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Monday, January 13

Only the Best Prints Will Do

I made just two New Year Resolutions for 2014: earn a living and lose weight. Nothing out of the ordinary. Maybe I should add a third: quality and not quantity in the darkroom. If you're like me then you want to make the most of a darkroom session and that means trying to print from at least a few negatives. It seems such a waste setting everything up and only coming out with one decent print so I always try to maximise the time.

The problem is that sometimes I emerge with four or five quite decent prints - all of which I know can be better in some way. So I file them away in a box thinking that I'll revisit them at some point and go the extra mile to get them spot on. But I seldom do. Consequently, I've got a lot of these work prints lying around and precious few that I think of as the finished article. That's going to change.

Here's an example of a print that I'm happy with. And yet it started
life as an overexposed cock-up looking something like the one below.

Which goes to show that sometimes you have to see beyond your initial
 visualisation to arrive at the best interpretation of a scene.

About 14 years ago I used to belong to Dundee Photographic Society, a club that's over 130 years old. I joined so that I could see at first hand the prints of visiting lecturers such as Tony Worobiec. What the club also did was encourage its members to take part in the monthly print and slide competitions. That was a good discipline. It forced me to select one negative for the competition and produce the best print I could which then had to be matted.

I could do with some of this single-mindedness now. I've made quite a number of prints since returning to the darkroom in earnest about nine months ago but whilst the vast majority are fine for illustrating blog posts they're not as good as I can make them. That's partly my thinking behind doing a portfolio or two: I'd have to whittle down the negs to the ones I really like and then do the best I could for each one.

I got to thinking about this again after visiting the blog of a talented Stockholm photographer, Marie Westerbom, the other day. She seems to have rediscovered film a couple of years ago, sold off her digital equipment, and, like us, is now an analogue nut. It must have been a wrench because she has some beautiful digital shots in her Flickr stream.

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Click here to visit Marie's blog.

In this blog post, Marie describes how she worked on one pinhole neg in the darkroom over four days trying something a little different each time. Her favourite print was the final one - a lith print. I thought this was an excellent way of concentrating the mind and working to get the best out of a negative.

I have a tendency to look at a negative and see the print I want to produce, somewhat blind to other possibilities. But what if I made it a little darker or lighter or increased the contrast? What about printing it for shadow detail at lower contrast and then bleaching back the highlights? There are usually a few ways of printing a good negative and sometimes there's no substitute for a few sessions in the darkroom for revealing the best approach. The two pics at the top of this post are a good example of this: I would normally have thrown the overexposed one in the bin. You can read the full story about them here if you haven't already.

Upside Down

I remember Eddie Ephraums describing how he would make a print and then look at it upside down and in a mirror checking for any "imbalance". He'd make a proof print which he dodged and burned where necessary and even went as far as spotting it before putting it away. A while later, he'd approached it afresh, viewing it under different types and strengths of lighting before deciding whether to print it and, if so, where he was going to take it. This all takes lots of time. Of the many thousands of negatives he exposed every year, he seldom printed more than about 20 to exhibition standard annually.

Compare that with the habit I've developed of trying to knock out a few prints in one darkroom session. I suspect I'm not alone in approaching the craft of producing a finished print like this. Are you all so focused that you're able to produce the best print you can or do you tend towards my scatter gun approach?

I'm going to slow things right down from now on when I go into the darkroom. Instead of being armed with several negs, I'll take in just the one. And I'll stick with it until I'm satisfied that the print I have is the best of which I'm capable.

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Anonymous said...

I was chatting to Michael Kenna at a recent event and learned a little about his approach on this very subject:

He no longer develops his own negatives. He used to be a Tri X for 12.5 minutes in ID11 (1+1) for everything, without variation for pushing and pulling. He had used variable times but now uses paper grades for that.

He only uses 10x8" Ilford fibre based variable contrast paper. Buys in boxes of 250 sheets. His prints are normally 7.5" square, or thereabouts. His early books had images this size, but publishers have forced the size to be increased.

He takes one neg at a time and learns how he wants to print it. That may take him a day or two. Then, he will produce several copies for his archive and his galleries. These copies are numbered x/40. He never produces more than 40 prints and often doesn't get near 40, but it provides some assurance to his buyers that he's not in the mass market.

Once he's sold his first few and stocks of a finished print are low, he'll return to the darkroom and make a few more. Never does he produce the balance of the 40 until he's sold more than 30, say.

He spends about 3 days a week in his darkroom when he's not travelling.

A lot of his travel around the world was funded by commercial work, Brazil etc. He'd include some shots at the shoot location, but also tag a few days on to the trip for personal work. All this commercial work has now gone because of his committment to the darkroom. Art Directors sat in New York want to see what he's shooting, when he's shooting it and will no longer wait for him to return and process his negs and prints.

Because of the previous point, he's about to convert to digital capture !! Imagine that.

As an aside. He told me he carries a Hasselblad 503 body and 3 lenses: 50/80/150 on his recees and exhibition opening trips. When he travels specifically to shoot, he adds more bodies and 40mm & 250mm lenses to his kit.

His committment to shooting is most disturbing. He returns to the same areas to shoot many times, like 30 times to the same spot in Japan.


p.s. For interest a much admired contact of mine, John Blakemore ended up using only ID11/D76 to process his negatives. Reckoned you could do everything you needed with it.

Bruce Robbins said...

Fascinating stuff, Gary, but very worrying that Kenna will be switching to digital. It's a shame he's having to do it not from choice but to satisfy art directors.

marty said...

Hello Bruce,
I also have the tendency to maximize my darkroom time, I usually aim to that four prints per session. Sometimes I got the not totally pleasing sensation of doing kind of industrial work... that happens when the quality drops below the average.
Usually I'm happy with the prints I come up, but on more than one case I have the feeling that something better could have been done. So, yes, I have some pictures floating around that I would like to revisit but it is something I seldom do, due to lack of time and then because I feel more exciting looking for new photos to take and process to a final print that in the heat of the moment I would like it to be "the print". I don't think I have such a commitment to apply my effort on a single print, but that won't me stop to try. What I know I can do is to be more selective and careful at the shooting time so to shoot less frames with more content and possibly quality. So this is where I'd like to focus this year coming.

Cheers, M.

Anonymous said...

Yes, he's the iconic B&W film photographer alive today and we think he should carry on as ever before. But his contemporaries have really turned over to digital.

He has just turned 60 and stated that he doesn't know how long he can carry on travelling at the current pace. Three times to India in one year must be wearing, even though he is very fit. He obviously has his silver print sales and his talk fees coming in, but new income will be as a result of personally funded travel.

On the other hand, commercial work for a big car company will earn him say, $10-30k a shoot, $100k a year with all expenses paid, maybe ? Then, he'll be able to his personal work on the back of it.

Let's assume there's not a chance he will compromise his quality, so any digital work has to be very good and if it's that good, it would be good enough for his personal work as well. He may even take the Salgado approach of an inter-negative.

Whilst he carries a P&S with him, I don't think he's put much effort into Photoshop because, in his words, he can do whatever he needs in the darkroom. Well, now he can't. He can't do commercial work. So, I suspect he will apply his great capacity for work into converting to digital and then he'll move over completely for new work.

Some of his work requires very long exposures, but he'll find new subjects.


Richard G said...

Another topic with almost too much food for thought. Enjoyed Gary's comment and looking up Michael Kenna's work.

Bruce Robbins said...

Good point, Marty, on the lure of new negatives over old. We're all a bit like that: we can't wait to get the latest shot under the enlarger. I think your idea to take fewer shots and be more selective is the right answer. That's one of the good things about 5x4. I couldn't afford to shoot a lot of large format even if I wanted to!

Vincent Brady said...

Bruce I gather from your post that you no longer attend a club, therefore the need to produce the best possible print for competitions no longer exists. I have gone through the same experience myself and I can offer these 2 possible solutions that I have used to overcome " that will do " attitude.
1. I take part in the print exchange on FADU and produce the best possible 8 x 10 print that I can.
2. I'm also in contact with several analoge workers here in Ireland and we arrange to meet twice a year for a print showing. For this showing I print some of the 8 x 10 prints to a larger size (9.5 x 12 or 12 x 16 ). Again I strive for the best possible print including mounting for the meeting. We allow ourselves a maxium of 10 prints per person in order that everyone gets a chance to show their work and receive comments. As this is not a competition people are inclined to enjoy the get together more.

Cheers and good luck for the New Year.


Anonymous said...

Hello Bruce,

Thank you very much for your article about my work, and for linking back to me. Most appreciated!

Kind regards

Bruce Robbins said...

Pleasure, Marie. We film photographers have to stick together. :)

Paul Glover said...

My darkroom time tends to come in fits and bursts, an hour or two here, an hour or two there. On a good week I might get in a couple of sessions, or get a longer one in on the weekend.

As a result, I've settled into a workflow which seems to fit well with a "fewer, but better" way of thinking.

Typically, a first session with a negative I haven't printed before will see me run test strips to set exposure and contrast and make a single straight work print on 8x10. I'll usually bring it to work with me the next day, and pin it up next to the desk.

After a few days (sometimes just a few minutes), I'll have looked at the print enough to have an idea of what I might adjust, or if it's good as it is, or maybe I'll not bother any further with it.

I'll jot down a few thoughts on what might improve the print and the next session I'll give them a try at 8x10.

Finally, when I'm happy with the outcome, I'll make final prints. One 11x14 for the portfolio binder I'm working on, maybe a second to mount and mat for framing (and if I ever get organized enough to exhibit or sell anything). Like Vincent I take part in the FADU exchange (in fact I received a great print from him a couple of rounds ago) and find it's a good way to concentrate myself on making at least one non-embarrassing print per month, which if St Ansel of Carmel is any authority on the matter is a quite reasonable rate at which to turn out fine prints!

morris1800 said...

Hi Bruce your blog made me reflect on my darkroom printing. When I first place the selected negative in the enlarger I am full of excitement and anticipation on the outcome.But subsequent printing of the same neg improves the print but having focused on the same image so much the image itself begins to look ordinary, not worthy of further effort. I think this is what attracts me to Lith printing so much as when I make subsequent prints from the same negative the number of variables makes the outcome very difficult to control and you end up with completely different results. This can be both frustrating and challenging but you do not lose interest in having one more try to get the best result(if at all possible) from what you believe to be a good image. I guess this essentially reflects on my need for the variety film photography offers where I use a number of different cameras , films and developers. I think digital photography lacks this variety , one camera a couple of lenses and a computer covers everything ....not much to 'play' with there!

Anonymous said...

I've recently dismantled my darkroom as we prepare to sell our house and I'm not sure I'll be building another, but I'm fully committed to MF film and scanning.

I was printing once every two weeks ago and for my favoured prints I would make at least 3 intermediate/final copies.

I'd return to these about once a month and work them again for effect, or protection. Some would get a brightening in dilute Farmers Reducer and all would be toned in Thioarbamide and/or selenium. During that process, my preferrered appearance would become evident and that one would be added to my portfolio box.

I'm now busy scanning my negs on my Imacon 848 and as I've no interest in owning a large inkjet printer, I get good prints made cheaply at ProAm in Bradford and best prints made on Hanemuelle fibre paper at Whitewall in Germany.

Again, when I have prints made, I submit images with variations in tone, or exposure and choose my keepers after viewing. This approach has enabled me to almost guarantee that I have a winning print every time. It also ensures that I don't suffer any despair/disappointment when I receive the prints and it saves on the postal charges.

ProAm charges about £1.25 for an 18x12" lustre print, plus £12 for postage. I often spend £30 with them. Whitewall don't produce better lustre prints, but they do offer other surfaces which, although not silver, can be quite satisfying for a discernining film user.


Jon Hoffmann said...

I wonder if Michael Kenna will use digital for his commercial work and stay with film for his landscapes