I received my Krolick print from 20 x 200 last week. It's sitting in front of me as I write this. The print quality is...well, it's about what one might expect from a $20 photo printed in an edition of 200. Although the colors seem honest and vibrant, the overall texture of the print has that slightly mushy digital quality that lets the whole thing down. The image area is roughly 8 x 8. There's no excuse for a print that size not to hum with sharpness, but this one doesn't. I guess I shouldn't be disappointed. You get what you pay for. But still it's not quite what I'd expected.
The good news is that now I have a better idea what to expect, both from 20 x 200 and from mass produced inkjets in general. I don't mean to disparage the whole medium. I have seen some dynamite inkjet prints. I think that when printed by the artist under carefully controlled conditions spectacular results are possible. Difficult, but possible. But under certain other conditions, which in today's market may mean most conditions, this type of printing doesn't succeed.
I've actually been thinking about this for about the past year as I've tried to make good color inkjet prints with about the same level of success as 20 x 200. I am able to make a print with roughly the same print quality as the Krolick with not much effort, and if I wanted to I could push a button and print 200 of them. But what would be the point? None of them would live up to its potential. I might as well spend my energy building 200 suburban McMansions. In terms of production value there's no difference. In terms of adding something of value to civilization both efforts are futile.
Contrast this situation to the color darkroom. I've had limited experience there, probably less than a week total. But from the very start, any C-print I've made has stunned me with its clarity and richness. They're the type of prints I keep looking at because I can't figure out how they seem so magical. They're the reason I keep shooting color film even though it's a hassle in many ways. As Michael David Murphy has articulated so well it's expensive, logistically problematic, and unrepeatable, but it seems to produce better results.
All of which has really brought up the question for me What Is A Print For? Why would someone buy one? What makes one more valuable than another? Why pay $20 for a Krolick print in the first place? I can only answer for myself. The reason I buy (or more often, trade for) a print is that I am a soul-snatcher. When I buy a print I expect it to have a little piece of the photographer's soul in it. I don't really care if it has fingerprints or lightleaks or if the signature runs through the border. To me these add more soul. All that matters is that when I lay the image in front of me I have to feel the photographer's presence. For me the old-fashioned darkroom prints are usually successful at that. Not only can I feel the photographer at the scene of exposure, many personality quirks come through in how a person prints an image. Some are anal, some loose, some dark, some light, some perfect, some beautifully not so perfect. It's the difference between handwriting and word processing. Yes a word processed document may be more legible but in the art world who gives a shit? A person's presence is ALWAYS expressed more strongly in handwriting than word processing.
I have to say I don't feel much of Krolick's presence in the 20 x 200 print, which is perhaps as it should be. There's no way an edition of 200 could be hand-printed and still sell for $20 apiece. No one should be under any pretense that 20 x 200 is selling fine art. And yet, I sense the line blurring, helped along both by 20 x 200 and by similar production methods I see in galleries. Low quality digital art is so ubiquitous that people do take it for fine art. They'll pay $400 for a print which looks like crap and not know the difference. I probably sound like a nose in the air snob when I say this, but there IS a difference. For $20 you're going to get a $20 print. If you want a piece of someone else's soul, chances are it will cost more.