Sunday, October 26, 2014

alfred wertheimer 1929-2014

i would like to take a moment to remember al.
alfred wertheimer died a few days ago.  i worked with al for many years, and frankly, i wouldn't have known much about elvis otherwise.  i mean i knew the popular songs and obvious facts, like everyone else.  al was a great storyteller, and you can certainly see that in his pictures.  he would mix his unbelievable recollection of details and his own impression of the events simultaneously in a way that kept you wanting more.  i know more about elvis than i care for really, but i also love a good story, so i listened. now, i'm glad i did.
one thing i have to mention though: either i'd give him a perfect print (meaning perfect for al) or no print at all.  i could not just casually print for al, i had to make the extra effort, sweat a little, push my abilities in the darkroom.  my reward was to know that i gave him the best prints possible from his negatives. i mean, these were images that were also reproduced in books, as postcards, posters etc, so a fiber print from the original neg has to bring something else to the table, a personality if you will. al did not take this lightly, i always liked that about him.
each time he would leave negs to me, i'd have to sign my life away and feel like it too. he knew they were in good hands, but the exchange was never casual. i understand a negative, i understand it because i've held negs like alfred wertheimer's of elvis presley in 1956, just a few strips at a time. that's another reason why i couldn't show al an OK print, it had to be a great print. and then he would say: "now, that one's good. let me see the others". my heart would skip a beat at every print i was showing him that day. al kept me on my toes.
i will miss al.

al taking a picture of my son clayton at the "who shot rock'n roll" exhibit
opening at the brooklyn museum, oct 2009.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

everything just changed

well, for me at least.  my sense of timing is off.  i am re-learning how to coordinate my day, how to set the pace in my activities.  it's been a real struggle, a daily readjustment.  i've stopped smoking.
forget the cravings and other blah blah blahs, just how do i know to take a break now?  how do i know when a print is done if nothing stops me from staying longer in my darkroom?
as a smoker for 30 or so years, everything in my life was related to smoking, including my work, and my photography in general.
honestly, this is why i haven't been able to write about the darkroom for a while. it's all behind me now, so perhaps i shall try and remember these past four months. i'll admit it's a bit blurry, i had to focus on something other than the photographic print, yet a few episodes will stay with me for a long time.
i had the chance to work with ken schles, making prints from "invisible city". we got along great, prints were taking shape, a few were even finished... but, and it can happen at any stage, the project was finally made differently. i always look for challenges, projects that make me think, really difficult prints to make, with great satisfaction to see done. it's a way to never take the darkroom for granted. i can't really phone-in a 54x68 in. print for tina barney. i have to be paying really close attention, take deep breaths and go. she is mostly a color photographer, but the process of making her black and white prints was quite challenging, and very rewarding. no cigarette break any more. coffee yes. i find new ways to re-focus, i walk around, listen to even more story-telling radio.
while i was sweating my nicotine habit away, i printed the entire "in and around the house" book (twice) as 8x10's for laurie simmons. she knows these images by heart, i can't miss a print. well, maybe 2 or 3, but more than that would be annoying. so i spend some time on the first print of the series, and then i jump, find a rhythm, and print away the hours. the days, the weeks, and still no smoking.
i may be listening to music louder as well. i can't tell, i've lost the moments of reflection i used to take throughout the day. sometimes i don't even know what time it is any more.
know i was listening to loud music while making prints for chris buck, his images inspire that in me somehow. yet, they fall on the paper so delicately, they almost print themselves. and chris has stories about them all. stories to get me through the day, one more day not smoking.
no cigarette either as i pick the right piece of wood to print through with lisa oppenheim. different shades, different types, different patterns, to be turned to negatives on black and white paper. i liked the project a little bit more with each print. a break in my rhythm of printing negatives as positives.
a big part of my summer -and now the fall- was spent with more 8x10 negs from mitch epstein, printing new images since new york arbor. i approach these negs in a different way, for a print as a colder object. i don't need a cigarette, even if i hallucinate sometimes, i know it's just temporary. so i just keep printing, as usual, and then i realize it's the same again, i print in my darkroom. i just don't smoke anymore. it's all good.
life goes on.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

remarks on gray areas

silver recovery

at the beginning i was merely printing.  i was transferring a negative image on acetate onto a piece of paper as a positive.
i had always understood printing in the darkroom as an art form.
perhaps i should define art form.
but first, i need to explain that most people in the photo world see printing as a craft. needless to say, a lower form of expression.
lower in essence of course.  although a great many darkrooms are in basements.
not that it bothers me.  a basement without windows seems very appropriate for a darkroom.
and when i say darkroom, i mean a room with the necessary equipment to produce photographic prints.
one may have a room that is dark, but isn't necessarily a darkroom.
in any case, printing starts with the craft, the understanding of the mechanics of the medium.  optics, physics, chemistry, therefore mathematics, are all part of the craft.
when i was a teenager i used to read anselm adams' thoughts on the print, how it's made, what it means.
and then i would try and copy jean-loup sieff's printing look.
the things i used to do!
the craft means the technique.  i learnt that in books.
printing as an art form happens once you've mastered the craft.
i guess that's why one may be called a master printer. it's not a title, just something some people say.  people say a lot of things.
and then man ray walked into my life.  well, not literally, just a faint memory.  i will say though, he changed my way of looking.
i see a negative and i want to try it different ways, just to see.  i bump my enlarger, sometimes i spin my easel.  i change the perspective, high key, solarize, triple-bath tone, so i can see what happens.  sometimes i take notes.
a negative can be reduced to a means to an end.  when rolls of film were found in the mexican suitcase, we weren't really interested in the film itself.  we wanted to see the prints, or a digital version of what the print would be.  we have choices.
i don't feel bad for the negative.
we take better care of our negatives than our prints, for they are replaceable.  not so for the negative.  the negatives live in a water-fire-proof, humidity controlled, archived, under lock, environment.  we cherish them.
i've read that in books too.  and i've seen it with my own eyes.  i participate.
i should go back to the technique though, this is where my interest lies because as a printer, it has to be understood and deconstructed.  i like puzzles, questions with the clock ticking.
i've been told the pressure of a clock counting down adds to the necessity to be precise without hesitation, that it helps the inner rhythm.
i wonder how long after the invention of the clock someone said: "i'm going to build a clock that goes backwards."
perhaps da vinci thought up a prototype.  or fox talbot, while waiting for his paper to darken.  one would have the need to let their mind wander while inventing.
the darkroom is a good place to let one's mind wander.  to while away the hours.
i can spend hours counting down seconds.  

for example, i know it takes me seven seconds to reach for my cup of coffee and have a sip.  the things i know...
technically, it's an important fact to be aware of, the cup of coffee.  i mean to say it's important to know so it doesn't get in the way of the technique.
always back to the craft.
when i have 10 negatives to print, would i be able to dodge the blacks the same percentage given different exposures and contrast?  just by doing the math in my head?  the clock keeps counting down and it can be difficult to check with my eyes all the time.
i should have said fox talbot waiting for the hypo to finally fix the image.
the eyes don't always tell the truth so i rely on the math, even  perhaps only the days of multiple projects.  the craft grounds me in consistency.  and then i play.
by play i mean work of course.  and work because i also print to make a living.
my work consists in bending light-waves.  i'm a light-wave bender, if i want to be romantic about it.
a long time ago, in paris, i saw irving penn's 20x24 platinum prints of cigarette butts.  they're etched in my brain, they never let me lower my own standards.
the compromise card must be kept to solve an entire puzzle, not just a piece or two.
i remember printing susan lipper's grapevine.  some images i cannot get out of my head.  i've seen their grain through a loupe, i've seen them flat, light, in strips, wet, as a contact sheet and under glass in a big frame.
once i had a darkroom with a window.  a red filtered window, yes, but a window nonetheless.  yet another proof that darkrooms are not always in basements.
or is it the first proof?
actually, i'm not trying to prove anything.
it reminds me of something leonard cohen wrote about there being a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in.  how could one not think of that while printing?
may be it's just me.  i don't know how long it's been going on.
i'm not good at counting time forward.
hours pass and i'm counting down seconds.
as a matter of fact, i always use the same sets of numbers to expose.  i have a great demand of consistency in what i do.  i won't tell what these numbers are, but the sequences go up to 600.
every negative falls under certain given numbers, on the light box they seem to simply come out of the image and become values.
perhaps i should explain further.
but before i get to that, i was trying to make a point about printing as an art form.
we know it can't be measured easily, or there would be an award for it.
the print that makes me want to touch it, that's the winner for me.
although a print that disappears under the image would certainly deserve a prize as well.
take the starn twins for example, they need a darkroom assistant, not a printer to do their art.  their prints are part of their art.  at least for a few series if i remember correctly.
i don't think that qualifies as a proof either.
it's a good thing i'm not trying to prove anything.
or is it art only when i print my own negatives?
maybe the darkroom is a state of mind.  somewhere we go to meditate, a place to let go and let the light do what it does best, or at least well: darkening silver halides.
to be clear, when i say 'at least well', i don't mean to belittle the photographic process in any way.  i'm spending my life showing it my best.
the darkroom must be my mistress.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

film to print

i 'll get right to it: here's what doesn't work between digital and analog photography: shooting film, scanning it, and then trying to match a silver print later in the darkroom.  that's all backwards and wrong.  at least in my opinion.
but let's start from the beginning.  so you want to shoot film, great.  now, assuming you understand how that works, you then look at it on the light box, you make a contact sheet, you loupe it.  so far, easy.  except that most people who shoot film nowadays don't make a contact sheet, they scan the uncut roll first.  just because it's easier i guess.  once you've scanned your negs and done your corrections, how do you know if it's even possible to replicate it in the darkroom?  you don't.  so if you're thinking about printing one day in the future, you might find out your images look indeed different from your scans.  silver gelatin does have its own limits after all.  the thing is, once you're used to your images on the screen, it's very hard to make a print to match through a different process.  most people just end up doing a digital print.  which is perfectly fine, but here's my question:  why even shoot film?
i, for one, shoot film for both the look and the process.  i shoot film thinking of the print.  my work is print based if you may.  and that's because i like the way it looks, i like the print as an object.
now, like many photographers, i scan my images to showcase them online, where they can be seen by a larger audience.  the thing is, i always make a print first, then i scan to match the print.  but the print comes first, it is the work as it is meant to be.  i work in the same way other visual artists like painters do, i post online visual representations of my work, not the actual work.
i know there is no right or wrong way to make images, but it seems to be the very photographers who advocate the purity of the decisive moment, the un-cropped frame, the optical beauty of classic lenses, and the history of their camera(s), who lose focus and blend processes together to get a hybrid final image that is neither analog nor digital.  their scanner is becoming their darkroom -which they let go because of the inconvenience i hear- and their screen the print.  when shows  happen, i mostly see "archival pigment prints", ink jets really, of the original negative.
i believe the phenomena to be some sort of nostalgia for the acetate, but being given the digital camera they like, they let go of the film.  and they are, one at a time.  photography evolves, silver gelatin evolved from other processes before it, and usually i wouldn't even think twice about it.  but, and here's the but, it affects the approach of the print when someone does decide to make a silver print.  photographers show me their images on laptop, ipad, phone etc.  mostly with the contrast levels way up, telling me where they dodged and burnt on their scans.  my first question always is: 'can i see your negs?"
black and white silver gelatin has a certain feel to it.  its continuous tone made of darkened halides layered onto an emulsion is very organic, each print is unique.  an inkjet, pardon me, an archival pigment print, is a series of precisely projected (giclĂ©e) droplets of ink, pigment, onto a piece of paper made to seal the ink in.  why do we want these two very different processes lo look alike?
the fact is, they don't look alike, they serve different purposes.  in black and white, i prefer the silver gelatin print, i haven't seen a bw digital print i liked for the print yet.  i may like the content, but enjoying a bw pigment print on its own hasn't happened yet.  mostly because, i think, who has a passion for the bw inkjet print?  i mean, people like me have had a passion for the bw darkroom since childhood... the digital equipment changes every 2 years, you need tech support and software upgrades...  hard to get absorbed in the process. to someone like me, the cameras and the enlargers are objects just like the prints.  i have special lenses that affect the image directly.  my equipment is part of my process, and each print i make is in a sense, unique.  handmade vs machine made.  computers can give you solid results indeed, but the operator is a bit removed from it. with analog, the printer is a person, and in digital, a printer is a machine. semantics really, but still, here we are. even the vocabulary used is different.
analog photography isn't perfect by any means, an image might be rejected because a tree branch is on the "wrong" place, and it is very tempting to scan and retouch.  with film, what you see is what you get, and you need to expose properly.  a bit like the slow cooking movement, it's a long process.  there is no immediate gratification, when you decide to spend time on an image, a lot of time, you really mean it, you've picked your frame carefully and go for print.  test prints are time consuming, and a final print demands a proper darkroom set up.  expensive, i know, but think about how much you're saving by not buying the latest digital this and that...
I like many pictures on the screen, but that doesn't tell me anything about how they might look in print.  the print may not be the best solution for every image, the screen might step up and take over our walls to display our favorite (digitally shot) images.  sometimes i wish galleries and museums would just  do that, so i can see the full resolution instead of the low online quality.