Tuesday, January 29, 2013

the straight print

the art of the straight print.
it's always in the back of my mind, it's my white whale, i pursue it with every negative i put through my enlarger. except sometimes i do get one... i get it through meticulous scrutiny of the said negative, the perfect contrast-exposure combination, and a bit of luck. first i have to start with a test a bit light and a bit under-contrast, and then i build up the density -like any print really- then i adjust the contrast. i look closely at the print -developing and developed- to find what i call the first black. that takes about 2 to 3 tries, full image only to really understand how the whole image works, and quick too as long as your first guess is within 1/2 grade and 1/2 stop. of course, not every negative is a good candidate, but i always keep my eyes open for the one, it can be thin or contrasty, there is no perfect neg. and when i say straight print, i mean no dodging or burning, i can use different filters but that's it. i usually know if i have a chance on the second test.
oh, by the way, the art of the straight print has no meaning whatsoever outside of my darkroom, i don't discuss it with anybody (well, a fellow printer maybe), it's a personal achievement that fulfills a need to simplify the printing process. i like to reduce my skills to the most basic details. in order to reach the straight print i have to think like a minimalist and compose the technique for the whole image at once. even more so than usual. i also think about it more between exposures, and when i feel i'm almost there i make very small moves. the trick is to be very aware of the first black and first white -that's why i always under-estimate the density and filtration- that tells me if i need a bit more exposure on a higher or lower grade -or both- to compensate. and this is where the white whale problem comes in: time goes by as i reach just one more piece of paper, one more of many, and i should have moved on and abandon ship, but i keep reaching a little further, just because you never know. eventually reality sets back in, and i reluctantly grab my dodging tool or let more light on the top right corner... then the rest of the printing day just seems dull. and when i receive a negative that had been a straight print once, i know i'll have a good day. a straight print is a very rare thing, but it does happen, and i don't know why i even care about it. exceptions are always more beautiful it seems. in the moment, i find myself just looking at the negative print itself, probably a little smurk on my face, thinking yep, i got you just where i wanted...
anyway, no straight print this week, i don't get a straight print when i print for arthur elgort, michael halsband, jerry schatzberg, bob gruen and mitch epstein in the same week. printing for these photographers is even better than a straight print! it's like watching a bit of the history of photography being made, even some of it is already a part of history. still though, a straight print is something special, at least for me.

so bob gruen and jerry schatzberg meet for the first time, in front of their prints, and all i have to capture that moment is my phone...  i apologize for that.

Friday, January 18, 2013

my favorite lenses

my favorite lenses i use every week:

schneider-kreuznach componon-S f-5.6-45/300 mm
rodenstock rodagon f-5.6-45/210 mm
schneider-kreuznach componon-S f-5.6-32/100 mm
rodenstock apo-rodagon f-4-22/ 80mm
rodenstock rodagon-G 2.8-16/50 mm
schneider-kreuznach apo-componon HM f-2.8-16/40 mm

i just really like good optics. in my everyday i enjoy all sorts of light from different sources. but when i'm working in my darkroom i like clean light, and by that i mean photons going through pieces of glass that have been expertly grounded. as a photographer i am always asked what cameras and lenses i use, but as a printer, well, no one -few exceptions- ever asks me what lens i use to print. yet, if i may, in analog printing the lens is pretty much the only thing between a negative and the paper. actually, it is the only thing. so yes, it's pretty important to me. and by now i know which f/stop works well what print size, or what type of grain is on the film. it's not an exact science, but it's based on my experience by looking at -and making- thousands and thousands of prints over the years. i have preferences of course, and i apply them to different situations. it's a matter of paying attention to what happens to the grain through a certain lens at a particular contrast and different densities. this is an exercise i practice on a weekly basis when i try to figure out the best way to print whatever neg at whatever size on whatever paper in whatever developer. i know, it's a lot of whatevers, but there are so many variations it takes years -for me at least- to understand. on my own images it's quite easy: i know what i like and how to get there. many a times i've used my findings on other people's negatives. i learn by doing, and there is a always a new puzzle to solve. so when i'm asked how i think this image should be printed, i have an opinion. when i loupe a neg i can tell you at what size the grain will start to change based on the contrast i would probably use. but all this is just talk, and visual artists need to see, this is why there is a service called and i quote 'test strip at size'. artists lean toward one look or another, i put their words into values, sometimes i can almost hear their inner-monologues. no, not really, but when i get a negative with a note saying 'you'll see, it's pretty straightforward', or 'you know what to do', also 'you remember what it looks like, you printed it once 3 years ago', then i know i've earned the trust of the person i print for. if i'm off in my guess, it's back to zero... this is one of the reasons i like analog printing. that is also one of the reasons i need to know my lenses so well. coating on the front lens varies, the result being more or less contrast. no lens is necessarily bad, it might just be more appropriate to a different puzzle.
and for large prints something else is between the light and the paper besides the lens, the 2 pieces of glass that sandwich the negative. anti-newton, regular, one of each, different groves etched into the glass, not every combination is right for everything, and sometimes no glass is best -but very difficult on a large print with long exposures- 20x24 in. and under i print without glass, instead i let the acetate expand and retract with the heat from the enlarger, so i re-focus every time i make an exposure. i look at grain through loupes at every size and contrast, so i learn still, every day.

aldo sessa next to a 56x70 print
(matte toned sepia btw)
we had a good day.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

no darkroom, no problem.

no darkroom, no problem. thousands of miles away from new york, sun and heat all around, and what did i pack along with my cameras? paper. photo paper to make lumen prints. i can't help it. i need to make prints as much as i need to take pictures. a lumen print is done under glass with the sun, as much sun as possible, and not just for the light but for the heat as well. i look at the lumen print as the sophisticated cousin of the photogram. casting shadows under the light of an enlarger is fun, don't get me wrong, my son used to make them while waiting for me to be done at the lab. man ray used to make great ones, pushing shadows to all kinds of shades of grays. rayograms to him were poems, stories told with the imprints of objects. simple and brillant at the same time. much later, adam fuss took the practice to a new level. he used to order rolls of silver gelatin paper from me back when i had lexington labs. and the ones he made of different fabrics and textures on color paper i think are mesmorizing. and my friend nigel scott, who is very demanding and precise on the silver prints i make for him, then on kentmere papers, now on ilford emulsion with a hahnemuhle base. i love his images, he makes contact prints, cyanotypes of plants and flowers mostly, on silk. you'd have to see an original to understand the beauty. but we are still talking about shadows and light, sort of like printing from negative. shadow and hightlights. a lumen print introduces dyes from the flowers and plants, and i can get color out of my black and white paper. in the alternative printing world where a silver print is considered almost too easy to make -and i'm talking about the basic process now- in a world of experimentation that keeps certain traditions alive, i feel the lumen print has its rightful place. the pigments from the plants mix with the silver and start making all sorts of colors. and to someone like me who enjoys looking at a negative, that's exactly what it looks like: a color negative made on black and white paper from different leaves and petals. a lot of C, M and Y but not much K, appear so clearly that when i squint i can see the full RGB spectrum. it is a thing of beauty so delicate i can stare at it for long stretches of time. and that's what i've been doing this week. high noon is my prefered time of the day: ninety degree angle from the sun rays and so hot it can burn a mango leaf in under a half-hour. droplets of water move from the plant to the glass, and the rest transfers deep into the layers of the emulsion. the colors i get depend on the type of plant, emulsion, exposure and time of day. it is a simple concept but not as predictable as you'd think. anyway, that's what i do when i'm in brazil and need to satisfy my need to print. i'll be back in my (very)darkroom printing negatives soon enough, so i'm really enjoying doing this right now.
happy new year!