Ansel Adams on the Expressive Print

The term “fine print” (or “expressive print” as I think of it) is elusive in meaning. The fine print represents, to me, an expressive object of beauty and excellence. The difference between a very good print and a fine print is quite subtle and difficult, if not impossible, to describe in words. There is a feeling of satisfaction in the presence of a fine print — and uneasiness with a print that falls short of optimum quality. The degree of satisfaction or lack of it relates to the sensitivity and experience of the photographer and the viewer. […] [The] viewing of original fine prints is perhaps the best instruction.

Ansel Adams, “The Print”

My practice as a digital print-maker is based in large part on pursuing what I often refer to as the “expressive print”. I use this term frequently when I talk or write about print-making. Yet what does it really mean?

Ansel Adams wrote extensively on the craft of photography, and is rightly regarded as an early master at putting into words the ideals of harnessing photographic processes in service to artistic goals. But as the quote above shows, even he sometimes struggled to find words to explain the elusive concept that drove his craft. Adams’ book, “The Print”, is one that I highly recommend to anyone looking to develop their own ability to produce great prints. Even in the digital era, many of Adams’ concepts remain highly relevant.

In the opening chapter of the book, “Visualization and the Expressive Print”, Adams establishes the sense of what he’s after in an expressive print. It rings true, still. An expressive print is not simply a competently-produced print of a good image. It’s something more. Adams goes on to write, later in the chapter:

[The] emotionally satisfying print values are almost never direct transcriptions of the negative values. If they are, the print may be informative, but often no more than that. The illusion of “reality” in a photograph relates primarily to the optical image; the actual values are usually far from reality. In some instances the physical or social meaning of a subject may demand only a “factual” representation. But once you admit your personal perception or emotional response the image becomes something more than factual, and you are on the doorstep of an enlarged experience. When you are making a fine print you are creating, as well as re-creating. The final image you achieve will, to quote Alfred Stieglitz, reveal what you saw and felt. If it were not for this element of the “felt” (the emotional-aesthetic experience), the term creative photography would have no meaning.

Ansel Adams, “The Print”

My sense of what I’m striving for when print-making is very much in line with what I read of Adams’ goals. In the two quotes above, there are several key words that I’ll explore in future posts: expressive, beauty, excellence, satisfaction, sensitivity, emotion, re-creating, felt and aesthetic.

A competently-produced print of a good image can be very acceptable in many circumstances; after all, “good enough” means that good is enough. When the goal is something more than good enough, however, then we’re “on the doorstep of an enlarged experience” — the expressive print.

Print note: The image on this post shows a print I made from a digital colour photograph on a sheet of Japanese handmade Kochi kozo paper, using an Epson large format inkjet printer. The paper is soft and luxurious to the touch, but very strong. Its kozo (mulberry) fibre base gives the ink a silky, lustrous appearance, while the markings from the paper-making process provide unique organic textures to underlie the image content.

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