The Nature of Obsession


I got an interesting email Friday evening. It came from my contact form on my website, meaning someone had actually looked at my site. Most of the emails I get from there are bogus. Auto bots out to sell me web services. But every now and then there is a real inquiry about something. In this case, a guy was asking me about an image, Dona’s Dress, I submitted to the local arts festival I talked to you about. His questions were very specific, namely was it a silver gelatin print and how was it finished? I looked at the name of the sender and I recognized him as the juror  for the photo entries to the competition. I found it a bit odd. The final show selects haven’t been announced, they should come out today. So why was he asking me such questions? It certainly isn’t pertinent to show, as it will be all virtual. So it is just about images and not print quality. Did he want to purchase a print? Did the print statement have some bearing on his judging? It shouldn’t. But he didn’t say why he wanted to know. I am not even sure he was aware I knew he was the judge. So I responded as if it were a general inquiry. I said the final print was a digital print. I gave him all the technical specs about ink, paper, matting material and final matted size. I also mentioned the reason it was digital versus silver. You see the negative for that image is thin, photo talk for underexposed. That left me with featureless shadows and the white highlights of the dress literally melting into the white wall behind it. It was only in examining the neg with a loupe on a light box could I discern the slightest edge of the dress. I tried to print it in the darkroom back them. I wanted to give my friend, Dona, a print of her christening dress. The guy responded the next day with the following words: “Thanks for the detailed response.  It’s a very nice image.  I was hoping it would be a silver-gelatin print.”  I sensed he was disappointed. And for some odd reason, so was I. Had I some how failed? Yes I made a poor exposure of the film, but I know I tried my best to print it. I thought, I must have a copy somewhere in my vast collection of silver prints. Finding one would surely show I made at very least, an acceptable print. So I obsessively searched the drawers and boxes, but to no avail. I even searched again. I am sure there is a print floating around somewhere. Obsession can be so gripping, eh? But the best I could do was find the original negs and the accompanying contact sheet. My lab back then made excellent contact sheets, almost repro ready. There is no definition of the dress from the wall behind it. The reason this image exists in this form today is because it is digital. You see in Photoshop I was able to select the dress and adjust it’s contrast and density to adequately separate it from the wall. I literally created the edge of that dress. It would have been impossible to make this image in the darkroom on silver paper. Photoshop and the digital environment has allowed me to rework a lot of my old, problem negatives. To actually improve the image quality. Is that wrong? I don’t really think so. But for some reason I cherish my silver prints more than my digital ones. It took hours of my time and all my skills to make them. They seem more precious. I responded to him by saying I appreciated his fondness for the silver print, that I felt the same way. But I also said that only old school photographers and collectors really care. Most folks don’t. It is all about the image. Not the substrate it’s printed on