In this post, I reflect on the significance of printing photographs in today’s digital age, emphasizing the unique context and respect that printed images command. I argue that printing fosters a deeper connection to photography, serving as a curatorial process that enhances the value and immersive experience of the images, contrasting with the devaluation often associated with digital content on the internet. I also suggest that decorating one’s space with printed photographs can be an affordable and impactful way to appreciate and engage with photography beyond the digital realm. Watch or read the transcript below.
I recently printed some photographs and I made them available for sale on my store, but this got me thinking about printing photographs in today’s digital-first world. I’ve watched some YouTube videos on the topic, and I’ve seen a lot of videos by photographers talking about why they should print their photographs. Many of them seem to regurgitate the same points. So I want to take a little bit of a different approach today.
As you know, photography was first a physical, tangible medium and it’s in this form — books and prints — that the medium excels. We’ve made a lot of inroads in terms of the advancements of digital photography, but I think we’re missing an essential part of the legacy, history, and craft of photography if digital photographers are not printing their photographs. I think this is why over the past few years we’ve seen this resurgence in film photography because people are missing that kind of essential DNA of the craft.
There’s something special about the print which I’ll talk about today. But first let me show you some of my photographs.
I bought some cheap frames and mats from my local hobby store and frame the photographs. I think they look pretty good. These look a lot better on the wall than they do on the screen, which brings me to the first point I want to talk about today.
The context of the image
As I mentioned earlier, we’re living in a digital-first world. And most of the images that we encounter today are on the screen. They’re digital images. So the context from which we view images and photographs usually come from the context of screens, social media, or the infinite scroll. Our images on a roulette wheel, so to speak, of other images. And people are looking at our images in waiting rooms of doctor’s offices, on school buses, on the toilet. We have little control in terms of the context from which our images are being seen.
Additionally, we don’t know what our images are juxtaposed against or paired with. Think about the landscape photographer whose images are next to cat videos or fart jokes.
We have little control in terms of the context. If our photographs are packaged within the context of social media, then they’re packaged as “content.” They’re packaged as distractions. They’re packaged as cheap and freely available. They’re packaged as noise.
Our images are also packaged as distractions. About this time of year, every year, people push back against social media as distractions. And unfortunately, our images are bundled together with this distraction factory that we call social media.
This digital context impacts the way that we see, receive, and regard images.
Looking at printed images gives us a different context. We can see them on walls. We can see them in museums and galleries. We can see them in zines or in photo books?
We have control to present our images in a different context, a better, more wholesome context than the digital context.
The power of the printed image
Printing our images also gives us a different relationship to them. Because of the deluge of images that we’re seeing on social media, the printed image commands a certain respect.
A printed image asks us to regard it. It asks us to look at it, to pause in front of it, to linger, to scrutinize the image by virtue of the print alone. The print commands respect.
The very fact that the image is printed says something about the image. It says that this image is worthy of being printed. There is something special about this image. Look at it closely.
The print gives the photograph a certain aura. The philosopher Walter Benjamin spoke about traditional works of art as having auras, as having a certain soul about them that reproduced images don’t have. But I wonder if Benjamin was alive today, he would say the same thing about printed photography versus digital photography.
I think the printed image does have a certain aura, a certain quality, a certain value associated with it. And might be especially true when we think about what the internet has done to the arts in general. It has devalued the arts.
Think about what the internet has done to music, movies, books, and photography. The internet has devalued them, it has cheapened them to the point where we expect to consume them freely and cheaply. They’ve become disposable, basically.
If digital photography kind of devalues and cheapens the art, then the printed photograph in books or prints appreciates the value. It puts a premium value on the printed, on the physical artifact.
I think printing also helps photographers make better work. Printing forces us to pay more attention to our work. It forces us to curate our work.
To print a photograph is to make a value judgment. It’s to say that this photograph is better than that one. This one is far more worthy of being printed than that one. This one commands more respect, it’s better than that one.
Sure, you can curate digital photographs. When you’re putting digital photographs in a digital photo album, or uploading images to social media, you don’t want to dump all of your images into that. You want to select the very best.
But printing is different. The real costs of actually printing (money, time, resources) are higher, right? That act of selecting images for print becomes even more rigorous, more exacting, more important than selecting images for a digital photo album.
In doing this, we are no longer playing the role of photographer. We’re becoming an editor. As an editor, you’re forced to take a critical stance on your own work. You’re forced to look at your images more closely. You’re forced to think about your images outside of the context of the screen.
A better immersion
Printing our photographs and seeing our photographs in print is a way to immerse ourselves in photography in a way that digital photography can’t.
In his letter to his nephew, the photographer Sergio Larrain recommends that he print and save all of the great images that he encounters and to place them on the desk, to put them on the wall, to immerse himself in great photography. In doing this, he could immerse himself in work he finds interesting instead of being inundated with or subjected to mediocre photography. He can surround himself with good work.
Decorating your home with your photography and other work you find interesting is one way to do this. Looking at photo books is another way to do this.
For sure, it’s easy to bookmark or save images from the web. But let’s be honest… we’ve all done that and how often do we actually go back to those images?
Printing images, framing them, putting them on the wall, putting them in photo albums — this lets us review these images in a more immediate way? They’re more present in our lives when they’re on the wall as opposed to when they’re on some hard drive.
And printing can be cheap. You don’t need large prints. The frames and mats cost me less than five dollars each. And printing the photograph is not that expensive either.
And if it’s that cheap, why not decorate your space with images you love?