May is almost always my busiest month of the year, as you may recall, so you might forgive me for being caught a bit off-guard last week when I realized that I was nearly halfway through National Photography Month and I hadn't yet taken a single photo! With no real likelihood of a free weekend until mid-June (nudge nudge), I figured I'd better at least write about photos.
And for that, I've chosen a topic that has very recently become quite dear to my heart: prints.
There are many great and wonderful things about digital photography—the ability to take nearly boundless quantities of photos, the flexibility enabled by non-destructive editing software, the ease of sharing your creations with the world. But each of these has a detrimental corollary when compared with film workflows: we don't spend as much time consciously composing our shots because we can take so many, we've become numb to high production value photos because of the accessibility of good editing, and (to me, most distressingly) we don't print our photos.
Having joined the photography world firmly in the "digital age," I've never personally experienced anything different. It seems both natural and good that the most common way we share our creations is via the Internet. The Internet has enabled the broader dissemination of artistic expression in more ways than any other invention in the past half century, and to blame it for the fact that we don't make prints anymore would be—while probably accurate—an unfair criticism in strokes that are far too broad to account for all of the good the Internet has done for photography.
The Internet is objectively a more effective way of sharing your photos than printing them out. But the print is about so much more than just sharing.
The print is about creating something tangible.
One of the most satisfying things about any creative outlet is the feeling that, where once there was nothing, you have made something—it doesn't much matter what it is, what matters is that you have constructed matter from air, a feat that the laws of physics say should be relatively impossible. In a very real sense, the ability to create artistic work allows us to defy the laws of our known universe.1
The problem with digitally-oriented creative outlets is that they very often don't ever make it to that tangible instantiation. Writing software is fun because you can solve real problems, but you can't hold a program (at least, not conceptually2). Ditto with a video, and making a DVD doesn't count—you can move many of these things into some form of physical manifestation, but only one that serves as a container, not one that allows you to viscerally experience it. You can't touch it. You can't feel it.
Photos, on the other hand, have a physical analog in the print, in a way that is very different from the physical analogs of other types of media. The print is not merely a vehicle for an intangible form (like film is a vehicle for a movie), it is a piece of art in and of itself—the feel of the paper, the way the ink adheres to the surface, the amount of light reflected off of the image, these are all artistic elements that the printmaker has the opportunity to bring to bear on their creation. If you run your fingers over a piece of film, you ruin it; if you run your fingers over a photo printed on uncoated Mohawk eggshell paper, you experience the photo in a whole new way.
Maybe I'm being a bit too dramatic (I'm definitely being a bit too dramatic), but the visceral experience of holding a photo in your hands is not something to undersell. The fact that a photo gets to have multiple lives—once during its creation, and again during its rendering onto paper—is something that is very unique to the medium, and it's worth getting excited about.
And yet, people just don't do it that often. Let me tell you why you—yes, you—should start printing your favorite photos more often.
Reason #1: It forces you to examine your photos more critically. Producing prints is a very thoughtful process: much like shooting with film, the quantity of prints you can produce is somewhat limited, so you have to make choices. Being forced to decide which of your photos are worthy of being printed necessitates that you see them in a different light.
Moreover, not all prints are in a 3:2 aspect ratio (nor, for that matter, are all photos), and some, if not most, formats are going to require some cropping. Some people argue that cropping destroys a photo, and when done mechanically (as by an algorithm), that's absolutely true; an intentional crop, though, gives you an opportunity to evaluate what your photo is trying to say, and to distill it in a way that makes sense on a different medium. Some of my favorite prints you can order online are square, and I love the challenge of preparing a new composition for the paper.
Reason #2: It gives you an opportunity to decorate. Once you've been around the block a few times, and ordered a few sets of prints just for the hell of it, you'll find yourself with more photos than you know what to do with sitting in stacks on your kitchen table. Congratulations! You just discovered your next decorating strategy.
We so often decorate our personal spaces with work created by others, and while plastering poster-sized giclées of yourself on all four walls is hubris, hanging up a few of your favorite creations is not— it's well-deserved pride. Don't be afraid to put some of your photos on display! I keep a stack of 25 in a small wood block on my coffee table, so that only one is visible at a time, but guests are free to flip through them at their leisure. I swap out the front photo once a week so it always feels fresh. There's no easier way to make your apartment feel like your own than by capturing some of your memories, and making them real.
Reason #3: You get to reflect on your best work. As a corollary to points 1 and 2, making intentional prints from a curated collection of your photos means that you'll have a short list of some of your best shots floating around your home. Had a bad day out with your camera? Just look at your coffee table and remember that, hey, you're not so bad at this whole photography thing!
Reason #4: There are some really high quality print services out there that don't cost too much. Awhile back, I bought a pretty reasonable photo printer just for the fun of being able to produce my own prints quickly—having it around means that making a print for a friend (or yourself) is cost effective and easy! But most of the time, I want better quality than what I can produce on my own.
For that, I turn to Artifact Uprising, a subsidiary of VSCO, who have a wide variety of awesome prints. They're a little on the pricier side, but the quality is superlative, you can upload right from your iPhone, and it doesn't take too long to get your finished copies, either. There are definitely cheaper shops out there, but once you feel a set of their square prints (mentioned above), you'll never want to go anywhere else.
Reason #5: It's so fun! Having prints around—prints to share, to pass around, to look at, to display—is just fun. There is no greater feeling of satisfaction than getting to hold something that you have created.
Making physical manifestations of my photos—whether it's via prints, or one-off books for particular photo shoots (which Artifact Uprising also does quite well), or even slightly larger compilations—has been one of the most rewarding things I've done since I first started getting involved with photography. Prints add a dimension of meaning and beauty to photos that can't be captured on a computer screen. You owe it to yourself, and your photos, to give it a try.
And hey, once you start decorating your home with prints of your photos, you'll always have an excuse to go out and take more!