Each negative holds a thousand photographs

I’ve been increasingly interested in seeing printed photographs, especially from the acknowledged master photographers. And so while Margaret and I were in Chicago recently we visited the Art Institute and its photography exhibit.

A print of W. Eugene Smith’s Madness moved me deeply. I’d never before seen this famous image of a woman in a Hatian mental institution, her face emerging from a sea of black, her eyes searching and frantic. I stood astonished for several minutes before this photograph, scanning for detail, reading the woman’s face, trying to determine what she felt and thought. Was she simply, as the title suggests, mad? Or was she simply frightened, or struggling to find her way? Even in the fraction of a second this image captured, it’s hard to tell.


The Art Institute’s print is astonishing. The paper’s velvety finish turned the dark into an enveloping night that threatened to consume the woman. Her face appeared as though it lay inches below the paper’s surface, as if you’d have to reach into the print to touch her.

You can’t tell any of that from this dreadful scan, which I lifted directly from the Art Institute’s site (here). Not only is it marred by white specks not present in the print, but those velvety blacks have turned muddy, tepid gray. This scan loses all of the print’s punch.

And that’s on my monitor. It might look different on yours. Yet if  you traveled to the Art Institute to see the print, it would look the same to you as it did to me.

The paper was just one choice Smith made in the darkroom. Another was the amount and placement of the light he chose to shine through the negative. Consider the image below, which I found on this page and is said to have been published in this book of Smith’s work. I believe it to be from the same negative as above, given how the woman’s expression appears to be exactly the same. This digital image reveals information on that negative that never made it into the Art Institute’s print.


Which image is true? Both. Or neither. Is there a truth in photography? Any finished image largely represents the many choices a photographer makes from the moment he or she decides to expose a negative.


14 responses to “Each negative holds a thousand photographs”

  1. bodegabayf2 Avatar

    There is something to be said for enjoying a photograph that has been printed. After spending so much time looking at images on a computer screen, I am sometimes amazed when I view an image in a gallery. I had your same experience some years ago while viewing a print of Ansel’s “Clearing Winter Storm.” I have seen this image countless times online, but viewing a large Adams print in a gallery–I was blown away!

    When I used to do my own darkroom work, it would be enjoyable to try printing my negatives different ways, experimenting with dodging and burning, etc. And yes, I know you can do all of these things in Photoshop, but manipulating images by hand and in chemicals is a totally different, almost magical experience.

    Thought provoking post!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I only ever printed in the darkroom once, and it was just contact prints off the one roll of film I ever processed myself. I didn’t really enjoy either experience much, beyond watching the images emerge onto the paper. I wonder if I’d feel differently about it now, were I to try again.

      1. bodegabayf2 Avatar

        I am pretty sure it would be an entirely different experience for you now. You might check in your area to see if there is a rental darkroom. Even our little town has one and it is pretty nicely equipped. Cheap too!

  2. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    That’s the beauty of film photography. When a transparency (or print) leaves my hands, it’s exactly what I want. Back 40 years ago, when the art director or ad agency used to call and say the photo looked like crap reproduced, and the vehicle it was reproduced in, tried to blame the photographer, all we’d say is compare the reproduction to the print or transparency. Proof positive! Color shifts, trash on the plate, poor pre-press quality, you could tell it all by comparing the original to the reproduction. Now, everything is infinitely changeable! There can be zero proof that the digital information you sent them hasn’t been altered somewhere along the line, and in fact, you can open a digital file on 4 different computers and see 4 different things on the screen, including sometimes vast color shifts! Not to mention, that trying to work on PhotoShop on a screen that really has zero way to show sharpening (and other effects), is downright horrible. Now that I’m semi-retired, it’s all back to film for me…

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Another regular commenter here, Mike Connealy, has remarked here and on his blog many times how today, it’s nearly impossible to deliver the artist’s vision because we all look at images on our screens. I wonder all the time whether my readers see what I do in my images, because every time I view one of them on my work laptop (vs. the consumer-grade desktop machine I use for editing photos and writing this blog) the images look different — and not as good.

  3. Zimmette Avatar


    Just came across this item about a new manual SLR called Reflex. Thought you might be interested:

    Reflex camera updates analog shooting – Gizmag https://apple.news/AR56NPmPBNYmGWoLJDknGVg

    Regards, Sent from Carrie’s iPhone


    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’ve seen it. Very intriguing. I wish them luck!

  4. Mike Connealy Avatar

    Thanks for that nice reminder to look at Smith’s work. His courage and originality produced amazing art. The shot you admired was certainly great, but just one of so many. I’ve always especially admired the Spanish Village series he made for Life magazine. And, of course, there is the Minamata story which earned him a beating and the sight of an eye, and before that the near death injuries sustained on Guadalcanal while producing his incomparable pictures of war.
    There was a nice little exhibit of Smith’s work a few years ago at the Phoenix Art Museum which compared his prints to the way they were shown as halftones in some of his Life stories. The technical limitations were no doubt vexing to the artist, but it was the editorial scripting and layout decisions that eventually drove Smith away from the medium.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I can see how a photographer might want to completely control every step of the process, right through printmaking, to get just the desired result. The print of Madness at the Art Institute was deeply moving, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it after I left.

      On the other hand, if someone wanted to pay me nicely to publish a series of my photographs in their magazine I might just cackle all the way to the bank.

  5. SilverFox Avatar

    last year I went and saw an original print of Ansel Adams’ ‘Moonrise, Hernandez New Mexico’ (among others from the f.64 group) and also watched a film showing Ansel’s process for making the image. It is interesting to see how he printed the negative in a particular way to emphasize what he conceived. It was also interesting to note that different prints on the image by the man himself over time have slightly different contrast and exposure. It reminded me that a copy of a photo is more than just a print from a negative and that art goes into how that image is presented based on what was captured originally. The experience of seeing an image like that also made me realize the value of an original print that has been taken from conception to final image by the artist (photographer) and that photography is much more than pressing the button at the right time.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Isn’t it fascinating to realize how printmaking isn’t like photocopying: each print is different, simply because each is custom? And then an artist like Adams deliberately varied many things in each of his prints.

      1. SilverFox Avatar

        Indeed. I understand he compared it to classical music where the negative is the score and the printing is the performance. That’s why I don’t overlook spending time editing my images (as editing in Digital amounts to printing) to bring out the best of what they have.

  6. Sam Avatar

    Ah Eugene W Smith love that guy! Great photographer, great post!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Sam!

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