The Seeing is Important; The Print is Not

The print, to [Cartier-Bresson] as to most European photo-journalists, is just a transition between the seeing and the publication. It is something to toss by the dozen into the laps of editors; it is nothing by itself…Developing and printing [Europeans] usually leave to a technician in a laboratory. Enlarging is routine, the technician following the photographer’s indications on the contact sheets. The image — the seeing — is important; the print is not, and to American eyes is execrable — not even half “realized.” The print to a European is only a proof; his image is not complete until reproduced where a million eyes can see it. If his intention then appears clear and forceful, he is content.

When a print is required for exhibition, Cartier-Bresson works directly with the technician, and works for a quality much like that of a good gravure. He chooses semi-matte paper, he enlarges to 11 x 14 or 16 x 20, and insists on tones like those of a wash or charcoal drawing.He wants his image sharp enough to be convincing, but the sharpness Americans find requisite seem to him a fetish, beyond and apart from what is necessary.

Nancy Newhall, “Controversy,” 1953. in Aperture Anthology: The Minor White Years, pp. 129-130

I’m not going to make a big deal out of the World Press Photo of the Year thing, partly because it’s not all that interesting, but mostly because there’s a limit to how often even I enjoy pointing out the antique vintage of photography’s problem of the week. (Although yes, I did make a “90’s problem — more like 1890’s” joke when I first saw it circulating.)

I just want to point out the passage above, in which Nancy Newhall describes the characteristic European photojournalist’s attitude to prints in the 1950’s. The range of adjustments made or not made in printing a negative are in very much the same ballpark as the range of digital post-processing that is at issue in the Hansen photo.

Note the distinction between the image and its specific printed forms, which might differ significantly from one another. (And in the context of film, it goes without saying that none are the “true” or “original” or “unaltered” version of the photograph — when printing from a negative, there is no such thing.) Note also Newhall’s comparison to gravure, in relation to derogatory use of “illustration” in discussing “photoshopped” images. Note Newhall’s emphasis on mass reproduction. (And remember who the audience of news is supposed to be.)

I would also suggest comparing the Hansen image(s) (h/t Raw File) with the versions of a Bresson photo here and here (h/t @vossbrink. (Note: when I saw the Bresson exhibit at SFMOMA a while back, prints of the same negative with equal or greater degree of difference were on display at the same time. (More on that exhibit here and here, if you’re interested.))

It’s good to talk about photojournalistic ethics. But I think in the big list of ethical problems that journalism has to deal with, how photos are post-processed should be near the very bottom. Ultimately, it’s not really an ethical question at all — it’s an aesthetic question. And talking about aesthetic questions is good, but applying professional ethics-style thinking to them is maybe not so much. I think it tends to end in people conflating “tacky” with “false.”

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