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Monday, September 25

Take heart, take heart...

I started printing when I was about 13, making good use of the YMCA facilities in the town centre including the ancient rotary print drier that often gave me a shock when I was least expecting it. The entire building would probably be shut down now under health and safety regulations although we just accepted the risks as the price of entry. If I wasn't feeling in the mood for some hair-raising current there was always the snooker hall on the top floor although that wasn't without its risks either.

Then I discovered that one of the physics labs at school had an enlarger so I started making use of that as well. As my interest in the hobby grew, I found a way of shoe-horning a darkroom into a cupboard in the family home. Now I'm on my fifth darkroom. The reason I'm telling you this is just to show readers who maybe haven't printed before or who are struggling that, despite a reasonable amount of experience printing, I can still spend a few hours in a darkroom and produce prints that make me wonder why I bothered.

This print is OK from a technical viewpoint. The problem is that I really, really
liked it when I took it on the Leica, scanned it and posted it a few years ago. Now
that I've printed it, I'm a bit "meh" about it

What the hell was I thinking of with this one? I must
have had some idea of the closed and heavily-shadowed door
barring entry when I clicked the shutter but now that I've
printed it I'm at a loss to figure out why I took it.

There's a decent night shot in here somewhere but I couldn't
find it for this print. There's some detail in the deepest shadows
but I reckon it would need a hard grade to bring it out. That means
a good bit of burning in for the highlights. Split grading?

I've now had five sessions in my new darkroom and the latest, after four fairly successful ones, was a waste of time and money. There have always been times when I really want to do some printing and times when I think I really ought to do some printing. Guess which ones are more successful? The latest was one of the latter. Friday was the only day I could really get into the darkroom although I didn't particularly feel in the mood, to be honest. I'd just got things set up and was making sure the dogs were OK before I disappeared into the dark when my brother popped by for a blether*.

An hour-and-a-half later, after the only two true conservatives left in Scotland had righted the world's problems, I was back at the coal face with a couple of hours left before I had to pick Cath up from work. Well, one decidedly average print followed another until I got fed up and packed it in. I left everything in place when collecting Cath from work with the intention of resuming after tea (this sounds more like cricket than photography) but I needn't have bothered because the calories did nothing to warm up my printing skills.

So what was the problem? It was basically the fact that I couldn't get a print to the finished stage or to the stage immediately before when I know then what I have to do to achieve the finished print. The process of getting a print that I can "sign off" on takes a little time. It's very rare for me to go into the darkroom and emerge with the finished article in one take and it's always been like that. Two or three test strips usually build up to the work print and after that I normally call a halt on that particular negative for the day and pop another in the enlarger.

The same process then continues - test strips to works prints - until I have three or four prints in the wash. Once they're dried and flattened I'll look at them at my leisure, live with them for a few days to a week or so and then decide what needs to be done to get a finished print. This is all largely in theory because what usually happens is that new negatives appear on the scene and I'm so eager to see what they're like that I start printing them instead of finishing off the earlier work prints. That's why I have comparatively few finished prints to show but quite a lot of work prints. It was one of the reasons that I benefited from being a member of Dundee Photographic Society early this century (how weird does that sound?) where the need to produce my best work for competitions forced me to concentrate on finishing one thing at a time. Actually, the number of work prints I had lying around has diminished but only because I threw most of them out when moving house a couple of years ago.

Anyway, back to the less than satisfying darkroom session. I was saying that I don't often get a finished print at the first attempt but aim for a print that is almost there but which needs just a tweak or two to be the complete article. On this occasion, I couldn't even get to that stage. The four or five prints I made - a few are above - did little more than give me an idea of what's on the negatives and some ideas of how to proceed next time around. I suppose they were of some use from that point of view. But fear not new printers or struggling oldies as we're not talking about advanced calculus or even retarded calculus here. If you're new to this game or, like me, a bit rusty then be assured that constant and earnest effort will see you back on the right road. At least, that's what blog contributor David M and Phil Rogers keep telling me.

Don't be discouraged if it's not going well for you as we've all been there. I've no doubt I'll be there again even though printing is beginning to feel natural once more. Just take a step back, study your prints and try to work out what's wrong with them and what needs to be done to put it right. Write down the answers for each negative and go back with a plan. Yes, it's a creative process but that doesn't mean that you should exclude logic. Just about everything bends to rational thought in the end although socialism is doing its best to hold out.

On a different but related subject, I figured out what was causing the lengthy exposure times on the Philips enlarger that I reported on a few weeks ago. Prompted by reader Paul Giverin in the comments, I thought I'd better have a look in the lamp house in case one of the three halogen bulbs wasn't working and, sure enough, that's where the problem was.

The £25 including postage to replace it was an unwelcome shock, though, and Paul hasn't yet stepped up and offered to pay for it although, in some real sense, it is his fault. Still, it got me thinking that if I could knock out a few decent prints as I did on the Philips during my first session when using just two of the three bulbs and not even being aware of it, then just how good might I be with a fully functioning enlarger? The world's my lobster, as someone once said.

* Scots for blather


DavidM said...

"Constant effort" eh? .. and Ernest? Not me. A bit of thinking, perhaps.
It helps to disown your prints and look at them as if they were made by someone else, shall we say Jeremy Corbyn. I mean to say, as if they were not your own treasured children.
The first print illustrates a problem that only Leica owners see to have. Somehow, mere possession of the magical instrument confers a golden all-seeing eye on the owner. At least, that's my impression. Perfectly good pictures can be made with Leica equipment, of course. I've seen some. And I've seen others.
Surely, when you made the picture of the two doors you were attracted by the text on the road. We've seen your images of road makings and jolly good they were.
And I like the night scene as it is. Well... a touch of shadow detail... A moment's less haste... Perhaps a downward adjustment of the meter when setting out in werewolf mode.
I've looked at the Leica Corner picture again. It 's the sort of thing that would look good printed very large, if there's enough detail to sustain the enlargement.
(Perhaps the JC reference was prompted by having driven through Brighton yesterday, where they are having a Corbyn Festival and all the roads are jammed.)

Dave Jenkins said...

"Just about everything bends to rational thought in the end although socialism is doing its best to hold out."

Great one, Bruce, almost up there with Lady Thatcher's line about socialism being fine until you run out of other people's money.

Herman Sheephouse said...

You're beating yourself up Bruce.

Printing, in my experience (and I have a good seven years LESS experience than you) is like hill walking. You can't do it with a time constraint at the end - it needs to be finished to completion, ie prints washed and on the dryer (or a time factor built in for say, washed out paths!); and you can't do that when you know you have other things to do at the other side as it were - it puts you under the cosh and makes for a less relaxing atmosphere. And you need to approach it relaxed I think.

"Ought to" can work though - nothing drives better than thinking you're going to get a smacked bum if you don't, albeit a mental one from yourself.

With regard to picture and print choice, well it all depends what you want to do with them - are you printing them up for 'Bruce 45'? You know that major retrospective the V&A in Dundee will be holding . . . or are you printing them up for your pleasure? If it is the latter, good, because it should all be about pleasure, if it is the former, well as far as I can see you have skills enough to make damn good prints that are viewable at exhibitions.

I think for you, it isn't an exercise in getting them ready for exhibitions, it's a creative urge that walks hand in hand with the click of a shutter and the slosh of a daylight tank - like spawning salmon, it is the end process of a long long journey. And, like salmon, some prints make it and a lot don't. The failures get eaten by bears, the 'winners' get through to the end point of the spawning grounds . . get looked at a bit and then die and get filed away.
Your prints are good, so why not encourage yourself and get a few clipframes up in the admin bit of your darkroom and 'exhibit' a rolling choice of different prints to remind you that actually you CAN print and print well.

As for the process, I can only comment from my own point of view, but I almost think you may be overthinking the whole thing. Look at a contact print and get a feel for the image from that, then go for it, at a fixed grade - see what magic a couple of waving hands and mental timing can do. None of this split grade stuff. Printing can be simple AND very complicated, but at the end of the day it's all about fixing a moment caught in time onto a piece of paper and the pleasure you get from that until the next negative comes along.

Good luck. You can print well. Stop over-thinking it and just go for it.

Oh and sage (??) advice for beginning printers?
You'll make a lot of mistakes, a lot of shit prints and spend a fair bit of money, but the pleasure at holding a real print that you want to keep from a real photograph you have made is like nothing else. Be meticulous and make as many notes about everything as you need to make and read them and learn from them.
Don't over-complicate things and don't think you have to go the split grade route - printing is essentially SIMPLE, like playing an instrument - you can get an enormous amount of satisfaction from playing Chopsticks and you can get the same from playing some Rachmaninov - it all comes down to your skill levels and practice.
And, just like playing a musical instrument, PRINTING SHOULD BE FUN - enjoy it - the smelly fingers and the hours spent in the dark with only concentration and yourself; the duff prints and the ones you love and other people love too. Take pleasure in the knowledge of the fact that you are actually completing a historical process that a lot of people start and VERY FEW finish.
You're making a photograph.

Bruce Robbins said...

Great comment, Phil.

Herman Sheephouse said...

Nae bother Jimmy - it was longer than that too, but apparently I am only allowed 1400-odd characters . . .

There's an awful lot of the 'Dark Arts Of Darkroom Wizardry' out there though with people swooping out of darkrooms in capes and trying to baffle newcomers which, let's be frank is the last thing traditional wet photography needs!
Yes you can go really deep in sensitometry and chemistry if you want, that's the whole beautym but it's as simple or as complex as you want it to be - rather like playing a piano.
You can split the proverbial atom is you so wish, but just 14 seconds at f 11 and some waving around can yield a print you're proud to stick on your wall!

Herman Sheephouse said...

And here's the bit that got chopped from the original post:

With regard to picture and print choice, well it all depends what you want to do with them - are you printing them up for 'Bruce 45'? You know that major retrospective the V&A in Dundee will be holding . . . or are you printing them up for your pleasure? If it is the latter, good, because it should all be about pleasure, if it is the former, well as far as I can see you have skills enough to make damn good prints that are viewable at exhibitions.

Point in fact, the Don McCullin at Gracefield Arts Centre in Dumfries. Firstly it was a real pleasure and privilege to see such great photographs close up. The prints weren't printed by him, but they were mounted very well and looked good, except . .. they had been spotted a bit, but I found myself finding little bits that should have been spotted and hadn't been. Steve Mulligan had an excellent tip on spotting which boiled down to spotting shouldn't only be done on blemishes, but areas like stray leaves too, which distract the eye from the overall scene. There were a few of those and few major hairies that really should have been spotted and spotted as it were. But you could have printed the whole exhibition (easily I reckon) as could anyone from FADU.
It definitely wasn't like The Presence of God which I felt at the major Ansel in Edinburgh a few years back, but then again how much of my enjoyment at seeing an iconic image is imbued into going to an exhibition like that - I wasn't going to stand there and say 'Nah, he should have used Grade 3 and burned in that corner a bit more', was I?

So, what is your intent with your prints? You need to ask yourself that.<<

DavidM said...

Very sound comments Flight-Lieutenant Baakennel.
{Spell-check gave me LIGHT-Lieutenant which I really like.}
Well then Light-Captain, some excellent comments.
I think Bruce has more than personal pleasure in his mind and less than storming the V&A. A leg in both camps, when he shares his work here.

MartyNL said...

I had a torrid time in my darkroom last weekend. Several hours and four 20x16" sheets the lighter - I had nothing to show for it. Fortunately it doesn't happen very often and I'll be going back in again this weekend determined to come out with just one decent print that I'd be proud to hang on my wall.

I like your prints Bruce but as printers we tend to be our worst critics.

DavidM said...

I suppose we should be our own worst critics. The unexamined print... as Socrates said.
I remember staying up all night to get a print right and using up an entire box of 20"x16". When I eventually woke up, I couldn't remember which was the good one. A lesson learned, but I'm blowed if I remember what it was.
My suggestion is that the most common cause of printing problems is starting off at too high a grade, and then trying to rectify the print by elaborate schemes of dodging and burning with all the fiddle-faddle of different grades thrown in. No wonder we despair at times. A brighter light over the fixer tray helps, but this may be a personal foible.
All this assumes a reasonable sort of neg. Obviously there are times when all hands and grades are needed at the pumps.