Across three generations and for over 100 years, Foto Leutner has been a family-owned business based in Vienna, a national leader in high-end photographic production. Despite the printer’s historical roots, Foto Leutner is dedicated to innovation and strives to remain on the cutting edge of the latest digital trends in the ever-changing world of photographic technologies.
But the printer also remains steadfastly committed to the material roots of the medium. After all, beautiful objects—visible, substantial, tangible prints—are what remain long after the countless digital files have been lost to the virtual ether. Managing editor Alexander Strecker sat down with Felix Leutner to learn more.
LC: What lies at the root of your passion for photography? And what about photographic printing, specifically?
FL: I have always been a very curious person. From my childhood, I was interested in stories—and every good photo is telling a story! From the beginning of the process to the moment the photo has been taken, everything contributes to the final frame.
For me, a good photo will remain stuck in my mind for a long time. What’s special about a photographic print, then, is that it makes the image visible and substantial: like a screen, but with the real haptic weight and permanence of photographic paper. When you can hold or at least look at a photographic print, everything about it becomes so much more real and long-lasting.
LC: Foto Leutner has existed for many years. Over time, the company has added new capabilities—color, large-format printing, digital services—while also maintaining its excellence in traditional practices. What is the importance of retaining these older methods alongside newer ones?
FL: Knowing these old techniques is very important—for the printer as well as to the photographer him/herself. For example, even if you are working on a computer, it’s important to know about the material realities behind processes like color-correction or dodging/burning. As a printer, if you want to find the right color balance, it helps so much to refer to your experience on the old Durst enlargers or the color drum. It’s this tactile knowledge (again, even when working on a computer) that lets you find the perfect, natural colors for your final result.
Despite the prevalence of digital photography, it’s encouraging to see how so many people remain interested in analogue processes. For example, many young photographers who began photography by sharing their pictures on Instagram are now discovering the joys of an old analogue camera, unearthed from their parents’ attic. They start shooting on film and they become addicted to it! Often times, we receive smartphone photographs in our lab which we then print as silver-gelatin prints on digital fiber paper. This mix between old and new is fascinating.
Still, there is something important about printing from negatives. I think the difference is especially clear with portraits: when you have c-print, printed from an actual color negative, it just feels distinctly more sensual, 3-dimensional. It’s somehow warmer, more human than a digital print. These are essential qualities for a great portrait.
LC: It seems photography is unique in the way it holds onto traditional techniques while also continually breaking new ground, technologically. For example, in the same medium, there are people producing 19th century wet-plate collodions and then smartphone companies releasing 23-megapixel cameras that fit in your pocket. Can you say more about the relationship between old and new technologies?
FL: I think the co-existence of the two is a very positive development. Each of us now has the possibilty to shoot very quickly and precisely using our powerful phone cameras; but we can also print a classic, B&W silver-gelatin print made using a home-made pinhole camera. For all our technological prowess, you can’t make a real, pinhole-style photo with a digital camera—not if you want to create a truly sensual, surprising, slightly fuzzy image. To do that, you have to go back to the basic structure of a pinhole.
It’s like we are painters and we now have more choices than ever about what to paint with: oil, acrylic, water color…For each image you have in your mind, you need the right instrument. A food photographer probably needs to use a digital camera but the portrait-maker should try to use 4x5 sheetfilm to see if it makes a difference.
LC: Photography is more popular than ever—for example, Instagram has over 400 million active users. Yet a younger generation (called ”Millenials,” in the United States) are embracing vintage and material processes: from beer-brewing, to urban farming to crafting. Can you say more about the intersection between smartphone photographers and darkroom enthusiasts? What are some things that the 2nd group can teach to the first and vice versa?
FL: This is the good thing with digital photography: it is easily accessible. More or less everybody has a cell phone with a built-in camera and—as I know from my lab—you can print up to 40x60cm (16 x 24”) from a smartphone image. That means anyone can start as a photographer and never has it been so easy for these neophytes to make good photos. That’s certainly positive and exciting.
In former days, you had to learn about aperture and exposure time, and when doing something wrong, you would end up with no photo. Now, the automatic systems on the phone mean you’ll always end up with something (and if not, you just click again). That means more photos, more photographers, and theoretically, more good images.
Of course, the other side is that people need to edit their endless stream of photos. If they fail to do so, we will end up overwhelmed (as we are, already) by mediocre photos and have trouble understanding which ones to hold onto. I think when a smartphone shooter finds an old analogue camera and sees they only have 36 exposures to work with (and they have to pay for each one), then they start training their eyes.
This is what the darkroom can teach new photographers: look first, take your time, analyze and then shoot.
LC: You were a generous donor and partner for the exhibition “Seen on Earth,” a show focused on environmental projects exhibited at the Kunst Haus Wien. What kind of message do you feel that photography can share on this very important topic: the present (and future) of our environment?
FL: As we discussed, photography is nowadays very democratic and easily accessible. This means it is primed as a way to open others’ eyes to the changes happening in our environment. If this exhibition can raise awareness in the minds of the audience just a little bit, than the exhibition will be a great success.
As the printer of the show, I am proud to say that despite the dramatic topic, all these photographs were looking truly beautiful!
—Felix Leutner, interviewed by Alexander Strecker