Friday, March 08, 2013

The Ralph Gibson Experiment (Part Two)

Phew, shipmates.
That's all I can say to you . . Phew!
The weather this week has been, to tell the truth, worse than a hold full o' Space Hoppers.
Oh yes, we've been powerful affected by wind, and plenty of it. And what does wind cause? Waves, and not just small ones neither.
Give the wind half a chance and it'll whip up 200 nautical miles o' ocean into something resembling a party of drunken intruders on a cosy evening in.
Now we's used to that, why wouldn't we be? but it does bring with it problems.
Yes we have supplies, and yus, most times the only things to do are to stow the sails and wait it out, but there's one problem they'll never show 'ee on Pirates Of The Caribbean . . . excrement.
Most times in good weather you can sit yourself at the stern and drop till your heart's content and no one'll disturb ye, or just whip off a quick tinkle and back to work.
But in a storm, all there is is the bucket.
And it's no man's favourite job to take that bucket a'deck and chuck it over the side, especially when the wind is coming at you at 40 knots, but it's a job that has to be done. 
I'll tell 'ee shipmates, it's no joke having ten men's droppings blasting back at ye in the teeth o' a gale.
But there, that's life on the ocean wave.
It's bad for old Mog too.
Cats is private creatures.
Watch a cat doing it's business and it'll not really trust ye again.
Normally he'll hop onto the rear rail and drop and spray like any man.
"Kathmandu!" comes the cry and we's leaves him alone, but tisn't safe for a cat on the rear rail in a storm, so he'll head to the bilge pretending he's looking for anything that'll provide a couple o'hours o'fun and we leave's him alone to do his business.
But this week he seemed different.
Like I say we were laid up with that wind and sea, but Mog looked damned assured of himself.
He kept mighty clean, and swaggered around the shop, no skulking, just cleanliness and spit an' polish.
In a word, he was up to something.
Now I abide honesty more than any man-jack alive and when I think something's up, I'll come right out and ask. So I did.
"Mog," I said, "you're up to summat, old friend!"
Now Mog, being a cat, obviously can't speak, but we've been around enough together to know what each of us is saying.
That cat had been peeing somewhere, call it a Cap'n's Sixth Sense. Call it a Keen Hooter, but amongst all the familiar smells of a ship with the hatches battened down, there was not one single whiff o' cat's pish.
Mog looked at me, in that sly way he has sometimes, and strolled off in the direction of Sheephouse's cabins.
(Sheephouse was up above, lashed to a mast with a decent length o'rope to stop him falling overboard and was chucking his interiors into the teeth o' the storm.)
Mog nosed open the door o' Sheephouse's darkroom, jumped up onto a worktop and used his rear to push a bottle forward.
I unscrewed the lid, and took a look. The liquid was a dark reddy-brown, and fairly concentrated looking. I took a look at the bottle again, and larfed. 
Oh how I larfed, my sides split. 
Even Mog was larfing too . . . .



I know, I know . . you have been pacing the floors, not sleeping, off your food. Your libido has vanished entirely. The washing-up hasn't been done. Your wife is checking your smartphone for evidence. Your skin has taken on a wan hue. You haven't made a photograph all week. What's wrong? What's wrong!
Nothing is wrong you big baby - worry no more, because Part Two of 'The Ralph Gibson Experiment' is back.
It's big, bold, brash, brave, chock-a-block with bonhomie, bravura and beans. Oh yes, never in the field of photographic experimentation has so much been done by so few for so many.
So hoist your trousers and put a Do Not Disturb sign on your brain, because when we are done, things will never be the same again. Indeed, the world may never be the same again, because we are treading new(ish) and unknown territory, where a monster lurks 'round every corner, and fortune favours the brave!
Of course, literal interpretations of the above are welcome, but then again, most people would consider you utterly mad, so take it all with a pinch of salt and just mutter "F'in Sheephouse" to yourself a few times. You'll get there. Just imagine what it is like for me -  I have to share the same brain with him . . .

Firstly I will preface all this for those of you expecting to see some photographs that look like Mr.Gibsons'. 
It isn't going to happen
Well, as I stated last week, this was purely an experiment to see whether his shooting and processing technique (as detailed in the book Darkroom) would work for me. That is the be-all and end-all. I couldn't emulate him and I have no wish too.

Last week I set you up with a feast of information, and this week, guess what? yep - it's info overload. It will all be needed to be digested, however it is easy, and especially so, if I distill last week's post down to a paragraph.
Would you like that? Would you?
OK, seeing as I am feeling benevolent.

Kodak Tri-X, at mostly EI 400
Sunny day shooting regime: 1/250th of a second at f16
Shoot in bright sun on Tri-X with the camera set for f16
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.

How's that for the summation of a life's work and technique (apologies to Ralph - no disrespect meant) but at least if you read the above, it means you don't need to read last week's post . . what do you mean . . you couldn't be arsed reading it anyway?? Were I not of sound mind I might take umbrage at that . . however I am not so I won't. I generally like to think that if you have learned something, and it can be passed on, then one should out of human duty.
So, long-winded preamble out of the the way . . where was I?
Ah yes, basic reference meter readings taken, film loaded, pack-mule fed and burdened with Koni-Omega and sprightly spring in my step as I head off towards Ye Olde Hawkhill in search of some eye-candy.

Grossly romanticised Sheephouse, and we won't be having any of that around here you know. This is Britain.
You mean pleasant subject matter don't you?
(Official communication from The Ministry Of Britishness; dated 25th February 2013)

Well, yes, eye-candy isn't really a word that can be applied to the Hawkhill in Dundee - it is a bit of a 'non' area these days - all the interesting bits were demolished back in the 1960's and 1970s and it is now a rough collection of University buildings and low-lying industrial units.
Apparently, in 1954, the Hawkhill boasted 13 pubs, 2 wine merchants, 12 sweetie shops, 15 bakers, 21 grocers, 7 Scots/Italian chippies and 2 bicycle shops. Some 20 years later, it was almost reduced to rubble by redevelopment.
My lecturer and friend from college days, Mr.Joseph McKenzie, detailed the whole lot in an extraordinary photographic essay called Hawkhill, Death Of A Living Community. Sadly this hasn't been exhibited in years, which is a terrible shame. It is a an important statement on the corruption and frenzy from a black period of time in British Architectural Improvements.
Anyway, here's some pictures from the opposite end of the Hawkhill to where I would be starting, to illustrate the changes wrought.

Session Street is on the right

Session Street is still on the right, but where has the character gone?

Look at that. I honestly feel that if the wholesale mass crushing of Dundee's architecture hadn't happened, and the money had instead been spent on improving the older buildings rather than knocking them down, you'd have a city that could possibly be regarded as one of the world's architectural jewels. It still retained most of its medieaval street layouts well into the 20th Century.
Anyway, mostly gone now, and along the Hawkhill, one is overcome by, how shall we say, dullness. It does still have a couple of real olde-time pubs though .  .The Cambeltown Bar and The Hawkhill Tavern, but there used to be so much more. 
Anyway, enuff o' me shite . . onwards. 
(Oh, actually, if you are at all interested, photographically, we have the most incredible archive, made by a [ahem] Amateur photographer, Mr.Alexander Wilson and made between the 1870's and early 1900's. They capture a city that was a hub of Victorian Britain - famous for its 3 J's - Jute, Jam and Journalism, but also its lesser known industries of ship building and whaling. It was a place of extremes, from total poverty [found in backies in the likes of the Hawkhill and the Hilltown, to mansions on the upper reaches of the Perth Road and Millionaire's Mile on the East side of town - at one time containing the highest proportion of millionaires in Britain - pretty remarkable when you are talking about Victorian Britain!] Anyway, if you have a half an hour you can find the photographs here.)
Am I trying to take my time here . . well, no . . but I do enjoy a nice meander.
Anyway, here goes - I will warn in advance that my scanner, even scanning in Greyscale, has imparted a pinkish tinge to the following images. They're scans off the contact print, and they've been sharpened a tad and contrast has been adjusted a tad too.
For the full effect of Tri-X in Rodinal one merely has to go to the very last photograph of the crop of Sir Alan Sugar's face and bear in mind it was a hand-held photograph. I think you'll agree the performance is none too tardy.
Oh and I am going to shoehorn in a bit about meter readings here - as I stated earlier I took some average ones before I left the house. According to my Gossen meter the EV's (Exposure Values) ran from 13 to 16, which is fairly typical for round here, so based on the recommended box speed of Tri-X:
At EI 400, EV13 = 1/30th @ f16
At EI 400, EV16 = 1/250th @ f16
His recommendation is right at the top of my readings, so I adjusted by one stop to 1/125th @ f16 for every shot and hoped it would all work out.
Oh, and the text in calm blue is linked to appropriate pages should you be interested.
Right here goes folks - in a rather un-photographer-y way, I am now laying my heart and my embarassment on my sleeve, and showing you the full contact sheet (split up) - there's nowhere for me to hide. Most frames are terrible, but one is a keeper.



Right, Photo 1:
Well, I hit the Sinderins behind this bloke. He stopped right in front of me, and I hate that, so I backed up whilst he was texting, and snapped at him. I then realised that a Koni-Omega is not exactly a snapshot camera - it is surprisingly easy to use, but it isn't good for an instinctive shot. By the time you have lifted it to your face, the moment has gone, or, people think you are going to assault them - it is that big.
As big as a face actually.



Photo 2:
I turned up Peddie Street and headed towards the industrial units there - they are bleak and interesting and contain one of Dundee's greatest gems - Clark's All-Night Bakery.
Famously described as 'heart attack central', basically if you find yourself in need of tasty stodge at any hour of the day or night, it is the place to go.
Want attitude? You'll apparently get it, though we have only ever encountered friendliness.
More importantly, want Chips and Curry Sauce at 3AM on a Sunday morning? You'll get it.
This photo is of the roof of Clark's. I have made loads of this same scene over the years and still can't capture it.
And I wasn't successful this time either - soot and chalk in extremis.



Photo 3:
I headed back towards the Hawkhill, but wandered into Halley-Stevensons - a relatively unknown gem of Dundee. They're the oldest producer of waxed cotton fabrics in the world. So, I would say they supply Barbour etc . . quite something eh!
Situated in The Baltic Works, there are many photographic opportunities.
I was taken by this reflection, but here you see that a rangefinder isn't so good for closeups, because stuff intrudes into the frame but you don't realise until later. It is unclear on the contact, but on the negative the de-silvering of the mirror adds a strange edge to the reality.
Anyway, cropped I think it would work.



Photo 4:
Halley-Stevensons again . . but look at the vertical . . it's off, and thus renders this permanently annoying for me. Incredible detail though!



Photo 5:
Same place, but another dull photograph - again the detail is very good.



Photo 6:
Now this is the one I like the most. It is more me. I like this sort of carefully composed urban landscape detail.
It's at the sculpture entrance to Duncan Disorderly College Of Art.
I used to go there you know . . . and whilst it was a valuable education, despite the nice website, I'll quote Public Enemy again . . "Don't believe the hype".
Unless it has changed dramatically (it may well have; in fact it probably has) I found it to be a creative mincer. Bright optimism in, stifled creativity sausages out. But thinking about it, that was probably just olde curmudgeonly me.
My one solace from the shoehorning of ideas that was occuring in the Graphics Department, was Joseph McKenzie's oasis - the Photography Department.
Joe ran a wonderful ship, where creativity was encouraged. My only slight criticism, was that technicality wasn't emphasised. But that is just me. I like a bit of technical . .that's why I am writing this.
Back to DOJ though, Gerry Badger and Albert Watson went there too . . but as I say, those were the days when they had a photography department. These days it is called Time Based Art and Digital Film - click the link and it will take you there. Notice no mention made of photography! 
Hmmm . . . och well, all this criticism . . bang goes any chance of becoming a part-time lecturer in monochrome photography and traditional darkroom practice . . but onwards.
Anyway, to me this photograph works, however, it also shows me that the framelines on the Koni are possibly misaligned as I cropped it a lot closer than this.
On a positive note - look at the detail!



Photo 7:
Then it was round the back of the College and down the side, meanwhile these two dogs were barking at me, so I thought . . wait a minute, you can't do that, so I took their picture and stopped them barking.
That's true actually - the Koni stilled them into a stasis which was only broken when I moved away . . oh, the power of that camera, but then again, maybe they thought it was a large black piece of square meat . . .



Photo 8:
From there it was onto the Perth Road opposite Drouthys and head back to base.
Next up is Williams' Newsagent. This is an old-style traditional newsagent (fags, sweets and papers . . none of yer modern fripperies).
I wanted a to try a close-up of the shutters and so on, just to check the focus on the camera and the ability of the Super-Omegon lens.
No problems there . . just a slightly 'off' vertical which again is no good to me. I can correct in the darkroom should I wish to print such a dull photograph!



Photo 9:
Further along and as I approached this guy from the other direction I was so taken by his air of melancholy that I was desperate to just approach him and ask if I could take a picture of his sad face, but I didn't (coward) and moved past to stand and browse a shop window beyond him. From there it was terribly easy to guess focus, and point the Koni in his direction and snap. Hence the squintness. He still looks pretty sad, and I've never seen a single customer in his newly-opened mini-mart.



Photo 10:
And the last in line as it were. The couple approaching looked to me like something out of a Gary Winogrand picture, but, lacking his balls and talent I opted to make a photograph of them by holding the Koni at waist level and pretending to check it. Of course I guessed focus too. At the very last second the baldy guy staggered into my path out of Mennies.
It was literally as I was operating the shutter. Yes it is squint, yes it is shite, but it is amazing that you can use a camera the size of one and a half housebricks in the street like this!


There y'go - I've cropped it just to get an idea of what it would look like . . it has gone from squinty snap to instant threat (I think).
Anyway, surprised it was all over so quickly and operating the push/pull film advance mechanism on the Koni, I strode off, determined that I would process these the way Mr.Gibson would!
20 minutes later, film loaded in Paterson tank, all accoutrements beside me at the kitchen sink, I cousulted my notes:

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.

Ok, so seeing as I was using a large Paterson tank my ratios of developer to water were 19.23ml Rodinal + 480ml water. Everything else was the same as above. Agitation (the most under appreciated part of film developing) was a gentle 10 seconds (roughly 4 inversions) at 1 minute 30 second intervals, so Zero seconds, then 1 minute 30 seconds/3 minutes/4 minutes 30 seconds/ 6 /7:30 / 9 / 10:30, and then chuck the developer at 11 minutes.
I will also preface this with the fact that I always use a water bath pre-development. A lot of people don't, but I find it lends itself to more even developing, so that was 3 or 4 changes of water at 68° Farenheit with gentle agitation.
All was safely gathered in, processing went fine, drying went fine, and a contact was made and assessed.
One of the frames was without a doubt the clear winner, so I printed it.
I thought I would go the whole hog and 'do a Gibson', so I printed it at Grade 5!

I've Been Fired

I used Kentmere Fine Print VC Fibre paper, developer was my usual Kodak Polymax. It is actually a superb paper and even for the likes of a Grade 5 print, exposure times are very fast. The lens was the 100mm Vivitar VHE at f16, which is a great lens - amazing to think that a month ago it was sitting unloved in its box, growing fungus.
What can't be ascertained from the scan is the print's luminosity. That is something that is quite hard to define and achieve, but is definitely a by-product of negative density. You don't read that much, but the more I have printed the more I realise it to be so. It is a conclusion I originally saw expounded by the American photographer Steve Mulligan, and I agree with him.
This was the densest negative on the roll.
It is very much me.!
And just to show you how well the combination of film and developer work, here's a sectional enlargement. The above print is an 8x10". 
The section below means the print would stretch beyond the 24-odd inches of the DeVere's baseboard. That's a big print.

Sharpened slightly just to empahasise the grain,
which isn't nearly as huge as I was expecting.
The detail is surprising isn't it, especially when you consider I wasn't  using a tripod.

Were you under the impression that a strong solution of Rodinal was grainy? That is the received wisdom isn't it . . . 
Can I stretch to a Part 3 where I have used 35mm TMX 400?
It's possible actually, because I did so last weekend!
So where has this got me? Was it all pointless?
Well, no.
I might not have achieved the Über-Density of a Ralph Gibson negative, but I have achieved a tonality, in the finished print, which I am delighted with.
I have also been surprised, so much so that I intend to use up the Rodinal I have left - I am particularly looking forward to trying it with some TMX 100 5x4 film. I'll also use it in the future at varying dilutions like I used to. I know the agreed sensible route is to stick to one film and developer combo, but you know what, life's too short. It is fun swapping things around - it makes an interesting hobby even more interesting.
And that's it, as they say at the end of all the best cartoons "Tha-tha-tha-that's all folks!"
I hope you've enjoyed this - if you've got any queries feel free to use the comments box and I'll answer to the best of my ability.
As usual, take care, God bless and thanks for reading.
Oh and if you've read this far, you'll maybe not realise that there is a PART THREE - no one seems to have read it - you can find it HERE

Thanks Ralph!


  1. Phil,

    Do you see the luminosity/tonality you like in your favourite print in the other photographs? I'd have thought that if the luminosity was the product of the Gibson effect then it woud be visible in some of the other negs. I really like number 8, btw.

    I photographed the Hawkhill for my Geography higher back in 1977, I think. I was showing how the city developed westwards from the centre. Got the bus into town armed with my dad's Paxette, took some pics on Tri X and developed and printed them in the school darkroom when I was 16. Great fun - and still got the negs somewhere.

  2. Thanks Bruce - as always comments are greatly appreciated - I wish other people would!
    The one I printed up was the densest of the lot . . something to do with that Scottish rarity . .SUNSHINE!
    I'll try and do number 8 too and see how it turns out. I've actually done exactly the same thing with TMY 400 and Rodinal . . all at 1/125th and f16, with some interesting results.
    Gosh, the Hawkhill in '77 . . very different. I only arrived in 1980 - a few tenements were still there but most of the interesting stuff was gone. You should see McKenzie's essay if it ever gets exhibited again - it shames the Council of those times . . .
    Be good!

  3. The contrast between the before-after pictures of Hawkhill is so sad. Look at those chimneys! Amazing. I haven't quite figured out why modernity, while supposedly improving the living conditions of humanity, just doesn't have much photographical charm.

    Thanks for writing this all up Phil. A very enjoyable read, as are your older posts, which I'm slowly digesting.

    I'm looking forward to part 3 with 35mm Tmax400.


  4. Thanks Omar - glad you are enjoying it all.
    As for Dundee, gosh, before the '60's improvements it still retained much of its old street layouts. There's a model in the McManus Galleries Museum, and it is shocking at how much was just has gone!

  5. Ralph in his Canal Street darkroom is too mucch of nostalgy…
    Thanks, Phil!

  6. Thanks Max - you say that like you knew it.