Photographic wisdom measured in kilograms?
I get asked this question quite often, mostly by my non–photographer friends and acquaintances who do not realise how sensitive the subject is: what do you do with all the prints that you produce? Putting sensitivity aside, it is a fair question—after all, there is only so much wall space, and only so many people will be wiling to buy—or take, when you are in the mood of offering them for free—your prints. And the question weighs even more heavily on those who give in to the temptation of printing large (as if printing large makes you a better photographer).
I have done quite a bit of printing over the past several years; I have also gone through the phase of making big prints (thankfully, though, I have long backed away from it). I have sold a few prints and given away a number of photographs, too. Most of the pictures that I have printed, however, have accumulated into a nice, massive pile—a pile that is way too large to fit into a shoe box. I suppose only our predecessors had the luxury of keeping all their photographs in shoe boxes. One could say that, given the latest printing technologies and relatively low cost of printing, we have grown accustomed to indulging in disregarding modesty.
Most of the time the pile sits there unnoticed. Granted, you are sort of aware of its existence but usually not conscious enough of it to ask yourself as to why or for what purpose it exists. Recently I moved to a new apartment, for the umpteenth time, and could not avoid facing my pile of prints again. In an attempt to justify its presence, if not exactly to find a meaningful purpose in its existence, I started sorting through and looking at the photographs. As it turned out, the experience was more interesting than I anticipated—for one thing, it did not simply end in disappointment that painstakingly producing the prints was nothing but an exercise in futility.
I am a proponent of distancing oneself from one's own work, mostly by not seeing or thinking of it for a while, to see the forest for its trees. I had not seen most of the prints long enough so that I almost had a detached viewer's perspective. To my great surprise, many of them carried very different messages than what I remember being on my mind right after printing them.
There were photographs that almost looked as somebody else's work, which now feels as if I was not entirely true to myself at the time I chose and worked on them. There were several pictures printed three or four times, identically the same, at immodestly large sizes; I felt perplexed at first but then remembered the infatuation of the moment—although long faded, I could recollect the connection again. There were several versions of the same print, which indicated an aesthetic indecision at the point of working on the images; now, however, I could easily choose the best version. There were prints from my Panasonic LX–2 digital point–and–shoot, and they looked nowhere nearly as bad as the age of the camera or its sensor size would suggest. There were many test prints, which I obviously felt were worth keeping at the time but now got rid of without giving it a second thought—they have served the purpose of producing and cementing ballpark knowledge and finally could be let go of. I could go on with the list of fascinating discoveries, but I think you get the point.
Having taken my time looking at the prints I realised that I do know a couple of things about photography—what works and what does not, what matters and what can be disregarded—a knowledge that cannot be bought or explained in a couple of hours. Holding the pile of prints in my hands, which weighed in at a few kilograms, I still could not adequately answer the question in the beginning of the article. However, I did not seem to need to look for an answer anymore, because, on a metaphysical level, the pile had transformed into photographic knowledge and, however shallow, wisdom. I cannot imagine arriving at where I am today without all the printing that I have done.