Despite the ubiquity of images that are shared entirely in digital form, via computer screen, tablet and smartphone, a print remains the ultimate expression of a well-conceived photograph. Images shown on a tablet screen can look spectacular, but a print is tangible in a fundamentally different way. The paper (or canvas or other medium) itself adds to the image and the essential process that a photographer goes through to create the physical print will naturally refine your vision of the image.
Prints make your images tangible. Prints enhance your images with material qualities and the associations they bring with them. Synthetic or organic? Reflective or nonreflective? Smooth or textured? Uniform or irregular? Sharp or soft? White or cream? Transparent or metallic? These and many other factors will have an impact on the technical quality in your images and on the associative reactions they produce within their viewers.
Prints define the scale of your images. What’s the appropriate scale for an image—miniature, life-sized or larger-than-life? Do you want people to walk up to a building-sized mountain or hold the print in their hands? Scale changes the physical and psychological reactions people have to images. They draw close to small prints and sometimes hold them or even carry them with them wherever they go; large prints immerse people in images that may fill their entire visual field until they pull back to view them from a distance. You can change a space or even create new space with prints.
Printing makes your images more durable. Historically, it’s the images that were printed that survived. Putting new technology disaster stories aside, there has never been a precedent to help us determine how long digital files will last if properly cared for. In theory, they should never degrade and can be copied indefinitely without reducing their quality. Whether people will perform the required maintenance to ensure this is the real question. One day in the future, media and format migration may become automated, but it’s not now. Consider prints your ultimate form of backup. Though they can deteriorate on their own, if properly produced and stored, prints need little or no additional care and no know-how to retrieve and use them.
Because they’re physical, prints are easily bought and sold. It’s harder to command a higher price for intangible things and harder still for them to hold their value or appreciate. In recent years, there have been unprecedented escalations in the value of photographic prints.
Images in print are more rare, as well as less accessible. (Often, this contributes to both their market and personal value.) Prints take up physical space, and why would you let something do that if it wasn’t important? Of all the images you look at in a day, how many of them are prints? No one carries thousands of prints in their pockets or on their cell phones. No one makes millions of prints. How many prints do you make? Most of us don’t make enough prints. Making a print is a statement.