The Digital Journalist
Nuts & Bolts

by Bill Pierce

When I first came to NYC, two very good photographers helped me get a little bit better.

David Vestal let me attend the classes in his loft for free - a great kindness when you consider that much of his income was derived from teaching.

Gene Smith let me hang out at his loft in return for running a few errands. And our conversations probably used up more of his time than he saved with my errand-running.

David was/is as quiet as his pictures. Gene was as dramatic as his pictures.

David’s pictures are in the Museum of Modern Art, the Met, the Whitney Museum and a lot of other places.

Gene’s pictures are also in a lot of places but the largest single source would be the W. Eugene Smith Archive at the University of Arizona/Tucson.

David says that dealers sell his silver prints at $1,600 and up. The last time I saw some price tags on his work, the “and ups” were very popular.

At the last AIPAD show in NYC one of Gene’s prints was being offered at $95,000. It was a print of “Walk to Paradise Garden,” the shot of Gene’s son and daughter walking a path through backlit trees.

Gene always wanted the rim of backlight on the children to be brighter than the backlit leaves. To this end, he often spotted down the leaves in the first prints. After that, he made a Polaroid copy negative of a print and made subsequent prints from it. Good thinking, because, by now, the Spotone has probably turned color on early prints.

I don’t know the pedigree of the print for sale. Is it a vintage print from the original negative? Is it a vintage print from the copy negative made much later? Can you have a vintage print from a copy neg? Hopefully people will look at the print, cut through the “gallery speak” and evaluate it in comparison to similar prints of the same image. It may be priceless or it may be overvalued at $95,000.

Priceless or discounted to $75,000, it’s unlikely that it will ever hang in my house or yours. But, at “$1,600 and up,” it’s unlikely that David’s work will be there either. The disparity in prices is insanity. But today gallery owners sell for what the market can bring and few get rich doing it. If the print is the property of someone else, they are going to get 50 percent of the purchase price. Then there is rent, staff salaries, etc. When I look at pictures at the Met or the Modern (MOMA), either through admission price or membership fee, I pay for the privilege. Go to and see how many New York galleries will show you “museum quality” photography for free. They just won’t let you take it home.

David Vestal to the rescue.

For years now, David Vestal has published a newsletter, GRUMP. It will end shortly with the 100th issue. (David will be able to pay more attention to his photography by spending a little less time on those of us who have learned much from his writing.) An added bonus to your Grump subscription was that for $30, David would send you three inkjet prints. Like Grump, they arrived when David had the time to produce them.

That’s right. Ten dollars for a black-and-white photograph, a good photograph. (I think one of the prints I have received is an exceptional photograph.) Paper size is 8 1/2” x 11”; image size, approximately 6” x 9”. David includes a note about the subject, and the print is signed in verso along with the date, the copyright notice and other pertinent information. (If I remember correctly, David is printing black only, which increases the life of the print over that of a print using all the inks.) David picks the images; you don’t. He says, “... at present $10 remains enough, more than it costs me to print, pack and mail and inkjet, and I do want to spread the little creatures around.”

My wife collects rare books. Not only are the books recognized as good writing, they are first editions, first printings in good condition with the book jacket. They are often signed or inscribed by the author. In other words, they are not just readable, they are collectable. Indeed, their value is such that if you want to read them, you should probably go out and buy a paperback rather than risk damaging the rare first editions.

Unfortunately, there is not the photo equivalent of the paperback book for the rest of us. Or, I wasn’t aware of it until David started experimenting with inkjet printing.

Inkjet prints that rely on inks with a high percentage of pigment have good lasting power. Computer printing can allow the photographer/printmaker more control over an image than conventional wet darkroom techniques. David has spoken to this, and, if Gene were alive, he would be the king of Photoshop. While someday inkjet prints will be as accepted on their own merits as bromoil, albumen, platinum and silver prints, there is one important difference.

You can spend a great deal of time fine-tuning and personalizing the digital record that produces an inkjet print. But, once you start printing, it is an automated process. You can press a button, go have lunch and, if you choose, come back to a big stack of prints. You can easily produce a large edition of high-quality prints with greater ease than a silk screen printer or a lithographer.

As to whether anyone wants a print, that’s something else. And when a gallery handles the sales for you, the price is going to have to go up. But, in the past, editions of 300 prints were relatively unheard of. I have always thought photographers were more like lithographers or silk screeners than oil painters. And, given a few decades, most of your original prints will be lost and the galleries will be able to sell the few remaining rare prints at high prices. Remember, an original Lautrec poster doesn’t come cheaply.

For those who would like to learn more about David Vestal and Gene Smith, I would recommend Jane Livingston’s “New York School: Photographs, 1936-1963” (ISBN: 1556702396) and Gilles Mora and John T. Hill’s “W. Eugene Smith, Photographs 1934-1975.” (ISBN 0-8109-4191-0). I would also recommend “Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Project,” edited by Sam Stephenson (ISBN 0-393-04408-4), not only for the pictures, but also for Mr. Stephenson’s introduction, which compresses a great deal of Smith into relatively few words.

© Bill Pierce
Contributing Writer