Sunday, November 25, 2012

thank you

well, it's thanksgiving, time to say thank you. thank you to a few people who have helped me over the years as a printer. first of all, i have to remember that kim and alberto caputo took me to the next level in the lab world. the trust kim and alberto offered gave me confidence, lexington labs was a legend to me already, they helped me navigate the business side of things, they introduced me to everyone they dealt with. this was the one time someone trusted me with my skills, i'm really glad i took the opportunity. they led me through the first year of operations, through the hundreds of clients i needed to know how to print for. they made me understand the reality of photo printing as a career. i miss kim but i'm still in touch with alberto, and now i realize how the photo lab business takes a toll on one's well-being: it's like the (old) post-office, it keeps coming in... that's how it was then, and i can't thank them enough for letting me be a part of that particular history.
and a few teachers from the school of visual arts, especially abby robinson, curtice taylor, will faller, and last but not least sid kaplan. each one reinforced my passion, showed me new ways of looking i only knew the limits of. they each challenged me in ways that benefit me to this day - and i graduated in 1990! they criticized and praised me. they made me want to stay overnight many times to print b&w, color, cibachromes, platinum, whatever. and timothy druckrey for making me want to know the complicated history of photography. he would tell stories of photographers, curators, patrons, publishers, i just wanted to be part of what was next. thank you.
and, thank you to charlie griffin who always had the right attitude about fine-art printing.
we had a short week at griffin editions. simple. monday mitch epstein. tuesday vik muñiz and mauro restife. wednesday cindy sherman. that means 30x40 warm paper selenium toned, 20x30 matte selenium, 20x24 matte sepia and 30x40 glossy neutral. negatives 8x10, 6x7 and 35mm. as i was saying before, i do feel a bit schizophrenic in some occasions, like an actor playing a different character everyday. at the same time i have the privilege to print images i like. that wasn't always the case, but i don't judge what i print. i have to know what it's about, but i don't judge. i always give it my best, whatever the subject matter. i never forget that the print comes second, the image has to be seen first. if you see my print before the image it doesn't work. the print -in my view- has to support the image, help the subject come to life.
i like photographers who use depth of field as a tool.  my work leads me to look at contact sheets, know the pictures before and after the select, i can see the focus changing frame after frame.  to be able to see that is great for a printer, it gives you sort of a mood. a contact sheet puts me in the photographer's skin, i start to see how they see. some i know very well this way because i get to see the contacts even before they do sometimes. i discuss the different shots, give my opinion, listen to theirs along with a story of that day. it's a great process. going through dozens of stephen shame's black panthers' contacts before printing the book and the show was at the least educating, but certainly fascinating. most of the time i love the selects, and a couple times i wish he had chosen the next frame.  the image usually grows on me as i print it anyway.
that is why i never stop printing my own images. i often do a few prints of my own work to keep me on my toes. i also shoot on a regular basis to remember what it's like to be behind the camera. when i shoot i know what the print will look like, i shoot accordingly in order to print later. i always guess the light, i haven't used a light meter in a long time, that also helps me in the darkroom. i don't use a densitometer either. it takes a lot of paying attention but i have a visual memory, i remember the intensity of the light. and i know my enlargers pretty well, i've used the same two ilford multigrade 4x5's for at least ten years, and the dursts 8x10 for about that long too. before that the omega cold head, to print on graded paper, as well as different single light source enlargers to match prints made in the 30's or 40's. each tool has its pros and cons, now at griffin editions we even make laser exposed fibers prints directly from the light-jet. the tools keep changing but the fiber base silver gelatin print remains, probably more prized today than ever before. and that's a good thing. and i should give a thank you to the people at ilford who have always been very helpful through the transitions photo paper and film went through. thank you.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

printing gives me balance

one print at a time. one -very- large perfect print at a time. it seems to be the way black and white silver gelatin prints are going. when i started printing professionally, about 22 years ago, there were a lot of reproductions of old photos, via copy negs, on single weight paper. 8x10's and 11x14's, even many 5x7's, toned sepia. that has stopped. period.
then came the fashion photographers with their huge quantities of film and multitude of prints. the funny thing was, when the editorial was black and white, the advertising was color, and vice-versa. the pattern kept repeating. perfect examples were bruce weber or walter chin. when i owned lexington labs, it was normal to have 4 printers making 50 to 80 prints -different negs- each a day for bruce. the rolls of film were counted in the 100's. and there was a lot of toning and darkroom manipulation - remember the calvin klein ads?  i was often asked to make things disappear, to combine this and that. and what came to mind back then was something sid kaplan gave me to do as an exercise: a high key and a low key image on the same piece of paper, graded paper that is. multigrade fiber base paper was a new thing, and one just didn't use it. anyway, i don't make a hundred prints for the next day anymore. well, except last year, for lorna simpson. over 500 prints for her project, and about a week and a half to do it. these are times when a printer has to get into a rhythm and keep going without stopping, correcting exposures without tests, trusting one's instinct on reading negatives. a box of latent prints on the side of the easel, waiting to be processed later.
a large print for a gallery or museum is different, it is figured out almost inch by inch, with a precision that sometimes seems impossible to reproduce. that's a major factor when printing, i can never be lucky on a print because i most likely will have to make an edition, next month, next year etc. every movement i make i have to be able to reproduce at a later date. a print map is like a choreographer's notes i think. 2 steps to the left, arms up, lean back, hold, hold. done.
this week i also printed one of my own images for the holiday show at griffin editions in williamsburg. and of course the emulsion cracked in a corner so i'm using my second print. the drying of a mural fiber print is so delicate it's scary. right now we have humidifiers steaming up the paper as it dries, it helps keeping the emulsion soft. we roll up the dried prints as soon as we can. fibers stretch when wet, contract with heat. difficult to explain how i cannot match a size exactly, it is usually within 1/4 inch, sometimes 3/8... very different from pigment prints, or even c-prints, digital or not. even two prints made the same day from the same roll might dry a slightly different size. that's the nature of the medium. less noticeable on small prints -20x24” or less- because there might only be a 1/32 or 1/64 difference. the lesson here is to make the frame after the print is made, not before. i had to deal with all of that on friday printing for mitch epstein -his show in germany just opened so i'm back in the dark for more tree printing- and i have to match the height or it would look pretty bad if those prints are hung together at some point in the future. but at least i'm matching my own print, on the same emulsion number. perfect to finish the week. my first test was within 5% of the base exposure. i did the whole print by the numbers from my notes. film to wall distance, density filter factor, f stop, contrast filtration, exposure time, dodging and burning ratios. i've always liked math and chemistry, optics and physics, there's a formula for everything and i just plug in my own data to make things work. the art of printing relies on a general feel, but the basics are number-based, not zeros and ones but close. when i see a negative numbers pop up, numbers relating to time and light values. i can almost see the photons pushing each other toward the emulsion, crashing into the layers sensitive to separate hues. i can hold them, redirect them, suspend them for an instant and then let them settle on a speck of silver that will darken with just a few atoms. a little bit like glasses that gain density with the intensity of the sun. sodium thiosulfate is my friend, silver bromide my favorite salt. and i can explain why the sky is blue. photography has no secrets, printing gives me balance in life, i meditate in the dark.  and please, someone give me an app that keeps my phone screen red when i receive a call! i'm serious. i am.

Monday, November 12, 2012

listen and translate into shades of grays

well, i didn’t think the clean up from the flooding in new york would continue this week, but here we are.  nigel barker was able to finally get to his basement and brought over thousands of rolls in bins, negatives i processed at lexington labs about ten years ago.  strange to see the old logo on the glassines.  i was checking a roll drying, a color roll, i could see the twin towers burning.  how strange i thought.  nigel realized that not everything could be saved and had to decide what to save first.  we already had four people working on it all weekend, but time is against us.  we are now past the original scare, things are looking good for nigel.  he hasn’t shot film in about 10 years, but his first years as a photographer were shot on film, so there’s the added sentimental value.
i am also testing how to restore carter smith’s negatives.  same here, processed ten or more years ago, but they have dried already, so i have to soak them in clean water before i can assess the damage.  more on this later...
so with sandy and the election behind us, i went back in my darkroom.  first to catch up: finish lorna simpson small 5x5 prints and an image of iman by arthur elgort -match print- and move on to elizabeth heyert.  for elizabeth, i had made a test print of a new image before the storm, 2 figures wrapped in white gauze against a black background.  not easy to print white gauze, so bright yet so full of details.  but it’s a good 8x10 original negative so it makes things a lot easier.  her subject matter gravitates around trust and trance, bondage.  she isolates her subjects through her lightning, and i have to keep the intimacy of the moment on a large print.  despite all the craziness of drying all these strips of negatives around us, while talking to elizabeth about her print, i kept thinking of painting with light.  this particular image has to be printed in 3 sections: the background, the figures, and the floor.  painting with light is not a metaphor in this case.  shadows need to be emphasized, the floor is a bit distracting, and certain highlights should be brought out to direct the eye along the image.  a great challenge that reminds me of light painting more than usual.  elizabeth knows what kind of print she’s looking for and has the words to describe it, so i listen and translate into shades of grays.  to achieve the final look i print on a matte warm tone paper, very soft, that i develop to feel even warmer than usual.  i mix the developer in a way that helps me, based on my own experience, and i let the paper in the soup longer than usual.  again, there is no formula, as long as i stay consistent within that series.  and since i’m only as good as my last print, i also have to make this print feel like an object you want to stare at and touch –it is going to paris photo-.  elizabeth stays at the lab while I work out the right look, one step at a time.  and i make the final print after she returns to her heat-less studio –since sandy- on the west side in manhattan.
on a different note, i stayed home on veterans’ day to play with my kids, and i just read joel meyerowitz trying to compare color and black and white photography.  no comment.  well, many comments really, the first one being i can’t believe what i’m reading.  while  i understand his important contribution to color photography, he has no concept of black and white.  and that's perfectly fine, but then he should just say so, instead of saying how color represents what is in front of the camera better.  i know so many people -photographers and not- who can't see colors, i myself can go insane looking at color prints in galleries that have too much green, or yellow or whatever.  there's no point to mention books and magazines, and the online experience gives me a headache depending on what screen i'm looking at.  color is just as subjective as black and white, and i enjoy printing both.  i actually started as a color printer, making the parliament blue and marlboro red on duratrans.  anyway, i don't mean to single out joel meyerowitz , there is a lot of color vs b&w talk nowadays, with henri cartier-bresson and the colorization of vintage images, and i see it as irrelevant, pointless as comparing pencil drawings to oil paintings, or apples and oranges...  enough on that, i just got an email from mitch epstein -ryan- with images of a successful opening in cologne, the gallery looks beautiful and all i'm thinking about is 340-11-24M or 600-16-8Y.  i am never really done printing a series of images, unless another printer takes over at one time or another.  the advantage is that i know what to look for in these images of important trees around new york: the sky is too light, some shadows too deep, bark too soft.  the only problem i'll run into now will be overconfidence.  making a print is very humbling, i try to cut corners and it's a reject.  i try to rush too many in one day and they're rejects.  the trick now is too ignore the world around me for the day, to just think beautiful thoughts about the grayscale, anticipate what the selenium will do and keep track of my developer exhaustion.
tomorrow i will print images for vik muñiz, match a sepia tone from a toner that no longer exists -kodak was of no help with their phasing out products over the years- and then on to other projects i will talk about next week.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

hurricane sandy neg clean-up


quite a week here in new york! no printing, we lost power at griffin editions in tribeca, but the lab itself is on the 5th floor, so no flooding. i stayed home through the hurricane, my house is fine, and all the important projects suddenly took second -or third- place in things to do. new york is a disaster and printing photographs seems frivolous.
but, there's always a but, on wednesday i got a call from max snow, his entire negative archive in his studio in red hook got flooded. what to do? well, unfortunately, i knew exactly what to do because i've had to do it before. people store things in basements and basements flood, even without hurricanes. it was i think in the late 90's, when my good friend sy rubin -no longer with us- found his thousands of negatives soaked in water. dozens of boxes were brought to the lab -lexington labs was on 23rd street back then- and we started cleaning up the mess. acetate mixed with wet cardboard, slimy glassine and what not. i had to figure out what to do. first separate the acetate -the actual negative- from the rest. it had to be done in water so nothing would stick. but how long can you leave negatives wet before the emulsion just slides off? turns out negatives are very resilient, and even after a few days we were able to dry strips of 35 mm film without too much damage. sy was devastated but we saved about three quarters of his collection.
so when max brought in bins and bins of negatives to griffin in willamsburg -the digital part of the lab with electricity working- i already had a plan. manpower was needed because we only had so much time to dry everything. eli, mike, natalie, dennis -thank you- came to help and we set out to work. first we transferred the negs still in glassine or polypropylene into trays of cold clean water -film emulsion soften too fast in warm water- then we put up string lines with clothespins, and started to rip the glassine off carefully, and hang the film to dry. max has mostly 8x10's, some 2 1/4 as well, so it's a bit easier to handle than small strips of 35. the first round was getting dry, time to clean more, and repeat the process until the bins were empty. it took two and a half days. we even saved many contact sheets.
we cleaned up the most important negs first, max had to make a decision, and he wanted the images of his father and uncle first. that's what artists have to deal with in an emergency such as this one: what is really important and cannot be redone one way or another... perhaps we even have a new perspective about our work in the future. could one shoot only important images? probably not, but at least we can think a little harder about every project. anyway, on the third day max was starting to show some hint of a smile again, sandy didn't wipe out his work after all! prints don't survive that sort of treatment though, especially mounted fiber prints. there's not much i can do there. on a regular day, we look at mounted prints and reject them for a tiny -tiny- scratch... water damage doesn't go away on a print. the good news is: a print can be redone, and we have the negatives to do it.
so today i am home, thinking about sy rubin and his incredible collection of images about new york. he was still shooting the year he died in 2002, and i can only imagine what else he would have done. i know we were talking about his project about the water's edge over the five boroughs. he would have been done by now. i remember him sitting at the round table when he used to stop by on saturdays and tell me stories about street photography in new york over the years. i miss him.
when sept 11 happened, it was a different kind of tragedy. i was at work, but then it was about processing film, non-stop for 2 weeks after the event. everyone shot film back then, and my lab was above 14th street so i was operational. negatives that got damaged couldn't be saved. i'm thinking of a few i had printed before for jacques lowe -no longer with us- and had recently been moved to the world trade center. kennedy negs, jazz greats negs and so many more beautiful images. i'm thinking about jacques lowe today as well.
the 2 weeks after sept 11, the magnum -and other agencies- photographers were in town and many shot black and white, the film was coming in constantly, from early morning to late evening. i didn't watch TV that week, but i saw the unedited version through the lens of many. today i think about all the people in the towers that day. i think of the weekend before when i went to meet marc riboud at the leica gallery, about the importance for a photographer to be at the right place at the right time... even some places and times you wish didn't exist.
but things will get back to normal. when people are lost, houses broken and lives changed, artwork seems unimportant. but things will get back to normal, and artwork will get its place back, it will dress up our walls again, it will make us think again, it will get us through some good and bad days, it will be important again. well, everything is relative.
next week i will be back in my darkroom -electricity is back in tribeca- for projects to finish. prints to make for lorna simpson and others. i'm not sure at this point what i'll have to do, priorities have changed this week, but life still goes on.