The Importance of the Artist Hand

Feb 12, 2016 / Photography

I see so much great art that I’ve started my own personal collection. Here’s a corner of my studio. I have my idea board in front of my computer (empty right now as I just finished my second series, One Day). To the right of that, I have a Keith Carter print, Levitation, a Blue Mitchell print, Apollo, and a recent acquisition, a vintage print from Arthur Rothstein, a Dustbowl photograph taken in 1936. Today, I’d like to talk about that last photograph.

When I started photography in 2002, one of the first books I read was Ron Engh’s book, Sell & Re-sell Your Photos, and this picture was featured. It was used as an example of how an image could become valuable over time. This iconic Dustbowl image is definitely one of them along with Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother.

I’ve always loved Rothstein’s image, and so when I saw a print for sale from the Duncan Daily photo email that I subscribed to, I jumped on it and purchased it.

As the print was on its way to me, I kept thinking that this particular image must be in the public domain. Arthur Rothstein shot this image for the US Government (the Farmer Security Administration in the 1930s), and since the US government is funded by taxpayers, everyone can use this image without any copyright issues. Further research confirmed this was the case. I also discovered that a digital file was available from wikipedia measuring 7,284 í„ 7,120 pixels äóî large enough so that I could have printed the image myself.

For the next several days, I was in a bad mood. I “wasted” money on an image that I could have printed myself. What would have been the difference between this print and a print that I printed myself?

I’m an artist, I know the answer to this. It’s called the “artist’s hand.” This print was made by the artist himself. It represents his vision of what the image should be. If I were to print it myself, that would be lost. My print would be a copy and my own interpretation (remember that if the image were copyrighted with rights reserved by the artist, then I wouldn’t be able to print it myself, it would be illegal do so). Knowing about the artist hand didn’t help though. For several days, I was in a bad mood.

I then turned to a colleague for advice and asked her opinion. “Well you know, you have one of the last prints of this image. There will never be any more coming from the artist.”

It’s been two months since I purchased the print. I still love it. I love looking at it, examining its surface, looking at the various parts of the image and imagining how Arthur Rothstein made decisions about how to print it. Lighten this area, darken this area, accentuate this part. I enjoy looking at it and thinking about the photograph’s meaning (it reminds me of my family’s humble beginnings). Because I know that Rothstein made it himself, I feel a connection to him when looking at the image. That profound experience would not be happening if I had printed the image myself.

This issue requires more thinking. The artist hand is important, I know it is. It’s hard to quantify or measure it.

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