One can read from time to time that photography nowadays is an online medium, something to be produced and consumed while staying in the digital domain. And, yes, certainly many if not most photographs today go from a phone to social media never to leave the world of bits and data. Then, there are artists who specifically produce work that needs presentation on screens, like the animated genre-busting video- /photographs of Yang Yongliang.
Still, I think, living with art has its own value. But how do you hang digital files on your wall? At least for now digital photo frames don’t quite cut the mustard. Let me explain – and welcome to Dinosaurilandia…
Modern screens are technological marvels consisting of millions of tiny active light emitters that throw photons at you. In that sense they are light sources like the sun, a light bulb or fire. Everything else we see are reflective surfaces. That means they don’t produce photons but bounce them back at us. The moon is a good example for this and at full moon there is so much bouncing of sunlight going on that we can see during the night.
Paper, too, is a reflective surface and that means it will only throw back light if it has been illuminated by a light source. The lightness of a picture on paper will thus depend on the intensity of light falling onto it. There are even semi-standards with how strong a light should shine on a printed photo for “proper” illumination.
The surface of the paper will matter, too. A structured paper with lots of bumps in it will scatter light more than paper with a glossy surface. As a result and depending on the paper and ink used, a printed photograph on matte paper has a contrast ration of about 200:1. Contrast ratio means the lightness difference between the darkest and lightest tones that can be displayed on a medium. Modern computer screens have a contrast ratio of 1000:1, modern TVs up to 4000:1. And yes a larger first number means better as more inbetween-tones can be displayed. Whites are brighter and blacks are darker with increasing contrast ratio.
If paper does so much worse, why still use it? Definitely, shiny screens are superficially more catching. Well, as Hamlet says, there is method to the madness. Screens are very tiring as our eyes are not built for their kind of photon-bombardment. As we basically live in a natural world consisting mostly of reflective surfaces, analog media arguably look more natural than actively illuminating ones. But that’s where taste and preferences begin. Personally, I’d rather be surrounded by prints than screens and I think a good print can become part of my personal space in a way a screen can’t.
For the photographer creating a print there is an obvious problem. In digital photography all the first steps in making a photograph happen on screens (on the back of the camera and on the computer) with their high contrast ratio. In printing, this contrast ratio has to be squeezed into the meagre spectrum of paper. This problem existed, however, already in the film days when a negative was turned into a print. That step has therefore given birth to a profession of its own, that of the master printer – and famous photographers like Cartier-Bresson and Sebastiao Salgado always used such master printers. Others, like Ansel Adams and Michael Kenna saw printing as part of their artistic process. As do I. In fact I do so much that I don’t ever think a photograph of mine is truly finished until I have a satisfying print.
But there is a catch: there is no point in showing any prints here, because you look at a screen. It just doesn’t work to show digital pictures of prints… And this is already an indicator actually a print has to be viewed directly as physical object. This means at the same time that the reach of a print is much smaller because it needs the presence of the viewer. If art distribution based on prints is limited, I wonder what the future will hold once prints finally have gone out of fashion. Will selling and buying art just mean to license a file to be displayed on one’s own picture frame? More on this later. See ya.