, do not have a gallery in which to sell our work. We heavily rely on the internet to show and offer our prints for (the rare) sale. Yes, I could print all of my work, but then what would I do with those prints?

    Oh, I have a nice 13″ pigment printer that sits idle most of the year until it is time to get some prints ready for the Marin County Fair. This last July I was asked to show 44 of my prints at the Mill Valley Library–a first for me (and I actually sold some prints), and I’ve gotten some great publicity recently, but otherwise nobody is going to buy my work unless they know who I am. That is why the internet and JPEGs are so important to me–gets my work out to people so they can easily see it. After all, online, “the price is right”.

    By the way, Marty, don’t know if you remember me, but I have one of your dune prints hanging in my apartment that I treasure and show off at every opportunity. Nobody leaves before I give them your URL and/or directions to Point Reyes Station.

    • Donald- I don’t take offense at what you’ve written. I actually agree with you. My point is that the print should not (I hope, “will not”) be replaced by it’s digital version. That there are reasons we should treasure and value and continue to make & collect prints when we can and when it makes sense for us. When digital photography was coming into its own, I often heard folks (usually other photographers) predict that soon there would be no film, no darkrooms. And while its true that there are fewer companies making film, there still is and I think there will continue to be availability of film and film processing equipment. It’s the apocalyptic thinking that gets to me, thinking there always will be an ultimate winner that prevails. In this world-view, there is no room for the diversity championed by the lesser, the underdog, if you will. So, even though I haven’t shot film for several years, I still champion it and value it. I’m glad you can still buy analog photography products and equipment.

      I, like you, use digital imagery to promote my creative work and get it out there in a way that would be impossible if I could only send printed matter. I still stand by my opinion, stated in my essay in regards to digital image vs. printed image: “Each serves different purposes–one represents art, the other is art.” I use digital technology, as I’m sure you do, to view my images before making the prints. I couldn’t do without it and I value it for the way it supports the making of my art, the print.

      I do remember you… your name. Thanks for reading and taking the time to reflect on these matters of creative photography. I’ll have to look up to see which dunes print you have!

  6. Marty

    As is, and has been your way, you have your fingers on the pulse of today’s photography. Eloquently spoken and on the mark! I, however feel that the LCD is more than just a tool, but another means of graphic expression, even if it is transitory. And it does provide a means of exposing images to larger audiences. The issue, it seems to me, is parallel to the book world. There is nothing like reading a good book, feeling the weight and texture of the book in your hand and as you read providing your own voice to the text. Yet today we have books in electronic format, and in this medium someone else provides the voice and interpretation of the text.

    I’ll continue to love to hold my photos, including many of your fine prints, and to read great books till my end, but will also enjoy online viewing of photos from around the world and to listen to great books.

    Keep up the great works Marty, hope to see you in the not too distant future.

    • Point well taken, Bill. I should’ve been clearer in my essay. Both digital and paper expressions are valid and useful to us. They serve different purposes and we use them differently. My main point is that digital is not a replacement for the print, as some have been saying. Thanks for weighing in here. You inspire me to continue. By the way, one of my favorite ways to “read” essays is to listen to them on podcasts which I’ve saved on my ipod touch!

  7. Marty, I don’t know whether you’ve had the chance to see the David Hockney exhibit at the de Young in San Francisco — it’s only there for a few more days. One of the really cool things about it is the way Hockney has used multiple media. There are traditional media — oils, watercolors, and charcoal. There are drawings he’s made on his iPhone and iPad, displayed both digitally and as prints. There are hi-res prints of photographs of his charcoal drawings. And there are some stunning video pieces made with multiple digital video cameras and displayed on multiple screens. It’s an amazing opportunity to experience how different display media can affect the impact of the work.

    • Virginia- haven’t seen the exhibit, but have now heard from several others who were impressed with the displayed work there. There certainly is incredible work being done for and on LCD screens these days. Thanks for reminding me about this show.

  8. Marty–Your observations resonated with me. In fact, I had recently been thinking that I should try printing some images, just to experience that part of the photographic effort. Have you considered offering classes in print making? Hope to see you in 2014. Hadley

    • Hadley- Yes. I’ve been considering a class called “Printing by The Seat of Your Pants” which would show folks how to use Lightroom and the Advanced Black & White (ABW) utility that comes with the Epson printer driver software to print B&W. This is the same way I print my own work! No profiles needed…

  9. Marty – Very well said and right on target. The news media had numerous reports during the holiday shopping season that e-book sales seemed to be leveling off as a fraction of all book sales. I suspect the reasons are quite similar. Best wishes for 2014. Frank

    • Frank – Thanks for your comment. The popularity of digitally-rendered images and text is obvious to me. And, I think these versions are very useful to our culture. I’ve just never seen them as total replacements for the analog versions. It diminishes our lives that we live in a culture where people want absolute “winners” in the various product and technology competitions. I wish we weren’t so hasty to eliminate the old ways.

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