Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The Silver Way

"Negative/Positive Crabgrass"; a 4"x5" paper negative rephotographed using a Lumix G1 and the tones inverted.

(Note: This continues a theme of revisiting silver gelatin black & white photography, after an extended hiatus in The Digital Way.)

Sunday, in a fit of supreme boredom (why does it seem to take some extreme emotional fit to break oneself out of the trance-like miasma of boredom?) I dusted off a few of the implements of my silver gelatin, black & white (actually a continuous spectrum of gray) photography.

Just for the sake of the uninformed, I’ll add that at the beginning of twenty-oh-nine I began using a Lumix G1 camera for the satisfaction of my creative urges, and since, having begun the walk of The Digital Way, left my silver gelatin apparatuses to founder amidst a sea of disuse.

The alchemic silver gelatin process that I’ve come to favor I developed (no pun intended) over a period of years to include the use of red-light-insensitive black & white photo paper as an in-camera, large format, sheet film (less expensive and easier to process than film itself); pre-exposed with a faint, even dose of light (to improve the tonal range); and exposed in an old WWII-era Speed Graphic press camera (think Weegee) using a cobbled-together lens improvised from a pair of binoculars (well, one binocular; a pair would require either four arms, or a roll of duct tape, or both; and don’t get me started on the phrase “a pair of scissors”), using waterhouse stops (mere pieces of black card with holes of various sizes) placed behind the lens to control the diameter of the aperture. Due to the “slowness” of the photo-paper film, if the lens is stopped down to F/50 or so (a 3mm aperture on a 150mm focal length lens) it permits exposure times well over a second under indoor illumination, able to be timed handheld using the lens cap as a shutter (for accurate exposure using a hand-operated lens cap the times must be adequately long for good repeatability). For the requirements of shorter exposure times in brighter light, the rear curtain shutter of the Speed Graphic can be employed instead.

The resulting paper negative, after development, can either be scanned and Photoshopped into a positive, finished image, or contact printed in the darkroom onto fine, gallery-quality paper. The scanning process yields a graphic image file which could, theoretically, be printed to almost any size desired, limited only by the resolution of the scanner itself, whereas the contact print is limited in size to that of the original in-camera negative. This is the primary trade-off with the process: the ultimate print quality – the contact print (the term “quality” being entirely subjective, it being generally understood that the contact print on fiber-based silver gelatin paper is the gold standard by which all other photo printing methods are measured) – is spatially limited in size in a 1:1 ratio with the negative size; whereas the scanned negative can be printed, with much less quality, to almost any size. Choose your poison carefully.

The result is that, were one to desire a larger print size of excellent, contact print quality, it would necessitate a larger sized negative, implying the use of a larger camera system. I’ve recently been in the process of acquiring the implements of such a larger system, having just acquired a set of 8”x10” sheet film holders. I have several salvaged single-element large diameter lenses of sufficient focal length to work as the objective lens of an 8”x10” camera, but the resulting wide-open apertures will necessitate a large, fast mechanical shutter be employed to time the sub-second exposure times. This implies either the acquisition of some generic large-format-compatible leaf shutter, or the design and manufacture of my own, hand-built mechanical shutter.

The alternative would be to permanently stop down the lens to a small enough aperture such that the hand operated lens cap shutter can be used (for longer-than-one-second exposures), even in bright daylight – a fixed focus, “hyperfocal” box camera – mechanically much simpler to build, but without the ability to render narrow depth-of-focus (selective focus) effects (which are useful for the making of portraits and other artsy still-lifes). So, why all this folderol around making photographs; why not just break out the Lumix G1 and snap away? Well, the answer is both simple and complex. The process of going from snapping a scene with the digicam to getting a finished print of adequate quality – for me – is more convoluted than doing it myself onto silver gelatin, since I don’t own – refuse to own – a digi-printer of sufficient quality for black & white images, I must farm out the printing to a local lab. This less-than-adequate answer has, embedded within it, the seeds of another reason: the “doing it myself”. There’s an internally satisfying sensation, which I’ve yet to experience with the Digital Way, of pulling a fine print out of a developer tray.

There’s also a third reason: cost. Consider those all-too-easily-clogged inkjet cartridges; what it would cost to resupply even a lowly two-cartridge printer (delivering poor black & white image quality by comparison) costs as much or more than a one-hundred sheet box of gallery-quality, fiber-based 8”x10” silver gelatin photo paper.

The cost in going The Silver Way is convenience. Large format cameras are heavy, bulky, and ungainly. Their lenses (unless one is using adapted optics like my binocular lens, or a pinhole) are rare and often expensive. Their depth of focus is narrow. Their shutter speeds are too slow to capture elusive, fast-moving action. You can’t easily do street photography (unless you’re Weegee with a Speed Graphic and a bright flash). Their materials are slowly yet inexorably dwindling in choice and availability. Yet there is something inexplicably rewarding about the process; that, despite the obvious “advantages” and conveniences of The Digital Way the results one can achieve with The Silver Way are uniquely satisfying, the end result being a physical object – the silver gelatin print – that stands self-supported as an object of art, an artifact of an artisanal process whose roots extend back into the early period of the nineteenth century, before the automobile or the aeroplane, back to the formative years of the Industrial Revolution itself.

So, I’ve only taken one small step back onto the path of the Silver Way. The direction ahead is uncertainty and lack of faith in my own resolve and talent, despite having spent years dabbling at this. Yet the allure of The Silver Way is inexplicable yet real. I must follow my heart.

Postscript: While I was keyboarding this fountain pen-written piece into my computer I was listening to NPR radio; the show was talking about the resurgence of interest in craft, and the merging of craft and art (or, at least, the blurring of the lines of distinction between the two -- something I've written about at length in the past) whereby it was mentioned that there's a physiological factor to the enjoyment of craft, the release of endorphins; that, decades ago, women with psychological problems often found real comfort in knitting, the repetitive motion of which helped in the release of these hormones. This may help to explain the real sense of pleasure people like me find in the mechanics of craft versus the newer imaging methods, which seem to lack a tangible sense of pleasure. Not that I'm an anti-technologist (I work in the world's largest semiconductor factory) but marketers of the new technology would do well in taking to heart these studies, how to best take advantage of the features unique to the new technology while simultaneously permitting the pleasure-inducing release of endorphins in the operation of the technology. - Joe


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