I proudly subscribe to LensWork, the only photography magazine focused entirely on photographs (as opposed to cameras). The editor, Brooks Jensen, has a keen eye, tremendous experience, and never takes sides on pointless issues. For the longest time, the magazine was adamant that their special edition reprints were real photographic prints, not lithographs, and certainly not inkjet prints.
So it is troubling to this young luddite, so fond of making his own B&W prints in the darkroom, to read the results of Mr. Jensen’s tests with the latest crop of fancy inkjet printers and coated inkjet photo paper: “They are every bit as good as the gelatin silver paper I printed on for years. In fact, the Dmax black densities are even greater than I was able to reproduce in the darkroom with selenium-toned prints! The surface textures are lovely… The ‘feel’ of them is just wonderful.”
There you have it. In the short time since I took up photography, I have watched digital technologies equal or surpass silver at a number of metrics. First in resolution. Then at noise. Then dynamic range. And now falls the print. The significance is less about analog vs. digital than about what makes a “fine art” print so desirable. A gelatin silver print hanging in an art museum was almost certainly exposed from an original, one-of-a-kind negative in the artist’s darkroom, burned and dodged with light shaped by the artist’s own hands. Now black-and-white photography enters an era in which machine reproductions are equal to or better than what we currently call the “real thing.”
How will we value art when time-consuming and expensive originals become indistinguishable from copies? Will we need dealers? Will we need museums? The music industry is already asking similar questions, but at least they will always have the live performance.