The Artist’s Lair

My first long term project after the master class with Keith Carter turned out to be one of my favorites for a lot of reasons.

My intention with the project was to do something with portraiture, which I had never attempted before – best way to learn is to dive in!

Jason KelchJason Avery Kelch

My “muse” for the project was Arnold Newman, probably the greatest portrait photographer of the the 20th century. He had a particular fondness for photographing artists in their studios, and since my immediate world is populated with artists I thought I’d follow suit. Shoot what’s familiar…

My initial aims were modest, just do maybe 20 environmental portraits of artists I knew in their studios. Simple (usually) natural lighting, B&W, hopefully shots with some character. I was envisioning the work in a self-published book.

Jennifer BecJennifer Bec Hirshfield

I tried to set up one shoot a week and after about 15-20 of these I decided to keep going. I started getting suggestions from various people about who to shoot next. I wanted to cover different mediums, have a balance of men and women, young and old. I even visited the curator at the Sonoma County Art Museum to connect with some of the more celebrated artists in the county. I met a lot of interesting people and everyone welcomed me into their studio sanctuaries. I discovered what a wide range of places people can create in!

One of my favorite aspects of the project was showing up at the studio of an artist who I had never met or seen before and having to figure out in less than an hour how to get the shot I needed for the project. The element of surprise (and fear!) was stimulating. Working within constraints leads to creativity in my opinion. Some of my favorite shots came in studios that were modest compared to many, with people whom I had just met.

Finally, after more than a year of visiting artist studios, I had to draw a line in the sand – I literally could have gone on forever (there are a LOT of artists in Sonoma County!). I decided to stop at 50 photographs and turn my attention to publishing the book.

Bill WheelerBill Wheeler

After a lot of trial and error I ended up printing 250 copies of a small soft cover edition with a local printer. As I already knew, printing high quality black and white work with a small run on digital printers is extremely difficult. And since I am a professional printer myself, I’m very picky! Here is the final result:

STUDIO-book

I was also honored to be able to have a short pop-up show at the Santa Rosa Museum of art with all 50 portraits and a sampling of over 20 original art pieces by selected participants.

Museum-show

All in all, I learned a lot and had a great time – lots of work, but well worth it!

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Back to the Beginning…

LoneTreeTransferimage transfer on stone paper

I thought I’d go back to the early stages of my interest in handmade printing. Since 1998 I had been printing exclusively with 100% digital output. As technology improved the prints became more and more refined and beautiful, but somehow I wasn’t satisfied. During a several year long period I actually gave up photography and became a painter – pastels, acrylics and mixed media. I enjoyed the tactile, hands-on quality of the work that I found missing with photography in the modern world.

For a variety of reasons I gave up painting and returned to being a photographer. But I never lost my love of working with my hands, making something unique, the textural possibilities of different mediums. So I began to seek that in photography. It was challenging as most photographic printing I knew about was very 2 dimensional and technology driven. How could I find a way to make the work uniquely mine?

I discovered a cool book called Digital Art Studio written by 3 women who were experimenting with combining digital printing with various traditional and mixed media techniques to create handmade one-of-a-kind prints. I became  very interested in image transfers and began to output some of my classical landscape shots in that way.

laguna-trasnfer-2image transfer on stone paper

The process involves printing your digital file on a special (transparent) transfer sheet on a pigment inkjet printer. The sheet has a special coating that, when mixed with some special chemistry, allows the ink to lift off and transfer almost completely to another surface. After coating the printed image (or the receptor paper) with the chemistry, I place the sheet with the image face down on the receptor, wait several minutes, and peel the transfer sheet away.

This is where the “magic” happens. Each transfer is different and usually has artifacts or flaws – which is what you want and what gives the unique character to the piece. The last thing you want is a perfect transfer! Not every transfer works – there is a high failure rate, especially while learning the process.

For this type of subject matter I liked using something called Stone Paper as the receptor for the image. It actually is not paper at all but a composite of limestone and resin. It’s quite heavy and completely non-absorbent. So the pigment ink sits completely on the surface resulting in very rich pure color and blacks. It also takes a long time to dry!

You can find out all about this process and the materials needed in the book Digital Alchemy.

This was my starting point to a much wider world of experimental and alternative process photography. I was hooked!

Next time I’ll talk about the next stage in my evolution down this path.

 

Heart of Dark(room)ness

darkroom-printing

Today I’m making negatives in preparation for spending the day in my darkroom tomorrow printing a set of negatives to make a new copy of my “By Hand” book. So I thought I’d share some of the steps involved in making palladium prints.

First up is making the negative. Palladium printing, like all 19th century processes, is a contact printing method. The negative is placed directly on the light sensitive paper so the final print is the size of the negative. Many people these days are making digital negatives, rather than using film negatives from their cameras. This allows all of the work needed to make a great print to be done up front when preparing the digital file for printing on my Epson printer. This means that when actually exposing the negative and paper I don’t have to rely on crude dodging and burning techniques that we used to use.  Of course, there is a lot that goes into making a really good digital negative that I may go into in another post. So today I’m printing out a new set of negs for printing tomorrow.

 

palladium-steps

 

Once in my darkroom I first measure out the chemistry I’ll need to sensitize the paper. These processes rely on hand coating various art papers with light sensitive chemistry. You can’t buy ready made paper to make palladium prints.

Next is coating the paper – I use a specific Richeson paint brush that works extremely well. Once dry (but not completely dry!) I place the neg on the paper and put them in my UV exposure unit. Palladium is exposed with UV light and I use a screenprinting unit that provides that as well as a convenient vacuum system which ensures the neg is evenly situated on the paper. Exposure times are pretty long, something like 5 minutes.

Finally the print is run through chemistry. One of the best things about palladium printing is that the image appears on the paper the instant you drop it in the developer – presto, the image jumps out at you! Then comes a series of clearing baths – all in all, the print is in chemistry for about 40 minutes so you need to use a paper that has good wet strength.

That’s it in a nutshell. Of course I’ve simplified it somewhat, especially the part about making negs.

I particularly like the fact that I’m combining 19th century technology (the palladium chemistry and process) with 21st century stuff (the digital negative creation). As I tell my friends, I’m not sure the 20th century contributed much of importance to the history of photography! (… just kidding).