Preparing a Show

By David Vestal Back to

Parents of school children were recently asked to determine whether their children were stupid or just lazy. In the case of this photo-exhibition, the answer is: I’m just lazy.

The show in question is experimental. It consists entirely of un-mounted prints with no mattes held against the wall under glass, and that’s all. On seeing a couple of my un-mounted prints, the people who have to hang this show accepted my unorthodox approach. In somewhat more respectable words they said, “No problem.”

Un-mounted prints with white margins all around are all I sent. Well, not quite all. In the package with the prints were two CD ROMs of all of the show’s photos: one disk in high resolution, in case they want to reproduce something on paper, and the other in low resolution, 72dpi, in case they want to put something on the internet.

The History

Preparing prints for local shows a few years ago, I not only mounted and matted up to 50 prints per show, but also put them in aluminum section frames, complete with backboards and picture wire. This ran to such expense and so much labor that I began (gasp!) to think. Just mounting and matting a print ― never mind framing it ― was costing me considerably more time, labor and cash than it took to make the print. This was crazy. For shows from which prints would be sold for respectable prices, it’s worthwhile to hire a framer, but my little local shows had no such expectations. In gallery shows aimed toward sales, no problem: the gallery does the mounting, matting and framing. Museums that buy my photos prefer un-mounted prints.

After a few years of professional photography, making photos for magazines and portraits for actors, etc., I quit. I was tired of photographing as clients wanted it done, so I reclaimed my amateur standing. Since the middle 1960s, I have photographed just as I please, not as others might require. To earn a living, I wrote and edited for photo magazines and taught, privately at first, then at schools. These days it’s workshops, preferably together with Al Weber. Our quite different opinions and approaches show students that anything that works is good. We hope they will work like themselves, rather than like either of us.

Meanwhile, photography accidentally became capital-A Art, and many in the art business became instant experts without learning anything about photography as a long-established small-a, or real art. Dilettantes took over the field. Years have pas- sed, and now a few photo art dealers, curators, critics, editors and so on actually know what they are doing, but as with painting, they are out- numbered by people who know only what’s in fashion and care only for fame and money. One of those, high up in the fine art photo trade, solemnly said to a wise photographer who told me about it, “You and me, we understand: You got to have a gimmick.” That sums up the present situation.

It’s a bandwagon I don’t want to ride, so I feel I need to go through ceremonial fine-arty motions, which include, for instance, limited editions. (I made a survey. Based on what the photographers surveyed reported, the limited edition photo- graphers averaged about six times as many prints per picture as the non-edition photographers. This ensures “valuable rarity”?) Matting, mounting and framing prints are other ceremonies I don’t perform, although I used to.

The First Experiment

In 2003, I was invited to show at a university in St. Louis. Here was a chance to try what I’d been thinking. I had not yet begun to think of digital photography, but I had long been leaving one- inch margins around my silver prints. I proposed to send a show of un-mounted prints, and this was accepted. On the way to St. Louis, one box was treated roughly, and a few print corners were bent. But that’s what margins are for, to take the damage and dirt and spare the picture area. So the show was hung that way, with the prints just under glass against the wall. When I got there, it was open and people were looking at the pictures. No one said anything about the absence of mattes. The show was well received, and all the prints were returned with no further damage. No one seemed to care about slightly rumpled corners on the margins of some prints. The viewers looked at the pictures, not at the details of their presentation. This was encouraging.

A little later I began to try to learn digital B&W printing. No teacher was available here. I had a vague hope that someday I might be able to make inkjet prints that would be almost as good as silver prints from the darkroom, although that seemed unlikely. For a couple of years I fumbled with scanning silver prints and making digital inkjets, with disappointing results. I had an Epson 1520 printer that was fairly good when it managed to move the paper through without destroying it. Weary of fumbling, I finally decided to get methodical. Instead of scanning a photo, I scanned and printed a Kodak Gray Card together with a Kodak Gray Scale and kept detailed notes of what I’d done. I had not yet learned to print lighter or darker using Photoshop’s “levels,” but I had a working knowledge of the characteristic curves of negative and print tones, and I played with raising the contrast slightly at both ends of the scale. On my eleventh try, I got a reasonably decent print of the card and the gray scale. At last I began to know what I was doing. I felt I was in business.

When the 1520 printer pooped out, I got an Epson 2200 ― much, much better. It required dif- ferent, far more restrained, curve changes. The changes I’d made with the 1520 produced disgustingly flat midtones. By then I had some feel for what to do, and to my amazement, I began to get inkjet prints that were not only as good as the silver prints they were scanned from, but distinctly better. About then I discovered “levels” and the whole thing opened up. Three increasingly good printers, and a few years later, I almost know what I’m doing in black and white inkjet. An inkjet show at Ben Fernandez’s Almanac Gallery in Hoboken, NJ was my first look at how un-mounted inkjets perform on the wall under clear plastic. With that show, neither Ben nor I used the word “inkjet,” so it didn’t affect casual viewers. I was pleased to see the prints in that show just as photo prints, no medium named, and they looked good.

Now I have a show at the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls, where I have never been, and it’s all un-mounted B&W inkjet, under glass. As I write this, the prints are there, but not yet on the wall. How it will pan out is still anyone’s guess.

This show has had more advance preparation than any show I’ve had before. This is the first time I’ve printed every picture for a show, instead of choosing to exhibit pre-existing prints. That’s a new experience. Information about the space indicated that there’s room for up to 70 prints, but experience says that’s too many. Museum fatigue tends to set in after about 50, and Milica Popovic, who is in charge of the show, said that 50 would do nicely for her, so I started picking with 50 in mind. This is hard, because after photographing for many years, there are so many pictures ― a few that many people have seen and more that no one has seen. What to do?

I made rough prints of a preliminary pick of 100 on 3 x 5 cards, laid them all out on a table, and started to eliminate. Before long I got down to 50, no theme in mind. The only criteria were that I like these more than I like most of my photos, and felt I could make good inkjets of them. All they have in common is that I made them.

While I was printing, a few of the rejects complained bitterly about being left out, and they seemed to be right, so I let five of them back in. I somewhat resisted the college’s wish for an “artist’s statement” ― it seemed pretentious ― but finally wrote a short one that says something like I photograph what I want to show you because I like seeing it. I forget what words I used. I also made a list of all 55 photos and decided what the labels under the prints should say (more like “New York, 1960” than “Transmutation #92”). I don’t give my photos titles, but they all have print-catalog numbers that positively identify each picture. The CAT numbers of the 55 are on the list, which also gives a little where, what, who, when information about the pictures. It should be posted somewhere in the show to satisfy curiosity. We’ll see how it goes.

About the Author

David Vestal
David Vestal is a photographer and teacher whose publications include The Art of Black & White Enlarging (1984) and The Craft of Photography. His photographs are exhibited internationally and are found in numerous private and public collections including New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. The wit and wisdom of his commentaries have long earned him a strong following among readers.