Post Production

Ansel Adams once said that great photos were made, and not shot. And damn if he wouldn't know.

"Floating Tree" 1969 by Jerry Uelsmann

My darkroom, circa 1979 (high school-era). Note 3 enlargers and the wall of Uelsmann prints.

My photographic education began with the work of Jerry Uelsmann, famous for his multiple image creations. His darkroom (and mine) had a series of enlargers in use at one time, with a different element in each, and he'd construct his photographs in the darkroom, not the camera. Where Ansel Adams preached "previsualization", Uelsmann was the king of "post-visualization" and i enjoyed the darkroom work to build an image. From that foundation I recognized both the surreality of all photography (manipulated or not) and the degree that post production was implicit in all photography. Even as Adams spoke of previsualization, he truly was all about "fixing it in post."

In my post about color i describe the handful of reasons that monochromatic printing is more interesting than color. The adjustments to a color image are generally about preserving (or recreating) the color in the actual scene, which may or may not be feasible. But in b&w, all color and light is somewhat arbitrary, and its far easier to make a statement. By way of example, here's a regular color image I snapped one morning in my neighborhood:

It was early morning, the light was flat, the colors muted. Visually it was sorta dull—the church almost indistinguishable from the buildings in the background. It's not that strong an image.

If you just remove the chroma, or use a simple filter, it doesn't get a lot better:

It's easy to reject this. But with a skilled printmaster (or with the right skills), the church can be brought up, and the city brought down, and while it's only done with burning and dodging, it feels like a different image:

This is the nature of printing well, and working with experts in photography. Seeing the photograph in the original image is something you start to learn. As one more example i offer this family classic from 2011; i've always loved the composition and how everything is in motion. It's not well exposed though—the woods were dark and the kids were backlit. This image was rescued from a far more marginal color original and it took awhile before i realized what was buried in the darkness. Here they are, "after" and "before".


These things can't be executed with basic filters, and are nice examples of the contribution of a printmaster to the post production of your work. 


What to Print?

Contact sheet of Elliott Erwitt's famous "Chihuahua, New York" (the final print is on display at Neomodern).

People assume that the toughest part of the printmaster's job is the computer part: the optimization of an image. It's not. Our greatest contribution isn't always the improvement of an image, but rather, helping customers determine precisely what image to print. We end up looking at a lot of vacation photos. We see many babies. There are dogs dressed up in top hats. 

Selecting what to print is a non-trivial problem. You'd think it was just "what is my favorite picture?" but we like pictures for different reasons:

  • Photos where we look great.
  • Photos that connect us to a place and time.
  • Photos of a beautiful thing (a sunset, a person, a mountain...)
  • Photos that are beautiful (not to be confused with photos OF something beautiful—a different thing. There are many beautiful photos of very mundane subjects.)

These are each important, but there are also photos that will never get boring. There are photos that get better the longer you look at them. There are photos that don't simply document, but become iconic, something that captures the essence of a place or time or person...

Cartier-Bresson's "Amusement Park" This is a great photo and many people enjoy it -- but it works outside of "context" -- you likely don't know these kids nor where they are or even when it was taken. And yet: still works. Are your photos enjoyable even if someone doesn't know you or anything about the image? It's a high bar.

Cartier-Bresson's "Amusement Park" This is a great photo and many people enjoy it -- but it works outside of "context" -- you likely don't know these kids nor where they are or even when it was taken. And yet: still works. Are your photos enjoyable even if someone doesn't know you or anything about the image? It's a high bar.

And then there's a level we're trying to help people reach: a photograph that is interesting even without context—you don't have to know who the people are, or where it was taken, to enjoy it. Context makes a picture MORE enjoyable, but isn't required.

So while many clients show up at Neomodern with an image they love and want to see printed, many others arrive with a stack of favorites, unsure which one would be the best. There are often many "bests." But we believe this selection process is the essence of photography, and something we're particularly suited to help with. Perhaps the most under-reported use of Neomodern is helping you select what to print.

It's why our reservation blocks out an hour, even if it only takes 30 minutes to print and frame your photograph... figuring out what to print is an important part of why we're here. Let us help.

The Weight of Photographs: More Than Just an Image

A photograph is an object, a piece of paper you can hold in your hand. It has weight. It has an image on it.  It lasts. It’s a little like parchment. It’s kind of magical. A photograph is not just the image. The image is important, but the object is special.

Happy (romantic) couple yesterday in the salon, savoring the creation of their photograph.

Happy (romantic) couple yesterday in the salon, savoring the creation of their photograph.

While photographs can be pumped out by machine, its good to remember they can also be hand crafted, more like other handmade art projects than technology and apps. The mat and frame are not only vehicles for display, but maybe more importantly, methods to protect. And while photographs are great ways to remember important moments and people, it’s good to be reminded that they can also be beautiful. And when an image is both—beautiful and meaningful—a hand-crafted photograph becomes a true heirloom, something that will last through time, beyond shifts in media and technology.

Not every picture deserves to be turned into this kind of photograph—most of our pictures are fun but disposable. But some, our best, our most important, demand this treatment. These are the images we are excited to help you with.

Color at Neomodern

Yes, we print color photographs at Neomodern.

Boardwalk, 2011

Boardwalk, 2011

But clearly, I have a strong bias toward black-and-white images. Why? Is it simply nostalgia? Because they look like classic photos? Is it to make them seem more like "art"—since so many masterpieces of photography have that look? Nawww... there are lots of reasons:

First, a color print almost always is post produced to make it look like the original scene, and make it a realistic reproduction of the reality shot. This is great in a documentary sense, but it is very limiting and frequently frustrating. There's no way to make a digital image (let alone a physical print) have the richness of light and color we see with our eyes. So every effort will be somewhat disappointing, no matter how beautiful the result.

Second, philosophically, it's a reminder that this image isn't mistaken for 'reality'. Whether color or b&w, a photo is a fiction created by an artist—it's cropped from time and space, it forces a point of view. So the monochromatic nature is a signifier that the entire process is surreal, a creation. The color seems to deny this sort of abstraction.

Third, emphasis. The post production of an image is furthering the work of the shooting, to highlight subject matter, to convey a feeling. When you optimize a color image you're generally trying to make it "more real." There's no such possibility once you remove the chroma. In a b&w image, you have remarkable latitude to adjust light, shade, contrast in order to better emphasize elements in the image. A red shirt on a person is strong and attracts attention, perhaps away from a face or gesture; in b&w that shirt is dark and attracts no special focus. Moreover, the printmaster can make a purposeful decision about how certain colors will look in b&w—a blue sky or green leaf become controllable shades of  grey: the artist can decide if blue or green should be almost-white or almost-black—this adds a separate layer to the creation of a photograph and is an important part of the process.

Fourth, poetic forms. For me, color tends to trump other elements in an image. It's used to make drab images 'better' (or at least 'pretty.') Take the color away and you can see just how dull the original photograph was. Harder is making the monochromatic image beautiful—the photographer is forced to create beauty through composition and content. Unless the photo is specifically 'about' the colors (a golden sunset, a warm cast from a streetlight...) it is often instructive to explore the monochromatic image. The story says Ansel Adams once criticized color by saying "Anyone can take a color photo, but it's harder to take a black-and-white..." I have yet to find this quote, but i like the sentiment: i simply enjoy the photographic constraint: it's harder to take a black and white photo that's beautiful, so it makes the taking of photos more of a game for me. Like haiku, it's a poetic form, not better or worse than others, but an enjoyable medium on its own. 

Eggs, Palm Springs, 2015

Eggs, Palm Springs, 2015

So while i aspire to taking great black and white images, and suggest it's both fun as a hobby and instructive in making all your photos better, yes... neomodern will print whatever images customers bring to us. We might show you how your image might look in greyscale, but in the end its up to you to decide what kind of prints to make.

Month One

Web businesses are fun, but there's nothing like having a physical space to meet every one of your customers (and to connect with hundreds of interested bystanders). It's the best kind of focus group. We've learned things all month and continue to test, observe, and evolve. A few examples:

98% of every person who walks in the front door, regardless of whether they notice the information wall or not, takes a hard right and moves around the nest counterclockwise. I had seen this was true in retail--that people enter and instinctively move right--but honestly believed having something clearly in front of them to read would indicate that was the beginning. Apparently not. So we're moving the information display.

Color: We put a sign in the window to try to neutralize some of the initial concern.

Color: We put a sign in the window to try to neutralize some of the initial concern.

Almost everyone who spoke to us felt a need to check that we, in fact, would print color. Clearly my personal bias toward black and white can be a little intimidating. So we're adjusting the mix, and showing more color, and more works by our clients. I get it.

A stunning proportion of our early clients share one trait: they were leaving on a plane in the subsequent 24 hours. At least 2 clients literally walked out our door and into a Lyft to SFO. The ability to produce a personalized framed fine art photograph in 30 minutes would be a special order anywhere else, if it could be done at all. But we've learned that Neomodern has a unique offering for creatives needing a last-minute-gift.

We're getting better at packing projects for different customer needs.

We're getting better at packing projects for different customer needs.

There was some expected tuning of our systems. Turns out that the device we use to put the frames together will jam easily, and we needed to get a manual version of the same device "just in case." Similarly, the computerized mat cutter can be very tempermental. Learning how to coax all the devices into high performance is something we're learning, and getting increasingly efficient at the entire process has been fun.

By the end of the month we had retired our proto-website, shed like a chrysalis, and emerged with a newer website; a far more cohesive and clear representation of who we are and what we're like... but most importantly it introduced our reservation system: we realized that in this town, everything is scheduled. Walk ins can be welcomed, but people needed to be able to pick a time and lock it in. It's been a day and we're started to see it get used. So happy.

So that's our first month: a slowly growing customer set, a few evening events, and everything on track for seems like an increasing intensity toward the holidays. Let's hope.

"Why the red sofa?"

I'm surprised how often this comes up. So here goes:

The red sofa is designed to re-imagine the neomodern logo—a graphic of black & white – with a splash of red. I hoped that when you looked around the salon, there'd be scenes that might remind you of our logo, without needing to plaster the logo everywhere.  So there are little shocking moments of red. The sofa. The lamp.

However, the real question you're possibly asking is why the red square in the logo? Originally, the square represented the red darkroom light. I spent my formative years bathed in that kind of light; it always balanced a kind of sexy-magic with a warmth of home. It was my tip o' the hat to photographers.

But now that i'm in the gallery, i find these flashes of red act as a reminder: color is great! I love black and white photography for many personal reasons, but even an old school photographer like me can step back and marvel at color. Neomodern embraces both greyscale and color photographs.

On Being in San Francisco...

In 1932 San Francisco gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz assembled Group f/64, a collection of like-minded regional photographers who revolutionized American photography. The group included Ed Weston and Ansel Adams and was featured at a landmark showing at the newly opened deYoung museum that November.

That was the same year my dad was born, right here, on Oak Street.

In fact Dad and Mom (Cal alums both) met at Berkeley, and later my sister and brother were born at UCSF Hospital where Dad worked. This city is in my roots.

My folks left the bay area in the late ’50s, and I was born a few years later, about the same time that my dad started collecting photographs. While I grew up in Florida, I was surrounded by images of San Francisco, and the works of Weston, Adams, Cunningham and others from that original Group f/64. There was also work from later photographers like Max Yavno, William Heick, and Peter Stackpole. My dad seemed to be drawn to the photos taken of “his city” during his youth here. We have so much social media today it’s hard to imagine a time when images of places and experiences were less common. He was nostalgic.

I always assumed I would live here.

Army Street, Max Yavno, 1947 — what the area looked like when my father was 15, but also an beautiful photograph from his collection.

I “returned” to California after college (I tend to think of this like salmon instinctually “returning” to a place they’ve never been themselves, to spawn). I first moved to Marin. I spawned in Santa Cruz, but I landed in North Beach in 2011.

Neomodern is a new business, and the idea is pretty novel, but it actually feels like work I’ve been doing my entire life. Once it was clear I was going to build this new kind of service and gallery, there really was no doubt it needed to be in San Francisco. It is both a tribute to my father and an externalization of my feelings about photography and there’s really no place better suited for what it represents.

November 2017 will be the 85th Anniversary of the opening of the deYoung’s original show. I’ll try to display some more Group f/64 items at Neomodern in November; ironically It will be the first time some of those prints will be back in San Francisco since they were first presented. Maybe they’re returning to spawn as well…

My father, 2012

One Print Only (#opo)

The thing that makes photography fundamentally so different from most other artforms is that identical duplicates can be created of the product such that photo one is pretty much just as real as photo five thousand. The audience doesn’t really know how many “original” artworks were created, and this dynamic runs counter to the need for unique, laboriously executed creations that seem to be fundamental in the selling of art. I’m not suggesting we want to make photography more commercial, but i am suggesting that it would only take one move to make it more like painting and sculpture and other more classical forms: there has to only be a single object created.

“Editioning” was a new concept in photography and maybe it’s an archaic notion; the masters just printed a print when they wanted one… (Kertesz’ “Mondrian’s Pipe and Glasses”). In the digital age, perhaps one original is enough.

Generally I espouse the importance of the physical print in photography. It is the thing created by the photographer, the object that people experience. As a photographer you never know what image you have taken will be super popular — and traditionally you’d really want to be able to make a quantity of prints to sell. “Editioning” was invented at some point in the modern photographic art era, to limit quantities of originals, to let buyers assess supply and demand, and ultimately make it a better product for galleries to sell. But historically the masters generally didn’t make an edition, they would print some when they happened to be printing or when someone wanted one. New order? New print. Editioning was an attempt to rein this in.

Originally, i decided that i’d never print more than three prints of any given image. Sort of “radical editioning” — it would leave one for me, one to sell, and one more “just in case.” But I was informed: if you’d ever want a gallery to represent you, this is pretty much death. For awhile I settled on editions of nine. But depending on the day I found that was both way too much and far too few.

However, with the proliferation of digital photography, and the ease with which images can be shared, perhaps more than any time in history, i think the need to mass produce prints, so that anyone who wants one can have one, is archaic; i think the natural corresponding balance to the rise of digital imaging is simply this: only make one (signed) print. An element to neomodernism then is nudging photography back out of the art sphere, before the galleries changed photography, and the artists were just artists. This addresses that issue, by making the artist’s photograph a singular object, like a painting. Simultaneously the image might circulate widely: be popular on Instagram or in online media, but the photograph, the original, there is but one. And when you see a signed print from a photographer of an image, you simply know, that ‘that’s the one’.

I have to say, this new idea doesn’t sit well. I want to print more and make them available. But this discomfort is precisely why it appeals to me. Painters deal with this every day. I see no reason photographers cannot as well. It’s so easy for people to copy or print their own photos, and some form of mechanical reproduction is still part of photography, but not for the original. We simply have to agree that in this new era, even for pictures, there is only one, and done. The great photographer then isn’t the individual with the single fantastic image that everyone wants — the great photographer is prolific and consistent.

Let’s see how this goes.