It’s a Fine Line; But a Mile Wide

Posted on July 31, 2011


First, I have to credit Rhonda Kelly with that line. Definitely the word-wittiest person I ever met. She also once said “Honesty, it’s the next best policy.” Since that girl won’t write, it’s my lifelong mission to steal all of her good lines and use them to make people think I’m as clever as she is.

On another side note, I had a record 70 visits on one day after my last post. Minus 50 for me fixing typos and another 15 for admiring my own work, and it was still a record day, so thanks!

The Great Paper Chase

My negatives have been getting pretty good and I thought I would take one of the better ones into the darkroom and print it for my friend Peter for letting me take pictures in his garden. No, problem I figured, it’s incredibly luminous and practically a  straight print (needing no dodging or burning). Since it was so straight forward, I decided, what the heck, let’s run some different papers through it and see how they come out.

Normally I print everything on Oriental Seagull Fiber Gloss. Fiber paper is typically considered “archival” and Oriental is pretty classic. Barnbaum uses it. When I did my first show, a miniature show of 4″ x 6″ prints, I couldn’t get Seagull in that size, so I used Ilford RC Pearl. RC paper develops a lot faster, taking about half the working time in the darkroom, which turned out to be really handy seeing as I made over 750 prints in one month for that show. Five-fifteen prints to dial a negative in, then ten prints of each “keeper” image as identical as I could make them to get five final prints of my 50 favorite images.

From those prints I had my first commission, as 16 ” x 20″ version of a frozen waterfall shot.

Queechee Gorge Winter 2007

So that is a scan of the negative, not one of my best, under-exposed and over-developed as so many of them are. A brooding shot that screams about the cold and unremitting forces of nature. However, on Ilford, a much less contrasty paper than the Oriental I’m used to using, it looks like this. (Okay, so not quite the same negative, but the same idea.)

The Print on Ilford RC

This print is much more luminous and, to me, is more powerful and exuberant. This is the essence of B&W’s enduring attraction – how the original scene can be subjectively manipulated to communicate the photographer’s intent.  For me, I just wanted the snow white, but in the end I also think it makes a better print. I’d be curious if anybody felt differently. And if you do, I have a stack of them in 16″x20″ lying around.

The point is, I was not able to duplicate the Ilford print on Oriental. I thought I wanted contrast, but I’m beginning to feel that contrast is the enemy of luminosity. So, after much frustration, in the end, I bought Ilford, snapped out a couple of prints and called it good, although with much unrest in my soul.

No Such Thing as a Five Minute Job

That quote is from my dad, actually, and any time anything actually does take five minutes, I feel like calling him up and telling him about it.  Suffice it to say, I will not be calling him about this one.

At any rate, with undiminished hubris I decided that such a “simple” shot could easily be printed merely by doing a test print, getting the timing right, and printing the final print. I determined long ago that giving somebody “art” is kind of an imposition. What if they don’t like it, aren’t impressed with your efforts, have different tastes, you break up, or it just plain clashes with Bellevue chic? The corollary to that is: The imposition is directly proportional to the size of the art. In other words, give little art, it will hurt less if they throw it out. Or to quote R again, “Anything that can be done, can be over done.” (Of course her corollary is: “And should.” What do you want from a woman who once held an unofficial world record drag racing club cab 4×4 pickup trucks?)

That’s a long way of saying I decided to print this as an 8″ x10″ print. Minimal imposition, and it lowers the efforts in the darkroom. One thing about being a film photographer is that you collect a lot of stuff that is no longer useful to other people, so I have quite the stock of paper. Some from the darkroom I originally bought, some from previous experiments, some from friends and acquaintances. To be honest, I have no idea where I got some of this paper. Anyway, I was hanging out with my friend Beth, drinking some wine and I figured we could knock this out in an hour or so. And, we did. I should say we made many good prints in that time, but we were so overwhelmed, well maybe just whelmed, by the data we collected that we couldn’t even come close to deciding on which paper to use for the final print.

Thinking Board

Even from here, just look at the difference in prints which were printed to relatively the same density! Times like this, I’ve learned to let the prints rest over night and come back the next day, rather than kill myself in the darkroom. We were out of wine anyway.

In this photo, I’ve arranged the prints on my drying board. The top row is Arista, a paper which it turns out I love like a teenage girl loves Justin Bieber, but which has been out of production for years. Followed by Kentmere, a paper I once thought too fast to control in the darkroom. (Turns out you can consider paper to have “speeds” just like film does, interestingly, this means it will make great paper negatives, something that just occurred to me last night.) Third row is Ilford RC and Fiber. Last row is my standby Oriental.

Columns go 2, 2.5, 3, and 4 seconds, except for the Oriental which took 5 seconds just to get the base print.

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I’m trying to think of some way to show you how these vary online here. I’d just watch that slide show for a bit with soft eyes and see how much the images change. Maybe Rob Howard can tell me how to get all of those trash images out of there?

What we did was arrange them on the dry-down board and focus on one particular area of detail, a junction of leaves and stems. The original plant is variegated, the lighter parts being bright green and the darker parts being an intense purple. I want this “varietal” character to stand out in my print just as I would in a glass of wine. It’s kind of cool how it almost renders as a negative, isn’t it?

Comparing areas of detail

From top to bottom, a few things to notice. I had to develop the Oriental 2x as long as the others to get the same tonality.  In order of contrast the Ilford is clearly the least contrasty, followed by the Oriental (surprise!), Kentmere, and finally the Arista which is very contrasty. To see this look closely at the main stem of the plant, and the stems of the leaves themselves. There is a huge difference here, and this is all with the same neutral filtration and no dodging or burning. It might not be quite as apparent digitally, but let your eyes go soft and watch the slide show or look at the all up gallery below. But we noticed something more interesting that that even, and that is that the lower the contrast of the print the more luminous the print is.

Huh. Nobody ever told me that before, but it does make sense. Compare the Ilford to the Arrista. Quite a difference.

Ilford fern, low contrast

Arista, high contrast

The Ilford has this almost ethereal, snowflake quality that I had not previsualized but is quite stunning on its own. It’s even enhanced a little by the very shallow depth of  field.  The Arista has the variegated contrast that lead me to take that shot in the first place.  Now, I could probably move all of these prints towards each other with filtration in the dark room, but the different papers might respond differently.

For instance, compare the highlight detail, right down the center of the leaves. It turns out that the more contrasty papers seem to hold more highlight detail, and that to me is counter-intuitive. Even the bokeh in the upper left corner is completely different. I want to say it’s because those papers have longer tonal range. But then why  is that the lower contrast paper holds more shadow detail, from what little shadow there is here?

Who Cares?

Well, I do. Because ultimately if you want to previsualize stuff, you need to understand your tools and be able to predict how the process affects the product. It’s also a matter of my evolving style. Can I get luminosity, clearly separated highlights, shadow detail, and contrast all in the same print? What are the controls to do that? I’ve notice that both Jahnavi Barnes and Bruce Barnbaum print quite dark to get all of their shadow detail. What does this do to the mood of the piece?

What made it more confusing for us last night was, say you like the lower contrast print at the same tonal range. What if you go even more high key? The ethereal quality is out of this world in a way I never foresaw. It looks like frost on a window pane, doesn’t it?

Kentmere 2 seconds, the very highest key shot

Or what about an even darker print, where the leaves come out more in the mid tones and less in the highlights, as I originally imagined the shot?

My original previsualization

This is much closer to what I was thinking when I originally took the photo.  Yet the other one’s icy stare keeps seducing me away from my best intentions. There is a great story in 40  Photographs where a critic thought one of Ansel’s shows was printed too dark. Ansel excoriated the man for deigning to judge his work. Years later when he went back to that portfolio for a revival he thought “What was I thinking! All of those dark pictures blown up four feet tall!”

Final Touches

And of course there are no straight prints.  As I was working out the main issues of paper and contrast it became clear to me that two areas of the print would require burning. The upper right and lower left corners had light spots that draw the eye off the page in annoying ways. Especially that bit in the lower left. That is one of those things, such a small picture, you would think I would’ve noticed it. Likewise with that bit of rectilinear highlight in the lower right. You can see in the print on the left I’ve fixed the stuff on the right by cropping and burning. I’ll do the rest when I finalize my approach.

No straight prints

Well, after spending 24 hours on this five-minute project, I think I have finalized my approach.  I’ll bring this over to Peter’s house and drink his excellent Irish whisky while he makes up his mind. That should motivate him to do it quickly.

I would still like to hear what you think, though. And as always, I have stacks of prints available for the asking.