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Homage also needs be paid to the high degree of skill, not to mention the huge learning curve, involved in preparing a photograph for digital printing. Even the comparatively simple task of translating exactly onto paper what is seen on a screen, a print or a negative is fraught with electronic dilemmas, each if which must be overcome. And for those looking beyond mere translation, with sufficient skill, and pricey programs, a person can transform his or her image into any number of incarnations, some of them frankly bizarre -- again with the push of buttons.
Give John Stevenson his due. He appeals to a very high-end, very sophisticated and, forgive me, sometimes snobbish, clientele that can afford, in platinum prints, the photographic equivalent of one-of-a-kind images.
But there are a hell of a lot of other folks who are becoming educated about good photography, whose Baby Boomer tastes are somewhat more edgy, and who like the idea of buying limited edition artwork whose size and emotional impact rivals that of fine painting at a fraction of the cost.
George Hemphill notes that the emergence of large scale photographic work co-exists with the growing influence of design in the artistic preferences of the consumer. "It is surface design that rules the world," he declared, whether it be the curve of a toilet brush bought at Target or the high-tech sheen of a state-of the-art cell phone.
Bottom line: issues of usefulness being equal, "people will pay more money for more pleasing design."
In photography, this can translate into edgier, more abstract, imagery that can seek its own legitimacy merely through size and composition. And that in turn has led to a stronger impact of color on the traditionally black and white-dominated fine art photography market.
The work of the Starn twins is a good example: sometimes bizarre technique, outside-the-box concept, large scale. On a more traditional, yet in some ways equally out-there, plane is the color work of Tina Barney -- the seemingly fly-on-the-wall chronicler of the ennui and angst of her own WASPy social class.
Even more traditional work -- yet also mind-blowing in the elegant simplicity that can explode into abstraction when it is writ large on the walls -- is the color landscape photography of Richard Misrach.
So today there are, in fact, two new elements at play in the photographic marketplace. The first is the emergence of photographers who are gravitating to larger-scale imagery, often in color. The second is the ability of digital printing to produce these images far more easily.
It is too early to say what effect the element of mass-production will have on the one-of-a-kind world of the darkroom. My guess is that there always will be a (legitimate) market for work actually signed by an artist and produced in limited editions -- even if the work itself is made by machine. As for photographic prints individually made in a darkroom and signed by the artist, I join Tom Beck in believing that their value only can increase. [And in these circumstances there is no need to go the sometimes abused "limited edition" route. By nature prints made by hand in the darkroom and subject to all the vagaries therein of chemistry, paper, temperature, humidity -- God knows, even sunspots -- are always, in effect, one-of-a-kind.]
The danger, of course, is that technique -- or what passes for technique -- can trump content. Hemphill, who is not shy about voicing his opinion of mediocre work, put it thus:
"You want to know how hot photography is? Photography's so hot that people who call themselves photographers, who have minimum skills and crappy equipment and nothing in common [with real photographers], can get shows in Chelsea in one gallery after another."