Film photography and darkroom practices

Reproducing photographs for viewing – the example of Walker Evans “American Photographs”

The advantage that a print has over an on-line image, or even an image in a book, is that the photographer retains control over the look of the photograph, assuming that the photographer can specify the lighting conditions under which the photograph is viewed.

The look of on-line images is very dependent on the quality and settings of the monitor that renders those images. I can spend a lot of time getting a scan of a print to look like the print through my monitor (say my desk top computer) only to be disappointed when I view the image on another device (say my smart phone) or when the image is rendered through an on-line platform, such as Flickr or Instagram. This is especially true of fine-art prints.

Of course this is assuming that we all see in the same way, which of course we don’t. I was reminded of this obvious fact last year when I had a successful cataract operation in my right eye. I was amazed to discover how white, white really is! The hardening of the eye-lens over time has progressively rendered white as slightly yellow.

I have slowly accumulated a nice collection of photo-books. One of my favourite pastimes is to look through the sequence of photographs chosen (and hopefully sequenced) by a photographer and accompanied by a well written essay. For me one of the gold standards in photo-books is “American Photographs” by Walker Evans with its accompanying essay by Lincoln Kerstein.

It is a gold standard for several reasons, but an important one for me is the quality of the printing in the book. The black and grey duotone 1 separations were done by Thomas Palmer, who also printed separations for Lee Friedlander, Nicholas Nixon, Robert Adams, Paul Strand and Edward Weston. The midtone expansion of tonality in the photographs give them a lovely character.

  1. ‘duotone is a halftone production of an image using the superimposition of one contrasting color halftone over another color halftone. This is most often used to bring out middle tones and highlights of an image. Traditionally the superimposed contrasting halftone color is black and the most commonly implemented colours are blue, yellow, brown, and red however there are many varieties of color combinations used’ – (from wikipedia). For the Walker Evans photographs, duotone was sufficient to render monochrome-colour match, as opposed to tritone or quadtone.

2 Comments

  1. Danny Kalkhoven

    Hi, thru some Facebook group or the lensless podcast (I’m a pinhole phohotographer myself) I was pointed to you website 🙂
    Stumbled upon this post, and agree, my collection of phonebooks is showing huge variations in printing quality, and usually the newer books are better.
    I want to comment “the other way around”: I have noticed that some images look better on digital devices, modern smartphones sometimes make a picture jump right at you, even from their tiny screen. One of my own pinhole pictures (close up of a poppy flower) has this effect, although I never went fo it, just shot the image and scanned it. So in the end there are disappointments and pleasant surprises in every medium 🙂

    • Sidewayseye

      Thanks for stopping by Danny. Yes, I agree that it depends on the situation and context. As a darkroom printer I really like the look and feel of well worked paper picture. I particularly like the gradation of greys which I think is hard to reproduce digitally. But I may be wrong on that.

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