Tuesday, March 26, 2013

tech: it's all about the rhythm

alright, more technical information? i can do that. but bear in mind that analog printing is all about feel. i can feel if the the light is too strong while i expose. i can feel the state of my aging developer as i get through the day. with that in mind, the art of silver gelatin printing starts with the study of actual prints. i can't tell you how many hours i've spent looking at prints. actual prints that i could hold, without glass in front. prints from galleries, museums, private dealers or private collections. a print is rarely on its own, it's usually part of a series, a project with other prints where a common denominator was found. my advice is to keep things simple. i work with only one developer, i used to work with another one before, and others before that. developers never improved my printing, and neither did different papers. that said, i need to know how to make an image feel right, whether it is dark, light, flat, contrasty, warm, cold, soft or whatever. i've used selectol, dektol, sprint, LPD, etc... all kinds of chemistry. sometimes to go faster you don't need a bigger engine, you need to learn how to drive better. i also print for many different artists who have many different styles. right now i mostly use LPD. it's a powder -easy to ship- and i mix only what i need for the day, it's always fresh and easy to get to temperature -which is somewhere between 65 and 70ºF or ± 20ºC - no need to be exact, just consistent.
so i look at the negative, on a light box, with a loupe. i study it really, i memorize its values, make mental notes of the deepest shadows and strongest highlights, try to visualize it as a positive. then i size it, focus it. i focus wide open, i focus closed down, i focus at the f-stop i'll use, i look at the grain. different enlarger heads give me different results. my 4x5 heads are ilford multicontrast, from 0 to 5 in ½ grade increments. and the durst mural 8x10 heads are yellow/magenta controlled. all are diffusion light sources, which just means that the light is bounced around in a box before it hits the neg. not a new technology by any means, from the 70's through the 90's almost everything was printed from a cold head onto graded paper, also from 0 to 5, but reduced to 1 to 4 over the years... but i'm going on a tangent now. M/Y printing can be very accurate, especially on prints 30x40 in. and larger. even one point of M or Y makes a difference. not much room for error, i have to pay really close attention. when a client is waiting at the lab for my next version of the print, i better come out with exactly with what i said i was going to do. or it's just a waste of time for everyone... anyway, you can try and figure out if 18M is more like a grade 3 or 2½, but it's not how it works. first of all, i use the one filter approach, only Y or M, no mixing, the less filtration in front of the neg the better -exposure times can be pretty long on a large print- of course 0Y and 0M being the tipping point between low and high contrast. the starting contrast is based on experience, and this is when i save time and effort by making an educated guess as to filters, f-stop and exposure time based on the paper i'm using, the difference between papers is their actual ISO. i always -almost always- make a straight print to get my base exposure, the one that dictate which part of the image won't get any manipulation, the one constant during the process of making the print. it's the only point of reference i have from beginning to end. no matter what i do to the image, that portion doesn't change, it's like the horizon line for a jet pilot... you know what i mean... remember, when i make a complicated print and i'm asked to improve only the highlight on the tip of a nose -for example- i need to redo everything else the same, on the next print. no second chance.
so i expose. filter # this, # that, dodge, burn etc. song and dance, flash, whatever*. then the developer, i don't change the timing there either for the same image, got to keep consistent. always agitate the same way. and i look at the first black coming up, at different time for different papers. drain really well, always the same amount, dip in the stop bath -99% glacial acetic acid- for 30 sec to a minute, agitate, then drain well -you don't want to mix acid and hypo too much all day long, it gives off bad fumes- and the fix is just a formality at this point (even if it was the toughest chemical to figure out in the invention of photography). i say a formality because after you agitate a couple times you can turn the light on (print face down). the light you turn on to look at the print should always be the same. if i change that -or until i'm used to it in a new darkroom- i can't print properly. once i know my in-darkroom viewing light, i can tell the dry-down exactly. i close my eyes to get used to the change dark-light-dark for a few seconds each time.
one print at a time is the easiest way to go.
although my favorite days are when i print 3 different jobs on 3 different enlargers on 3 different papers. never tried 4. i like the challenge to juggle the numbers in my head, that is until somebody calls me out of my darkroom for a question and brakes my rhythm. because it's all about the rhythm, things flows when you keep going. it's very hard for me to stop and go, even if it is the reality of a printer...
i don't know what other tech stuff i could talk about. i'm really not a tech person, i don't like to talk too much about the specifics, but i know what i can do with every single piece of equipment and chemistry there is in my darkroom. i'm sure some people could tell me that this or that paper-dev combination would be better. that's OK, the only thing that matters to me is that the client i print for is getting the best print possible on time. and i always add a little something to each print so i know it was mine. and when i show another printer how to match my prints i tell them my tricks for that image, but in the end if they do it their way they'll get a better print. it's all by feel. and an understanding of the client's vision so the prints never come back. i don't like when my prints come back. no printer likes that. to me it means that the line of communication got broken, details were omitted, or i didn't get all the information i needed. i have to ask the right questions before i print. if you bring me a negative and just ask for a print, you'll get my print, not yours. and you won't get your print until i get under your skin, or at least study your images very -very- closely.  and then some days, out of the blue, somehow, i can't get passed some technical challenge, and i can't feel the image. those days, as far and few in between as they may be :) those days i have to accept i won't get a stunning print. and i certainly don't want to make an average print. so i print it the next day, when i feel better. that's the true secret of making a good print.

*i will talk about the actual exposure experience at another time. it's my favorite part.