Tuesday, April 23, 2013

tempo of the exposure

photo by n.vreeland

exposure time.  can i be in a romantic mood and make a harsh-looking print? well, like everyone else, i put my feelings aside and go to work…  this is why i need to know in advance what i'm going to print.  and of course, i'm talking about printing someone else's images,  so i prepare myself mentally before.  the biggest hurdle is that i don't get to see the original scene first hand.  so, theoretically, i make it up, from some random visual memory i may have of a similar scene.  and after setting everything up in the darkroom, it's time for a first guess.  that first guess dictates how you see the image as a whole, you cannot un-see it.  it's like when i'm asked to match the contact sheet, the artist has already seen it, and if i want to propose another look, it will take a lot of convincing.  anyway, test strips are useless, the best option is to guess very close the first time, or you can spend your day trying to figure it out.  and i did spend days and months and years to figure it out so i don't have to anymore.  now i look at a neg and i know -close enough anyway- how to expose.  and during that first exposure i look closely at the image projected on the paper, so i can get a feel of the amount of light reaching the paper in a given length of time. if it feels off during that first exposure, i simply cut the time short, or add more at the end. this is just to save time, i skip steps, this is part of my job. time and materials used making a print play a big part in the process. it is more efficient to have time to make an extra final print at the end of the day, than to waste it on too much testing. confidence in the craft. and part of testing also includes image size, any cropping, and -on a difficult print- practice for dodging and burning. the most common mistake is to overprint, to be tempted to change the contrast when the exposure time alone could solve the problem. all this brings us to the last -sometimes also first, but typically second or third- test print.
now the fun begins.
there are two ways of printing: vertical and horizontal. horizontal printing works for prints up to 30x40 in., larger than that is all vertical. on the horizontal position the light falls as if affected by gravity, like water, so i print pretending i am directing water in different containers. first i have to explain that the best burning tools in my darkroom are my hands. i can make any shape with my hands, i can change the shape to let the light through at will. to do this i guess one could practice at a sink with the faucet turned on. in any case, exposure time is when every movement i make has to be reproduced exactly several times, as many times as it takes to make a final print, or several identical ones. before turning on my enlarger light i take a deep breath, close my eyes, the printing map flashes in my mind, the rest is all dictated by the amount of time i gave myself. a length of time i can manage, anywhere between 6 and 600 seconds... it's all about practice, it's about printing everyday, it's about not having to think about tech stuff, to go beyond the mechanics and understanding the overall meaning of the image. i take mental notes, i write down what i might forget... for example, if i use 3 filters with a different time for each, i write down those 3 basic exposures, i may write down my burning. as long as i keep track of every move i make. if i miss anything i just throw away the paper and start again. no need to dip it in developer if i know i forgot a dodge or a burn. i let the action flow, move forward. there is no stopping in the middle. i ground my feet, or stand on my toes, or one leg. it doesn't matter, whatever i feel like doing goes, until i find the right position for the right print. i position the neg not the right way, but whichever way will fit my movements, maybe it be sideways or up-side down, i just have to be comfortable with the position. syncopated music works best to accompany my efforts, but a simple metronome would do really. as long as i don't lose the tempo. on prints up to 20x24 in. i keep going, meaning if i have to make 15 copies i make them in a row: box of paper open, one sheet on the easel, one in the developer, another in the fix. timing is everything. i plan my exposure so i have time to put a print in the stop while an exposure is finishing, just enough time to rock the hypo tray... timing is everything...
vertical printing is a bit different, exposure times are longer, the set-up takes longer -it takes a long time to position a large piece of paper on the wall with magnets- and only one print at a time gets made. vertical printing feels like a movie theatre, and i make shadows in front of the lens, sometimes with my hands, other times with cards and things. but there is one thing i always have in mind, it's the elegance of the exposure time. if i don't make that process a step beyond light reaching paper i would have lost interest a long time ago. yes, i know, it's about the final print. but the process matters to me, an exposure can be as elegant as a mathematical proof, reduced to its basic elements. a simple solution shows the full control of the medium. as i do my test print i weed out all unnecessary technical excess and let the light do its thing. i see myself as just redirecting the path. the final print happens when i take myself out of the equation at the right time. i trust the machines -enlargers- and the materials -paper, chemicals- because they provide me with the consistence i need to play. but i never take them for granted, even though if something goes wrong it's usually my fault. and the best part is when the person i print for looks at the print and says “yes. that's it, you got it”. until then, all i have is just an effort at best, with obscure code words like 46 for light, or 52 for white, 13 for camera, etc...