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.