Just received Michael Freeman’s The Photographer’s Vision, Understanding and Appreciating Great Photography. I haven’t finished reading The Photographer’s Eye or The Photographer’s Mind yet so this is probably going to be on the back burner for awhile anyway. However, in scanning through it I came across a discussion of W Eugene Smith’s photograph of a mental patient. Both the original straight print and the print completed by Smith are shown. Michael talks about how Smith burned the background, even the persons hair until it was complete black leaving only the face, ear, small area of the neck and just a suggestion of hair. The remainder of the photograph is completely black. He also mentions that Smith bleached the highlights on the face—a very common practice among good printers.
It points out very graphically that this obsession about out of the camera photography is a lot of malarkey. Photographs have always been manipulated and some of the very best ones, such as this example have been highly manipulated. But what I actually want to share is a quotation by Smith that Freeman includes. Unlike the majority of the Life Magazine photographers Smith insisted on printing his own photographs. It was not that the Life lab was not good it was excellent but Smith makes a very poignant point.
“Negatives are the notebooks, the jottings, the false starts, the whims, the poor drafts, and the good draft but never the completed version of the work… Negatives are private, as in my bedroom… I don’t think that any really great writer would make his rough draft and then toss it to a secretary to put into final form… If I am trying to reach people, if I am trying to say something and if I am trying to say this as strongly as I can, why go to all of the other effort and then neglect one other way of reaching the reason that is all began.”
The very same thing is true of the digital image. It is simply the first step. Believe me, if W Eugene Smith couldn’t get it finished in the camera the current crop of photographers don’t stand a snowball’s change in Hades doing it.