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.


David Simonton said...

Hello Laurent,

Thank you for another wonderful post! Your enthusiasm is for me a welcome antidote to the sheepishness I detect in the self-effacing voices of other darkroom workers these (digital) days: "I know I'm old-fashioned... / a dinosaur...." And the generosity and openness with which you discuss your (noble) craft is welcome as well.

I hope I'm not asking too much if I ask for some clarification. If so, my bad. But if not, here goes:

When you talk about a particular print density (as opposed to print contrast) I understand that to be primarily a perceptual determination; and the result of a given exposure combination (time/aperture setting).

Do you ever vary a print's time in the developer tray to control its "density?" I'm familiar with the term as it relates to negatives, but am hazy about how it relates to prints (I really need to get some ventilation in my darkroom...).

I'll completely understand it if you'd prefer not proffer any lessons here (or reveal your secrets). But I'm fascinated by the topic, and am grateful to have it addressed in such a nuanced way by a Master. —I don't want to miss (or misunderstand) anything!

Thanks again for sharing your thoughts. I look forward to every new post. (And congrats on achieving that straight print!)


David Simonton said...

Oops. I mean "Good luck achieving that straight print!"


laurent girard said...

hey david. you're right, i don't intend to give printing lessons here, but i also don't have any secrets really when it comes to printing. more light on film will give you more contrast to a certain extend, and you can vary developing time from about 1min 1/2 to 3, 4 or 5min if you'd like -depending on developer- i leave a print in the soup longer if i need more light grays and i don't want to change my contrast, or i increase my exposure and reduce developing time to gain a bit of contrast. the secret is to use the right trick at the right time. there is no formula, judge by eye.

David Simonton said...

I appreciate your answering my question, Laurent. This is the key I was missing!
Thanks a lot,