Saturday, December 12, 2015

translating the grayscale

well, no, i do not only print from acetate negatives with an actual image of a moment from life on them. sometimes photography doesn't let the light do the drawing all by itself, sometimes photography doesn't need the light to be reflected. photographers sometimes forget that a light sensitive surface can be non-representational. artists working with photographic tools mostly have little use of a camera, they tend to focus on the print, the object made with light sensitive paper or other support.
i've printed typeface, shapes, static, fabric, drawings on vellum, and now wood. i know i start with a lot of 'sometimes', that's because artists working with light sensitive materials mostly do it themselves. the few artists who need these services start with an idea, they need to translate it into a photographic language. most likely on a larger scale than they can do themselves.  that, i know. in an earlier post i had mentioned the interpreter in me, the importance of putting words into images, and vice-versa. so i write about this now because my interpretive skills were put to the test by lisa oppenheim. i had to brush up on tree types, names and patterns as well. and although i had printed lace for lisa before, slices of wood don't really follow the rules of silver printing. my blue-green black and white paper along with the yellow-red of the different types of wood were a challenge to filter. i used the yellow-cyan trick to make them look like negatives of themselves.
the exposure times were really unpredictable at first, but with a little practice i could almost read the wood like a negative. it didn't take much for the exposure times to jump, a bit of red dye added to the pulp and zoom, i was in the minutes... now i can't look at a tree without seeing its negative in black and white. there are worse things.
those prints made me think a little harder, or rather in a different way, and the result is well worth the effort. any visual translation is good for the brain.
earlier this year, i had worked with helen dennis, and saw up-close how someone can draw. i mean draw over a few square feet on several layers of transparency. her work was too big to print horizontally and use gravity to contact print. these drawings were at least 6 or 7 feet long each. plus all the sheets of vellum had to be registered and placed on top of the paper, against a wall. i ended up spending more time on a ladder than anything else. and same here, the result is unbelievable, lines of white and all shades of grey against a black background. really to be seen.
also there was the printing of the greyscale on two different occasions, in different ways, for different people. just weeks apart. weird right? one was to print every single step an inch wide for a total length of about 80 inches. and the other the same size but as a gradation done by hand. the second being for alexei hay, and a puzzle to figure out, as well as a very difficult printing exercise. as for the scale with distinct steps, we made an lvt negative, and still, quite a brain teaser to figure out the proper contrast. another interesting printing exercise.
and printing the original acetate with type for bill beckley brought back some memories, to a time when any type near an image was printed through acetate. and it was used quite often, headshots were made that way, with an enlarger head shinning up on a piece of glass, and an automatic timer to open and close.
anyway, the darkroom offers many ways to work, ways that have nothing to do with photography, and many artists and photographers have used the multitude of techniques, and - as i experience in my little corner of the world - continue to do so. and frankly, when i really think about it, being honest and all, i don't know if i like photography for the darkroom alone... hmmm...

Monday, September 28, 2015

printing by numbers

i'm afraid printing with an enlarger is being misunderstood lately, with the newly found interest in film photography. i'm specifically referring to a trend to show silver gelatin prints of famous images with corrections drawn on them, by the photographer for the printer.

in my humble experience of 30 years of printing for a number of photographers, i have never encountered a situation that would call for such markings. to the point where i'm not even sure what they mean. ok, i'm playing dumb here a little bit, but only because we're talking about really famous images from really famous photographers. my point being these markings make no sense. none. let me explain. if my guess is so far off from what the print should be, it would barely make it out of my fix. it might make it to a water holding tray to compare with my next move, and then it gets tossed. if i showed a bad work print to a client, they would lose their confidence in my ability to print their negatives, and rightly so.
let me explain further. again, i only bring this up because many amateur printers might think that's how it works to collaborate on a print. it's not. and if an intern, or assistant, is working directly in the photographer's darkroom, they couldn't make the said corrections anyway. so who are those markings for?
as a professional printer, my job is to show what can be done with a negative, with the knowledge of prior work done by that same photographer. if the photographer has to show me how to print, then they need an operator, not a master printer. but in the analogue world we don't have enlarger operators, we have printers, people who interpret a negative image into a positive one. and the reason i wanted to write about such markings on prints is to explain how prints are made. one does not print by numbers in the darkroom. i've said it many times before, and today i take the opportunity to say it again. the light from an enlarger is diffused, not focused, printing this way is blending. blending values together, not one at a time. so to mark values side by side, implying they are too light doesn't mean anything when nothing is said about the values in between. there is a vocabulary appropriate to a darkroom print, and it has more to do with the flow of water currents and gravity bending light than little circles over highlights or shadows.
my concern really, is more for the darkroom aficionado who might think they have to go through that step to achieve a final print. they don't. the step where you mark so many things is not a print, it's a misstep, something that happens when the printer forgot to look at the negative before the first exposure... a printer must look at the negative very closely, visualize it as a positive, pick the contrast and f/stop to get a comfortable exposure time. because that's when the changes are made, during those few seconds of exposure. if you don't have time to dodge, it must be the wrong way to print a particular neg. one must follow the negative, not fight it. when you fight a negative, the negative always wins, and the print looks forced and awkward. if too many highlights are too hot, the solution is not to burn them one by one, the overall contrast is off, the print may need less contrast/more exposure, a longer development time...
to correct a print, you'd have to know all the factors from the darkroom, to just mark +1 or -5 on it is meaningless. a better marking would be "it feels harsh overall", or "not dramatic enough", "keep the light soft".
and again, i picked famous images (richard avedon and dennis stock) simply because they are really well known, but if you take a minute after the initial "wow, i could never do that in the darkroom", look at the actual notes and the final print. one has nothing to do with the other. the circles and ovals and + this and - that are not reflected on the final print. the test print is too far off to even help with the final corrections. look at them closely and make up your mind how you would have done it. it's a useless exercise because you'd need to see the actual neg to do so, but still, you'll understand that the changes don't respect the markings, so why bother? why pretend that's how it works? and if you are an accomplished printer or just starting to print, don't pay attention to these photogenic and impressive notes, and please concentrate on your first guess, you will be way beyond that step on your first try. but if you need more than a few seconds to work on an image, then by all means, you should be using photoshop or lightroom for sure.

ps: i am not associated in any form to the prints and images shown above, i just used one of the many versions i found online for the purpose of this blog.

Monday, April 6, 2015

thank you sodium sulfite.

sodium in general has taken over my life. sodium sulfite being the obvious guilty party in my darkroom, and sodium chloride being added everywhere in my food. i really don't like the taste of salt, and i restrain from smelling, or inhaling fumes, of sodium sulfite.  in any case, sodium sulfite is everywhere in silver printing. no really: everywhere. from beginning to end - it even used to be a preservative in food.  so this problem of oxidation made me think of how sometimes, when i look at a print, i see a list of chemicals necessary to the process. a long list, mind you. let's try to look at what goes where in silver photography: the magic of the image appearing in the developer is actually quite complicated, yet fascinating. and many of these chemicals can be quite harmful, to both people and the environment. the process is not to be taken lightly. osha recommends to just "water down" your chemicals into the drain, with enough water so it doesn't damage the pipes in the building. yep, that's an actual quote.
and i will not mention the several gases released from mixing powder, or by contamination. i have always known all this, my dad was an engineer and mathematician, an uncle a chemistry professor, and another worked in optics -kind of like oliver sack's "uncle tungsten" - i walk into my darkroom with a certain knowledge of chemistry, i understand where harm can come from, and a side effect is that the skin on my hands is very dry. can't really put cream on your hands to touch film and photo paper, it's chemically harmless, but visually awful.
anyway: sodium sulfite, sodium erythrobate, sodium metabisulfate, disodium tetraborate pentahydrate, pentasodium ethylenenitrilo tetraacetate, hydroxymethyl, phénitpyrazolidin. that is just a taste of x-tol. no hydroquinone you'll notice. and it's a great name, extol the virtues of this developer! but we forgot that film itself has to be manufactured first. acetate, i don't feel like going into details here, just acetate, and gelatin…  well, again, let’s just call it gelatin and concentrate on what gets mixed in with it, namely crystals.  and how does one get these crystals?  bars of silver are dissolved in nitric acid to form silver nitrate, and combined with bromide as an alkali salt, potassium bromide for example.  this results in light sensitive silver halides crystals.  mixed with gelatin it makes an emulsion, a silver halides emulsion. voilà.
why gelatin? it’s transparent, grainless, it’s a liquid when heated and gels when dry, yet it swells enough when in contact with liquid chemicals to affect halide crystals.
anyway, so you mix a solution of silver nitrate with a halide -any alkali metal halide-  say, sodium bromide -don’t forget the ammonium hydroxide, ammonium bromide, thymol and alcohol.  the emulsion maker may control the very size of these crystals and mix them over several layers.  the crystals get heated, ripening as it is called, they dissolve and crystallize again.  remember, within each crystal, the atoms are electrically charged (ions) and placed in a grid of sort by electrical attraction, with free-to-move silver ions, as well as important -to the latent image, and overall exposure- crystal imperfections.
so the film gets exposed -insert entire history of photography here- the silver ions interact with negative charges, a latent image forms, the bromide ions are neutralized to atoms, then absorbed by the gelatin.  next thing you know, you’re gently agitating at equal intervals…  the tiny silver deposits will be grown and amplified (a lot) to give a visible image.  the hydroquinone -or metol, or phenidone- and supportive agents including an alkali and a preservative start the process.  as you agitate the tank, electrons go for the exposed silver halides carrying silver atoms.  the developer gets full of potassium bromide and other chemicals without electrons.  developing time is over, everything gets rinsed in water and goes down the drain.  let’s skip over the temperature if you don’t mind…  also, you may decide the see the whole process with infrared, or a green light, and develop by inspection for even more control.
then it all needs to be fixed, made stable.  ammonium thiosulfate, boric acid, acidic acid, and again, sodium sulfite.  residual processing chemicals contain sulfur compound and will deteriorate the image if not washed properly.  ironically, a small amount of residual thiosulfate is needed against oxidizing agents.  all the unexposed, invisible silver halides get washed away in the hypo (fix). you can then recover the unused silver by electrolysis.
and don't worry: whatever grain structure is inherent in a film emulsion will be retained in the developed negative. do we even have to mention the energy of electrons, the speed of photons needed to get those latent silver atom specks? crystals are about 1 micron in diameter and contain about 10¹² silver atoms (or grains). you need an electron microscope to see these grains. my grain focuser only sees what we commonly call film grain, but is just really clumps of about 40 actual grains. long story short, we have a negative to print, more chemicals to gather and mix.
dihydroxy benzene, sodium carbonate monohydrate, hydroquinone and potassium bromide. the thing is that dektol makes my skin dry. perhaps then a mixture of sodium sulfite, sodium carbonate and hydroquinone, lpd powder developer seems to be better for me in the long run.
what type of wood was used to make the base of the paper? for our purpose perhaps it's best to just talk about the emulsion. although that was a concern of mine when ilford went from multi IV to the classic fiber paper. everything matters, any change at all changes things, not everything necessarily, but enough to make a difference. and yes, it is now a different wood being used for ilford papers. change is difficult in a field where consistency is a factor, but necessary in a technology-based environment. more layers of halides, all equally sensitive to blue on variable contrast paper, yet each differently sensitive to green. the halides are now being bombarded with yellow and magenta light. bam. negative film illuminated onto negative paper, silver halides into silver metal, reduction from salt to metal. and then it gets dipped in developer, the silver halides particles become metallic silver. stop. acidic acid. stop. sodium thiosulfate removes all untouched silver halides by turning it into a water soluble complex. wash with plenty of water, drain with plenty of water. the water is on all day. water water water.
and ventilation. plenty of ventilation.
all this solid state chemistry moved indoors before electricity mind you. velox emulsions are 500 times faster than albumen. photography was almost a hundred years old before an enlarger with a light bulb was brought into a darkroom as a regular practice. we are now way past the gaslight papers era, and exposed our perfectly evenly coated emulsion with a lightbulb (well, several halogens etc.). yes, you read right: gaslight paper. i'm glad i have electricity and mostly mixed chemical formulas where i just add water. it's very manageable for the everyday. i think twice before any exposure, i don't waste paper, i take the first guess very seriously, it's better for the environment.

Monday, March 16, 2015

about closing the darkroom door

99% acidic swirl

yes, no doubt, the darkroom can be an escape from the turmoil of the world outside.  and i use it as such often.
outside my darkroom people kill each other for their beliefs.  outside my darkroom people are afraid of what they don't understand.  outside my darkroom there is plenty of light, yet most people wear blinders.  i like to close the door to my darkroom.
most in the industry think of a printer as a technician.  sure.  that's part of it, but some of us have an opinion about what we print.  every day i make prints that will be looked at, analyzed, criticized, etc.  every day in my darkroom, i make an effort to respect the medium, the world of silver printing.  i make an effort to support the subject, to emphasize its meaning.  before i close the door of my darkroom i need to know how the image came about.  the narrative helps me make decisions as i expose the paper.
no, i don't like all the images i print, and i don't even like all the prints i make.  i must remember though, they are not for me.  when i make a print i don't care for, of an image i don't particularly like, then i become a technician.  i become a machine-like operator who can lay down shades of gray wherever appropriate.  sometimes my passion is a job.  although i have been lucky to have printed most negatives that i have.  i don't want to only be a technician.  i call that the ansel adams syndrome: to be able to control each and every halide on a piece of film, but nowhere left to add any point of view or emotion.  i exaggerate perhaps, but most printers are just technicians (and the mere mention of ansel adams gets a little bit more attention).  i don't like being in that position, but it does happen sometimes.
outside my darkroom people make new images.  outside my darkroom, people have ideas about what a print should look like.  but inside my darkroom, i rely on my experience as an artist to make objects of desire, pieces of paper one wants to touch and feel.  inside my darkroom, i try not to think about other prints that are being made through different processes.  i print negatives exposed to be printed on a silver gelatin emulsion.  as simple as that.  i made the choice to print silver gelatin after making prints many other ways.  my first job as a printer was to make c-prints and duratrans.  over the years i have made c-prints, platinum, palladium, gum bichromate, cyanotype, digital-c, giclée, inkjet, pigment, carbon, etching, cibachrome, etc.  with or without a lens, from 1/4 inch square to 72x120 inches.  my point is: a printer prints.  any kind of print.  that's what a printer does.  a fine art printer sees what's off with a print and makes it feel better.  as simple as that.  some people are good at editing others' words, and some have a visual vocabulary that cannot be seen.
outside my darkroom i am as invisible as i am inside.
printers specialize nowadays, just like everyone else, and i chose to concentrate on silver gelatin.  it's the process of my era, i understand it.  i know how to make it look its best precisely because i have worked with other processes.  to me, it's a constant in the ever changing world outside my darkroom.  it's a process that relies on very few manufacturers to go on.  it's a process getting a second wind.
the ever changing world outside my darkroom doesn't have much room for such a slow and expensive process.  but as long as people will look for prints as objects, older photographic processes will survive.  platinum print makers moved to digital negatives long ago, it adapted without agfa np31 emulsion (!).  things tend to change and evolve over time.
inside my darkroom i think about people being afraid of what they don't understand.  and if you call the appearance of an image in the developer 'magical', then think about all the magic digital photography has to offer: most photographers don't know how their digital camera, or scanner, really works.  it doesn't really matter, very few photographers have cared to know how light sensitive emulsions work anyway.  the technology of photography has become so advanced that scientists alone need to understand it.  i just hope we don't forget to bridge the gap between art and science so we can enjoy the evolution of the photographic adventure with passion.  perhaps the future of my profession will be to make different types of screen surfaces.  it's already started: i can't look at the new generation of glossy screens, i can only appreciate an image on a flat matte screen like the eizo.  i work with mac computers but could never have an imac.  i don't like the way high gloss looks.  it hurts my eyes every time i look at an image on my phone screen.  that's why i stick to printing for now...
yes, outside my darkroom people are afraid of what they don't understand.  to understand every possible way to make a print takes research and dedication.  it takes getting rid of our printing prejudices and work with the process best suited for our images, that we can afford.  no need to be afraid of the processes we don't understand, we just need to educate ourselves a bit further.  the best way to pick a process is to try as many processes as possible.  i favor film and silver prints for my own work, but i also use digital files, in color, chromogenic or pigmented.  i also know that silver gelatin printing relies on precise and complicated manufacturing to exist, and that could be its downfall, unlike alternative processes where you do your own coating.  the film and paper i use everyday are not handmade, they comes from an automated process with machines that break down, suppliers that go in and out of business, it's an industry.  and if that industry no longer benefits from making these products, it will adapt and make other products to survive.  although i don't believe it will be anytime soon.

i love the feeling of closing a darkroom door, whether it swings or slides.  rotating doors are just not the same.  neither are mazes.  maybe it's just me.