Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Physical and the Transcendent

I’ve returned to the darkroom, after a period of inactivity, with the intent of crafting fine silver gelatin, fiber-based contact prints from pinhole camera paper negatives.

Having worked in various silver-based photographic formats and media, I seem to continually return to that specific combination of materials that seem to deliver the clearest translation of my creative intent, with the most consistent results.

In my experience, the paper negative yields a raw image the most readily of any of the traditional, silver-based media. It requires only dim red lighting for its safe handling. It shows little or no dust, the bane of the photo-traditionalist. It possesses a built-in diffusion filter for the contact printing of its negative image: the paper backing itself. Its post-camera processing can be visually monitored real time, and adjusted in situ, to produce an optimal negative image.

Yet, I have found that for the paper negative to function as an optimal image-collecting medium it requires a peculiarly specialized process regimen. Because of its slight photographic sensitivity, a faint pre-exposure of light must be given, in order to raise its sensitivity to the faint shadow details in the scene. This is found to be especially important when used with pinhole cameras, where the intensity of light striking the paper from the scene’s shadow areas can be very low.

It is also important to control the negative’s contrast by the use of graded papers, which possess a predetermined contrast to daylight exposures. So-called multi-contrast papers have a high-contrast emulsion that is activated by the predominately blue lighting of daylight exposures, resulting in negatives impossible to print.

Paper negatives are spectrally sensitive to blue, or blue-green, light, hence their tonal response to scenic landscapes is very reminiscent of the early silver emulsion technology of the 19th century. Blue skies appear almost paper-white in the final print. Earth tones, and the brown tones of people of ethnic descent, appear darker than they would otherwise.

I have found a favorite companion to the paper negative in the warm tone, fiber-based silver gelatin contact print. The process of crafting such a finished print from a paper negative involves a careful application of hard-won lessons, gleaned from years of struggle with these materials. Consistency in process and materials, care in the control of the exposure and development steps involved, are all-crucial to the success of the endeavor. The paper negative has to retain both shadow and highlight details, as judged by viewing backlit through its paper base. This is achieved by a combination of adequate pre-exposure, careful in-camera scene exposure, and slow, controlled development. The contact print similarly must be carefully exposed and sufficiently developed, using an adequate volume of dilute paper chemistry, whose development time is constantly adjusted to yield a finished print that, when selenium toned and dried, retains both shadow and highlight detail.

The step of selenium toning the print not only improves the archival properties of the silver emulsion, but is calibrated to cause a partial tonal shift in the image; one that tints the shadows with a slight ruddy complexion, while retaining the paper’s native greenish tint in the lighter areas; this also has the effect of increasing the contrast between the shadows and midtones.

Finally, the dry-down phenomenon peculiar to fiber-based paper media is also accounted for in the process, such that the finished print retains sufficient shadow detail.

Interestingly, the quality of the camera’s optical system has a large effect on the type of processing the materials require. A regimen of paper negative exposure and development that would yield a contrast range impossible to print from a pinhole camera can look beautiful when exposed by a narrow depth-of-focus, refractive optical system like a single element lens operating wide open. The soft bokeh and off-axis aberrations of such improvised optics serves to soften the otherwise excessive contrast, to produce a negative whose tonal range mates well with the fiber-based contact print.

Having spent considerable time working with such improvised refractive optics, I find the narrowly focused images intrinsic to these kinds of lens systems possess a unique photographic quality, one that deserves to be considered as a genre totally different from the pinhole aesthetic, and unique unto itself.

There is found to be a fascinating and complimentary set of photographic qualities to the resulting set of pinhole-generated and lens-generated prints. The pinhole sees the scene as a flat field of abstract shapes, lines and tones; flattening the perspective with mathematical certainty. This is complimented by the deeply expanded, narrowly focused image provided by crude refractive optics operating wide open. Whereas the pinhole renders elements throughout the scene as a two-dimensional projection of consistent sharpness, the spyglass isolates subject elements in the center of the field, while diffusing and softening the periphery, near and far grounds into swirls and zones of bokeh-clouds and dream-like fog.

These two optical processes yield images that possess entirely different and unique qualities, whose interest continues to dominate my personal photographic vision. I find myself immersed within the boundary zone where art and craft are inseparable, a dialog between physical materials and transcendent vision.


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