CAMBRIDGE — With a photograph, what you see is what someone else got — and with an analog photograph it’s someone else twice over. First, a photographer selected some slice of the external world and put a frame around it. That’s obvious enough. What’s less apparent is that someone then had to develop and print the image. Often that second person is the same as the first, but not always. Some photographers — Ansel Adams, Bill Brandt, Brett Weston — could hardly wait to get into a darkroom. Walker Evans, among many others, saw it, at best, as a cross to bear.
“Analog Culture: Printer’s Proofs from the Schneider/Erdman Photography Lab, 1981-2001” is a revealing window on just how important the printing process is, how involved it can be, and with what variation in results. The show, which has been curated by Harvard’s Jennifer Quick, runs through Aug. 12 at the Harvard Art Museums.
Himself a noted photographer, Gary Schneider exactingly printed photographs for a very wide range of photographers at the firm he operated in New York with his partner, John Erdman. How wide? Photographers with work in the show include photojournalists (Gilles Peress, Bruce Davidson), fashion photographers (Louise Dahl-Wolfe), and Pictures Generation artists (Laurie Simmons, James Casebere).
So much of the wonder that is photography as a medium has to do with its ability to reflect “The drunkenness of things being various.” The words come from the poet Louis MacNeice, and the variousness is impressively (also soberly) represented in Schneider’s work as printer.
Harvard has 445 printer’s proofs, along with related archival and technical material. The lab would retain a proof from printing jobs, a common practice with the making of limited-edition prints of lithographs, etchings, and other techniques. The nearly 90 images in “Analog Culture” have been drawn from the 445.
It’s easy to see why fellow photographers wanted to entrust their work to Schneider. “In all my years as a printer,” he’s said, “my job has been to honor the intention of the artist. It is to suspend any intervention on my part that would interrupt that intention, even if it means that I do not make the print more beautiful, or more technically elegant, or any other attribute that I might insert as my value. With all of the artists I print for, it is my job to locate their intention in order to realize it in the final print.”
It’s the rare artist who’s willing to put himself at the service of others’ art — and an even rarer one who does it so capably. It’s also the rare printer who’s willing to execute so many big images as is the case here. The bigger the print, the greater the degree of difficulty. It’s a further demonstration of Schneider’s selflessness as a collaborator.
There are at least three useful ways of looking at “Analog Culture.” The first, as noted, is as a kind primer on the printing process. Names like Portriga Rapid, Ilford, Kodak Elite, and Brilliant appear in the extensive wall texts because different photographic papers have different attributes. Certain photographers might offer highly specific instructions. The show includes Richard Avedon’s famous quartet of Beatles portraits. He would offer “graphs” for printing, a sort of visual road map. Other photographers would be nowhere near as specific. Less involvement did not necessarily mean lessened expectations. Sometimes Schneider would present as many as 30 prints to a photographer.
Three informative videos feature Schneider speaking about printing generally, working with Lisette Model, and with Brian Lanker. There are also explanations of pigmented ink processing (Schneider did some digital printing, too), a developer, and toning.
The second way of looking at “Analog Culture” is as a return to the New York art world of the ’80s and ’90s. This was a period distinctly rich in invention and experiment — yet also distinctly desolate, with the impact of AIDS. Schneider worked closely with Peter Hujar and David Wojnarowicz, who have multiple works in the show. Both died of AIDS. Schneider did printing for Nan Goldin, whose “Ballad of Sexual Dependency” remains the most influential photography book of the ’80s. Schneider also printed Steven Meisel’s photographs for Madonna’s “Sex,” which wasn’t the most influential photography book of the ’90s but surely had the highest profile.
The third way of looking at “Analog Culture” is the way one looks at any photography show as good as this one is: as an array of memorable images. They include Louis Faurer’s “Bowing for VOGUE Collections, Paris,” 1972; Model’s “Fashion Show, Hotel Pierre,” from the 1940s; Lanker’s 1987 portrait of the civil rights activist Septima Poinsette Clark; Lorna Simpson’s “Is,” from 1991; Hujar’s 1984 dual portrait of Schneider and Erdman; Simmons’s splendidly silly-glam “Walking Camera (Jimmy the Camera),” from 1987; Hugo Táborský’s “Coffee Beans,” c. 1934.
The Táborský belongs to a set of a dozen Czech Modernist photographs from the ’20s and ’30s which Schneider was commissioned in 1994 to print. Print is too limited a word, actually. The project’s commissioner had a print of just one of the negatives. Schneider had neither photographers to work with nor vintage prints to work from. The title of the resulting portfolio accurately describes his task: “Reconstructing the Original.” It’s hard to imagine a clearer sign of faith in a printer, or instance of that faith being justified.
ANALOG CULTURE: Printer’s Proofs from the Schneider/Erdman Photography Lab, 1981-2001
Harvard Art Museums, 32 Quincy St., Cambridge, through Aug. 12. 617-495-9400, www.harvardartmuseums.org.Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.