Friday, March 01, 2013

The Ralph Gibson Experiment (Part One)

Mornin' varmints.
'Tis time to split the mizzen and rolic you're thunderjugs, because the old nut-brown meths is ready and waiting, and I'll stand a draught for every man-jack o'you that can bother yer arses to read the writing o' my friend and erstwhile passenger, Mr.H.Sheephouse.
I'll warn ye now - it's dull folks. Duller than a bilge full o' dullness.
However, if you read it, it will cheer him up and he is a man in need of some desperate ego-massage.
It might even make him happy.
And a happy passenger means a happy ship, that's what I always say.
Watch out for the nut-brown though - it'll run right through ye like a dose o'lava.
Mog learned that earlier in the week.


So there I was, twiddling my thrumbs and wondering what the hell I could write about, when all of a sudden, something hit me. You'll know by now that I have referred to those two great books Darkroom and Darkroom 2, now long out-of-print, on Ralph Gibson's Lustrum Press - they're great books, but (and this was the thing that hit me) they're also very detailed in the descriptions of each individual photographer's approach to film and wet printing.
Want to learn how the mighty Wynn Bullock approached things -  Darkroom  is the book! Eikoh Hosoe, Eugene Smith? They're all there. Even Mr.Gibson himself has a section . . . and you know what? I love Ralph Gibson's photographs.
Aside from being very singular images of an incredibly personalised approach to photographing the world, they are also (technically speaking) the epitomy of all the things the books say you should never do when processing. Heavy grain, underexposed shadow areas, over-developed highlights, dense dense dense negatives, uncropped. You name it the list goes on, and yet they have a lyrical intensity that is all too hard to find in these days of easy-fix digital photography. 
To me they speak truth, but a strange dream-like truth. 
I think it all comes from his vision. To paraphrase him "I carry my vision around with me wherever I go  . . " You can tell. A Gibson photograph stands out like a sore thumb.
And there in Darkroom  was his approach to the technical side of things writ large and detailed.
When I started scratching deeper (ok, reading the bloody article, harumph) I found that in actuality his 'technique' is incredibly simple:
Kodak Tri-X, exposed at ostensibly EI 400 (although he does list his speed ratings for Tri-X as 100 to 400 but I believe that maybe this is him referring to the varying light conditions he will encounter whilst using each film) - I say ostensibly because like all great photographers he is using the films latitude to deal with any exposure mistakes, and seeing as he says he has been using the film since 1961, who are we to argue with his experience. Obviously too (just in case you don't know it) modern Tr-X is a bit of a different film from the early 60's version, but as far as I can tell, he is still using it, so it can't be that different.
I know this also sounds like he is using 'Sunny 16' (expose the film at a shutter speed equivalent to the film's box speed [400 ASA for Tri-X] at f16 in sunlight), but at 1/250th he is roughly overexposing by a stop (Sunny 16 with Tri-X would be approx 1/500th at f16, there being no 1/400th setting on a camera), so basically he is letting the average light in the scene be exposed at a stop more than sunny 16, so roughly that'll be about Zone VI.
It's all very loosey-goosey isn't it!
As I read further I found myself getting excited - this was a glimpse into a photographer's technique, and it wasn't too technical or over the top. I wouldn't have minded technical actually, but this was a good starting place, especially if (and I'll use that word italicised and in bold and blue) I decided that I might follow other photographers methodologies in the interests of science . . if you know what I mean . . .
I will also state defiantly and definitely now, I have no wish to emulate Ralph's style  - not that I could anyway, but you know there's these guys who use GPS to set their tripods in the same ghostly tripod holes that Ansel Adams' and Edward Weston's tripods were placed in? You don't know about them? Gosh. Well it is true, and it is the antithesis of photography as self-expression (which it is).
So, in much the same way, I have no interest in emulating someone else, it is more that I am very curious about his working methods.
Anyway, back to Ralph - in Darkroom, he states that his sunny day shooting regime is
"1/250th of a second at f16"
"Because I almost always shoot in bright sun on Tri-X with the camera set for f16, there's a uniformity to my negatives."
Now this is a very important statement and it intrigued me.
I have never in my life left my camera at a set aperture, have you?
Everyone loves a twiddle and choosing the correct aperture for the photograph is part and parcel of making photographs . . isn't it?
Isn't it?????

Well the proof of the pudding and all that - do these all look uniform? I guess they do . . .
Also, all except the third one of the car exhibit his stylistic trait of using broad areas of shadow. I like this - it makes the photograph breath and live, as opposed to being just a nicely toned grey. In other words it brings a dramatic effect to the photograph, so that it becomes a visual statement rather than just a direct record of a scene/incident.
I mean, look at this:

The Visitor

It's a fairly typical example of my searching for something - the greys are excellent, and though I like them, the photograph lacks any dramatic impact whatsoever
The camera was my now long-gone Pentax 6x7 using the 75mm lens. Film was Ilford's beautiful FP4+ at EI 64 and I developed it in Barry Thornton's 2-bath developer . . nice combo? You bet, but it could have been so much more.
Anyway, back to Mr.Gibson and his permanent f16.
I looked at some of his photographs and given how great I find a lot of his photographs, I couldn't understand how it could work. Of course, depth of field is all relative, shortening as you are focusing closer and lengthening as you head out towards infinity, however it is still a very intriguing concept, which, you would think (well I did think) would free one up to concentrate on making pictures and composition rather than the niceties of getting a good negative.
I have always strived to get the best negative I can, and yet if I could produce photographs like those in 'The Somnambulist' (Gibson's great photo essay) I would be a happy bunny.
The other thing he mentions in Darkroom is that he always uses Rodinal, the great developer made for donkey's years by Agfa, and now, not made by them and called R09 (yet it is still the same). 
Rodinal can be tricky - it can give you hellishly dense negatives, and yet it is also wonderfully adaptable. Gibson's use of Rodinal is at the mega-concentrated dilution of 1:25. Now that is strong and certainly stronger than I have ever used it. I always used 1:50 or 1:100, but I stopped using Rodinal a while back when I thought a little journey into the world of homebrew developers would be interesting.
Actually, I started off my home-developing with Rodinal and in fact have the same 500ml bottle I started with . . now over 10 years old and half-full, so that gives you an idea of its longevity. 
It hasn't been pampered at all, just left stored in a half-full bottle for quite a while. I know it worked last time I used it about a year ago, and given what I have read I didn't doubt it would serve me well this time. 
The thing about Rodinal is that it is a superb acutance developer. Yes grain is generally heavier than most people want, but this can be varied by dilution. What it does do, is make the grain very hard-edged thus giving the appearance of detail. It can also be very contrasty and this, coupled with the crisper grain, give the impression of a developer which is a universal panacea. Start enlarging though and you find the grain can be intrusive, especially on 35mm, but I guess it all depends if you like grain in the first place. Different strokes and all that.
For myself, having spent years trying to achieve grainless, seamlessly graduated grey tones in negatives (HP5+ in 1:3 Perceptol being the clear winner of any combo) this little experiment has made me think fceck it, why not give it a go!.
So back to Mr.Gibson. He states that his development regime is:

10cc of Rodinal for every film used.
Dilution of 1 + 25.
Temperature 68 Farenheit.
Agitation for 10 seconds every one-and-a-half minutes
Total development time 11 minutes.

This seems to be the same for every film he develops, which again is quite strange. Which again makes me think that the statement about EI's 100 to 400 is based upon a frame to frame basis rather than per film if you know what I mean.
Anyway, excited and inspired, I armed myself with all this information and thought I should try his method of working and see what happened. 
Oh the lengths I go to for you FB readers - had you not been around (like a pixie on my back) then I probably wouldn't have bothered, but there you go. Before I start to detail things I'll say thank you very much for getting me out and about on a very enjoyable adventure.
The more I thought about doing this, the more excited I became. It all seemed rather too easy! Don't change shutter speed or aperture, just focus, or even use hyperfocal focusing, take aim and fire! How liberating.
Then things hit home with a crash. I did have Rodinal, no problems there. I did also have Tri-X, but that was the problem. I didn't have any 35mm Tri-X, only 120 size. I do have some TMY 400 and also Delta 400, but I specifically wanted to follow his instructions for developing and only the Tri-X/Rodinal combo would do . . so the Leica M2 was oot as it were.
But I did still have a rangefinder (Mr.Gibson is a confirmed Leica rangefinder user just in case you were wondering).
My rangefinder was in the disguise of the heavyweight beast from the blackest pit of the 1970's . . Yes, a Koni-Omega Rapid 100!
It's big and unwieldy, but I rather like it.

OK - so this is a Rapid M (the earlier model) but for all intents and purposes it's the same camera . . except mine doesn't have the flash unit . . .
It does have the horns though!

Being a 6x7cm camera, it was only going to give me ten frames from a 120 film, but that should be enough to test things out.
(You are probably sitting there at your breakfast table, rubbing your beard and sagely saying to your partner "This is one seriously flawed experiment!" well it would be were I trying to emulate his visual style, but I am not trying to do that am I . . . I am merely trying to emulate his processing style . . .)
So, back to Der Schnoogle as they have been know to say in Hamburg . . .
The only problem I could forsee was the "1/250th at f16" thing.
A brief aside: depth of field on Medium and Large format camera lenses is less than on a 35mm camera - it's all to do with design, circles of confusion, spacing and format size. I shan't go into it, but suffice to say that f16 on a 35mm camera gives you roughly an extra foot of depth of field on average, so if I was going to use f16 on the Koni, then my focusing would have to be fairly spot on. I could have stopped the Koni down to f22, which would be fine were I using a tripod or a monopod, but I wasn't going to be. f22 would have meant that my shutter speed would have been roughly 1/60th of a second, and when you are using a camera of that size, you are bringing in the extreme risk of camera shake showing up, so it was going to have to be f16.
I was also going to have to use 1/125th of a second instead of the recommended 1/250th. The reason? This is Scotland - we seldom get bright sunny days and I didn't want to underexpose my negatives (and indeed the day of my outing proved to be a tad overcast) so 1/125th it was.
So, film loaded, sturdy shoes on, pack-mule (for carrying the Koni) fed, brain in gear, and I was ready to go.
Before I went out I took a few readings of average scenes with my Gossen Lunasix 3S, just to see how things compared with Mr.Gibson's standard settings. The EV's (Exposure Values) ran between 13 and 19, so fairly normal for round here. I also thought it beneficial to take some paper to make notes of what the actual readings were after I took each picture at the 1/125th + f16 settings.
This is all sounding a tad bizarre isn't it, but you'd be amazed at what you can learn from reading your notes - indeed being as thorough as you can be is a great aid. I have paraphrased him many times before, but the genius jazz guitarist Joe Pass once said something along the lines of "Learn it all and then forget it all", meaning (I've always assumed) that technique can set you free!
Back to my notes things . . . I was also going to establish what Zone an average reading from the scene fell on, so I could see how things worked. It would be nothing extreme:
Zone V is average grey.
Zone IV is one stop under-exposed (slightly dark shadows)
Zone VI is one stop over-exposed (caucasian skin and concrete!)
I couldn't really forsee things going much beyond this.
And there my friends I am going to leave it till next week.
Why not.
It would be too long an article for one week plus it means I can do this at a more leisurely pace. I hope you don't mind.
I could give you a taster of the results, but then I would have to kill you, so I won't. Don't get too excited though - the photographs are dire, however the processing is interesting . . . stay tuned film-fans . . .
As usual, take care, thanks for reading and God bless.


  1. Interesting stuff, Phil. Can't wait for part two. Mr Gibson takes some striking pics. Amd he's certainly a one for dodging faces - I think they're all dodged here except for the spectacles shot and for the obvious reason that there isn't a face available!

    Once you've published the Koni shots I think you owe it to your loyal readers to repeat the experiment with the M2 just to see if you think the grain is acceptable. I like a bit of grain but not if it destroys too much detail.

    It's great too see you doing tests like this. it's what magazines used to do back in the good old days of film and probably what I miss most with digital.

  2. Thanks Bruce . . don't get too excited about the pics next week - they're dire(hoea)!
    The whole point was more just to see if I could get away with such a loose shooting/processing regime after years of having been very careful . . .
    I actually did go out with some TMX 400 yesterday in the Leica . . hmm . . could stretch this to a Part 4!
    Darkroom beckons . . .