I own a print by an established photographer that is framed and displayed in my home. I enjoy this print every day, and it has many virtues. Shot with a large format camera on black and white film, it has a rich tonal range, is pin sharp, beautifully mounted, and is of an uplifting natural scene. The tones are undulating and varied without being brash or overly contrasty. The scene is peaceful and there is a quiet drama to the print that chimes with this.
As a printer however, there is one detail that really excites me. To the top left of the image is a space where foliage gives way to a glimpse of distant mountains. I have never seen the negative, so I can only speculate about what it is actually like, but I imagine that particular area to be pretty dense. I surmise that a straight print would result in a too light patch that would draw the eye undesirably to the edge of the frame (and thus from the image area and its subject matter). I further surmise that a little burning-in is necessary to bring a sense of solidity to the rocks and to shift the tones from empty white or near white to light grey. A light grey that is solid but still light. A grey delicately balanced and finely tuned.
How satisfying that light yet solid grey is! To my eye, with my printer’s speculation (admittedly a projection, but likely, I think), it is a small but hugely important detail that makes all the difference. It encapsulates for me the joy of the printer’s work; the ability to tune parts of an image such that the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. The work of greys, of patches and pockets of grey, decided upon by the artist. Not arrived at accidentally, but tuned with intention, decided upon, meant.
A most delectable patch of grey, and a reminder of what a great monochrome medium we have at our disposal, film or digital.