Does cheap always mean economical?

Now, there is a paradox for you – on the one hand, the silver gelatin and historical photography is the photography that require the most work, the most love put in every print. It is also the type of photography that appears to have the biggest collectibility factor; after all the prints are made in very short series, frequently in single unique copies. On the other hand, it is probably the one type of photography that makes us prone to economize, to skimp: to buy cheap, inadequate papers, low quality chemicals, not to mention the cheapest camera or lenses. At least in Poland.

I must admit that this is something I can’t understand. We have no problem in spending thousands of euros to buy digital cameras and equal or bigger sums of money to purchase the lenses. It is nothing strange to see a photographic pack filled with equipment whose value exceeds 5 thousand euros. In addition to this we pay for the computer, the software… Yet, on the other hand, 400 eu for a Mentor, not to mention 3000 eu for an Ebony (more or less the cost of a new full frame from Canon or Nikon) is an abstraction. We’d rather buy a half broken wooden box in which neither of the standards is rigid and correct focusing only happens in our dreams. The film holder is almost in pieces and the lens seems to be fully covered with fungi. Yet this is what we will choose to save money.

It is even harder to understand skimping when it comes to the materials. Sure, when we are learning a process, we may, or actually should do so using materials that are cheap. Why waste money if the prints are only made for training purposes and will, at best only be shown on the web. Things do, or should look different when it comes to our future photographic work. We spend a lot of time and effort preparing the idea, then dozens if not hundreds of hours spent in the darkroom follow during which a set of cyanotypes, saltprints, gumprints or, say silver gelatin prints follow. We feel proud, show off the scans of our prints or even present them at an exhibition. It would also be pleasant to sell a print. To send it to a gallery, not necessarily in Poland, to sell it to a collector. Either immediately or in a distant future but to sell it. And this is the moment when we realize there is a problem, that we have made our prints on low quality materials not guaranteeing any form of archival longevity, dimishing or simply wiping out the value of our work. The worst thing is that most of the time we only realize our error years after the print was mage; during the making of that particular print we didn’t bother about their future sale, we took no care of the quality of the materials. And when the time comes to sell a print it is too late and all we can realistically do is start again.

We always make excuses about the price of the high quality materials; it is true that fibre based paper is much more expensive than the resin coated one we frequently call a condom in Poland. It is also true that pure cotton paper is more expensive than the cheap paper made from wood. High quality p.p.a. chemicals are more expensive than the technical ones and archival washing increases the consumption of water. And so on and so forth. Before we start inventing more excuses, however, I would suggest answering two questions:

First of all, we need to ask ourselves if the saving we are making is really big. Yes, the prices differ considerably, but then do we really use so many materials for the difference to have a meaning? After all each set will be sufficient to make dozens of prints. Even if the professional paper is ten zloties more expensive, we will only save a couple hundred zloties by replacing it with a cheap substitute. After all we don’t make that many prints and avoid large sizes entirely. Whoever has heard of industrial production of gum prints?

Secondly, do we really consider our own work to be that worthless? After all we spend hours chiseling each and every silver gelatin print; historical ones are not much faster. Each historical print translates into very definite work, hours spent creating prints and personally I would hate to waste this work. Are those hours of work worth so little that we keep their results on such cheap mediums.

So, maybe it makes sense to spend a little making each print and to make it properly, in a way that will provide the most longevity and prevent our prints deteriorating. This is, at least, my firm opinion.