The Final Act of Photography
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 198, January 2017
The privileged son of a French industrialist once said that “the final act of photography is the print”. Henri Cartier Bresson was under no illusion as to the rightful place of a photographic work in the artistic canon. As an artist who came to photography via painting and surrealism Cartier Bresson’s instincts would have been towards the final manifestation of art as a physical manifestation rather than confined to the pages of academic books.
That the rightful place of photography is on paper is often blindly accepted by the majority and will not surprise many but the adage regarding the final resting place of an image as being properly physical is increasingly questionable at a time when many more images are consumed on screens than any other way. Yet there is something about HCB’s declaration that seems to resonate. Perhaps this is because the idea of there being ‘a final act’ to the photographic process implies a sort of finality in the development of the image as concept and form. That there is a ‘final act’ at all means that the photograph has been rendered through the faculties of the photographer’s mind and experience and has been born and presented as a fixed point ready for the view of others and the latent power that comes with that.
Every single image posted on Instagram or Facebook causes a ripple – a wave that might be imperceptible; diminishing as quickly as it forms. Or another picture will gather momentum as it is passed from person to person, from device to device. Often these photographs are ephemeral – easily swept away by the next image. There is now an easy relationship with the fast decay of an image in so far as these photographs are ‘thumbed-through’ on their way down the screen of a phone or ipad. It is possible that we all share a sense that something is missing in the swipe-to-swipe evaporation of image after image. Perhaps way of engaging is disproportionately degrading to the power of imagery. Should the grace period of a picture be measured by the speed of a thumb?
For some reason magazines are not dying out. The long predicted demise of physical print, which is costly and static (when compared to a screen’s innate transient cheapness) has not happened. On the contrary there is a burgeoning selection of ultra high quality titles (including this one) that make a profit from premium priced magazines. These publications often take great care with picture selections, layout and print quality. They are constructed with sweat, love and risk and consumed by an appreciative readers who sense that by buying the publication they are, in some meaningful way, contributing to the life of the magazine and art.
One of the allures of a photograph printed on paper is that it is incontrovertible. It cannot be altered. It is both statement and fact to be looked at today, studied tomorrow and lived with for as long as you want to have it around. The same cannot be said of screen images. Different monitors and screen technology, not to mention colour balances and varying brightness mean that a photo viewed on a device is a conditional thing. For the purposes of enjoying and examining a photograph a print is more useable because paper is reflective – incidental light bounces off it at easily controllable intensity whereas a screen-viewed image is aggressively back lit – admittedly satisfying for contrast but tiring for extended examination.
A photographic print made well in any of the best methods can be printed small or large as befits the subject whilst a screen dictates the dimensions the image can be viewed at. A print can be hung on the wall and examined as one passes by every single day. For many photographers the act of printing out pictures and sticking them up in constant view is a way of getting know your own work intimately well.
And perhaps the most marked difference is demonstrated by the form of the book. There can be no more satisfying photographic experience than turning the pages on a series of images bound into a single photo book and, in particular, books which have been printed meticulously by expert printers whose knowledge of paper and ink can make photographs resonate on every page.
A photograph needs to be fixed in the physical world to allow for the enduring lover’s gaze. A screen-lit image seems brittle and transient by comparison. To commit an image to paper is to honour poetry and the time-resisting dynamics of art. The final act of photography is, indeed, a print.
Next month – what is the point of street photography?