Sunday, March 20, 2016

the x-ray specialist

ok. so, i'm waiting in line at the airport, about to go through security, shoes off, no belt, and a lead bag full of film in my hands.
"could you check this by hand please?"
suspicion now floats over me, all the agents turn around to take a look at me.
"what is it?"
"film" i say
"ok. you can put it through, the machine doesn't affect film."
"this is high speed film." i lie.
"anything under 800 iso is fine."
"well, this is 4000."
"it's written 400 on it. hp5 400."
"i shot it at 4000 iso."
i have no problem lying about film speed when it's a matter of preservation. anyway, someone takes my lead bag, i go through the x-ray, so do my cameras, while keeping an eye on my film bag. once, an agent took 3 rolls out of my sight for a moment, and somehow these very 3 rolls got fogged.
so now i empty the rolls of film into a tray, and the hand inspection begins. it's pretty quick actually. a swap for explosives and another for drugs. i have to separate film from camera, much like gun and bullets, because some people (no comments) do carry guns and ammunition in planes... just take a look at the lunacy on tsa instagram.
"you're clear!" i'm told.
i put the film back in the lead bag, on on i go.
but, before i go, the security guy who inspected my film says:
"it doesn't even affect film, you know, you really don't have to do that."
"well, actually, it does."
"you know, i've been an x-ray specialist for 15 years, trust me, it doesn't do anything to film..."
so i pulled rank on him.
"i've been a photo lab technician for 25 years, trust me, it does. it fogs it. it leaves a continuous hyperbola throughout the length of the roll."
he turns around and mutters "impossible."
quick reminder: this is taking place at an airport security check point, i'm not there to win an argument, i just want to get on the plane, or home.
"i just want to be safe."
honestly, i don't know how one trains for the effects of x-rays on silver halides, but if i was testing, i would put a roll through, develop it, look at it and say: "oh yes, x-rays fog film."
now, what i'd like to know is, who came up with x-rays being safe for film 800 iso and less? it makes absolutely no sense, it's completely arbitrary. everyone knows high energy photons, with a wavelength similar to atoms, and emitted by electrons, will photoabsorb the radiated -bluish if we could see it- light.  x-rays have a much shorter wavelength than visible light, therefore the silver crystals trapped in gelatin are bombarded intermittently by waves much shorter they are used to. i'm not making this up, here's a quote from kodak: " the orientation of the fog stripe depends on the orientation of the film relative to the x-ray beam. the banding may be linear or wavy and can run lengthwise or horizontally on the film. it can also undulate, depending on the combination of the angle of exposure and the multiple laps of film on the roll." i shoot 120 film, so the stripe runs as a very tight wave, almost vertical across the width. 35 mm film will run a much longer wave along the length of the roll.
i'm not trying to change, or even improve, the situation, i just want to travel and shoot film. so i smile and i move on. i don't care what the customs agent thinks anymore. the good part is that in the last 3 years or so, i've had no problem having my film inspected by hand. but, what if you do get your film x-rayed and you want to print it?
fogged film is bullet-proof -thick- meaning pretty much all halides on every layer of the emulsion have been darkened. there is no toe region on this sensitometric curve. flatness blurs the line between shadows and highlights. plus, when that happens, the grain structure become more apparent. you got yourself a flat piece of film, you compensate by adding contrast, which gives you more grain. not good in most situations. in this case, split filtration comes in handy. first you expose the grays, the general patterns of the image, diffusing clumps of grains for a smoother feel, and then, zap, just an accent of pure black to define the said patterns. i close down the f-stop for the high contrast and open up for the low, obviously, every little bit helps. a 90/10 ratio, perhaps 80 % low, 20 high, it varies with every image.
my point is you can't just casually print x-ray fogged film. once i was so frustrated with the whole experience i told them to throw away my film if they must x-ray it, because i wouldn't be able to use it anyway. yaddi yaddi yadda, we agreed to disagree, and somehow, since that day, no problem to hand check photographic film. they do fingerprint me every time though...
now, in the chance you like your film as it gets through airport x-ray scanners, i can help you replicate that look without the hassle of going through customs at an airport. i 'discovered' that trick in an unfortunate event; you simply leave your film in the developer after regular development, as if you forgot it somehow, retrieve it a few hours later and continue through the fix. i only did this once, but i'll never forget the look of it.
ps: no, it wasn't my film.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

translating the grayscale

well, no, i do not only print from acetate negatives with an actual image of a moment from life on them. sometimes photography doesn't let the light do the drawing all by itself, sometimes photography doesn't need the light to be reflected. photographers sometimes forget that a light sensitive surface can be non-representational. artists working with photographic tools mostly have little use of a camera, they tend to focus on the print, the object made with light sensitive paper or other support.
i've printed typeface, shapes, static, fabric, drawings on vellum, and now wood. i know i start with a lot of 'sometimes', that's because artists working with light sensitive materials mostly do it themselves. the few artists who need these services start with an idea, they need to translate it into a photographic language. most likely on a larger scale than they can do themselves.  that, i know. in an earlier post i had mentioned the interpreter in me, the importance of putting words into images, and vice-versa. so i write about this now because my interpretive skills were put to the test by lisa oppenheim. i had to brush up on tree types, names and patterns as well. and although i had printed lace for lisa before, slices of wood don't really follow the rules of silver printing. my blue-green black and white paper along with the yellow-red of the different types of wood were a challenge to filter. i used the yellow-cyan trick to make them look like negatives of themselves.
the exposure times were really unpredictable at first, but with a little practice i could almost read the wood like a negative. it didn't take much for the exposure times to jump, a bit of red dye added to the pulp and zoom, i was in the minutes... now i can't look at a tree without seeing its negative in black and white. there are worse things.
those prints made me think a little harder, or rather in a different way, and the result is well worth the effort. any visual translation is good for the brain.
earlier this year, i had worked with helen dennis, and saw up-close how someone can draw. i mean draw over a few square feet on several layers of transparency. her work was too big to print horizontally and use gravity to contact print. these drawings were at least 6 or 7 feet long each. plus all the sheets of vellum had to be registered and placed on top of the paper, against a wall. i ended up spending more time on a ladder than anything else. and same here, the result is unbelievable, lines of white and all shades of grey against a black background. really to be seen.
also there was the printing of the greyscale on two different occasions, in different ways, for different people. just weeks apart. weird right? one was to print every single step an inch wide for a total length of about 80 inches. and the other the same size but as a gradation done by hand. the second being for alexei hay, and a puzzle to figure out, as well as a very difficult printing exercise. as for the scale with distinct steps, we made an lvt negative, and still, quite a brain teaser to figure out the proper contrast. another interesting printing exercise.
and printing the original acetate with type for bill beckley brought back some memories, to a time when any type near an image was printed through acetate. and it was used quite often, headshots were made that way, with an enlarger head shinning up on a piece of glass, and an automatic timer to open and close.
anyway, the darkroom offers many ways to work, ways that have nothing to do with photography, and many artists and photographers have used the multitude of techniques, and - as i experience in my little corner of the world - continue to do so. and frankly, when i really think about it, being honest and all, i don't know if i like photography for the darkroom alone... hmmm...

Monday, September 28, 2015

printing by numbers

i'm afraid printing with an enlarger is being misunderstood lately, with the newly found interest in film photography. i'm specifically referring to a trend to show silver gelatin prints of famous images with corrections drawn on them, by the photographer for the printer.

in my humble experience of 30 years of printing for a number of photographers, i have never encountered a situation that would call for such markings. to the point where i'm not even sure what they mean. ok, i'm playing dumb here a little bit, but only because we're talking about really famous images from really famous photographers. my point being these markings make no sense. none. let me explain. if my guess is so far off from what the print should be, it would barely make it out of my fix. it might make it to a water holding tray to compare with my next move, and then it gets tossed. if i showed a bad work print to a client, they would lose their confidence in my ability to print their negatives, and rightly so.
let me explain further. again, i only bring this up because many amateur printers might think that's how it works to collaborate on a print. it's not. and if an intern, or assistant, is working directly in the photographer's darkroom, they couldn't make the said corrections anyway. so who are those markings for?
as a professional printer, my job is to show what can be done with a negative, with the knowledge of prior work done by that same photographer. if the photographer has to show me how to print, then they need an operator, not a master printer. but in the analogue world we don't have enlarger operators, we have printers, people who interpret a negative image into a positive one. and the reason i wanted to write about such markings on prints is to explain how prints are made. one does not print by numbers in the darkroom. i've said it many times before, and today i take the opportunity to say it again. the light from an enlarger is diffused, not focused, printing this way is blending. blending values together, not one at a time. so to mark values side by side, implying they are too light doesn't mean anything when nothing is said about the values in between. there is a vocabulary appropriate to a darkroom print, and it has more to do with the flow of water currents and gravity bending light than little circles over highlights or shadows.
my concern really, is more for the darkroom aficionado who might think they have to go through that step to achieve a final print. they don't. the step where you mark so many things is not a print, it's a misstep, something that happens when the printer forgot to look at the negative before the first exposure... a printer must look at the negative very closely, visualize it as a positive, pick the contrast and f/stop to get a comfortable exposure time. because that's when the changes are made, during those few seconds of exposure. if you don't have time to dodge, it must be the wrong way to print a particular neg. one must follow the negative, not fight it. when you fight a negative, the negative always wins, and the print looks forced and awkward. if too many highlights are too hot, the solution is not to burn them one by one, the overall contrast is off, the print may need less contrast/more exposure, a longer development time...
to correct a print, you'd have to know all the factors from the darkroom, to just mark +1 or -5 on it is meaningless. a better marking would be "it feels harsh overall", or "not dramatic enough", "keep the light soft".
and again, i picked famous images (richard avedon and dennis stock) simply because they are really well known, but if you take a minute after the initial "wow, i could never do that in the darkroom", look at the actual notes and the final print. one has nothing to do with the other. the circles and ovals and + this and - that are not reflected on the final print. the test print is too far off to even help with the final corrections. look at them closely and make up your mind how you would have done it. it's a useless exercise because you'd need to see the actual neg to do so, but still, you'll understand that the changes don't respect the markings, so why bother? why pretend that's how it works? and if you are an accomplished printer or just starting to print, don't pay attention to these photogenic and impressive notes, and please concentrate on your first guess, you will be way beyond that step on your first try. but if you need more than a few seconds to work on an image, then by all means, you should be using photoshop or lightroom for sure.

ps: i am not associated in any form to the prints and images shown above, i just used one of the many versions i found online for the purpose of this blog.

Monday, April 6, 2015

thank you sodium sulfite.

sodium in general has taken over my life. sodium sulfite being the obvious guilty party in my darkroom, and sodium chloride being added everywhere in my food. i really don't like the taste of salt, and i restrain from smelling, or inhaling fumes, of sodium sulfite.  in any case, sodium sulfite is everywhere in silver printing. no really: everywhere. from beginning to end - it even used to be a preservative in food.  so this problem of oxidation made me think of how sometimes, when i look at a print, i see a list of chemicals necessary to the process. a long list, mind you. let's try to look at what goes where in silver photography: the magic of the image appearing in the developer is actually quite complicated, yet fascinating. and many of these chemicals can be quite harmful, to both people and the environment. the process is not to be taken lightly. osha recommends to just "water down" your chemicals into the drain, with enough water so it doesn't damage the pipes in the building. yep, that's an actual quote.
and i will not mention the several gases released from mixing powder, or by contamination. i have always known all this, my dad was an engineer and mathematician, an uncle a chemistry professor, and another worked in optics -kind of like oliver sack's "uncle tungsten" - i walk into my darkroom with a certain knowledge of chemistry, i understand where harm can come from, and a side effect is that the skin on my hands is very dry. can't really put cream on your hands to touch film and photo paper, it's chemically harmless, but visually awful.
anyway: sodium sulfite, sodium erythrobate, sodium metabisulfate, disodium tetraborate pentahydrate, pentasodium ethylenenitrilo tetraacetate, hydroxymethyl, phénitpyrazolidin. that is just a taste of x-tol. no hydroquinone you'll notice. and it's a great name, extol the virtues of this developer! but we forgot that film itself has to be manufactured first. acetate, i don't feel like going into details here, just acetate, and gelatin…  well, again, let’s just call it gelatin and concentrate on what gets mixed in with it, namely crystals.  and how does one get these crystals?  bars of silver are dissolved in nitric acid to form silver nitrate, and combined with bromide as an alkali salt, potassium bromide for example.  this results in light sensitive silver halides crystals.  mixed with gelatin it makes an emulsion, a silver halides emulsion. voilà.
why gelatin? it’s transparent, grainless, it’s a liquid when heated and gels when dry, yet it swells enough when in contact with liquid chemicals to affect halide crystals.
anyway, so you mix a solution of silver nitrate with a halide -any alkali metal halide-  say, sodium bromide -don’t forget the ammonium hydroxide, ammonium bromide, thymol and alcohol.  the emulsion maker may control the very size of these crystals and mix them over several layers.  the crystals get heated, ripening as it is called, they dissolve and crystallize again.  remember, within each crystal, the atoms are electrically charged (ions) and placed in a grid of sort by electrical attraction, with free-to-move silver ions, as well as important -to the latent image, and overall exposure- crystal imperfections.
so the film gets exposed -insert entire history of photography here- the silver ions interact with negative charges, a latent image forms, the bromide ions are neutralized to atoms, then absorbed by the gelatin.  next thing you know, you’re gently agitating at equal intervals…  the tiny silver deposits will be grown and amplified (a lot) to give a visible image.  the hydroquinone -or metol, or phenidone- and supportive agents including an alkali and a preservative start the process.  as you agitate the tank, electrons go for the exposed silver halides carrying silver atoms.  the developer gets full of potassium bromide and other chemicals without electrons.  developing time is over, everything gets rinsed in water and goes down the drain.  let’s skip over the temperature if you don’t mind…  also, you may decide the see the whole process with infrared, or a green light, and develop by inspection for even more control.
then it all needs to be fixed, made stable.  ammonium thiosulfate, boric acid, acidic acid, and again, sodium sulfite.  residual processing chemicals contain sulfur compound and will deteriorate the image if not washed properly.  ironically, a small amount of residual thiosulfate is needed against oxidizing agents.  all the unexposed, invisible silver halides get washed away in the hypo (fix). you can then recover the unused silver by electrolysis.
and don't worry: whatever grain structure is inherent in a film emulsion will be retained in the developed negative. do we even have to mention the energy of electrons, the speed of photons needed to get those latent silver atom specks? crystals are about 1 micron in diameter and contain about 10¹² silver atoms (or grains). you need an electron microscope to see these grains. my grain focuser only sees what we commonly call film grain, but is just really clumps of about 40 actual grains. long story short, we have a negative to print, more chemicals to gather and mix.
dihydroxy benzene, sodium carbonate monohydrate, hydroquinone and potassium bromide. the thing is that dektol makes my skin dry. perhaps then a mixture of sodium sulfite, sodium carbonate and hydroquinone, lpd powder developer seems to be better for me in the long run.
what type of wood was used to make the base of the paper? for our purpose perhaps it's best to just talk about the emulsion. although that was a concern of mine when ilford went from multi IV to the classic fiber paper. everything matters, any change at all changes things, not everything necessarily, but enough to make a difference. and yes, it is now a different wood being used for ilford papers. change is difficult in a field where consistency is a factor, but necessary in a technology-based environment. more layers of halides, all equally sensitive to blue on variable contrast paper, yet each differently sensitive to green. the halides are now being bombarded with yellow and magenta light. bam. negative film illuminated onto negative paper, silver halides into silver metal, reduction from salt to metal. and then it gets dipped in developer, the silver halides particles become metallic silver. stop. acidic acid. stop. sodium thiosulfate removes all untouched silver halides by turning it into a water soluble complex. wash with plenty of water, drain with plenty of water. the water is on all day. water water water.
and ventilation. plenty of ventilation.
all this solid state chemistry moved indoors before electricity mind you. velox emulsions are 500 times faster than albumen. photography was almost a hundred years old before an enlarger with a light bulb was brought into a darkroom as a regular practice. we are now way past the gaslight papers era, and exposed our perfectly evenly coated emulsion with a lightbulb (well, several halogens etc.). yes, you read right: gaslight paper. i'm glad i have electricity and mostly mixed chemical formulas where i just add water. it's very manageable for the everyday. i think twice before any exposure, i don't waste paper, i take the first guess very seriously, it's better for the environment.

Monday, March 16, 2015

about closing the darkroom door

99% acidic swirl

yes, no doubt, the darkroom can be an escape from the turmoil of the world outside.  and i use it as such often.
outside my darkroom people kill each other for their beliefs.  outside my darkroom people are afraid of what they don't understand.  outside my darkroom there is plenty of light, yet most people wear blinders.  i like to close the door to my darkroom.
most in the industry think of a printer as a technician.  sure.  that's part of it, but some of us have an opinion about what we print.  every day i make prints that will be looked at, analyzed, criticized, etc.  every day in my darkroom, i make an effort to respect the medium, the world of silver printing.  i make an effort to support the subject, to emphasize its meaning.  before i close the door of my darkroom i need to know how the image came about.  the narrative helps me make decisions as i expose the paper.
no, i don't like all the images i print, and i don't even like all the prints i make.  i must remember though, they are not for me.  when i make a print i don't care for, of an image i don't particularly like, then i become a technician.  i become a machine-like operator who can lay down shades of gray wherever appropriate.  sometimes my passion is a job.  although i have been lucky to have printed most negatives that i have.  i don't want to only be a technician.  i call that the ansel adams syndrome: to be able to control each and every halide on a piece of film, but nowhere left to add any point of view or emotion.  i exaggerate perhaps, but most printers are just technicians (and the mere mention of ansel adams gets a little bit more attention).  i don't like being in that position, but it does happen sometimes.
outside my darkroom people make new images.  outside my darkroom, people have ideas about what a print should look like.  but inside my darkroom, i rely on my experience as an artist to make objects of desire, pieces of paper one wants to touch and feel.  inside my darkroom, i try not to think about other prints that are being made through different processes.  i print negatives exposed to be printed on a silver gelatin emulsion.  as simple as that.  i made the choice to print silver gelatin after making prints many other ways.  my first job as a printer was to make c-prints and duratrans.  over the years i have made c-prints, platinum, palladium, gum bichromate, cyanotype, digital-c, giclée, inkjet, pigment, carbon, etching, cibachrome, etc.  with or without a lens, from 1/4 inch square to 72x120 inches.  my point is: a printer prints.  any kind of print.  that's what a printer does.  a fine art printer sees what's off with a print and makes it feel better.  as simple as that.  some people are good at editing others' words, and some have a visual vocabulary that cannot be seen.
outside my darkroom i am as invisible as i am inside.
printers specialize nowadays, just like everyone else, and i chose to concentrate on silver gelatin.  it's the process of my era, i understand it.  i know how to make it look its best precisely because i have worked with other processes.  to me, it's a constant in the ever changing world outside my darkroom.  it's a process that relies on very few manufacturers to go on.  it's a process getting a second wind.
the ever changing world outside my darkroom doesn't have much room for such a slow and expensive process.  but as long as people will look for prints as objects, older photographic processes will survive.  platinum print makers moved to digital negatives long ago, it adapted without agfa np31 emulsion (!).  things tend to change and evolve over time.
inside my darkroom i think about people being afraid of what they don't understand.  and if you call the appearance of an image in the developer 'magical', then think about all the magic digital photography has to offer: most photographers don't know how their digital camera, or scanner, really works.  it doesn't really matter, very few photographers have cared to know how light sensitive emulsions work anyway.  the technology of photography has become so advanced that scientists alone need to understand it.  i just hope we don't forget to bridge the gap between art and science so we can enjoy the evolution of the photographic adventure with passion.  perhaps the future of my profession will be to make different types of screen surfaces.  it's already started: i can't look at the new generation of glossy screens, i can only appreciate an image on a flat matte screen like the eizo.  i work with mac computers but could never have an imac.  i don't like the way high gloss looks.  it hurts my eyes every time i look at an image on my phone screen.  that's why i stick to printing for now...
yes, outside my darkroom people are afraid of what they don't understand.  to understand every possible way to make a print takes research and dedication.  it takes getting rid of our printing prejudices and work with the process best suited for our images, that we can afford.  no need to be afraid of the processes we don't understand, we just need to educate ourselves a bit further.  the best way to pick a process is to try as many processes as possible.  i favor film and silver prints for my own work, but i also use digital files, in color, chromogenic or pigmented.  i also know that silver gelatin printing relies on precise and complicated manufacturing to exist, and that could be its downfall, unlike alternative processes where you do your own coating.  the film and paper i use everyday are not handmade, they comes from an automated process with machines that break down, suppliers that go in and out of business, it's an industry.  and if that industry no longer benefits from making these products, it will adapt and make other products to survive.  although i don't believe it will be anytime soon.

i love the feeling of closing a darkroom door, whether it swings or slides.  rotating doors are just not the same.  neither are mazes.  maybe it's just me.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

alfred wertheimer 1929-2014

i would like to take a moment to remember al.
alfred wertheimer died a few days ago.  i worked with al for many years, and frankly, i wouldn't have known much about elvis otherwise.  i mean i knew the popular songs and obvious facts, like everyone else.  al was a great storyteller, and you can certainly see that in his pictures.  he would mix his unbelievable recollection of details and his own impression of the events simultaneously in a way that kept you wanting more.  i know more about elvis than i care for really, but i also love a good story, so i listened. now, i'm glad i did.
one thing i have to mention though: either i'd give him a perfect print (meaning perfect for al) or no print at all.  i could not just casually print for al, i had to make the extra effort, sweat a little, push my abilities in the darkroom.  my reward was to know that i gave him the best prints possible from his negatives. i mean, these were images that were also reproduced in books, as postcards, posters etc, so a fiber print from the original neg has to bring something else to the table, a personality if you will. al did not take this lightly, i always liked that about him.
each time he would leave negs to me, i'd have to sign my life away and feel like it too. he knew they were in good hands, but the exchange was never casual. i understand a negative, i understand it because i've held negs like alfred wertheimer's of elvis presley in 1956, just a few strips at a time. that's another reason why i couldn't show al an OK print, it had to be a great print. and then he would say: "now, that one's good. let me see the others". my heart would skip a beat at every print i was showing him that day. al kept me on my toes.
i will miss al.

al taking a picture of my son clayton at the "who shot rock'n roll" exhibit
opening at the brooklyn museum, oct 2009.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

everything just changed

well, for me at least.  my sense of timing is off.  i am re-learning how to coordinate my day, how to set the pace in my activities.  it's been a real struggle, a daily readjustment.  i've stopped smoking.
forget the cravings and other blah blah blahs, just how do i know to take a break now?  how do i know when a print is done if nothing stops me from staying longer in my darkroom?
as a smoker for 30 or so years, everything in my life was related to smoking, including my work, and my photography in general.
honestly, this is why i haven't been able to write about the darkroom for a while. it's all behind me now, so perhaps i shall try and remember these past four months. i'll admit it's a bit blurry, i had to focus on something other than the photographic print, yet a few episodes will stay with me for a long time.
i had the chance to work with ken schles, making prints from "invisible city". we got along great, prints were taking shape, a few were even finished... but, and it can happen at any stage, the project was finally made differently. i always look for challenges, projects that make me think, really difficult prints to make, with great satisfaction to see done. it's a way to never take the darkroom for granted. i can't really phone-in a 54x68 in. print for tina barney. i have to be paying really close attention, take deep breaths and go. she is mostly a color photographer, but the process of making her black and white prints was quite challenging, and very rewarding. no cigarette break any more. coffee yes. i find new ways to re-focus, i walk around, listen to even more story-telling radio.
while i was sweating my nicotine habit away, i printed the entire "in and around the house" book (twice) as 8x10's for laurie simmons. she knows these images by heart, i can't miss a print. well, maybe 2 or 3, but more than that would be annoying. so i spend some time on the first print of the series, and then i jump, find a rhythm, and print away the hours. the days, the weeks, and still no smoking.
i may be listening to music louder as well. i can't tell, i've lost the moments of reflection i used to take throughout the day. sometimes i don't even know what time it is any more.
know i was listening to loud music while making prints for chris buck, his images inspire that in me somehow. yet, they fall on the paper so delicately, they almost print themselves. and chris has stories about them all. stories to get me through the day, one more day not smoking.
no cigarette either as i pick the right piece of wood to print through with lisa oppenheim. different shades, different types, different patterns, to be turned to negatives on black and white paper. i liked the project a little bit more with each print. a break in my rhythm of printing negatives as positives.
a big part of my summer -and now the fall- was spent with more 8x10 negs from mitch epstein, printing new images since new york arbor. i approach these negs in a different way, for a print as a colder object. i don't need a cigarette, even if i hallucinate sometimes, i know it's just temporary. so i just keep printing, as usual, and then i realize it's the same again, i print in my darkroom. i just don't smoke anymore. it's all good.
life goes on.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

remarks on gray areas

silver recovery

at the beginning i was merely printing.  i was transferring a negative image on acetate onto a piece of paper as a positive.
i had always understood printing in the darkroom as an art form.
perhaps i should define art form.
but first, i need to explain that most people in the photo world see printing as a craft. needless to say, a lower form of expression.
lower in essence of course.  although a great many darkrooms are in basements.
not that it bothers me.  a basement without windows seems very appropriate for a darkroom.
and when i say darkroom, i mean a room with the necessary equipment to produce photographic prints.
one may have a room that is dark, but isn't necessarily a darkroom.
in any case, printing starts with the craft, the understanding of the mechanics of the medium.  optics, physics, chemistry, therefore mathematics, are all part of the craft.
when i was a teenager i used to read anselm adams' thoughts on the print, how it's made, what it means.
and then i would try and copy jean-loup sieff's printing look.
the things i used to do!
the craft means the technique.  i learnt that in books.
printing as an art form happens once you've mastered the craft.
i guess that's why one may be called a master printer. it's not a title, just something some people say.  people say a lot of things.
and then man ray walked into my life.  well, not literally, just a faint memory.  i will say though, he changed my way of looking.
i see a negative and i want to try it different ways, just to see.  i bump my enlarger, sometimes i spin my easel.  i change the perspective, high key, solarize, triple-bath tone, so i can see what happens.  sometimes i take notes.
a negative can be reduced to a means to an end.  when rolls of film were found in the mexican suitcase, we weren't really interested in the film itself.  we wanted to see the prints, or a digital version of what the print would be.  we have choices.
i don't feel bad for the negative.
we take better care of our negatives than our prints, for they are replaceable.  not so for the negative.  the negatives live in a water-fire-proof, humidity controlled, archived, under lock, environment.  we cherish them.
i've read that in books too.  and i've seen it with my own eyes.  i participate.
i should go back to the technique though, this is where my interest lies because as a printer, it has to be understood and deconstructed.  i like puzzles, questions with the clock ticking.
i've been told the pressure of a clock counting down adds to the necessity to be precise without hesitation, that it helps the inner rhythm.
i wonder how long after the invention of the clock someone said: "i'm going to build a clock that goes backwards."
perhaps da vinci thought up a prototype.  or fox talbot, while waiting for his paper to darken.  one would have the need to let their mind wander while inventing.
the darkroom is a good place to let one's mind wander.  to while away the hours.
i can spend hours counting down seconds.  

for example, i know it takes me seven seconds to reach for my cup of coffee and have a sip.  the things i know...
technically, it's an important fact to be aware of, the cup of coffee.  i mean to say it's important to know so it doesn't get in the way of the technique.
always back to the craft.
when i have 10 negatives to print, would i be able to dodge the blacks the same percentage given different exposures and contrast?  just by doing the math in my head?  the clock keeps counting down and it can be difficult to check with my eyes all the time.
i should have said fox talbot waiting for the hypo to finally fix the image.
the eyes don't always tell the truth so i rely on the math, even  perhaps only the days of multiple projects.  the craft grounds me in consistency.  and then i play.
by play i mean work of course.  and work because i also print to make a living.
my work consists in bending light-waves.  i'm a light-wave bender, if i want to be romantic about it.
a long time ago, in paris, i saw irving penn's 20x24 platinum prints of cigarette butts.  they're etched in my brain, they never let me lower my own standards.
the compromise card must be kept to solve an entire puzzle, not just a piece or two.
i remember printing susan lipper's grapevine.  some images i cannot get out of my head.  i've seen their grain through a loupe, i've seen them flat, light, in strips, wet, as a contact sheet and under glass in a big frame.
once i had a darkroom with a window.  a red filtered window, yes, but a window nonetheless.  yet another proof that darkrooms are not always in basements.
or is it the first proof?
actually, i'm not trying to prove anything.
it reminds me of something leonard cohen wrote about there being a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in.  how could one not think of that while printing?
may be it's just me.  i don't know how long it's been going on.
i'm not good at counting time forward.
hours pass and i'm counting down seconds.
as a matter of fact, i always use the same sets of numbers to expose.  i have a great demand of consistency in what i do.  i won't tell what these numbers are, but the sequences go up to 600.
every negative falls under certain given numbers, on the light box they seem to simply come out of the image and become values.
perhaps i should explain further.
but before i get to that, i was trying to make a point about printing as an art form.
we know it can't be measured easily, or there would be an award for it.
the print that makes me want to touch it, that's the winner for me.
although a print that disappears under the image would certainly deserve a prize as well.
take the starn twins for example, they need a darkroom assistant, not a printer to do their art.  their prints are part of their art.  at least for a few series if i remember correctly.
i don't think that qualifies as a proof either.
it's a good thing i'm not trying to prove anything.
or is it art only when i print my own negatives?
maybe the darkroom is a state of mind.  somewhere we go to meditate, a place to let go and let the light do what it does best, or at least well: darkening silver halides.
to be clear, when i say 'at least well', i don't mean to belittle the photographic process in any way.  i'm spending my life showing it my best.
the darkroom must be my mistress.