The Pleasure of Looking at Photos

I’ve been looking at a lot of photographs lately. Photo books, to be more precise. I spent last night looking through Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful, (2014), a retrospective of Koudelka’s career published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same title co-organized by the Art Institute of Chicago and the J. Paul Getty Museum. Along with Robert Frank, Koudelka may be the photographer I admire the most. There’s something incredibly luxurious about his work, especially Gypsies and Exile – both shot with 35mm b&w film – when viewed as printed photos and not simply images on a screen. It’s something the current generation of photographers may be missing, which is a shame. The times a photograph has really moved me, not simply as an interesting visual experience but as something existentially and profoundly alive, have all been when viewing a physical print, whether hanging on a wall or printed in a book.

There’s something remarkably satisfying about looking at b&w film photographs printed in a high-end photo book on 100 weight semi-glossy fine-art photo paper. There’s a tactile dimension to the experience that incorporates both the hand and the eye. It’s so much more rewarding and inspiring than viewing the same photos on a screen, something about the instantiation of the photo as a ‘thing’ which makes the experience of the image on a screen so remarkably impoverished in comparison. Some of the most intense visual experiences I’ve ever had have been either standing in front of a matted and framed photo hanging in an exhibition or printed on the pages of a fine-art photo book. Viewed on a screen, it’s just another image, one of thousands we consume daily. Viewed on a gallery or museum wall, or as a page in a book held in one’s hands, it’s a unique thing having specific tangible qualities. One thing I’m sure of, and that’s b&w film photos print better than b&w digital photos. There’s some essential character of a printed 35mm negative that can’t be duplicated with digital capture no matter how you attempt to post-process it to mimic film. If you don’t see that, well, I’m not sure we have much to talk about.

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Which leads to the larger question: Why do we love photographs? What is it about them that makes their experience so important to us? Joseph Addison, an English essayist, poet, playwright in his 1712 essay “The Pleasures of Imagination” sees it as a matter of possession (as in physical possession of a thing): “A man of polite imagination is let into a great many pleasures, that the vulgar are not capable of receiving. He can converse with a picture, and find an agreeable companion in a statue. He meets with a secret refreshment in a description, and often feels a greater satisfaction in the prospect of fields and meadows, than another does in the possession. It gives him, indeed, a kind of property in everything he sees, and makes the most rude, uncultivated parts of nature administer to his pleasures: so that he looks upon the world, as it were in another light, and discovers in it a multitude of charms, that conceal themselves from the generality of mankind.”

If you agree with Addison, the pleasure we derive from looking at photos is a solitary thing, not beholden to being shared or intensified by being experienced with others. Experiencing Art is not about shared pleasure; in fact, it’s the opposite. It’s because it’s an experience fundamentally incommunicable; I’ll be damned if I can explain to you why I sat up till 3:30 AM last night looking at Koudelka’s photos, or why I find myself obsessively going back to Robert Frank’s Valencia 1952, or why I could stand slack-jawed in front of a simple Walker Evans photograph in the Getty museum.

One thing that Koudelka, Frank, and Evans have in common, and that is their aversion to captioning their work. They present their photos without explanation, and we the viewers get to decide what it means. As Gerhard Richter has noted, “pictures which are interpretable, and which contain a meaning, are bad pictures.” A good picture “takes away our certainty because it deprives a thing of its meaning and its name. It shows us the thing in all the manifold significance and infinite variety that preclude the emergence of any single meaning and view.”

16 thoughts on “The Pleasure of Looking at Photos

  1. Stephen J

    Thanks for that Tim, he is a brave and skilled artist, I wish I could just make one picture as good as any number of his.

    In my case, practice does not seem to make perfect, but never mind, I enjoy bumbling about.

    David Hurn tells a nice little story in his book “On Being a Photographer”, concerning the period after he got away from the commies. He wandered around for a good number of years, and for a while lived in Wales with Hurn.

    One morning he woke to find Koudelka missing, so he went outside, and there he was, snapping away at anything and everything. Hurn was puzzled and pointed out that there were better things to do with film, Koudelka smiled and said, he was up early so he would go outside and practice, but it was OK, there was no film in his camera.

    In his case, practice did make (nearly) perfect.

    NB: I hope and trust that everyone was out (or in!) with their pinholios’ celebrating the “World Pinhole Photography Day”?

    Reply
    1. Leicaphila Post author

      He really was ‘brave’ as you say Stephen. I didn’t realize his history until I finally got around to reading the text that accompanied the exhibition book I cited. Pretty remarkable man in addition to being an inspiring creative talent.

      Reply
  2. Colin Templeton

    Hello Tim,

    Couldn’t agree more with your thoughts here, and especially on Koudelka. Isn’t Exiles wonderful? You just wonder how on Earth he did it. The compositions, the tonality. That cat running down the wall. You can get lost in that book. Overwhelmed by it.

    And the luminescent tones and detail in the images. It just makes you want to go out and shoot film. You cannot get that look from even the M Monochrom.

    Best wishes,

    Colin

    Reply
  3. Rob Campbell

    Yes and no. I agree wholeheartedly with you that there is much pleasure to be had looking at photo books. My personal favourite right now is the eponymous Jeanloup Sieff from Taschen. It is beautifully printed, and also quite a large production both physically and in its scope, covering, as it does, the photographer’s career from its inception right up to his death. (As he wrote all the copy, he does not record his death, but I think you can kinda sense it coming.)

    Come to think about it, the only camera for which he expresses love is his M4, which was drowned by a freak wave on the French coast near to where he owned a home not far from Etretat. It rested, rusting, on a shelf in his study.

    But I’m drifting: the point about that book is this, and I quote myself from another site:

    “(Another thing: since my cataract ops in August, my vision has changed completely around, and whereas before I could read anything without using specs, but found distance difficult, I now need specs for reading but happily not for driving. As a result, I see my books from much closer, and notice two things: it has become more necessary to look at the enlarged picture from a central position to avoid getting a distorted impression of it; the fact that looking at that Sieff book last night confirms just how crisp those Leica lenses were with film. He used Nikons, Rolleiflex TLRs and Hasselblads too, but his book makes a point of his love for the M4 and one of the 21mm lenses for it. And the crispness shows, even in book form.)”

    It isn’t just about crispness, though, and I have to reiterate that in my experience, images printed (darkroom days) from that 21mm absolutely do have something that similar Nikkors do not. I know this from my last place of employment, where the studio used Sinar, Rolleiflex TLR, Mamiya TLR, Nikons and Leicas, but the Leica was used exclusively with that 21mm (sadly, I no longer remember which variety of 21mm it was) for BBC Television room sets. Regardless, printing from all those formats, I could plainly see the difference well before I knew of the mystique that Leica lenses held amongst the amateur aficionados. In the Sieff book, it’s the grain and perspectives on small-format film that makes the work look different from the grainless stuff from his ‘blad or Rollei. You love grain or you try to avoid it. It’s a style philosophy of its own.

    But whether or not film produces better book illustrations than does digital – that’s something else. I give it to you without question that I prefer the very few original wet prints I managed to retain from my working days to most of the stuff I have printed from digital files, but that could well be more to do with the fact that with film I always used WSG well-glazed, whereas with digital printing I could only get nice prints on matt because the few gloss surfaces I tried bronzed here and there. And matt doesn’t thrill me in the least. Surface gets in the way of image, which is why I hate the very concept of canvas prints. Slip a matt digital print into a good polyester archival sleeve and you are back to pretty close to a proper print!

    Perhaps it boils down not so much to a matter of film vs digital, but of one brand of optics vs another, all else being equal, which it probably never can be.

    Reply
    1. Finny

      Thanks for the inspiring contribution. I ordered the book by Jean Loup Sieff from Taschen Verlag directly (used) 😉

      Reply
  4. Hank Beckmeyer

    Koudelka is indeed wonderful. I saw the show at the Getty a few years back, and to see up close such beautiful prints from 35mm neg film was inspiring.
    I am currently looking through a new copy of Daido’s Light and Shadow. Each photo is printed across two pages at roughly 16″x11″, these images just pulse with energy and texture.

    Reply
    1. Rob Campbell

      Trouble is, it demands deep pockets to do photography via film. Also, unless you go the whole hog and make a darkroom, you are no better off. Having another person process is hopeless, right from the very start, because only by doing your own processing will you learn about the subtleties of exposure/development combinations and how you might be screwing your best efforts by exposing incorrectly for the idea behind the picture. It’s never going to be either inexpensive or a quick learning curve. And learned skill in processing a wet paper print is just as critical to final image quality.

      At least, with digital, you can start to enjoy your images more quickly and perhaps not give up in frustration. I write this from the point of view of starting in photography. If you already have some digital experience behind you it will help, but not as much as having film/paper experience will help you in your digital work if you are a digital neophyte, which was how it was in my case: digital came into my life years after retirement.

      There is something to be said for shooting film and scanning, but that’s another pain in the ass which I had to negotiate when I started my website. It’s very boring spending time spotting files after you scan the original film. Of course, you also have to spot wet prints, but somehow, I never seemed to find as much dust printing wet from a negative as I found making files from film. Perhaps it’s the 100% viewing syndrome at work!

      But either way, unless you make prints of some kind, you remain at square 1 or, at best, square 2 in either of the two routes, film or digital. On the monitor or online, you are guessing: digital lets you make prints look any way you like. Today, despite having boxes of prints, they remain unseen and my website is my only real reference to my own pictures. And to my surprise, its value to me increases with time.

      Having said all of this, it would be nice to have the luxury of shooting on 8×10 film! That would demand a total rethink of subject matter for me. It would be useless for the stuff I do these days – when I do anything. Makes me think of Sally Mann, never a tough thing to do.

      This pandemic is starting to get into my soul; how I would love being able to go out for lunch again or even to enjoy the simple pleasure of sitting down under an awning at a pavement table on a sunny day, having a coffee and watching the world walk past.

      🙂

      Reply
      1. Dave

        Hello Rob, thanks for your post. I’ve started photography in the late analog times and althoug I enjoyed developing film, darkroom work was rather frustrating for me, as I almost never got the result I wanted, because everything I was doing back then were straight prints on graded paper (rolleyes). I wanted to make many prints quckly, to see what I’ve got. As a student, I couldn’t afford a film scanner in those times. I started to shoot in color, because the lab offered processing and scanning to CD cheaply, so I could see all my images on a computer screen and eventually share them on emerging internet.

        In a few years I moved to digital, when it got affordable and didn?t look back. With time I got better in photography and editing, I bought Epson printer, made all those settings and calibrations and got great prints exactly as I wanted out of it. But it was boring. I made just a few large A3+ prints, because I couldn’t enjoy it at all. I make inkjet prints just for family album now…

        I gradually came back to film since 2015, when I finally bought a cheap film scanner to scan my father’s and my own old negatives. Seeing the film grain, had that strange feeling in my stomach, THIS was what I wanted to do. I dslr-scan my negatives now, it takes about 4-6 minutes to scan a roll of film with better results than from a scanner (I develop and scan the whole strip immediately when it dries – faster then with 6 frames strips and almost no dust).

        Then I moved to a new house, where I could set up a permanent darkroom. I took back my old darkroom equipment, tried several prints but (self taught) still had not the right understanding about darkroom work… A book by Jensen Brooks “Creative Life in Photography” (highly recommended) changed everything for me. He writes essentially – until you have a portfolio of prints that you can show, you have nothing. Secondly, I had a talk with a friend and as I was telling him, that I actually have a permanent darkroom, but make not that many prints, it was like a revelation. I knew I have to start printing NOW.

        I’ve made some internet research, read some books (thank you Tim Rudman). I finally got the control as I now know what am I doing and although still apprentice beginner printer, I get not that bad usable prints that I even might show. Above all, for the first time, I really feel I’m really creating something in photography. It’s beautiful meditative handcraft and fun, not like pulling sliders in Lightroom.

        I enjoy the whole analog process. That small paper box with a film canister in it, the rattle when you shake it. The feeling when I put it in the camera. I enjoy manual advancing of film most, don’t know why… i like manual focusing. I was actually disappoined and missed it, when I had cameras with auto advance and autofocus… I like the sound of a mechanical shutter or that of Minolta XD7, best shutter sound ever, the manual advance is Leica-like. I could advance and release my empty XD7 whole day just for the fun of it. I love the feeling of 20°C water when developing my films. I love the smell of fixer. I love the look of grain.

        It’s like riding a horse or driving an old timer or lighting a fire in a fireplace. Perhaps not the most practical and effective, but THE thing you enjoy. And the costs might not be higher than of an average upgrade cycle of a digital set up, especially when we include inkjet printing…

        Reply
        1. Rob Campbell

          Ha! Gottcha!

          Once you have a digital camera that gives you the control you need to make the snaps you want to make, forget upgrades: they are marketing bullshit. When did any of us last make 40″ x 60″ prints?

          In my case, somewhere around the end of the 70s. And those were on Ilford’s FP3 or FP4 film out of Nikon.

          For most of us, we already have more than enough stuff that exceeds our needs.

          🙂

          Reply
          1. Dave

            You are absolutely right, I can’t see myself upgrading my 8 yo Nikon D800 any time soon 🙂

            What I was suggesting and what is the point of Tim’s original post is, that a photograph on a screen (not to mention a negative) might indeed be a half baked product until you print it, digitally or wet.

            Consider, that by not-printing you miss whole level of the editing process (in terms of selection) of photography to be there – to see – to expose – to print – to show. Believe me, choosing what to print is something quite different than “choosing the good ones” from a bunch of files in a new Lightroom collection.

            When I’m going to spend 3 hours or maybe more with a print, I need to know “what and why” very well… I was struggling with it initially, but it made me see my photography in a quite new way. I chose, inspired by the Jensen Brook’s book just to make any 100 prints, where I’d give my best to print them as well as possible and improve my printing skills on the way. For the first few prints I picked some random negatives I thought would be difficult to print just to see where I’m standing, but it was still difficult to choose what to print because of the “why”… Later I decided that I could as well subdivide those 100 in 5 or so portfolio projects of 20 prints, which would help me to be done with those periods of my photography, which never had a tangible result and give me some direction for the future too. Now I’ve the intended portfolio images ready in a Lightroom collection and pick one after another in expectation of the end result, I no longer have to think of it, there just is a work to be done.

            This all materialised all of a sudden and brought some quite new structure and purpose in what I am doing, really gave me a new kick. Just because I finally decided to print…

  5. StephenJ

    In responce to the comments above from Dave and others, regarding printing.

    I have mostly during the years engaged in my own developing. More recently I have been trying and failing miserably sometimes to tailor that prcess with a mixture of household and internet purchased dry chemicals… e.g. Parodinal, Caffenol, and my latest, a homebrew to develop the occasional c41 roll, which so far has failed to produce anything of worth.

    I am currently attempting to contact its main web based exponent, who if his commentary is to be accepted, produces some phenomenal results (at room temperature).

    Anyhow, even though I have embarked on a couple of courses both person to person and internet based, I have yet to set aside space for a proper darkroom, so I am at a significant disadvantage to those who have good experience.

    For me though, the processing, however it is done, is the major part of the overall practise of photography. The remaining question is whether to go completely digital, or to engage in a mixture of both specialisms?

    I have to say that it is normal to get reasonable results from the former, the only fly in the O, being lack of compositional skill or failure to attend to the essentials, if they are not also covered by such a machine.

    Analogue is a far more fickle mistress… (to repeat an oft used a cliché). It is also, for me, a more engaging and agreeable way to waste time and money.

    Even though I have now decided that I will never build a darkroom, I am resolved to re-engage in the process of finding the best tools for computer based development and then subsequent professional thrid party based printing where required.

    As Tim once pondered, where are Leica, when it comes to producing a decent scanner?

    But then, perhaps the scanning system has passed its sell by date and digital snapshottery using something like one of those “Negative Supply” devices and a macro equipped digital camera is the best trajectory?

    I have certainly been impressed by some of the youtubery that exists on that subject, but perhaps I am too easily impressed?

    Reply
  6. Rob Campbell

    Dave:
    Having built a home darkroom in the loft, I used to think I was a good printer right up until the day I dumped my engineering apprenticeship in its fourth year of five, and wangled a transfer to the company’s photo-unit. That first day in their darkroom the other printers opened my eyes and crushed my vanity. Six years later I felt able to go solo. Learning to print takes time, and I was blessed in that it was a service unit to the engineers, and not expected to turn a profit. Consequently, you used as much material and time as it took to do what had to be done. A priceless situation for learning that stood me well in later life. Doing it your way may be your only option, but unfortunately the only critics end up being self, family and friends – and that sucks if you want harsh reality. You need to be able to print anything, not just something in which you have invested emotion beforehand, a process that ruins objectivity. Once you can print anything, then you can, well, print anything.

    Today, long retired, I never think of photography as “there is a work to be done” at all. It simply doesn’t strike me as work. If I make the shot then I know it held something for me even if what wasn’t totally clear to me at the time. Suffice that the interest was stimulated. In fact my entire philosophy has turned on its head: now, I think of the exposure as the score, and the next part as the performance. Why would I think of performance as work? Maybe it was St Ansel first dreamed up the musical analogy, and if so, he was right for this period in my life. When I shot trannies, they were as far as I could take the picture; when I shot black/white it was always printed in order to make the content look desirable in tones of grey. Today, all I know for sure at shooting is the format and the literal content: where it goes from there is the trip, the buzz. And yeah, I can see that on the screen. As I mentioned before, it’s as far as I need or want to go: another expensive print that lives uneen in a box I don’t need. It fulfills nothing for me in the circumstances.

    You’re ahead of me: my latest camera was the D700 and that’s overkill.

    Stephen:

    The basic secret is standardising your darkroom techniques. I built a career around D76 diluted 1+1with water for the very few film types I used, and with D163 for all my printing. Paper was Kodak WSG or Ilford’s equivalents because they worked out at about a half-grade of difference with, for example, the Ilford G2 being that bit softer than Kodak’s G2 and so on through the grades. In reality, I almost never had to go from one make to the other because of, yep, standarisation letting me get what I wanted first time. Changing brands and types of developer simply increases the number of monkeys in the back of the car. You don’t need ’em! I hated variable contrast paper and its filter packs. It’s my belief that it was not introduced to make a printer’s life easier, but to make manufacturing costs lower. Carts, horses and relative geography.

    Scanners: mine’s a CanoScan FS 4000 US. Worked perfectly well for me. Lot’s of tedious work, though. For larger film I just copied on digital against a masked off Kodak lightbox.

    Trying to be both practical and realistic, I would love using transparency film on a 500 Series ‘blad again, but the real deal would have been if Hassy had produced a 52×52 sensor instead of the small one that they did produce for that body. It would have been a formidable machine! Of course, right out of my price range, just as is all digital medium format.

    Photography has no divine right to make itself complicated. It works best kept as simple as possible. Unless you are selling photo courses, where the more complicated you make it look, the more bangs for their bucks the punters believe they are getting.

    🙂

    Reply
    1. Dave

      Rob: Work doesn’t imply neccessarily something negative and laborous for me, “work” can be fun too 😉 What I was meaning by “work to be done” was rather kind of a roadmap along which I can print and create.

      I’m definitely not a master printer and I can only hope that my eyes will be opened one day and my vanity crushed, that’s always a good start! I’m just a weekend warrior so far, but at least it’s more fun than frustration and more enjoyment than labour.

      Cheers

      Dave

      Reply

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