How Should We Evaluate Digital Craftsmanship?

Earlier this week, my wife and I watched Valentino: The Last Emperor (here) on DVD. For those of you that haven't seen this film, it is a terrific documentary covering the last year or so of Valentino's reign as the head of his iconic Italian fashion house, including the now famous 45th anniversary retrospective of his work and the glamorous star-studded gala celebration in Rome.

Near the end of the film, there is an amazing scene, where Valentino and Karl Lagerfeld are wandering through the museum show of Valentino's jaw-dropping designs, and Lagerfeld stops, puts his arm around Valentino, and says something like "Compared to the two of us, the rest are making rags."

As I thought more about this stunning comment, I wondered about how it might connect to the world of photography. In the old analog world, the craftsmanship of the gelatin silver print was clear: great printers were obviously better than average printers, and you didn't have to have a particularly tuned eye to see the difference. If we were to try elect a pantheon of master printers, one of my votes would certainly go to Frederick Sommer, but of course, there are many others who took meticulous printing to new heights. There were also those like Bill Brandt who were consistently sloppy, but didn't seem to care.

In the new digital world, I find myself much more confused about how to evaluate prints. If there are obvious imperfections, pixelations, digital remnants or other unwanted artifacts, we can of course single these prints out as less than good. But how are we to tell the difference between average and superior? Can we still pick winners based on elevation of craft alone?

I really don't have any good answers here I'm afraid. If we assume that once a digital image goes to "the printer" it is exactly the same as every subsequent image printed, the only variations then come in the proper functioning of the machinery, the fidelity of the inks and the quality of the papers. Are most collectors really equipped to dive into these details with any kind of knowledgeable connoisseurship? And if the above is true, do we then step back to evaluate a photographer's skill at computer-based manipulation and editing? Is this still "printing"? I'm not sure that it is.

I think what we need is a jargon free checklist/guide of what to look for in the physical endpoint of digital prints, from the perspective of a collector. Perhaps this exists somewhere on the Internet already, or maybe we need to gather together the information and create it here.

So back to Valentino and Lagerfeld. How will we judge the master printers of this digital age? What metrics will we use? Can anyone put forth the two current best who could have a similar conversation, whose skills and craftsmanship put them undeniably head and shoulders above their peers? Is this even a relevant question? As a collector, I feel an uneasy need to understand this better, but I'll admit that I really don't even know where to begin.

Taken from here.

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