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.