When I began printing in earnest in the darkroom I was immediately aware of a problem. I hadn’t seen too many actual prints by established darkroom workers. I knew this was an issue because of the problem of ‘calibration’; of being in a position to aim (or indeed not aim) for a known outcome. As I began to work, I soon saw incremental improvements in my practice (I could make sharper prints, I had better command of tone, I started to become aware of the notion of a ‘good’ negative that prints easily), but I still had a nagging feeling of not knowing how exactly to quantify the work. I work happily on my own and am a contented autodidact. I embrace the idea that I am always learning. But the thing is you do sometimes need a yardstick.
I shall not burden this post with the ins and outs of what prints, silver or digital, I saw, or acquired, or when. Suffice it to say that looking back from a position of having become acquainted with top class prints, the benefits are glaringly obvious. The advice of this post is to endeavour with whatever means at your disposal to learn from fine prints. For example, here in the West Midlands, Birmingham Library has a superb photography archive. You can make an appointment and see real prints by such esteemed printers as John Blakemore. They will offer both work prints and finished ones, and you get the chance to study the printing decisions made and how the artist has attuned the final print. Other photographers, especially these days through online media, offer relatively inexpensive inkjet prints that are finished to extremely high standards. And that is not even to mention exhibitions of photography (although I do find these less useful because of the inability to study over a longer period).
By studying prints by others you have the opportunity to ‘program’ your visual memory and bring subtle relationships of tone, framing, sharpening, cloning and other enhancements to your own work. You construct a multi-faceted yardstick in your mind to which you can refer in differing print situations. The print is an invaluable teacher indeed.