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“Well-Executed, Poorly Conceived Photographs”

Posted in Discussions by Paul Turounet on August 28, 2007


© Paul Turounet, Richard Benson at home in Newport, Rhode Island, 1993


The fundamental problem any artist faces in regard to craft is that it must be largely ignored. This seems to be an extreme statement, but it is surely true. Today we are experiencing a revival of sorts of non-silver, or alternative, systems for photographic printing, and the field is littered with well-executed, poorly conceived photographs. It seems to me that this has happened because all these photographers, or printers, are more interested in how they print their pictures than in what these pictures might be about.

excerpt from the essay Print Making by Richard Benson in the book Paul Strand : Essays on His Life and Work.


When I was planning on applying to graduate school, one of the reasons I wanted to attend Yale was to have the opportunity to study with Richard Benson, Professor of Photography and former Dean of the Yale School of Art. A s Benson is both an accomplished photographer in his own-right and is one of the most-respected practitioners of photographic printing technology, having printed for and/or worked with such photographers as Walker Evans, Paul Strand and Lee Friedlander as well as having received a MacArthur Fellowship for his contributions to photography, I wanted to have the opportunity to immerse myself in his wisdom on photography and the photographic process.

Particularly, in this tremendous moment of possibilities where we have the opportunities and abilities to work simultaneously or exclusively with analog, digital and alternative/hybrid processes and materials, I come back to this poignant quote in exploring the role and function of craft and technical execution in the photography. It would seem that photography has gotten carried away with the tired debate of whether film and the analog process is “better” than the digital process or vice-a-versa. Aren’t all of photography’s tools, materials and systems quite extraordinary in producing photographs that reveal content with exceptional craft?


Isn’t that what we do as artists…don’t we try to create a surrogate that gives to the viewer something that was given to us when we saw the thing.

We get an inkling that there is something extraordinary there, we’ve stumbled on something extraordinary and the picture is our mechanism for understanding it.

When I make the picture, I’m seeing how I could make the print.

excerpts from a conversation with Richard Benson and Jay Maisel by George Jardine for Adobe Lightroom


In considering the short history of the medium, just over 150 years, there has been a steady continuum in the development of processes for making photographic prints. The most prominent processes that reveal critical moments in the photograph as a print are the daguerreotype, wet-plate negative, albumen, carbon, gum bichromate, platinum, gelatin silver, color coupled dye or C-prints, dye transfer and now inkjet processes, not to mention photography and its relationship to lithography and the printing press. Based on this history, photographers can expect even more developments as tools and materials will come and go. This is the nature of the photographic process.

For Benson, there are four stages of photography –

The Print

The print argueably began before photography the idea of something dark and needing light. The print is made with all of these different chemical processes. Hardened gelatin, asphaltum, exposing silver, iron salts.

Silver-based Capture

That’s when it really became a data-gathering medium. From Fox Talbot and Daguerre all the way up to the digital revolution. Everything is based upon the sensitivity of silver, capturing data with silver.

Electronic Capture

Where all of sudden the one way to do it is discarded and we’re doing it with electronic sensors and those are the cameras we all love so much and the scanners…really, the scanner is the root of it all, the camera comes later.

The New Printing

It doesn’t use light anymore. And the great change is that the analog thing you see with our eye, the pigment on the paper, is deposited through an electronic signal.

I’m not interested in ideas photographers have had. I’m interested in what they’ve made. And I think the thing they’ve made has derived chiefly from their interaction with the world and the technology of the picture-taking rather than some idea. We have some tools available and we go and try to make pictures with the tools and I think the interaction of us and our activity and the tool is the pathway to the content rather than something in our mind.

excerpts from a conversation with Richard Benson and Jay Maisel by George Jardine for Adobe Lightroom


Which brings me back to “…well-executed, poorly conceived photographs…”

Craft and technical execution function to support the photographers’ vision and curiosity with visual engagement, and clarity of intention and purpose. It becomes a tremendous opportunity for the photographer to experience how all of photography’s materials and processes, analog, digital or an alternative/hybrid system, can be used to reveal a personal photographic vision and what pictures are going to be about.

To view and listen to the Podcast conversation between Richard Benson, Jay Maisel and George Jardine, click on video player below:


Click on the Adobe Acrobat PDF file to download: Print Making by Richard Benson.pdf



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