Town of Shenandoah, Virginia – January, 2019

If, like me, you came up in photography before the advent of digital, a photograph was a physical object; a print, or a slide. Photographs were distributed and seen as prints on photographic paper or in the pages of books and magazines. You could hang a photograph on the wall or fold it up and carry it with you in your wallet. It was a real object in the real world.

Then digital imagery came along and all that changed. Now, photographs exist as bits of data on a computer storage device, and can only be seen when displayed in ephemeral, electronic form. The photograph cannot be viewed as an object separate from its computer representation. Of the billions of photographs produced each year, only a tiny fraction of them ever take on physical reality in the form of a print.

The good news, perhaps the game-changing news, about digital imagery is that you, as photographer, have complete control over every aspect of the photographs appearance (at least initially, more on that next month). And in the digital world of the internet that photo can be instantly shared, essentially at no cost, to world-wide audiences large and small.

So, are prints destined to become a tiny niche specialty, an “alternative process” in the world of photography? Perhaps it already has. But even in the twenty-first century, there are reasons to print your work.

Years ago, I had a small corkboard in my office where I would hang work prints. By seeing them day in and day out, I got a sense of what works, and what doesn’t. It was a learning tool. Often photos that I had high hopes for did not stand up to day-to-day viewing, and other pictures became touchstones for my future work. Living with a print can teach you quite a bit about your own photography.

If that sounds unnecessary or perhaps too “old school,” there is another reason that prints are important, and it has to do with permanence. What is more likely to be looked at and appreciated one hundred years from now, a print or an image file? I would put my money on the print. Notice that I did not say “what is more likely to survive.” Theoretically, both a well processed print and a digital file could last for a hundred years (although I would still put my money on the print.) If we focus on what can survive, we fail to ask ourselves what should survive. Of the hundreds of thousands of pictures taken each day, very few will have either the historical importance or artistic merit to deserve preservation. There are just too many photos.

Printing can be a form of curation. For reasons of time and cost, we are likely to print only a small percentage of photos, and only the best ones. But, assuming that your digital files are still readable in the future, who is going to take the time to go through thousands and thousands of images to find the ones that are meaningful and have artistic or historic merit. A collection of prints or a book gives you the opportunity to create a body of work that tells the story that you want to pass on. It may or may not survive, but it will stand out from the mass of undifferentiated image files that fill computer drives around the world.

More on this next month, including another reason to print your work and some thoughts about the logistics involved in making your photographic output a physical reality. In the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts. Do you print your work? Do you plan to get into printing? Do you think that the expense and effort of printing are worthwhile in this digital age? Let me know in the comments below, or send me an email at tracksidephotographer@embarqmail.com. Thanks!

Edd Fuller, Editor

9 thoughts on “Editor’s Notebook

    1. Jim, great to hear that you are printing. I’d be curious to know what kind of setup you use to do your prints, and what you do with the prints after they come out of the printer. –Edd

  1. I might chime in with the…..hey, I’m a slide shooter. Most of my stuff is still in Logan boxes and the rest is in yellow Kodak boxes. About the only time these were ever printed is in a couple Morning Sun books, so I know of what you speak. Guess I could get them scanned and then print them.
    Of course, now I do digital and save them on the computer or I phone.

    1. Kevin, slide were certainly the weapon of choice for a great many railfans for a great many years. How is your slide collection holding up? I know that older slides often deteriorate with strange color shifts and fading. Are you digitizing any of your slides? Knowing your interests, I am sure there is lot’s of good material in your collection, and it would be a shame to have it “fade away.”

      1. Edd, my slides were processed by Kodak so they are pretty stable. As for where they’ll end up….I’ll leave that to my friends or my kids. I’ve often thought about digitizing, but that’s a ton of work for what really are my memories. I kinda wonder how many people would really want to see a bunch of B&O, Chessie and Conrail stuff. Most of my good P&LE pics ended up in a couple of Morning Sun books that I helped to put together. One of these days…..

  2. Photos, as well as art work still have a place in the modern world. I have a room devoted to model railroading that is open to the public. As people circumnavigate the layout viewing the model railroad, they are constantly looking at the photos and art work on the walls as well. Not everyone is solely interested in the model railroad, and the photos tell their own story about the past in ways that the model railroad can’t.

  3. Edd, this is an interesting discussion. If you will indulge me a longer comment, I first discovered photography freshman year in college, the same year I heard the word “railfan” and realized there were others with similar interests. Within a year me and my new Pentax H1A were fully involved, and with my roommate, became the de facto college photographers, covering sports events, lectures, yearbook portraits, whatever. And of course railroads in Maine Central’s Waterville Yard. Everything was black and white, generally Tri-X, and we held keys to the college darkroom, and used it a great deal. Results were always black and white prints, delivered the morning after. Color slides were out of the question on our limited budget, and we were reimbursed for B&W film and processing costs. After graduation the darkroom remained at Colby, and with a good paying job ($2.65/hour as NH Tower Operator) it was a no brainer to switch to color slides. Of course in 1968 personal computers and digital photography were undreamed of. Next came US Navy Active Duty aboard USS Intrepid (now the aircraft carrier museum in NYC.) Decided the best enlisted job on the ship was Photographer’s Mate, so studied hard and made PH3 on the first try. So, it was back to the darkroom aboard ship, most B&W, but also Extachrome and color negatives. We had the capability to make color prints, but each 8×10 took one hour to process – in total darkness. I stayed with my Kodachrome 64 slides for my personal use, and still B&W for most Official Navy Photography. Twenty two months active duty including a six month NATO/Med cruise and it was back to the Railroad, and still slides. After kids, the demand for color prints from the grandparents drove a change to Kodacolor, with prints into photo albums, but happily I kept ALL the color negatives. Years went by, the slides languished unviewed for years in their carousels, safely stored in a cool, dry, and dark closet. After retirement ten years ago, I resolved to convert all my slides and negatives to digital, using an Epson 4990 Professional scanner. So now the digitized slides were unlocked for email, easy slide shows, etc. My total images scanned to digital, including thousands for friends and family, is now over 101,000. With experience and practice, the scanner can work miracles restoring marginal images and making them better than the original slide. About the same time, I discovered digital cameras and a whole new world. No film costs! And the ability to capture images in lighting conditions that were impossible with film. For those photos deserving of a print, there are excellent commercial services that will make high quality prints for framing at very reasonable prices.

    Edd, thanks for indulging me with this too long comment. In the end, staying current with the latest technology just makes photography that much easier, cheaper, better, and even more fun.

    1. Bob, Thanks for sharing that bit of history. It has been an interesting journey, photographically speaking, over the past 50 years or so and your account sums it up neatly. Your are so right — even we “old-timers” need to appreciate the opportunities that digital technology opens up for us.

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