|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?
"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 GibsonThe 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:
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:
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.