Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Two Steps Backward

It may seem odd, given the fact that silver gelatin photographic technology is only, oh, say, 150 years old, that I would be experimenting with this form of image making in the 21st century.

Luditte? Perhaps. I've been called worse.

While most reasonable folks are making pretty pictures with ones and zeros, or at least using store-bought film in the little yellow or green boxes, I've found myself purposefully exploring the arcane corners of photography. For one, I try to avoid using a lens on my cameras. Just a pinhole. And if I have to use glass, it's something originally non-photographic, like a magnifying glass or an optical part borrowed from a binocular. Too, I've found using print paper works better as film in my homemade cameras than does film itself.

I had an experience just this last week that drove home for me the simple lesson that I often forget: follow your heart, do what works best for you.

I've worked the last few years to fine-tune a process of using B & W print paper as an in-camera film, and this has started to pay off in terms of images that exhibit a very film-like tonal range, with the processing convenience of orthochromatic paper. Producing finished prints is a relatively simple task of contact printing the paper negative, face-to-face with the print paper; yielding images of fine detail and delicate tones.

But, no; I had to go off and decide that I would start shooting sheet film, in order to enlarge these images in the darkroom. And I had to choose a type of sheet film notoriously difficult for achieving a good tonal range in scenic lighting - ortho lithographic film.

So I borrowed on my experience with paper negatives and developed a technique involving preflashing the film, then a water-bath development technique following the in-camera exposure. The result is good contrast and tonal range from a film normally intended to reproduce line art in the graphic arts field.

Then it was onto the task of enlarging these negatives by projection onto fine art print paper. This is where I was, once again, reminded of the joy that comes with enlarging all the dust and lint spots on the film and negative holder of the enlarger. In short, it was a bust. My darkroom facilities lack the cleanliness required for quality projection enlargement. And the bigger the negative is to begin with, the more chance that there will be stray debris on the optical surfaces.

Which is another good reminder of why I love contact printing from paper negatives: there're only two optical surfaces requiring cleanliness: the emulsion sides of the negative and print. Plus, when contact printing there is no optical enlargement of whatever dust remains on these surfaces. Contrast this with using a glass negative carrier with film, which has 6 optical surfaces needing to be kept clean - 4 of the glass negative carrier and 2 of the film negative itself.

Then I asked a crucial question: why do we make prints on a media - photo paper - that is problematic as far as permanence, and then have to jump through hoops to process it to archival standards? The film base itself - polyester film - can last upwards of 500 years. Why can't the print?

So I decided to mate my personal photographic strength - paper negatives, with a film-based printing technique. The result is a process that creates in-camera negatives on photo paper, and then contact prints these to sheet film. When properly exposed and developed, the positive film transparencies are then mounted in contact against a backing of acid-free white paper. This results in a sandwich of film and support paper that yields a very good quality print-like display. And if the backing paper should fade or show signs of deterioration, it can be easily replaced. Also, various paper textures and colors can be used to give a selection of tonal effects to the image's highlights. This two-layer display technique works by allowing the image's shadow detail, as represented by the dense parts of the film positive, to stand as-is, but the image's highlights are represented by light transmitted through the clear parts of the film positive and reflected off the white backing paper.

I have found it a valuable experience to gain an intimate knowledge of the materials of the craft, and then to challenge the usual assumptions concerning how these methods, materials and techniques are used in crafting a finished photographic print. In this case, the result of this process has been the use of the paper silver gelatin negative as an intermediary to the completion of the photographic image using film-based media.

Unconventional? Perhaps. But immensely rewarding, seeing the results of using conventional materials in an entirely fresh way, yielding new insights into the long-existing genre of silver gelatin photography.~


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