Saturday, June 29, 2013

toning anyone?

well, there's a vast subject...  yet very much on the decline.  in theory, toning a black and white fiber base silver gelatin print adds a new layer of tones, for different reasons, either for look or permanence.  so let's start with the archival purpose of toning, as a silver print is only as archival, meaning stable,  as the silver halides within its emulsion.  stable meaning the ability of the metal to be exposed to light, darkened with developer, fixed, and again exposed to light and humidity later as we look at it.  so to achieve better stability, we trade up metals.  the most common ,in order of permanence, being silver, selenium and gold.  selenium and gold are direct toners, metals actually coating the silver. they contain a deeper black tone, they add richness to the silver image, even color it, depending on its dilution and length of time used. i love those, even if selenium has a strong smell that can give you a headache and stain everything, even if gold is rather expensive and exhausts itself after each print. i love them because, for one, selenium can be used to help a print, to give an image that extra richness if it cannot be achieved in the exposure. think thin neg printed on low grade to pull the most details, but when you hit with a high grade filter it just kills it. anyway, diluted for permanence, selenium should do very little to the emulsion, except protecting it from light, heat and humidity. selenium can split tone warmtone papers, separating the light and dark grays into reds and greens. it can look beautiful, some images just seem to be made for it. selenium can also give a beautiful purple, evenly throughout the image, discreet or deep. it can go to a brownish hue. it can be mixed with so many different other toners the possibilities are endless. gold is similar, it fits the silver like a glove and keeps it from deteriorating. on a silver print it can also just increase the d-max, it can give a print a bluish hue. certain dilutions go warmer. gold can be combined with other toners. once, by accident, i discovered that on the right mid-tones of an emulsion, with gold crystals diluted in water, those mid-tones turn neutral and all darker shades stay warm. lucky for me, i was at the time trying to figure out how to print a fashion story walter chin had shot about silver clothing and accessories. it looked as if the shiny silver had been painted on. this is back when an image for magazines or advertising was done in the darkroom, not in photoshop. years ago. selenium and gold are single bath toners, simple in practice, fairly easy to be consistent on many prints. yet when they are mixed with other toners though, the results can vary slightly from the smallest detail. that can be very frustrating when making an edition... because as a printer, as always, i need to reproduce what i do. i can't get a tone by luck, it's useless. i only do that with my own images and looking for a unique print. for the people i print for i need to find a repeatable formula, and whether the recipe includes a bleach, an activator or a toner, whether the print needs to be light or dark, testing can take many tries. when i come up with a print i like, and a tone that fits, i have to write down every little detail about it. and then try it again, and again, changing variables, i simplify as much as possible the process. and still, the next day atmospheric conditions have changed and i can't match. don't laugh, even the water has to be the exact same temperature for the wash, it has to be filtered the same way because of metal impurities. a print has to be washed before, in between and after for the exact same amount of time. tray contamination plays its part, as well as inconsistency from the companies that package the chemicals. just like seeing a print appear in the developer, it's not magic, but instead carefully orchestrated and tested over time. a darkroom is called a laboratory, it's a place where process research notes can take more space than most libraries. the notes can be general or client specific, out in the open or sworn to secrecy, written on a clean sheet of paper or in the back of a print... whatever. and since printing is an art form, most tricks of the different processes are stored in the brain of printers. for example, i met ruven afanador after he published sombra, when he needed prints to show, and the printer who had made the prints for the book had disappeared. i was given a box of 11x14's, with all sorts of intricate tones -if you know the book you'll understand- but not one single note. not even what type of paper had been used. so i started to do my own testing -yadda yadda yadda- and i was able to match the book on prints 16x20 or larger. toning is greatly affected by the type of developer -and fixer- used, so to re-do about 20 or 30 different tones someone may have gotten by chance -or not- was a challenge. but in the custom photo lab world it almost becomes just another project to figure out, another puzzle to solve. this is why it is so important to know what does what and how. i have to be able to recognize if the color is off because my print was too light, my first bath chemistry too strong, or the second bath too diluted. if i used the wrong surface -glossy and matte do tone differently, as do warmtone or not-, i have to recognize which step to adjust, and only change one thing at a time or the experiment is useless... most tones will change slightly over time -i am not including selenium, gold or bleach through silver bromide/iodide- most metal toners shift in color and density. an iron blue or a copper red are not stable, so if i use an old tone sample to match i have to be aware of that. i ask for color swatches to help me start a new tone, as it is very difficult to communicate color on a black and white print. sepia alone can be yellowish, deep brown, light beige, almost orange... and that's an easy one! blue may be brilliant or dull, copper can age as it does on the awning above my front door at home. the question is: why is the print getting toned? when timothy greenfield-sanders shot the ad campaign for ups, i had to come up with the new “brown”, and figure out what it could do for me... do i stain a light print or bleach a dark one? brown toner with selenium? i didn't know, but i was able to give options, and we went from there. remember the old calvin klein obsession ads that bruce weber shot? that was all done with toners in the darkroom. interview, paper magazine and vogue would often ask to add color to monochrome images. i've made platinum-looking prints on silver gelatin by mcdermott and mcgough, made prints look old, selectively toned part of images. red and blue prints for ralph lauren store windows, and the architecture images of anderson and low in a specific sepia. vik muniz still asks for toned prints. but nowadays it's rare that i'm asked to do any of it. i think because most artists and photographers are just not aware of the possibilities. it's a lost art. my technical index cards are getting dusty and i get nostalgic for the practice. well, not really. my point is it's a lost art. although, there is one artist who understands toning as an important part of photo history. hiroshi sugimoto pushes the envelope reproducing some of talbot's early paper negatives. i have worked on some of the small tests, and always offer my 2 cents on details, the 30x40 editions are just beautiful to look at, worth the trip whenever they are being shown somewhere.  anyway, those are some of the most complicated and beautiful tones i've ever seen. and at that size, to match a dozen or so of the same image can bring one close to the edge of insanity. if you have the chance to see some of these originals, make the effort and go.
in the future, i think tones will be used for unique prints, as editions will be a thing of the past and a single print will be more valuable from a prolific artist. perhaps even book reproduction quality will be taken seriously -not just selectively- and those tones will find a place to be seen by a wider audience.

photo by len prince  1999 - sepia toned
it's been a long ride !

Thursday, June 20, 2013

more about the negative

making negatives on acetate stirs so many opinions, i feel i should explore the subject a bit further. since my last entry, i heard from so many people, some with questions, some with solutions, i was surprised that no one said "i want to make this or that type of print, what should i do with my negative?"  and unless you're showing your negs as a final piece, a neg is made only for printing purposes.  it dictates the final print, especially if your darkroom abilities are limited.  many times i've had to come up with a final print that had nothing to do with the neg, but then the image becomes a collaboration between the photographer and me.  notice that i say the photographer, not the artist, because those who use photography as just a part of their artwork look for that collaboration.  they have a final image in mind and ask me to get there, so i offer options and we go from there.  and sometimes i have to say "not from this negative..."  the choice of film we use comes from, or should in many ways, our idea of what the final print looks like.  if i tell a film photographer that i'm shooting a project indoors, with a half-frame camera loaded with tmz exposed at 6400 iso and processed in d-76 at 70 degrees f, being printed 8x12 in. on neutral tone glossy paper, they'll know exactly what i'm talking about.  but still, i usually have to show a sample print of that type of process.  i have to show someone else's print in order to show the look, while explaining that every image does look different even when using the same process.  it's all about educating photographers with the processes available.  so most people stick to one look, it's easier  to visualize the final print that way.  besides, analog photography is not a cheap medium to experiment and just try different things.  a lot of my clients do the preliminary work at home in order to show me their ideas, and then i have a starting point, a direction to follow.  that's what a printer does, because there's a good chance i have tried something similar before, and that i have notes, even a work print.  and i happen to print black and white now, but it is true for color as well.  certain feelings come through from different techniques. and it all starts when you load the film in your camera. you make a choice from the beginning.  the film speed dictates your shutter speed and f-stop.  the development controls the grain size and the information details.  iso settings for emulsions are arbitrary, they only make sense when compared to other emulsions.  the theory of film speed is far from reality, the same way a light meter only knows how to place any reflectance into a middle gray.  the emulsion doesn't know if your subject is black or white, you have to help it along with your exposure and development.  do you want your print to be realistic or not?  do you always shoot in the same light?  do you care to be consistent?  do you adapt your print to the content, or do you make your print invisible and emphasize your subject?  well, all these questions are answered within the limits of your technical understanding of the technology.  and things change over time, manufacturers discontinue products and unveil new ones, we adapt and keep shooting.  i never felt nostalgic about a product that is no longer made, and from my experience, film emulsion changes affects us less than paper types, only because we show our prints, not our film.  if i show you 2 prints, would you know which one was printed from tri-x and which one from hp-5?  and yet everyone has an opinion about these particular film stocks.  the reality is that they are almost interchangeable.  let me repeat this: they are almost interchangeable.  and i say almost only because i include any special effect you might want to do with them.  the lens you use in front of your camera makes as much of a difference than the film inside.  the camera itself is just a black box, and to me is almost irrelevant.  as long as i can put the lens i like on it, it's a good camera...  film grain changes whether you've over or underexposed the emulsion, it changes if you like low or high contrast, dark or light.  it changes according to the print size, the paper surface etc.  my point is, always think two steps ahead, it's not that easy to transform our 3 dimensional vision onto a piece of paper, but some do it with style, we know who they are because we recognize their prints in about 2 seconds...  whether they make the prints themselves or not, whether they process their film themselves or not, whether they always shoot the same film stock or not...