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).

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The Art of Illusion

transits 122, photograph

“I no longer worry whether a painting is about something or not. I am only concerned with the expectation, from a flat surface, of an illusion.”

William Scott

All art is illusion since it is a (mis)representation of reality in some way – unless you consider it as a physical object in it’s own right (a bit of paper or canvas, some pigment or emulsion). But the art always stands for something else and it can never be that thing entirely.

I like to bring that quality to the surface of my work so that when you look at it, it’s apparent that I’m not simply trying to replicate reality. I’m inviting you into the illusion, allowing you to add your own interpretation, to construct your own reality out of the sketchy elements I offer up.

It can be a little unsettling and it requires a bit more effort to create the story, and all good art comes with a story, either entirely personal or more communal. Sometimes the material I provide doesn’t inspire your imagination to engage, other times it sparks an unexpected journey.

Either outcome is fine, I just ask that you keep looking.

Creating the Story

transits 123, photograph

“We become who we are by virtue of the choices we make … about which parts belong to the story, and which parts can be left out.”

– Ted OrlandThe View from the Studio Door

Orland describes a bit about how consciousness happens – five times a second or so, we take a snapshot of the most plausible reality we can from what our senses offer us. We have to gather these discrete snippets from the blizzard of perception coming at us at all times or we’d be overwhelmed.

Each time one of these electronic impulses causes us to sample reality, we “paint the foreground, mute the background”, we “separate  the specific from the general”. We fit together the pieces we can and set aside the rest. We decide which parts belong to the story and which do not.

This process is duplicated when we take a photograph. We create the story by using various techniques to bring certain things to the forefront while simultaneously de-emphasizing others. We do this through composition and design, through selective focus, through dodging and burning, and myriad other strategies.

Making art is our way of recreating a personal world in much the same manner that we all create our everyday worlds. Here our choices are more conscious and controlled. It’s a way to dip into the ever rushing stream of reality and slow it down enough to enjoy and reflect upon it.

Learning How to Focus

ancient urban 4, photograph

“Sharpness is a bourgeois concept.”

Henri Cartier-Bresson

I have a strong preference for photographic images that are partially out of focus. They seem to reside in that in-between, on the edge place that I find most interesting.

They remind me of the moment when you wake up from a dream and some elements of your consciousness are from the dream state while some are from your newly wakened state.

Finding just the right mix of abstract/literal, in focus/out of focus, distorted/straight is a challenge. I find that it’s a fine line one balances on. A little too far in either direction just feels off somehow. This actually adds an additional challenge for me as an artist, which provides a little extra creative juice to add to the mix.

Of course, this is all subject to personal taste. There are definitely folks who just have no interest in photography that isn’t tack sharp, infinite depth of field, etc.

For those of you in this camp, I refer you back to Henri Cartier-Bresson…

A Leap of Faith

ancient urban 3, photograph

“Its not that we need new ideas, but we need to stop having old ideas.”

Edwin Land

What is your relationship with your past? With work you’ve done before? With the work of others you’ve been inspired by?

For me it’s a most delicate balance. I can get too enamored of what has worked for me in the past and find myself unconsciously repeating it. Or I’ll find myself emulating work I see that I like from others. This can hold me back from exploring new ideas.

On the other hand, it’s important to understand what I like and don’t like, what has worked or not. So the past informs me, it provides important clues about what I should do next. The trick is to extract enough from it to be the seed of new thought and work, but not to retain so much that it constrains.

I try to use the past as a springboard, not a hitching post. And like the experience of having just sprung from the board,  the feeling of turning your back on ideas that have meant something to you in the past can be both exhilirating and terrifying.

A true leap of faith…

What is Real?

hands 4, photograph

“They are imbeciles who call my work abstract. That which they call abstract is the most realistic, because what is real is not the exterior but the idea, the essence of things”.

Constantin Brancusi

Smart people in many fields, ranging from classical philosophy (Plato) to modern physics to Kashmir Shaivism and Buddhism, point out that external appearances are not real in some fundamental way. They are transient, illusory, a deception.

We have it backwards – what we think of abstract is real and what we perceive of as real is abstract. Of course, it’s hard to live one’s everyday life with this perspective. But, as artists, we have the freedom to entertain this viewpoint in our work.

This is why most of my photography explores a shadow world, a level or two below what we think of as reality. It’s like the part of the iceberg below the waterline – there’s much more there to explore than what’s on the surface. That volume has extraordinary dimension. It is from there that the parts we see emerge above the surface.

It’s reassuring to know that there is so much more in the abstract world beneath the surface of things – no end to what we can explore!

 

 

Why, not How…

hands 3, photograph

“The moment a man begins to talk about technique that’s proof that he is fresh out of ideas.”

Raymond Chandler

I really don’t like to talk to people about how I’ve done a particular shot. You might have gathered that from reading this blog, where I rarely if ever discuss how the photograph was made. This is definitely not a how-to type of blog…

It’s not that I’m protecting some great secret, I just think it’s beside the point. The point is how the photography makes you feel, what emotional or intellectual response does it elicit, not technical details about what camera or lens was used, what lighting, exposure, etc. When I get into that kind of discussion with someone, I know they’re not really seeing the photograph.

Since I tend to shoot images that involve a fair amount of technique, some of it unusual, I’m opening myself up to more than my share of such questions and conversations. And I accept that – but I do relish the times when someone talks to me about how they feel about the image. And I feel myself deflate a bit each time I hear “how did you do that?”.