The Online Darkroom Store

Monday, July 7

More thoughts on the Gibson method

Above and below - a few pics from my files that I've Gibsonised for a little decoration.
One thing that struck me as curious regarding Ralph's technique (shooting Tri X at f16 in bright sunlight, over-exposing by a stop and greatly overdeveloping - by more than 50% - for contrasty, grainy negs) was that he was apparently keen to retain detail in the shadows on his negatives. It's curious because he usually went on to deliberately lose most, if not all, of it at the printing stage. So why did he need the shadow detail in the first place?

He could have shot Tri X at 800 ISO instead of 200 and slightly over developed for negatives that would more closely have matched the final print. A higher ISO would have enabled him to shoot at a faster shutter speed which could only have helped his images from a sharpness point of view by eliminating any chance of camera shake no matter how small. Thinking about it, I reckon it was a necessity brought about by his desire to print everything at grade four or five, exposing for the highlights and letting the shadows take care of themselves.

The problem with printing a thin neg at a high contrast grade is that the shadows cut to black very quickly and exposure under the enlarger requires great accuracy with very small differences in the time having a large effect. The danger is that not only do the shadows go black - something Ralph was after - but the tones just up from them also have a tendency to go very dark which he might not have wanted at all.

So was the shadow detail just a way for Ralph to retain control of those tones just above the shadows that otherwise might have emerged too dark under his printing style? This makes sense to me although maybe I'm missing something?

Certainly, reading what Ralph has said in interviews about his technique doesn't really shed any light on the situation. In fact, sometimes it just confuses things even more as there are inconsistencies in what he's reported to have said. Please note that I'm not having a go at Ralph as I love his photographs and it's refreshing to see someone who has worked out a particular way of working that is so different from the zone system aficionados. I'm just trying to understand. Here's a quote from a 13-year-old article:
"I eliminate a lot of unwanted material, activity into the shadow area. And in so doing, create a shape. Instead of just being a variation on light, for me shadows become cut forms, they become shapes. And I discovered this by photographing primarily in bright sun and exposing for highlights, which is pretty easy to do. Most people struggle to get detail into their shadows. I was never interested in that kind of photographic expression particularly". - Ralph Gibson
The first question that springs to mind is if you're not interested in shadow detail then why effectively rate Tri X at 200 ISO? That brings us round to my initial query about why Ralph bothered to get shadow detail in his negatives and then dump it in the print. The second question relates to his comment that he exposes for highlights at the shooting stage. This could explain why he rates Tri X at 200 ISO: as a guard against underexposure. But then, in the same article, he says:
"There’s a meter inside the Leica. I use it in the broadest most general sense of the word. I usually center weight it and I put it on whatever color I consider to be the most important part of the subject in the photograph. In black and white I hardly pay any attention to it at all".
I think there's a pattern emerging here: if you want to develop an understanding of Ralph's technique then it doesn't really pay you to look too hard beyond what I said at the start of this post - shoot Tri X at f16 in bright sunlight, over-expose by a stop and greatly overdevelop - by more than 50% - for contrasty, grainy negs.

I'm actually wondering if he had a roguish tendency to play word games with interviewers, possibly thinking that they were reading far too much into his photographs. It can happen with down-to-earth types who get a bit embarrassed when intellectuals and art pseuds are in full flow. Here's another quote, not relevant to this post really, but which is indicative of the throw away lines he apparently enjoys peppering interviews with:
"The rangefinder enables one to see what’s outside of the frame as well as what’s inside of the frame. You make a decision predicated on the presence and/or the absence of various aspects of the subject. With a reflex, the camera determines what is seen, and half the time it's out of focus. One could follow a reflex around the world and focus it from time to time until it came across a picture. With a rangefinder you see something, you make the exposure and you continue to look at what you’re seeing". (my bold)
Unless there's a new auto-composition camera that I'm unaware of, I think the person wielding the SLR is still in control of what he or she is pointing it at! And if you want to see what's beyond the viewfinder image, move it around a little. But that's Ralph, a bit of an enigma who is much more interesting, inspiring and thought-provoking than just about any other photographer out there.

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about Ralph's technique and said I fancied trying a more graphic approach like that. I haven't gone down that road yet but I'm trying to train my eye to see the types of subjects and light that might make pictures like these possible.

Whenever I'm out and about without a camera, I'm constantly on the look out for Gibson fodder, something made a little easier at this time of year where there's more chance of bright sunlight for those deep shadows. So far, I'm seeing quite a few possibilities which is encouraging although I'm still thinking about the right way of converting these mental photos into something two-dimensional

I'm tempted to go with Ralph's Tri X and Rodinal approach but I don't want huge grain - some grain, yes, but not boulder-size - and I can't imagine an over-exposed and overdeveloped in Rodinal Tri X 35mm negative being anything else, even with gentle agitation (Ralph seems to have turned his developing tank on its side and rolled it over and over but you need an almost full tank for that).

So I've two choices: use another combination such as Agfa APX 100 developed in Acurol-N or use Ralph's materials but in medium format. Right now, I'm tending towards the latter and it would give me a great reason to push my under-used Rolleiflex 2.8F into service.

You might also like:

A Less Beautiful Ralph Gibson


Omar Özenir said...

"With a reflex, the camera determines what is seen"

I think what he means is, with a reflex, your set focal point determines what you *see in focus* in the viewfinder. Whereas in a rangefinder you simply see everything in focus.


Bruce Robbins said...

Maybe so, Omar, but many SLRs have a depth of field preview facility. And why would anyone want to see everything in focus all the time when the results on film will only ever be like that at the smallest apertures or with the widest lenses.

It's always struck me as weird that many Leica users love their fast lenses even though they can only guess at what will be on the negative because they see everything in focus even close-up at f1.2!

Doug H said...

The chapter by Ralph in "Darkroom" (published by his Lustrum Press) has some nuggets of info. For example, he states "I'm interested in acutance as well as strong contrast and therefore use a high contrast paper. This also accentuates the grain, a textural concern which is related to spatial effect."

Doug H said...

As to your 1st question concerning why didn't Ralph shoot at a higher ISO since he seems unconcerned about shadow detail, the answer may be he was. He states that he likes the effect of Bromide Drag in his prints. He places the print in the developer and only agitates for 1/2 minute. Then he allows the paper to rest at bottom with no agitation for several minutes. The bromide drag should thereby enable shadow detail to remain.

Herman Sheephouse said...

Hi Bruce - remember it is 1/250th at f16 in sun . . that's what he used. I found for Scotland, it was more like 1/125th down to 1/15th for those really shite days!
There is a great deal to be said for his approach though, however I must admit recently I've really enjoyed rating Tri-X at EI 320 and then developing in Rodinal 1:50 for 14 minutes at 20C using Agfa's old recommended gentle agitation scheme - it goes someway to giving you that look classic Gibson look, however your highlights are very well controlled. The grain is still there, but it's crisp and not so clumpy.

As for the SLR/Rangefinder thing, the weekend before last I used the Nikon F2, last weekend I used the Leica M2 - to be totally honest, I find there's a connection with the Leica that I don't get with the F2. It comes as a totally natural way of working - DOF is in my mind's eye, and it works out very well indeed. I never thought I'd ever say this, but if I could only ever be allowed one camera, it would be my old (1960) M2. I love it.

Michael Stevens said...

I think Herman's hit the nail on the head. If you use Tri-X at 800 or even 400 ISO in bright sunlight, you're up near the top shutter speeds on a Leica and the minimum aperture on some lenses.

1000/s at f/16 leaves no room to open up the lens or increase the shutter speed, so the ISO ends up as the determining factor.

Of course you could always use a slower film but then the grain structure will change as well.

Bruce Robbins said...

Ralph shot everything at f16, Michael, so I wouldn't imagine 800 ISO would have been a problem. 1/1000th at f16 would have been fine for all but the very brightest of scenes such as the beach but I'm not aware he did much there. At the worst, he might have been one stop over exposed which would put him back to where he was when he was effectively rating Tri X at 200 ISO.

Dr. Elliot Puritz said...

Hi Herman: Would you mind providing the Agfa recommended "gentle agitation scheme" that you alluded to?


Herman Sheephouse said...

Hi Dr. Elliot - for Tri-X at EI 400 and in Rodinal 1:50, Agfa recommended 14 minutes at 20 Centigrade. Constant gentle agitation for 1 minute and then "one tilt every 30 seconds". This seems to go against the 10 seconds every minute that always seems to get published, so I tried it . .VERY GENTLY . . . and it works. I expose Tri-X at EI 320 - negatives have excellent contrast, not too blown highlights and the grain is crisp and not too clumpy. The instructions were on my old Rodinal leaflet I got with my original bottle years ago. The times on the side of R09 are unchanged from original Agfa Rodinal, but they don't mention agitation, which is the killer factor with Rodinal. I also use a presoak of 3 or 4 changes of water. Hope this helps!

Dr. Elliot Puritz said...

Thanks Herman! Well done.

Appears to be a modified semi- stand approach.

If you don't mind, a few more questions and comments.

What paper and paper developer did you use to print the image? 8x10 or larger?

I plan to use graded Gallerie with Amidol. Gallerie is only available in grades 2 and 3 so negatives that might be a bit less contrasty could work better. Incidentally, one can easily achieve intermediate grades on the Gallerie/Amidol by using water bath development.


Herman Sheephouse said...

Hi Elliot - graded Galerie is (in my opinion) the finest paper out there these days anyway - I've found Grade 2 can cope with pretty much most negatives actually - it is really surprising!
There's examples of all sorts of prints on my blog if you fancy a look.
My paper size is nearly always 8x10, and developers are usually Moersch Eco or Kodak Polymax (liquid Dektol).
Oh and I forgot to mention that TMX 400 at EI 320 gives excellent results in the Rodinal method mentioned above for a development time of 11 minutes.

David M said...

I've been looking again at your Gibsonised picture of cobbles. Somehow, it wasn't quite Gibson to my eye. So, it's off to look at Darkroom One.
Although we might think that the shadows are as black a a Gibson print, (although not quite so graphically defined), the highlights are not Gibson highlights at all, but much more Robbinsesque. They have more gradation than Gibson's. His highlights are relatively flat, not graduated like the Robbins print.
Perhaps the exposure and development technique is not really meant to produce those dense blacks, which are mainly controlled in the darkroom, but to control the appearance of the highlights?

Bruce Robbins said...

I wouldn't read too much into those pics, David. I haven't started down the Gibson road yet. These were just some jpegs that got a contrast boost in Lightroom. I haven't had time to pursue the Gibson approach. My better half is a teacher who is off just now so photography time is at a premium. I might get round to it in about five weeks by which time, of course, the sun will have disappeared.

David M said...

I forgot to mention that these cobbles and their highlights remind me of the cobbles in Bill Brandt's Snicket in Halifax image. Enjoy your time with the better half. Cobbles can wait; they are very patient.

Dr. Elliot Puritz said...

I have looked at the photo of the cobblestone a few times now Bruce. To be honest, I find the lack of depth of field quite bothersome. Obviously different strokes for different folks is the over-riding mantra. Nevertheless, since all here are exchanging ideas without rancor I thought I might add my thoughts. No doubt my LF experience with sharp focus from front to back has biased my viewpoint. Again....not criticizing but merely expressing preferences.

I believe with the Monochrome I would have had the camera on a tripod and stopped down quite a bit......:}