Traditional B&W Photography

As an artist my ultimate challenge is to create a piece of art that goes above and beyond a mere record or snapshot, and excites something in the viewer. What triggers this reaction in the viewer can vary; a lyrical tone, fascinating shape or wonderful texture. Sometimes it triggers a memory in the viewer which can bring back a multi-sensory experience. This is the goal of a fine art, or expressive print. Mastering the tools and techniques, I feel, is vital to success (learning the language so to speak) Once mastered that language can be used to convey a story to the viewer. While it is true that the techniques used are secondary to that story, I think that some viewers will be interested in them nonetheless so they are presented here.

All of the photographs on this site were made using a KB Canham DLC45, 4×5 inch view camera. My lens kit consists of Schneider 210mm, 90mm, and 58mm lenses. This has been my primary kit for over ten years now, with no end in sight. The films used were Kodak Tmax-100, Tmax-400 and Tri-X 320 developed in Kodak TMax RS developer or HC-110 in a Jobo Expert Drum. All scenes have been photographed with natural light which presents a major challenge in many of these buildings as the window light only penetrates so far before total darkness takes over. Most of the exposures here are two to ten minutes in length.

All of the prints are enlarged in the traditional darkroom onto Ilford Multigrade Warmtone Glossy gelatin silver paper using a highly customized Beseler 45 enlarger and Nikon enlarging lens. Each is hand processed in Kodak Dektol, Photographer’s Formulary TF-4, Ilford Selenium toner and archivally washed. Each print is dry mounted on archival mount board with a hand cut overmat.

The darkroom printing process is where a large part of my creative input takes place. I begin by making a contact print of every technically acceptable negative in order to see the positive image and begin the editing process. My goal is to narrow down the selection to only my best seen negatives. The rejection rate can be as high as 90%, I am looking for that “otherness” that transcends a record of the scene to become something more, an expressive print that will speak to the viewer and have presence when displayed on the wall.

Once I narrow down the list I begin to explore how to best bring out the feeling in the print. Hours are spent in the darkroom exploring the negative, and coaxing every nuance from the scene. The majority of the prints in Industria begin with an “unsharp mask” which subtly brings out the textures of the scene. Many of the prints require a contrast reduction mask (CRM) to brighten the dark areas so often found in these industrial scenes. Often a shadow contrast increase mask (SCIM) is made to increase the contrast of the darker areas which have a tendency to drop off to textureless black without careful attention. All of these masks are created in the darkroom on special masking film that was used by the pre-press industry before the age of electronic desktop publishing. The modern films I use do a great job capturing the wide latitude of tones in these locations. I rely on my darkroom tools to bring that range of light back in line with what can be printed on paper, rather than using a specific application of the “Zone System”. Severely retracted development required to capture the range of zones kills the local contrast that I find vital for these scenes in particular. For me the difference between a good print and a great print is extremely subtle. I will expose a number of variations and only determine which one will be kept after the print has been dried and displayed on my sample wall.

I have used these traditional techniques all of my photographic life. While there are fewer choices in materials today than I had in the 1990s, the current products by Kodak and Ilford are some of the best materials I have ever used. While I am well aware of the current digital tools, my hope is to continue the tradition of silver halide photography, and make the best art this medium is capable of.

View my blog posts related to the technical side of traditional photography.

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