When it comes to created work, most artists have little choice but to move on once they’ve produced a piece (admittedly, it can sometimes be difficult to identify or reach an endpoint). Photographers are blessed or cursed with a real choice. Probably most, having once achieved a satisfactory rendition of an image, are willing to leave it there. From that point, with digital technology, endless identical copies can be made (I’m ignoring printing technicalities, a different subject altogether). In the non-digital world of printing from negatives, a new print request may entail a repeat visit to the darkroom, but careful photographers certainly have notes on paper choice, development time, and any dodging or burning they might have settled on. Reproducibility is one of photography’s greatest strengths, despite the headaches and posturing over pricing that it may induce.
I just recently got my long-down printer up and working, and printed some requested images that I hadn’t looked at in some time. I find I can’t look at an image (especially one of mine) without thinking about it, and thinking about it often leads to ideas for potentially improving it. This is all the more true when I’m evaluating a print, which affords a much richer experience than viewing on a monitor.
The image above, showing a thousand-year-old Anasazi site on the Colorado plateau, is one of my favorites for its strong graphic qualities. Unfortunately, the high contrast made it impossible, with my camera and a single exposure, to capture good information in both the darkest and lightest areas. To show detail across the brightness range that the eye is easily capable of, I had to combine two images, made with different exposures for that very purpose. This can be tricky to do well. The bright triangle of cliff face at upper left, seen in detail below, has to convey the intensity of the outside light in comparison to the dimness inside. But I also wanted enough contrast within the bright part (which requires some less bright shades of gray) to show the zig-zag tail of a snake design fortuitously visible in the upper corner. (I should have set up more carefully to include more of that design. Next time!)
Besides adjusting that area to improve it from the previous version, I also worked on the contrast in the darkest areas, which is harder to appreciate on the screen compared to the print. I wanted to strengthen the sense of solidity of the wall on the left, and also bring out the still-visible finger marks in the daubed mud of the dwelling facade. This poignant detail, well preserved because of the cave setting, really took me back to the time I was exploring there, and on to further musings about the former inhabitants.
Another image I just printed is from my Sourdough Trail project, which I’ve mentioned here before. The photograph below always struck me as a little odd, particularly the somewhat jarring juxtaposition of the very smooth bark of the left-most tree and the very rough, dark bark of the larger one next to it. In the past I printed this with both trees quite dark, but this time that felt like too strong a contrast with the dawn sky and sunlit leaves. Lightening the darkest tones brought out more detail and enhanced the tactile differences between the trees. But I decided that was a gain, and I also discovered that the lighter and smoother patches within the rough bark developed a silveriness that linked them with the smooth-barked tree.
So despite regrets for what I couldn’t change, I found real enjoyment in re-visiting these images, and in re-visiting in my mind the time and place they were captured. I think I also learned something artistically from looking at them with a fresh eye that will help me make better captures and better prints in future. In principle, I could have gotten these benefits without actually changing the prints. Yet in practice, without the ability to make tangible improvements with relative ease, I probably would not have analyzed and experimented and learned as much as I did.
I wonder whether this “lucky” capability of digital photography makes artists in less malleable media jealous. On the other hand, it could be said that having this option inhibited me from achieving a better, more finished result at first. To the extent it allows laziness, I think it’s a curse. I guess ultimately, I cannot reject the opportunity to re-visit and revise without having to re-start from scratch.