In the November/December 2007 issue of Lenswork, Brooks Jensen wrote an essay on the implications of “the ongoing revolution in commercial printing technologies.” Jensen asserts, and justifies the position, that the best commercial printing processes can produce images equaling or exceeding the quality of photographic prints. He compares the rapid quality improvements in the commercial printing world with the stagnation of the technology for producing traditional silver prints (He’s being generous; a recurring lament among old-timers is the decline in quality of printing paper, and the complaining isn’t all nostalgia). He draws the conclusion that the quality of offset-printed images will soon surpass that of photographic prints. The implications are significant and widespread. This is an important piece and I commend it to you.
For a long time, I’ve had misgivings about the way photographs are displayed in museums. In this post, I’d like to take Jensen’s idea and run with it; considering how the exhibition of photography might change in light of coming advances in offset lithography. You could generalize much of what have to say from the display of photographs in a museum to the display of other works of art. However, much of it doesn’t generalize; I mean to apply what I say only to photographs.
The situation today
When you go to a working art photographer’s house, the walls are covered with their prints. Usually, they look gorgeous. One of the reasons is that photographers throw a lot of light on them. The longevity of the print is not their principal concern; if the print fades they can always make another.
In a museum, exhibited prints are not nearly so brightly lit. That’s being kind; if you’re interested in appreciating the full power of the images, the lighting is usually terrible. The dynamic range is compressed, brilliance disappears, and delicacy of shading is obscured. Sometimes things are so murky that it’s difficult to see any shadow detail, even with modern prints in good shape. Older prints have lower maximum density and dimmer highlights. The reduced contrast of these images cries out for bright illumination. However, because older prints are often especially fragile, they often get even dimmer lighting.
In addition to being too dim, museum illumination is usually too yellow. Standard white illumination is 5000°K, which gives a neutral appearance. I’m not sure why museums don’t use neutral lighting, but I suspect the reason is also related to permanence, since running the light filaments at a higher temperature causes them to emit greater energy in the more-damaging blue part of the spectrum.
It’s not that museums want the prints to look bad. They know they’d look better if they put more light on them, but their priorities are somewhere else. Museums are always conscious of their custodial role, and having the image last as long as possible trumps having it look good. They are afraid of damaging prints they own, and even more frightened of harming prints they’ve borrowed. Ignorance plays a part here, too. Curators don’t know how much light will cause damage to any particular print, and they err on the side of caution. Were I in their shoes, I’d probably do the same thing, but it all adds up to a fairly dismal experience for museum goers, at least when compared to what they would see with the prints brightly and whitely lit.
How to make it better
Before I read Jensen’s article, I had been thinking that, in some exhibitions, I would have gotten a better experience from a book. Now I think that I was being too cautious; in a few years we’ll have the technology to provide a better viewing experience in all cases. Let’s assume that we have inexpensive offset printing or other technology that is capable of exceeding the quality of traditional photographic prints. Let’s go a step further than Jensen, and assumed that we can make the images relatively cheaply even in small volume (I’ll justify this assumption in a later post). What are some practical ways to connect eyeballs to high-quality photographic art in the most visually pleasing manner?
Videocassette recordings, and, later, DVDs, allowed people to enjoy in their home much of the experience of a motion picture in a theater. By analogy, books could replace (or supplement – the movie house hasn’t disappeared) museum shows. Instead of picking work to hang on the walls, curators could construct collections of work to be published in book form. The amount of explanatory material could be greatly expanded over what’s possible in a museum environment. A reasonably sized high-quality photographic book would probably have to sell for about $50. The ratio of that price to the cost of admission to a large museum is about the same as the ratio of the price of the DVD to the price of a single admission to the same movie in a theater (although the museum ticket will usually give you access to several exhibitions).
Another alternative would be to allow people to create their own shows. The first thing they would need is sufficient wall space, then they ‘d need a source of low-cost high-quality large-format images. There’s a precedent with posters, which as Jensen mentioned, has formed the economic base for some photographers print sales. However posters as they are sold today usually display prominent text and have a different feel than matted prints. If museums or photographers issued offset-printed portfolios, the view would be cleaner and less cluttered, and a grouping of prints would allow curatorial creativity. Then wall space limitations and framing costs probably would be the most significant limitations to the number of prints you could put up. Frames that made it easy to swap prints in and out could help here.
Here’s a more radical idea: rather than provide an alternative to the museum experience, we could make the museum experience better by changing what is displayed. To provide the best possible viewing experience in a gallery setting while minimizing light damage, museums could scan their photographs, lock them away in dark vaults and display high-quality reproductions under bright, white lights. To many, this idea is probably aesthetic heresy. In order for this approach to be successful, museum boards, staff, and art lovers will have to rethink the purpose of the museum experience.
A lot has to change to make these approaches successful. I’ll examine the issues in subsequent posts.