"With a silver gelatin print you are placing the image into the paper – not on top of the paper. [...] It is what people are usually referring to when they say there is something 'different' between a well printed ink jet and a well printed silver print.
They are responding to the physical nature of the printed images."
I always felt something like that, and it was a pleasure to delve into these thoughts and much more with photographer and black and white printer Jim Megargee, who showed me how there is still a lot to talk about, beyond any trite 'analog vs digital' cliche.
Enjoy the read.
"In una stampa ai sali d'argento l'immagine è dentro la carta, non sulla superficie del foglio. [...] È la differenza che molte persone sentono tra il guardare un'ottima stampa a getto d'inchiostro e un'altrettanto ottima ai sali d'argento.
Si tratta della diversa reazione che si ha alla natura fisica delle immagini stampate."
Ho sempre provato una sensazione simile, per cui è stato un piacere dilungarmi su questo e molto altro con Jim Megargee, fotografo e stampatore in bianco e nero, che mi ha dimostrato come ci sia ancora tanto da dire sull'argomento, al di là di qualsiasi banale cliché attorno al 'digitale vs analogico'.
FABIO SEVERO: How did you become a b&w printer? What made you choose this profession?
JIM MEGARGEE: I became a professional printer more by chance than choice. I had just moved into New York City in early 1989 after leaving a teaching position at Rochester Institute of Technology. One day I received a call from a former student asking if I would be interested in a few days printing work at the Annie Leibovitz Studio. Eager to work with someone at that caliber, and that level, I immediately accepted the job. The project Ms. Leibovitz had been working on was for the American Ballet Theatre; I was asked if I would be interested in working on the 1970-1990 retrospective that Ms. Leibovitz was just starting to plan. I accepted working on all her other projects, staying with the Ms. Leibovitz studio for four years and working on all her black and white work. Then in 1994 I opened MV Labs with my partner Cornelia van der Linde - almost 17 years ago. So I suppose you could say that my becoming a professional printer was purely serendipitous. Although I had always been keenly aware of the role that a ‘fine’ print played in the total understanding of an image, and had trained myself for years to be the best possible printer I could be for my own work.
FS: You are also a photographer. How do printing and photographing dialogue with each other for you? Can the work you do as a printer for other people be an inspiration for new directions in your own photography?
JM: It is much easier printing for oneself than printing for someone else. And by easy I mean that you know at what moment the print is ‘right’. When it is saying all that you wish to have it say. When it communicates your first and final intent because you are speaking to yourself and you understand your own personal language. We get a few job requests from people that wish to work with us as a printer, for example. Usually they will have a few years experience or so of printing their own work. They will generally feel that this qualifies them to be making exhibition prints for someone else. This is just not the case. To become a ‘Master Printer’ takes skills that go beyond the darkroom. For example when you are printing for someone else there is a period of time when you both have to learn each other’s language, so to speak. Meaning that you as the photographer have to be able to communicate to me clearly what your photograph is about beyond the obvious. I often say that I can see that it is a photograph of a tree (for example), but what about the tree. What do you wish to say about the tree? Why did you photograph this tree and not the one next to it? These might sound like silly questions to some, but to the printer - your interpreter - these help get to the core of the beginning of the interpretation. Then the process can become a true collaboration. This is when we can begin to find inspiration in each other’s work. Some image-makers are easier to print for than others, and some are impossible. I have found that it is much easier to work with someone who has printed for themselves before. The reason is that they understand what can, and more importantly, what cannot be done in the darkroom.
FS: Can you tell us how the ever-increasing presence of digital into photography has changed your job? Have there been different steps in the transition from a full analog world to the present day? How would you also define today’s situation and do you think things will change furthermore for analog printing?
JM: Firstly, I know that the so-called phase ‘analog photography’ is often used today to describe what we primarily do here at MV Labs. But I find that term to be one used mainly by those that are deeply involved in digital. Those that never really left film usually refer to this as traditional media or photography. Sorry, I had to say that. Digital has actually had very little impact on ‘how’. There are certain types of work that we just no longer see here. Magazine work, for example, is seldom sent to us unless it is a job that the photographer has insisted be done with film, or if it is an image that they just can’t handle with digital. An example is a recent issue of Rolling Stone magazine special edition on the 25th anniversary of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It was shot by Mark Seliger, and Mark insisted that film be shot rather than digital. Or last Spring and Summer we ran some 500-plus rolls of film for one of our better known clients for a special issue of TIME magazine. I do my job. It has had an impact of the traditional lab as a whole in terms of the business. To make up some of the difference we opened a conversation and art supply website, www.mvconservation.com, that is run by Cornelia. And we have a full time Gallery of Photography at our new location at 4 West 37th Street in NYC.
Since the ‘digital revolution’ our situation as a whole has become much more custom-oriented. We work on more books, exhibitions and special projects than we had before. Much of the work is personal projects that the photographers have a great commitment to that you don’t normally see in the everyday magazine work. So I suppose in some respect the work we are doing today is as rewarding as any we have done in the last 20 some years at MV. And because we are one of the last of a breed, so to speak, we have people from all over the world seeking out our services and consultation.
What will continue to change however is that our services will become more and more specialized and more in demand as fewer and fewer places will offer them. But also because fewer and fewer of those of us who have the type of in-depth knowledge of this mediums (traditional) techniques and possibilities will be around to ask the questions of.
FS: I always thought that a photograph is made of all the steps necessary to create it, from framing the scene with the camera to the final print hanging on a wall. At some stage one might even wonder, depending on the photographic work, who is really the author of the image, who managed to make those qualities come out of the negative, between the photographer and the printer. No surprise, after all, that some of the most exquisite black and white artists print their own work, like Sally Mann and Hiroshi Sugimoto. Did you ever feel that the final work was somehow shared between you and the photographer?
JM: This is usually true and always necessary for the most expressive work to be accomplished. There are few thoughts that I keep in mind when discussing this issue. As I am often asked similar questions. Ansel Adams once stated that “the negative was the score and the print was the performance”. Another is that Paul Klee once stated that great work is created when there is the proper marriage between the artist’s “ideal and material” means. It is never about one or the other alone – the taking or the printing. They are of equal importance in my mind.
In a related thought, as I tell to students, is that your technique is really your language. It is your vocabulary. And you can have extremely important things to say but not have the language skills to communicate your vision clearly. Of course the reverse is also (and it seems more prevalent) true. Many have an extraordinary vocabulary and little or nothing to say or add to the image making history of the medium.
FS: I have the feeling that the industry of analog photographic products is simply surviving and not evolving, relying on a relatively small niche of users. I wonder if the research on quality of films and paper emulsions and all sorts of chemicals could have been still carried steadily as it was 20 or 30 years ago but with today’s technology, maybe now we would have an amount of excellent products that could have pushed the quality and the possibilities of analog photography even further than what we are used to. While digital photography is constantly changing, analog photography seems to be frozen in a limbo where there’s no space for research of new solutions and products. Is that the real situation?
JM: The techniques that are and have been a part of traditional photography have, in reality, changed very little since it was first introduced. Photosensitive emulsions on some sub straight, developers, fixers, etc. There have been advancements in these basic necessities through the years and if you were to be using them on a daily basis you would see that they continue to be developed by their manufactures. And the gloom and doom of their ultimate demise is greatly over exaggerated. A usually missing element here is that it has never been about the materials or the equipment used. It has always been about the person standing with and using that material or equipment. That seems a bit lost it the “digital world” – maybe it is because it is so equipment oriented and dependent. And to produce the very highest quality it is necessary to have the absolute finest in the currently available equipment (scanners / printers). This alone makes for a very different approach. Myself for example have printed exhibitions out of small apartment closets in the past with far less than the most expensive equipment. Also – I believe it is a misstatement to say that digital is really changing. It is more as if it is refining upon a basic idea.
FS: Among collectors, critics and all over the Internet there seem to be a growing debate over how to properly evaluate digital craftsmanship. With analog photography it was kind of easier to appreciate (or not) a print: digital editions are more obscure objects, to which we tend to forgive a lack of quality we would have never allowed in front of an analog print. Maybe it is due to the plethora of printing techniques and papers (not even a ‘C-print’ label is guarantee of a specific and unique process anymore), but tech specs seem to have taken over some of the plain and simple visual evaluation. What is your opinion about that?
JM: This is a very, I believe, overlooked issue. Not just in the ‘real world’ but also in photographic education. The question is really “what standards are being applied and who is creating them”? I have seen some very well know photographers digital prints that were unforgivably horrible. Lacking any type of nuance in their presentation. I don’t necessarily blame them because they were getting the same results from darkroom prints that they were making on their own. But the ease of digital printing has become very seductive to many photographers. The problem is many have no basis to compare their results to. If you don’t understand how it is supposed to look – how can you get there? I’m of the old school in that I think all photographic students should have a hands-on appreciation of what a “Fine” print is supposed to look like and what are the variations that are based upon these very well established values. We all seem to forget that digital is a very, very, very young medium. It is still trying to find what will be its true niche within the larger picture. And when a “new” printing technique is introduced it is given a lot leeway until this happens. I always think of Jerry Uelsmann’s work as an example of what digital should be capable of but somehow still is not. And yet Jerry performs all his exceptional images in a darkroom. So once again we come to the most basic of facts, that it is the person, not the equipment or materials.
FS: The eternal question: do you think digital postproduction can provide the same quality that a state of the art developing and printing process offers? Is analog printing an old-fashioned technique or does it still make what is unachievable otherwise?
JM: It is impossible to predict the future, but at this point I do not see that happening. In fact I had a detailed discussion with two well known photographers just this week about certain recent developments and improvements in digital; papers, inks and equipment. The one overwhelming thing I kept hearing (in between the lines) was compromises in the comparisons between digital and silver. It seemed that they were settling for less than they knew was possible. This is not to say that I have not seen some exceptionally beautiful ink jet prints. I have. But there is a very, very basic difference between the two mediums.
With a digital print you can select from seemingly endless types, surfaces, and weights of papers. Several different ink types are also available (gloss, semi gloss, matt, etc.) as well as variations on the idea of black and grays. What seems like an endless number of choices to make even before beginning to approach the print itself. Those of us that work with traditional media have far fewer options. Paper choices are much, much less. Of course we do the option of mixing developer formulas to create various tones and colors in the papers but even that is restricted to a point. The basic difference though has nothing to do with any of these issues. It is in the way the image itself is created on the sheet of paper. With digital media you are placing ink on to a paper’s surface. Much the way all traditional offset printing is done. In a way you are creating a very high quality poster. The difference being that under proper storage conditions the ink jet print will last about 150 years (according to recent research).
With a silver gelatin print you are placing the image into the paper – not on top of the paper.
You are actually creating an etching of metallic silver. There is a measurable depth in the print that cannot be achieved with an ink jet print. The ink either sinks into the paper at the same level or rides on the surface. It is what people are usually referring to when they say there is something “different” between a well printed ink jet and a well printed silver print. They are responding to the physical nature of the printed images. We seem to also forget that the digital media was first developed as a color medium, not a black and white medium. And all programs, etc. lean to that simple fact. Most people that I know who are serious about their black and white digital printing end up using third party software rather than the one that came with their printers.
So I suppose your last question is the correct answer as I see it. After all, where else can you get the quality and beauty you can from a platinum print? Only from a platinum printer. Not from a digital printer and not from a silver printer. Each has its uniqueness and beauty. But up until now it seems that the choice of digital over traditional (for most) is one of economics rather than of quality. And that they see the learning curve in understanding the darkroom over digital steeper. There are some photographers that were clients of ours that we no longer see and then hear that they are out putting their own prints at home or in their studios.
FS: Many young or emerging photographers seem to choose colour rather than b&w. I've been told that Todd Papageorge used to tell his students to ask themselves "Why colour?" before leaving the b&w aside, while now there are people thinking that the question today would be "Why b&w". What do you think about that?
JM: We used to say that when you shoot in B&W your concerns are "Form and Content" but when shooting in color its "Form, Content and now also Color". So the question comes about - is the color necessary to the understanding of the subject? Much early fine art color photography was mostly about the color and not the subject. Today that is much different as people like Alex Webb for instance brought the 3 together. I can not ‘see’ Alex's images in anything other than the way they were intended - in color.
FS: Do you think that the spreading of colour in photography shifted the styles and subject matters that are more suitable for b&w? What would be the best use of b&w in photography for you today?
JM: There are several photographers that understand the power and reason for choosing B&W over color. Most are in documentary or journalism, with a few in Fine Arts. A look at the work of Jim Goldberg shows someone that has a deep understanding of how and why to use color and/or black and white. Antonin Kratochvil has a grasp of black and white that he has turned into a personal vocabulary. His work done in color would not have the same impact or meaning. Then there is James Nachtwey - his most powerful work to date is mostly in black and white. It does not need the color to make its points and move you. In the end its about the photographers ability to connect with their subject – color, black and white are really a secondary issue. Younger photographers have a direct connection to color that we older image-makers do not have because of when we came of age in the medium. For most of them I'm sure that they have a more difficult ‘seeing’ in black and white. Digital has given them a short course in color and I really believe they mostly ‘see’ in color.
All images © Jim Megargee