from new york arbor by mitch epstein
shooting film for my own work is the fruit of a long period of time thinking about and visualizing how the print will look, and adjusting my exposure and developement. simple enough, right? and it's a good thing i had done a lot of exposing and developing every which way possible before i started doing it for others. i started developing film at 12, with a step-by-step book on the sink of the bathroom. and not just black and white, chromes too. there were no labs near where i grew up. so i had made all the mistakes to be be made before i handled dozens at first, then hundreds of rolls or sheets a day. all this from the early nineties when everyone experimented with new possibilities to use film. and the possibilities are endless and very subjective. it really depends on how you like your prints to look. i mean, for example, people were shooting polaroid pos/neg just in the hope to get the perfect mistake at the right place. we would receive buckets full of wet negs in black goo (for lack of a better word) every day. or pushing tri-x to its limits. or testing rodinal 1:25 vs 1:50 to really understand the physical reality of the film curve (ralph gibson got my last box of rodinal, anyone else i would have said no). or plus-x in acufine. a surprise for me was t-max 100 processed in rodinal 1:50. it made a beautiful negative. tri-x in hc-110 for bert stern's reebok ads. walter chin's polaroid negs for club monaco. tri-x under-exposed and under-developed for roger moenk's class of click. len prince's glamour 8x10 negs were always so rich in tones. and bruce weber seemed to gain contrast in his vision over the years. the late sy rubin used to bring me his exposed rolls of 35mm (all types of different films with notes written everywhere) in a big bag, once a year, about 500 rolls worth. he wanted to see it all at once, he would never look at it half-way through. there were the 4x5 ready-loads, others shooting with pinholes in every format, with plastic cameras, hasselblad, panoramics. and of course the 11x14 hp-5 of john dugdale and timothy greenfield-sanders. there is a solution for everything, it's a matter of finding the right combination of ingredients. trial and error, testing, more testing... some standards are established for the bulk of film processing, as some photographers are just interested in getting the shot, the details beyond that doesn't really interest them. many times i would ask the photographer, or the assistant to adjust the exposure so i could later make their prints better and faster with more ease.
film can be processed by hand (small or large tanks), in rotary tubes (like jobo), or in a dip and dunk machine. every technique has its pros and cons, every method has its application. i don't find one “better” over another, only more appropriate to the vision of the photographer, as long as the negative doesn't limit the printing. and when it does, i have to compromise the quality of the print. what matters to me is to place the reflectance of the subject within the printable range later. what i mean is, knowing the incident light is one thing, but it is important to understand the ratio of reflectance given by the subject compared to the luminance ratio of the negative on one hand, and then of the printing material. the short print scale of the photo paper needs to represent the full spectrum we experience in real life in order to look real. in black and white photography, a real-life black maybe dark gray, or a real-life white maybe light gray. so when shooting on a negative support, you have to think a couple of steps ahead. how much detail can i hold in the shadows of my neg before i lose my first black on a paper at grade 3? for example. the answer is in the testing. the requiered negative value for a particular print should be recorded according to the intended developement, to adjust the developement from an error in exposure limits the range available to the negative, and ultimately to the print.
personally, i look at my negatives with a loupe on a lightbox until i understand how i can make the print, but i am not surprised as to what i see on the negative: i know exactly what i will gain or lose from the actual scene. and that comes from looking very closely, and testing, and knowing what i like when i reproduce what we see as reality onto a monochromatic two-dimensional support, and still make the viewer see it as realistic. so if you like a dark sky on your print, adjust your exposure, use a filter... but get it on the piece of film, and then, like i always say: “if it's on the neg, i can put it on paper.”
there are many technical books on the subject, and everyone can get something different out of each one. the best thing to do i think, is to first pick a type of film, let's say ilford hp-5, 120 format, processed in x-tol. just that simple combination of ingredients can give you so many results. what gets in the way sometimes, is the prejudice we have toward certain film types and developers. it's not about what you've heard is the best film/developer combination, it's about knowing what you want on your print. there is no universally perfect neg, there is only the perfect neg that can make the perfect print for a particular project. anything else is just talk.
people have come to me often asking for similar prints as a well-known photographer, and my first question is always “can i see your neg?”. because if so-and-so over-exposes their negs 2 stops for their look, i won't be able to match yours if you didn't. i'm not a magician -even if sometimes i'd like to be- i just adjust and reproduce shades of gray, whether on acetate or paper...