Taking up the opportunity of lockdown to do some photography, in a house full of film cameras (and, happily, quite a lot of B&W chemistry), has taken me back to appreciate the technical mastery of the 8×10 greats like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. I’ve so far managed 2 compositions over the last few weeks, with two exposures for each.
Both have been successful in their different ways, I feel. The second of the two of these is one I especially enjoy, made yesterday.
I used two different lenses for these, and took two different approaches.
With the apple, the first subject, I went full-Weston and chose a tiny aperture and a long exposure time. For so small a subject (by 8×10 standards) I used my (usually) super-wide Nikkor-SW 150. The difficulty with this is the maximum open aperture of f/8, which makes macro work very difficult since the ground glass is so dark. For the slightly larger flower, and the setup for it that I chose, my Nikkor-W 300 was the obvious choice. Here I made wide-open exposures, and introduced some rear tilt forwards to slightly alter the focus plane some more. For this second image I worked with and without a Lee 23A light red filter, and selected the exposure with the filter because of the more even tone of the flower petals (otherwise too dark in the corners: the Clematis flower is very magenta pink).
Lockdown Apple (after Edward Weston)
29th March 2020 3:15pm
Nikkor-SW 150 f/8
ilford FP4+ 8×10
430mm bellows extension
33 minutes @ f/64
Stearman SP810 tray, Pyrocat HD 2:2:100, 16’, 21ºC
Acetic acid stop, TF-4 Fix, Hypoclear, wash, Ilfotol rinse
“It has been suggested that I am a cannibal to eat my models after a masterpiece. But I rather like the idea that they become a part of me, enrich my blood as well as my vision.” Edward Weston
22nd April 2020 11:45am
Nikkor-W 300 f/5.6
Ilford FP4+ 8×10
500mm bellows extension
Small amount of rear tilt forwards
Lee 23A light red filter
11 seconds @ f/5.6
Stearman SP810 tray, Pyrocat HD 2:2:100, 12’, 21ºC
Acetic acid stop, TF-4 Fix, Hypoclear, wash, Ilfotol rinse
I finally took the plunge this week and made my first alternative process prints from 8×10 negatives. It has taken me a year of reading and researching, and purchasing of equipment, to get me to this stage. That I’ve had about a 50% success rate with my prints thus far is I think pretty good; the best are stunning!
Here are a few tips on equipment and processes that I’ve picked up along the way. NB I’m UK-based, have no darkroom or inkjet printer, and am doing this at home. So certain chemicals and therefore processes are off-limits; as is making digital negatives – which is of course cheating anyway!!!
Mindset and Reading: These are the two most important things!
Mindset: if you just want to have a go because it’s interesting and different, then I would say don’t. It’s a waste of time, effort, and expense unless you actually want to do really think about why you’re doing it. For me, this is all part and parcel of buying the 8×10 equipment at all – a substantial outlay compared with the cost of even the beautiful Lotus 12×14 printing frame I’ve bought recently. Yes, if you’re really into black and white photography and want to really push the look and tone of your prints then I would consider it, but I would also say that you should think about why you want to do this. In particular, I would stress the importance of working around a project that you come up with or discover.
I admit that I got into it for both reasons, but had to quest a bit for a project that would work. It’s very easy (relatively) to fall into the trap of cliché photography with 8×10 alt pro: pictures of old buildings, for example, the feel of which is of course enhanced by a 19th-century process but has little by way of originality. This is where my “Acontius Project” has stepped in: 8×10 (and some 120) images of graffiti on trees has made me re-think my attitude towards photographing trees and woodland quite markedly. I’m gently weaning myself off 5×4 Velvia imagery because I’m really searching for a little more creativity with my image-making: the hand-crafted look, not simply the vision and technical perfection required to shoot a great 5×4 landscape image on Velvia. The “Acontius Project” allows me to work locally and think about what I’m trying to convey by a ‘pastoral’ feel to the images of trees that I make. Being able to control the exposure effect completely both in film (for which I would strongly recommend FP4+ developed in Pyrocat HD) and printing makes this brilliantly creative too. I can scan the sheets of film as well and play around with them on computer for posting on social media online, but the achievement of a tactile print in the hand is wonderful.
I would say that it is essential if you’re at all interested in alternative process prints to buy the magnum opus on the subject, Christopher James’s The Book of Alternative Photographic Processes. This is written in a very laid back almost hippy-ish style by an American with a ton of experience, and is quite brilliant once you understand that the style is part of the point. Creative mastery is of course important because you can try to control the response of light and chemistry for your own stylistic effect (cf. Sally Mann), but in order to do this you have to be laid back and thick-skinned. This is NOTHING like printing from a computer, let me tell you!
The second book I have is Christina Anderson’s book on Cyanotype. It’s more detailed – and more fussy – than the James book but has more detail on the process and how to control it, so is useful.
Finally, online resources are also very important. Reading up on others’ practices and results is very useful indeed; raiding e.g. flickr for people’s technical notes is a good place to start. NB I’m not doing platinum/palladium yet. Given the cost of chemistry involved, I think I’d want to go on a dedicated workshop for this before trying it myself.
The two processes I’ve started with are cyanotype and argyrotype. Other than I think salt printing and possibly albumen printing (and also platinum/palladium), these are the two processes that seem easy to start with, as you can buy premixed sensitizer so do not have to worry about particularly dangerous chemistry and powders; in any case, some processes involve chemistry that cannot be purchased for home use in the UK. Cyanotype and argyrotype nicely complementary too because you can get a pair of prints, one cool and one warm, or process negs separately and see which process they suit best. After developing nearly 20 prints, I’m heavily leaning towards argyrotype, except for one or two exceptions where I really want the effect of high-key highlights. I imagine, though, that this might very well be project-dependent.
Other than chemistry and a set of developing trays, pipettes, and pots and brushes for each process, I’m currently reliant upon sun for exposure though may be about to buy a UV lamp for more control.
Here’s my setup for printing at home, including purchase info where relevant. Argyrotype can be a little more involved but seems worth the effort. I’m using Bergger Cot 320 paper for both, which works great (using the smooth side of the paper). I store finished prints in A3 sleeves from hobbycraft (see also below for Argyrotype).
Set of 3 12×16 Paterson trays
1 pack of plastic pipettes (Hobbycraft)
1 Daler-Rowney hake brush (Hobbycraft)
1 2-litre plastic jug with gradations (pound shop)
1 set of plastic measuring spoons (pound shop)
1 glass chopping board (Sainsburys)
1 ceramic dipping bowl for pouring chemistry onto paper (Ikea shot glasses would also be good; my dipping bowls came from a Scottish pottery, handily in three different colours)
1 11-inch windscreen wiper blade (Halfords) for removing water after wash
1 pack of premixed old cyanotype chemistry (WetPlateSupplies) – 2ml of each for 8×10 print.
1 pot of citric acid (WetPlateSupplies)
litmus paper (Amazon) for setting pH of citric acid ‘developer’.
For toning (if desired: do this a day later)
Process: 5 minutes wash in 1500ml of water with ¾ tsp citric acid crystals to ~ pH3, then a further 10 mins with a change of water in tap water. Dry and then tone if wanted.
As above but also/instead
1 lemon for acidifying water.
5-litre bottles of distilled water (Halfords)
Fotospeed Argyotype chemistry
1 pot of hypo crystals (WetPlateSupplies)
1 bottle of Tween 20 (WetPlateSupplies: helps sensitiser work into paper better).
I dilute this (10 drops per 50 drops of distilled water) in the measuring cup in the Fotospeed kit and add one drop for 3ml of sensitiser per 8×10-sized print.
1 small portable (collapsible) dog kennel (Pets At Home) (!!)
with large sponge and a setup for suspending sensitized paper in a steam bath inside (a pound shop will be able to provide a range of useful items). The dog kennel thing is a bit Heath Robinson but works well: it also now doubles as a useful space for drying 8×10 negatives. The idea is that for argyrotypes you pre-humidify the paper for tonal effects. You pour boiling water on a sponge in a try inside the dog kennel, suspend the paper inside, and cover with a black binliner until ready. 5-15 minutes (or 30 minutes) seem times to go with depending on what you read where. This is something to do with the size of the molecules in the paper being affected by humidity, leading to changes in colour of the sensitizer as it reacts to UV light differently.
Expose: from 9 minutes (Fotospeed instructions); sensitised paper inside a Crystal Clear (or similar) display envelope, to protect negative/frame from humidity and keep it in the paper.
Process: 5 minutes wash in 1500ml of distilled water with squeeze of lemon juice, then a further 10 mins with a change of water in tap water.
Hypo: 4 and a bit teaspoons of hypo crystals in 1500ml tap water, constant agitation for 3 minutes.
Wash: 1 hour, 2 changes of water.
Exposure times so far: in full sun nothing short of 10 minutes has been particularly successful for either process in sunlight. Fotospeed recommends 9 minutes for its argyrotype sensitizer; Anderson recommends 23 minutes UV lamp for cyanotype developed in citric acid bath on Bergger Cot 320 paper. NB UV lamps are about four times slower than full direct sunlight?
Argyotype humidity effects: drying paper for a couple of hours, then prehumidifying for about 10 minutes produces a dark grey/brown effect with warm highlights which is attractive. Exposing paper only a few minutes after senisitizing produces a very brown result indeed. Somewhere in the middle seems good, possibly: further experimentation seems appropriate!
Argyrotype negatives also need to be more dense than cyanotypes, so I have started to shoot doubles, but this will be very much dependent on the contrast in the scene shot.
Here are some samples below, with details (just iphone snaps at present):
Acontius Project “Bob”:
Argyrotype, Pre-humidified 10mins, 27mins exposure in early morning sunlight
Acontius Project “Fraxinus in silvis pulcherrima”:
Untoned cyanotype, 18mins in early morning sunlight
Great Coxwell Barn Porch doorway:
Argyrotype, 10mins 10secs in mid-morning sunlight, freshly coated but allowed to dry, no prehumidication, full sun with some cloud
Thoughts so far on 8×10
A few thoughts I’ve been noting down in my mind on my experiences with 8×10 so far, now that I’ve had the excellent Chamonix 810V for a month or so.
Even as a now pretty experienced large-format photographer with 5×4, it was with a bit of trepidation that I set out on the 8×10 journey. There were three reasons for this – and none really to do with Gear Acquisition Syndrome (if that kicks in a black Leica M6 TTL with 35mm Summicron would fit the bill, lol!).
Reason one: curiosity – as per Winogrand, good photography tends to get you thinking about the relation between the image-making and the world, rather than simply being straightforwardly or unproblematically representational. I’ve worked with 5×4 long enough to know that the ground glass is a transformational tool, and I simply couldn’t miss the opportunity to experience this with a glass four times the size. And what would the chosen scenes, looked at and enjoyed on the glass, turn out like when processed? Had to find out.
What I’ve immediately discovered is that nothing will quite prepare you for the three-dimensionality and complexity of detail of an 8×10 sheet. What this complexity and depth does is to add mystique and life to even the most mundane-seeming of subjects. 4×5 can do similar work, but 8×10 is the full monty.
Reason two: black and white. I’ve grown up a pretty strong collection of colour images on 5×4, mostly on the superb Velvia 50 film stock. But I’ve never really given black and white a proper go. I’ve probably exposed less than a box of Delta 100 on 5×4, and have wasted a load of chemistry that has expired without use. In the space of a month, I’ve now exposed 6 sheets of FP4+ 8×10, and am using Pyrocat HD staining developer, because of its properties with UV that assist with alternative process printing, and because of its long shelf-life – I can have it sitting around for quite a while and it should be fine to use. A variety of toning options for post-processing and prints – including on the digital scans via photoshop – avoid the worry of boringly similar flat and uninspired images.
Reason three: vision. I hoped – and though this is still a work in progress – so far this is going pretty well – that 8×10 would enhance my skills and creativity as a photographer. I’m still to try out a number of things – e.g. I’ve not yet even used my 450mm lens, or tried any closeup work with bellows extension – but so far the effort required in setting up and perfecting a shot does really make you think about what you’re trying to achieve. I hope to get even more creative as I go on and have only really been doing tests with the equipment so far, but the results have been pretty great. I’m hoping to take this to the next level over the summer when I hope to try out traditional alternative process contact-printing – perhaps Cyanotype and Argyrotype first, possibly moving to Pt/Pd if I can dare/afford to do so. I have a lovely plan to make float mounted contact prints on 12×16 paper in large frames – and all with no inkjet printer in sight. The challenge here will be the eschewal of all digital post-processing controls – a comfort blanket! Will my exposure, filtration, and developing technique be up to snuff?
One obvious worry with 8×10 is basic: what a faff? Well, not really – at least coming from 5×4. My kit for 8×10 weights about the same as my Linhof 5×4 outfit, and the Chamonix camera comes in a wonderful padded field bag. I worried that a wooden camera would be less stable and precise than my Linhof Technikardan. While in some ways this is true, but not so obviously, there are positive trade-offs. With the 8×10 it’s basically impossible to even make an exposure without the controls being locked down. Standards would move, and so forth. On the Technikardan, for a camera otherwise so brilliantly designed, it’s surprisingly easy to overlook one of the locking clamps/screws and have a slightly – or seriously – unsharp result. While it’s an amazing camera, its severity at times can make a fool of you – actually, I think this is part of the compromise Linhof made in creating a hybrid monorail camera. The simplicity of the Chamonix is its great strength, in fact. It’s a tried and tested design where every control works in an intuitive way. It has a good balance between simplicity and good movements/extensions, and the size/scale of the camera is such that it’s very easy at all times to understand what is happening. The easiest comparison here is with rear tilt, I think. It’s actually quite hard to figure out how to get rear tilt to work on the TK because the little control toggles get hidden under the dark cloth and are basically in the wrong place. Not so with the big wheels on the Chamonix. Unscrew, trust the groundglass, and re-tighten: simple. Similarly with front movements (even with very heavy glass, as Nikkor SW150 and W300 attest) – this will take more practice, but I’m pretty certain that with some judicious control of the knobs on each side, it will be possible to properly control tilt and rise and fall with one hand (with the other on the loupe under the dark cloth). The bellows is great, and the velcro on the top front is very handy for controlling the bellows with tilt on wide-angle lenses – though for major rise and fall a bag bellows will be worthwhile – hopefully the one I have now ordered will arrive in the coming days.
Working with 8×10 film is a great and surprise joy. The Chamonix film holders are truly excellent, and the film is surprisingly easy to load – even as I have a Harrison Jumbo tent because I’m using BTZS tubes without a darkroom and need the extra room for these. The possibly envisaged nightmare of hairs and dust all over the film hasn’t been a problem at all. Developing with BTZS tubes is very flexible when you have a couple of sheets to develop, but with the extra steps involved with Pyrocat HD, I’ve been developing these individually rather than in pairs, which doubles the time. There are other systems for developing 8×10 but they’re either similar (e.g. using a modified Patterson Orbital print processor) or very bulky and very expensive (the Jobo professional 3000-series tanks), or require a darkroom (no chance!). I’ve now devised a kind of hybrid process whereby I spin the BTZS tubes in my Jobo water bath – there’s just enough room to do this – this saves a bit of space, and also obviously allows the water temperature to stay pretty static – important if you’ve got a number of sheets to process sequentially over an hour or two. If I could find a way of speeding this up a bit then I’d find the developing more enjoyable.
Power and depth – those negatives are a thing of beauty. During the process of being interviewed for Genius of Photography TV series that I have on DVD and have been rewatching lately, Joel Meyerowitz – famed NYC Leica street photographer – gets out his Deardorff 8×10, puts up a single 35mm slide against the ground glass, taps the ground glass, and says: ‘Spatial power: if you want spatial power… This.’ Not wrong. The sharpness, contrast, and detail in 8×10 does really strange things to the perception of landscape and subjects that nothing else I’ve ever seen can.
If you’ve tried 4×5 and enjoyed it, then 8×10 will be more of the same (in all senses).
Two more images I developed last night and scanned this morning, from Otmoor (and the surrounding area), in Oxfordshire.
Dawn among the reeds
The Secret Stillness
Developed and scanned the other two remaining sheets from my first 8×10 outing, and have the following further observations.
Image 1: Brightwell Barrow, Wittenham Clumps
A test shot, primarily: will want to return when crops are fully grown in any case.
Lens: Nikkor-SW 150 f/8
11º down angle on head from level, 1º extra front tilt, rear tilt back to vertical – equates to large amount of front fall and front tilt.
Bit of vignetting to crop out from corners in sky – not very surprising given implied movements.
1) Scanned this one at 2400ppi. Clear that, for my 15inch MacBook Pro with 16GB Ram, a Grayscale file of at least 1.5GB is too large, esp. if I then convert to RGB for toning.
Two faults that are obvious on screen, if not in detail on ground glass at x4:
f/22 is not sufficient depth of field to provide proper sharpness to tree in background. I was concentrating more on wind and shutter speed, but f/22 looked fine.
sky almost uniformly grey. Lots of editing in Photoshop including via platinum toning to get sky contrasty. Should have used my yellow/orange filter, still with my 5×4 kit, or a hard grad. This former would have heavily affected the shutter speed, of course. I have to remember that even with B&W, where I want the dark tones in the sky can matter as much as it does with E6 colour slide.
Image 2: Wittenham Clumps (shot from about 15 feet from previous, looking the other direction)
Lens: Nikkor-W 300 f/5.6 – first exposure with this lens, bought off ebay from Japan – basically mint.
10mm front fall, ±2º front tilt, a bit of rear tilt backwards to ‘loom’ foreground even more.
Same problem with filtration though matters less with this one. Seem to have overexposed it by at least 1 stop (esp. compared with previous image). No problems with development; scanned at 1600ppi and toned and use of curves/platinum gradient in photoshop to assist darkening and contrast.
Great Coxwell Barn, Oxfordshire
13th April 2019, 1:20pm
Nikkor-SW 150mm f/8
Ilford FP4+ 8×10
camera bed tilted up and rear and front tilt forward applied for front rise effect.
Lower part of main left door frame metered at -3, N-2 development indicated.
Home-developed with Pyrocat HD 2:2:100/BTZS tubes, 8mins 30secs.
Scanned with Epson V850/Silverfast AiStudio8 (16bit, 1200ppi, film delicately taped to diy silicone mat), cropped in from right and toned gently in Photoshop.
No problems at all, with camera/lens/setup, exposure, or developer. Marvellous.
Reading the truly excellent essays in Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings just recently, I came across a quote by the modernist German poet Rainer Maria Rilke that struck a chord, and I thought I’d investigate it further. The fuller extent of the quotation, from his Letters to a Young Poet, runs as follows:
‘If you will cling to Nature, to the simple in Nature, to the little things that hardly anyone sees, and that can so unexpectedly become big and beyond measuring; if you have this love of inconsiderable things and seek quite simply, as one who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier, more coherent and somehow more conciliatory for you, not in your intellect, perhaps, which lags marveling behind, but in your inmost consciousness, waking and cognizance. You are so young, so before all beginning, and I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue.’
Given that I’m a Classicist by profession, the end of the last sentence struck home with me especially. But the beauty of the quotation is that it fits with what I’ve been trying to get out of my photography as much as possible in recent years, and is the main reason why I’ve found the greatest pleasure in working with large-format film.
It also reminds me of the superb introduction to Fay Godwin’s Land written by John Fowles, which includes the following:
‘What interests me in a landscape is above all its natural history, its flowers, trees, birds, spiders, insects, creatures of all kinds, and a walk that does not both require and allow one to stop and examine at leisure every ten yards is no amusement for me.’
I find that it is in keeping with the spirit of both these quotations that I come to choose my (so far) favourite photograph, an image made on large-format film (in this case Provia 100F) in a local churchyard. It was made on my first visit to the church at Broughton Castle in North Oxfordshire, one evening in early summer, when a cloudless sky filled the shadows with the rich blues so beloved of colour slide film. The subject is the solid-oak side-door to the church, and I was immediately struck by the rich texture and the cobwebs, and the knot in the wood that looked like some kind of mythical creature hiding within. In the light of recent encounters with Rilke, I’ve re-titled the photograph ‘Evenings are Other’, after a couple of lines in a Rilke poem as follows:
‘Evenings are other: they are mild and mine,
tranquil, lit up by my long looking’
(Aber die Abende sind mild und mein,
von meinem Schauen sind sie still beschienen)
I took shots of the same scene on digital, and on inspecting them, though I liked the composition, I didn’t particularly think there was much to write home about. I set up a composition on large format using a medium-long focal length to isolate detail in the texture, and used Provia because of the long exposure time needed (about 1 minute, compared with the 8 minutes for the equivalent exposure I also made on Ilford Delta 100 B&W). When I got the film back from the lab, what astonished me wasn’t so much the blue-blacks, which came out as I had hoped, with the shaded wood reflecting the blue sky, but the contrast and sharpness provided especially by the cobwebs, which I feel make the image look quite spell-binding, and, in some aspects, recalling a galaxy, or the twinkling stars set in a post-impressionist night sky.
‘The little things that … can so unexpectedly become big and beyond measuring’: Rilke knew a thing or two, and not just about writing poetry.
Prompted by my own interest in land, landscape, photography, and more particularly by both fact that my own building at work has on show a series of works by Hamish Fulton, and by recent purchase of book showcasing Philip Hughes, with stimulating introduction by Kay Syrad.
This took me to:
Boetzkes, A. (2010) The Ethics of Earth Art (Minneapolis and London).
Hughes -> Long, Fulton, land artists:
Works that ‘reenact or thematize the phenomenological experience of space, opening a reconsideration of the earth itself not merely as a spatial envelope for the art object but as an active component of it, and more precisely, as an assembly of volatile forces that pose a dilemma to the self-enclosure of the modernist art object and equally to the self-determination of the spectator’s perceptual experience’ (26).
17 also important:
‘In contrast to landscape painting, which attempts to mask human presence or naturalize human dominance, earth art explores the point of contact between the body and the earth. The British artist Richard Long, for example, has spent his career executing long walks as a form of performance, documenting his excursions with photographs and short written descriptions of the areas. As part of the walk, Long marks the land with a trace of his presence.’
‘Long’s work is an example of how contemporary artists stage the inability to represent the earth as such. This is not to suggest that earth art does not use representational media. Rather, the artists disclose the failure of images and words to capture natural phenomena and the fullness of sensation when the body comes into contact with them. Instead of picturing nature, then, contemporary artists are constantly watching and waiting for a way to reveal the earth without thematizing it through preconceived notions of what nature is (or should be). In this way, the artwork is developed out of the friction between the artists’ attempts to make the earth visible and its resistance to signification. This tense encounter is the onset of a dialogue about how we perceive the earth and how it thwarts our perceptual expectations.’
‘The artwork is the threshold at which elementals exceed the limits of perception. In simultaneously making contact with natural phenomena and withholding the drive to unify them in the viewer’s field of vision, the artwork offers itself as a medium on which the earth manifests and asserts its irreducibility to human signification. In this way, the aesthetic strategies of earth art are coextensive with its ethical statement.’
Lots more stuff of interest in this book, inc. on James Turrell. Had mind-expanding encounter with ‘Deer Shelter Skyspace’ at Yorkshire Sculpture Park a couple of years back. Image below taken by me during that encounter.
Chamonix 810V, Nikkor-SW 150mm f/8
By way of an explanation…
After/during a long pause (work-enforced) from my photography, I’ve made the decision to move up to 8×10 for B&W inc. for contact prints (e.g. toned cyanotypes; Van Dyke Brown; possibly Platinum/Palladium).
Will still use the trusty Linhof Technikardan S45 for colour slide on 5×4 but really want to give B&W contact printing a good go – a drive to put more of myself – and art – into the images I make: a drive to add personality and a sense of my own time, my own subjectivity, into the photographs I make.
Just about ready; only major outstanding item now before I can get cracking on making exposures is a BTZS dark cloth and a Lee wide-angle bellows hood, in the post. Many thanks to Tim Layton for allowing me to take the Nikkor SW150 off his good hands. Also have 300W and 450M so most things covered lens-wise.
The decision is prompted by the sense of a convergence in my creative mind between photography and my academic work, especially in terms of the interrelation between photography and the cultural histories of the novel and poetry, and ways of articulating a sense of connection-cum-remoteness from the ancient world.
I’m in the early stages of writing an academic paper on lyric time, photography, and literary modernism for an international conference on ancient Greek lyric poetry, and have things to say about Proust and Pindar; I’m also interested in contemporary conceptual landscape photography as a response to the environments and histories of Britain, and am currently getting absorbed by W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn.
The move to traditional printing and alternative processes is another way for me to explore the tension within me between old and new, both intellectually and personally; there’s a sentence in Proust about us being amphibious beings, with one part of our minds in the present and another submerged in the past, and it is this that I want to get in touch with more directly through immersing myself in the history of photography practically through the use of 19th-century techniques and the eschewing of modern technological interventions as far as possible – hence contact prints directly from 8×10 negatives. If successful, I hope to make prints on them on traditional 12×14 cotton paper and float-mount them in large frames with 16×20 mats, exposing the brush strokes as well as the images. I will probably re-shoot some of my favourite 5×4 black and white images, but also will be on the lookout for new subjects, ideas, and compositions. Because the work is about process as much as end result, as much about concept, formal texture and materiality as about content, the process is as much to do with the 360º experience of working this way than is about other ephemeral things that other photographers get easily absorbed in, such as perfect light and perfect locations. This doesn’t mean that content will not matter but the balance will hopefully be better.
I’m not planning to give up on 5×4 or colour film, but traditional 8×10 is likely to be a great deal of fun and an intriguing adventure.
Here’s a portion of a set of comments from somewhere on the largeformatphotography forum that also struck a chord:
The 8×10 contact is a canonical form with a deep history in photography.
Grievous error aside all 8×10 contacts are technically equivalent; mine, yours, Ed Weston’s, Ansel Adams’.
No upgrade is possible or necessary.
Enough possibilities for a lifetime of work.
No elaborate darkroom is required, no enlarger; just a safelighted work space, a lightbulb, and a few trays. [And NB with alt-pro you don’t even need safelight-conditions, so long as you can develop your negs properly; I’ll be using BTZS tubes.]
I can do everything from film exposure to mounting, matting, and framing. No need to buy expensive services from back-room people.
No competition. Why would I strive against 50 million hard working and talented digital shooters climbing over each other’s backs trying to get noticed?
Anything well photographed on 8×10 seems to acquire a nobility that invites attention.
Ultimate conceptual integrity. The 8×10 is seen, exposed, processed, finished, mounted, and displayed without changing its original size or its original vision.
There is no cropping. The photographer takes full responsibility for the content right to the edges and corners. The viewer knows they are not short-changed.
No digital technology is used or required. No files need reformating into new media. Everything is eye readable. The medium guarantees it.
Here’s a view of the bag setup that I hope to use for the new gear:
Tenba BYOB 10 holds filters and tripod head.
Thinktank Shapeshifter expandable backpack holds lenses (in Tenba wraps) in the interior neoprene compartments (inc. happy to say both 300W, and 150SW even on a Sinar board), a couple of Chamonix 8×10 dark slides in the laptop compartment, and other accessories in outside pockets.
Thinktank bag also doubles as my travelling backpack for digital if I am shooting macro overseas (which I haven’t now done for a number of years but never say never…)
A note on shooting still life with large format. This is something I haven’t done at all before, on any format, but somehow large format black and white seems to be its natural home – here I’ve been recently influenced very much by the beautiful work of John Blakemore for instance, and also by Paul Barden on flickr and the large format photography forum. While I don’t use an 8×10 for black and white as Paul does (though this is something I may seriously consider at some point) and nor do I use traditional darkroom print-making or alternative processes (still a digital half-breed in this respect!) the tonality and detail that you can achieve with large format is precisely what is required (I have taken the liberty of adding some digital selenium toning in photoshop).
Another thing here is that – while I’ve only lately come to think about this – the meditative aspect of using a large format camera – the care required to set up the composition on the ground glass and the metering – may become a natural extension of the meditative process of collecting and arraying the composition of the objects before you have even set up the camera. This aspect is something that I haven’t been able to think about until recently because the very idea of creating a scene to photograph had always seemed to me to be hostile to the idea of authenticity required to be a ‘proper’ or serious landscape photographer. I’ve no idea really why I thought this before because it’s obvious nonsense, and reveals a basic failure to appreciate that the photographic image can never itself be authentic, even though it can ‘animate’ the viewer (cf. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida).
If the viewer also happens to be the creator of the photograph, the final image can also serve as a reminder of the process that led up to the creation of the image with the camera, and this can be empowering and enriching in a huge variety of ways; I envisage a whole range of possible projects here, including the process of collecting a range of artefacts or natural objects to photograph to remind me of or to celebrate encounters or places, even in the absence of opportunities to photograph landscapes or scenic details in the usual way. This is important because if the photograph doesn’t mean anything to me then I’m very unlikely to bother to make it in the first place. This in itself would prevent any resulting images from becoming emotionless, precisely because of their artifice.
This process actually presents a more direct way for me to engage art-historically with traditions of photography, again in ways that I hadn’t quite appreciated until recently. The idea of collecting objects to photograph also has the potential to produce typologies of objects, which obviously slot into the history of 20th century photography via the well-known work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, founders of the influential ‘Düsseldorf School’, whose work is displayed accessibly in Tate Modern, London. On the other hand, the ironic or emotionally distanced work of the New Topographics school that the Bechers influenced is not in keeping with what I think I’d like for this image-making possibility, since the whole point for me will be to engender some kind of emotional response or connection rather than having the rationale driven by implicit critique of embedded aesthetic practice. Here I’d be more with Andreas Gursky (another influenced by the Bechers) – ‘the pure joy of seeing’ (see https://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/hayward-gallery-art/andreas-gursky) – though his own images are of course far from straightforward in their interpretability or emotional claims on viewers.
In fact, the very idea of using a large-format camera to create black and white images of found objects collected over time is intended as an attempt – though not at all reactionary – to suggest alternative approaches to image-making than are more widely considered in today’s image-saturated culture, even as I am using those same channels of distribution (this blog; twitter; flickr; instagram) to circulate the results.
The idea of emotional connection is still problematic, and photography perhaps more than any art form is inherently aware of this. Its rhetoric of attraction, truth, and immediacy also carries with it the technology of difference, distance, framing, and artifice; there’s a problematic sense that, however much photographers and artists might want to separate out style and technique, with photography the two dissolve into one another in the nature of the medium.
Thanks to John Blakemore, I’m reminded of the relation between still life painting and religion, specifically via the concept of the vanitas. I am not remotely religious, and find – momentarily – problematic the idea that still lives are considered as a momento mori rather than a momento vivere, as it were. It is the case, of course, that the history of still lives is the history of the portrayal of loss, decay, mortality and death, rather than life: the pointlessness of earthly goods. One can hope to claim that the artistic process of producing work that preserves these scenes is somehow redemptive (yes, religious word!), but by the same token those images of mortality, and their very act of photographic preservation, bear ever onward their message of loss and absence. The photographed decay of nature reminds us of the world of nature in general, just as it might remind the photographer (me) of the specific encounters which brought the photograph into existence in the first place; those universalizing, as well as particularizing, reminders of nature can be uplifting especially if the photograph is a success and deemed beautiful or pleasing. But they do so only as the decaying objects remind us that they are always with us: reminding us of their realities in spite of the artificiality of the setup and of the photographic medium used to project it. Made secular, these images bear the tension between momento mori and momento vivere, encouragements to go on, to explore, to look to the future, while reminiscing wistfully or mournfully over, or contemplating sadly, the essence of past experience never fully to be recovered.
Below is the final image shot on 5×4 with Ilford Delta 100, followed by two compositional sketches shot on iphone. The dark image is fascinating and is the first setup I tried – though this was soon abandoned when I calculated an exposure time of over 5 hours taking into account reciprocity failure (I think: it was too dark for my Sekonic, so I was making calculations via a lightmeter app on my phone)) – the location was the dark garage of my parents’ with only a small distant window for natural light, after which I moved to a greenhouse. The flat light on the final image is a result of the changed lighting, but one day I will try what I’d call ‘the full Edward Weston’ and go for a really long exposure on large-format film. I also perhaps prefer the perpendicular shooting angles of the phone shots, though I didn’t risk this with the large format setup given potential problems with shadows and the tripod.
A little series of four images all exposed during a couple of hours on a late winter Saturday morning. (more…)
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