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Tuesday, June 10

Shadow detail is SO over-rated!

Typical Ralph Gibson - at least during his film days.

I was struck whilst looking at some of Ralph Gibson's images on his website by just how large were the empty, featureless shadows which are an inherent part of the look he goes for. This isn't a new revelation by any means as Ralph is known for this along with high contrast in his photographs.

Although it's apparent in many of the jpegs in his galleries, it was only when I inverted the files in Photoshop that the extent of the empty shadow areas really stood out. It's not uncommon for a third or more of a Gibson frame to be a more or less featureless black. Ralph has a particular way of working - or rather, had - when wielding a film camera. I can't speak for his digital workflow but his analogue technique is quite unusual.

Phil Rogers, in a post on his blog, described Ralph's approach like this:
"You'll know by now that I have referred to those two great books Darkroom and Darkroom 2, now long out-of-print, on Ralph Gibson's Lustrum Press - they're great books, but (and this was the thing that hit me) they're also very detailed in the descriptions of each individual photographer's approach to film and wet printing.

"Want to learn how the mighty Wynn Bullock approached things - Darkroom is the book! Eikoh Hosoe, Eugene Smith? They're all there. Even Mr Gibson himself has a section . . . and you know what? I love Ralph Gibson's photographs.

"Aside from being very singular images of an incredibly personalised approach to photographing the world, they are also (technically speaking) the epitome of all the things the books say you should never do when processing.

"Heavy grain, underexposed shadow areas, over-developed highlights, dense, dense, dense negatives, uncropped. You name it the list goes on, and yet they have a lyrical intensity that is all too hard to find in these days of easy-fix digital photography.

"To me they speak truth, but a strange dream-like truth. I think it all comes from his vision. To paraphrase him, 'I carry my vision around with me wherever I go... ' You can tell. A Gibson photograph stands out like a sore thumb."
So, what was it Ralph did to achieve the look he was after? Well, he almost always shot Tri X on sunny days but over-exposed his negs by one stop from the normal Sunny F16 rule. Then he used Rodinal to develop his negs at the strongish dilution of 1+25, using 10ccs of developer for each film and a total development time of 11 minutes with agitation for 10 seconds every one-and-a-half minutes.

According to the Massive Dev Chart, Tri X should get something like 7 mins in that Rodinal dilution if rated at 400 ISO so effectively rating the film at 200 ISO and giving it four minutes more than normal will produce very dense negatives.

That produced, as we've discussed, contrasty, grainy, punchy and heavy negs - the raw materials necessary for the Gibson look. If you look at the inverted (negative) jpegs on this page you'll see what he was after. Obviously, his negs wouldn't have looked exactly like these as the images are inverted print scans but they clearly show how concerned Ralph was about retaining detail in the shadows. Not at all, it would seem. Another couple showing Ralph's love of large, empty shadows.

Personally, abandoning shadow detail is something I have a real problem with. Not so much the idea because shadow detail can sometimes detract from the graphic look of an image but the execution. It just seems weird to throw away information that might turn out to be useful and yet there are occasions when that's what must be done to achieve the look you're after.

I suppose it's a hangover from reading Ansel Adam's books as a teenager but it's time to abandon that goal and perhaps go after a stronger-looking photograph. If I were shooting a lot of large format landscapes then I'd stick with Ansel's approach but that field doesn't interest me so much these days. In fact, I sometimes think a lot of large photography has just become an exercise in achieving the "fine print" from a purely technical point of view, retaining as much sharpness and tonal information as possible with scant regard to the actual subject matter and its impact on the viewer.

Here are a couple of examples I've just done up to show the way my photography might go in future. They're not great photos - just scans that I happened to have on the desktop - but I think they're reasonable images to illustrate what I mean. These negatives can be printed in a variety of ways. I would normally tend to print them with plenty of shadow detail, as in the lighter versions here, but I reckon the darker, blacker pics are by far the more striking. Without getting too arty-farty, the lighter ones are photographs but the darker ones are images. At least, that's the way I see it.

So how would I go about producing the type of negs that would give me the results I'm after in the easiest, most repeatable way? I wouldn't want to shoot almost everything at f16 like Ralph so I'd be able to use a slower film. I'm particularly enamoured of Adox CHS 100 II developed in Spur HRX at the moment but I don't think the very fine grain, high resolution results and long tonal range I've been getting would be the best way to go.

Acurol-N, on the other hand, produces punchy negatives and Spur's instruction sheet very helpfully provides a range of development times and dilutions that make it quite straightforward to get N+1, N+1.5, N+2 or higher contrast boosts. Grain would increase in line with the extra development. But which film to use?

The most convenient, just because it has possibly the most development options on the Spur info sheet, could well be the new Agfa APX 100 which can be developed at ISOs ranging from 50 to 125 giving normal to N+1.5 negs. A film speed of 125 ISO is just about ideal for handholding in decent weather whilst still being able to use wider apertures for differential focus and it gives an N+1.5 kick. I've not used the new APX 100 film yet but I might just pick up a few rolls to try out this technique. If this project goes ahead, I'll be sure to report back with the results.


Pavel said...

I agree with your basic assertion here about the darker images.
I feel, however, that your Ansel withdrawal has not succeeded here, in these first baby steps.

Ansel lurks in those better, darker, more bold prints - in the shadows. Visible. And he is ruining things.
As I once heard said "You have to go too far, to know if you've gone far enough." - or something like that.

Take your right hand off of "the Negative" and .... go further Bruce!

Dave said...

Interesting post. Personally I'm not a fan of the flat-as-a-pancake look, I think we need some full black in an image a lot of the time. It gives a sense of mystery, leaves questioned unanswered and will always intrigue as we as humans have an evolutionary need to look at dark areas to ascertain if they contain a threat (think back to early humans hunting dangerous prey in a sunlit forest).

Paul Glover said...

When I was scanning everything and finishing up in Photoshop or ACR, my goal was, invariably, to set the white and black points just at the limit of where they would start to clip. Retain *all* the details!

A great showcase of the dynamic range of film, perhaps. But the results were often flat and lacking something.

Doug H said...

Though not to the extreme of Gibson, Brett Weston was not afraid of letting the shadow areas go to black. Good example is his "Garapata Beach".

David M said...

Thank you very much for reminding me of Ralph.
I rushed to my shelf and grabbed Darkroom. Later, I'm going to sit down with Somnambulist et al.
I rather think that your enthusiasm is leading you a tiny bit down the wrong garden path. A reversal of a scan of an image will only tell you about that image and very little about the negative that spawned it. (Incidentally, if you have a spare, failed print with very black burned-in shadows and use ferri bleach on it, you'll see how an apparently solid black can retain a good deal of invisible shadow detail)
Anyway, this is what I found on page 65. Ralph says he exposes for very full shadow detail and develops far beyond anybody else; his neg has no transparent bits at all. In this, he echoes John Blakemore's idea of a flexible negative. It would be difficult to find two photographers whose final images look so different, yet we find a similar idea at the root of their work.
On closer reading, I found that he discovered the "look" he wanted, after years of searching in his darkroom, on the printing press. He persuaded the "lithographer" (charming, eh?) to apply more ink, until the images reached the ideal that he had held in his head and failed to reach.
In those days (men were men; it was all fields round here) there were no inkjet printers, so we might see this as an early attempt to find image controls outside the darkroom – a spooky presage to his Leica Mono-thingy.
I came across Eugene Smith, too (thank you again) and his Walk to the Paradise Garden (page 143) with its own very solid shadows and this set me off, thinking again.
It seems reasonable to say Smith uses burning-in to emphasise the narrative quality of his image.
If you look at Ralph's Corner of a Building (page 75) it seems clear that there's no narrative content at all. The graphic arrangement sits there, fixed in time, with no duties to the world except to be itself.
This thought led me on to suppose that, despite the actual blacknesses being so similar, the intention is very different. Eugene is telling stories, and Ralph is (very nearly) making paintings by other means. My apologies for the painting reference; I'm trying to avoid the word (cross yourselves) Art.
This is already too long. I might have to write something else on your boardwalk image. I agree with you, but I think there's more to it than liking one single image.
Now to take your Turing test.

Bruce Robbins said...

Don't worry, David. I'm still on the right garden path - at least for the time being. I acknowledged in the post that the inverted jpegs were from prints and not negatives and that the two wouldn't look the same and that Ralph over-exposed his negs a little.

I think his negs just had so much density that by the time he'd printed in the highlights the shadows necessarily went black. That's the way to go for this look rather than under exposing and over developing. Plus, it gives you the option of printing them "normally" should you get fed up of the soot and white wash effect...

Spartacus said...

Are you sure that the image files on RG's site are not scans from prints? If so, that too could explain the lack of shadow detail...

Bruce Robbins said...

They almost certainly are which was I said so in the post. Have another read. :)

David M said...

I was going to make some more-or-less helpful but possibly predictable comments on your two examples of higher contrast. Liked one of them.
But in the meantime, I looked up The Somnambulist on Amazon. The most remarkable price is at the bottom of the list of "Used from XXX". Not even signed!
If you have a few more like that, you are a rich man.
(As well as rich in experience and wisdom, of course)

Shannon Trainer said...

"Ralph has a particular way of working - or rather, had - when wielding a film camera. I can't speak for his digital workflow but his analogue technique is quite unusual."

I WAS thinking about doing a little film work, but now, I am completely
turned off! I've never heard a more self-righteous asinine tripe than this. Photography IS photography, regardless of capture medium. And degrading and badmouthing Mr. Ralph Gibson for using digital is akin to a cult leader badmouthing one of his former members for leaving his cult. I knew there's some religious undertone here, but then i saw this:

How is digital photography tantamount to sinning?! It's this zealotry among die-hard film photographers is what helping to kill the photo film industry.

And yes, Omar, you are a childish Luddite.

Bruce Robbins said...

I see, Shannon, that you had to sign in after a few goes at leaving an anonymous comment. That was unfortunate because I can see from your Google+ account that you've posted seven times. Five were videos about some kids' video games and two were anti film. So it looks as if you never had any intentions to try film, did you?

And if you didn't like this post then you'd better not read some of the other stuff I've written about Ralph and digital. It gets a lot worse!

Omar Özenir said...

I'm not sure what to say Shannon. But first of all: are you aware that I'm not the publisher of this blog?

I do occasional translations from my own blog in another language, that's all. I have not written anything about Ralph Gibson at all...yet.

And if you ever happen to go through my own writing here, which is for the black and white film enthusiast, you might notice that I make neither negative nor positive references to digital photography. This has been my editorial policy.

And yes, Shannon, I'm quite put off by being called a childish luddite.


Herman Sheephouse said...

Great article again Bruce - personally I am happy to be a luddite too.

Go Share Your Faith said...

This is another good article on a great site!

I really have to give this some thought because I started in digital where moving the photoshop sliders until "just clipping black and just clipping white" was the "way to do it" and like the other commenter, my images are "correct" but not exciting.

The same goes for my darkroom but not exciting.

I'm going to try and keep this in mind the next time I print a negative.

Thanks for a thought provoking article.

Anonymous said...

I read the article with interest. The distinction you make between "photograph" and "image" makes sense to me with regard to my own photography. In my own darkroom photography, I would like to move from creating photographs to creating images. All of this--bringing technique to bear on refining, or realizing, one's artistic vision--keeps me at it. Bill