Sunday, March 30, 2014

Art, Pain And The Eternal Struggle

Morning folks . . in fact, to coin a phrase from a friend of my Dad's, who was Welsh and not Irish 'Top o' the mornin' to you! Don't you just love it when the dawn beats you to rising . . my favourite time of year.
Anyway, enough of that, because we are about to talk about graft.
Hard Graft.
Damn Hard.
In fact, if you don't feel up to a bit of a solid workout, then you might as well give up now, because, and I'll say this only once:
"The Darkroom Boot Camp Makes Men."
Now any of you solid young fellows that don't feel much like working, well, you can leave now, and take your dollies with you, because what we are talking about today is Man-Stuff.
It soon sorts out the wheat from the chaff, and if you don't feel up to it, you jolly well know what you can do.

It is really rather easy to see why hardly anyone bothers to print with traditional darkroom materials these days.
To put it bluntly, making a 'proper' monochrome print (on silver gelatin paper, using an enlarger and a negative) is fucking hard.
There, I've said it.
I can't say I have ever seen it put like that before (not even in the original proof version of Mr. Ansel Adams' Meisterwerk 'The Print').
But it is true.
And how can I say it?
Well, I have spent a large period of my adult life spare time toiling away in darkrooms - approximately 30 years actually, and whilst I consider myself a good and able printer, I am not sure whether I have ever even crossed that borderline into the legendary realms of the 'fine' printer.
Others might disagree with me, however (and this is where the tao of self-belief comes in) they're wrong. You see, my problem is that I tend towards self-criticism and a lack of self-confidence in all of my creative endeavours, and this leads to the rather unhealthy situation of being too critical of my prints.
I can print. Sure I can print well.
But I am not 'fine' .
See what I mean? That damn lack of confidence. Hoist 'pon my own petard as it were.
If I were different I'd be saying:

"Yeah, 30 years Analog (how I bloody hate that word) - man I can print up a storm. 
Split Grade? Yehay, piece of easy shit. 
Toning . . send on the selenium. 
Archival processing? Man, my shit will last longer than that radiation leak from Fukashima 
l'm ALL ANALOG man."

Or words to that effect.
But the proof of the pudding and all that - the object, is sitting there in your hand staring you in the face and it's either the cat's pyjamas or a total mutt, because you see, there's no glossing over things with printing.
You are holding the truth in your hand, and it is either being held with an archival cotton museum glove or feverishly clutched in your nicotine-stained hand whilst you shake your other fist at the sky. There's no escaping the truth.

I spent a reasonable amount of time this morning scanning through tons of old prints for the first time in months and months, and maybe the break has done me good, because I was clearly able to see the rejects and the also-rans, the winners and the sure-fire pleasurable prints. 
You'll find some scans at the end of this blog and see if you agree.
The thing is though (that apart from the total hounds) at the end of each respective printing sessions I loved most of the prints I had made, because that is the nature of printing.
It can be a pleasurable activity. 
You are crafting something of the three-dimensional world into the critical and narrow realism of the two-dimensional print
And sometimes, just sometimes, that 3-D world is transformed into a 2-D image of such passion and beauty it takes your breath away.
But a lot of the time it isn't.
You can't escape the truth.
It is though, an object; and an object you've made.
It may not change lives in the way say a viewing of Edward Weston's contact prints does. But it is you.
And if you've made the negatives and processed them yourself as well, it is all you, and stands or falls on your skills and vision.
It is (or can be) the culmination of a very complex process, a juxtapositioning of skill, eye, taste, ability, luck and craft.
And it is fucking hard.   
There's that 'f' word again.
I'm not labouring the point either, because darkroom work is mostly a solo activity.
Nobody else is around to see the eye-strain, the smells of spilt chemicals, the blue air, the messed-up borders, scratched negatives, dust, fevered dodging and burning, test-stripping, counting, airless-sweating, more dust and bad skin/chemical reactions, until you emerge from your not-so-secret bunker clutching a couple of pieces of paper, blinking in the cold daylight and shouting "AT LAST!".
Oh no - if you're lucky someone will say, "Hey, they're nice."
And that's it.
And as if this slaving away in the red room wasn't enough, then there's the masochism of  penury:
Yeah, you know, that noun that equates to "the state of being very poor; extreme poverty".
Viz: "he couldn't face another year of penury"
Some synonyms are:
extreme/dire poverty

See what I mean - appropriate don't you think, because photography in general, has never been a poor man's hobby.
And in fact I can think of no other hobby (apart from say diamond collecting) that requires such an ungodly amount of cash to keep it going.
Again, no wonder hardly anyone prints any more . .
Why's that Sheephouse? I hear you cry
Well, to put it bluntly, it is fucking expensive.
You know, you can spend the best part of £80-£90 on a box of 100 sheets of 10x8" fibre paper.
Add in say another £20 odd on enough chemicals to get 50 or so archivally processed prints out.
And subtract from that 50 prints (of which maybe 5 to 10 are acceptable if you are being honest and of those, maybe 3 or 4 are truly things you love) the rest of that paper (approximately £40-odds worth in today's prices) which gets put away in old paper boxes, never to be looked at again!
So looking at that box of 100 sheets, you've maybe got 8 in total that you love; maybe 20 that are acceptable, and 72 that don't cut the mustard.
You see what I mean, printing is not just hard, but economically it's fucking hard.
I'll stop using the 'f‘ word to put my point across now - apparently it tells you (the reader) that I am substantially lacking in vocabulary . . make of that what you will . . .
So why, when this is an obvious case of pouring money down the drain do the few hardy souls left doing it, actually do it?
Blind Faith?
Well blind faith is close to it actually, and the pleasure of making art - you might only be scratching your shitty stick against a corner of a cave in the furthest reaches of the Lascaux cave system, but at least it is your bit of cave . .  the compulsion to make beautiful things is as old as mankind.
The compulsion to make something that might just last longer than you, is even older.
In one of my favourite films (Moonstruck), a man asks a woman why men have affairs, to which she answers "Because they are afraid of death".
Whilst printing isn't quite like that, it is in a way.
Aside from the conscious deliberation to make something that is pleasing to the eye, I feel the underlying urge is to make something that will be your little piece of eternity. Something to which massed hordes might flock and worship, in much the same way that true vintage prints by the greats of traditional photography provide the same attraction. You stand and marvel at someone's vision and soul scooped from light and form and writ large with passion on a flat piece of sensitized paper.
It is magical.
Almost as magical as those hand prints in Lascaux, though maybe not as archival.

I had the good fortune to view the touring Ansel Adams exhibition in Edinburgh a few years back - it was really extraordinary. Not just for the images, but for the quality of the printing, which was absolutely superb. The images breathed an air of unqualified precision of concept and untouchable artisanal skills - they were really special, and whether their totem-like qualities were helped along by the subdued lighting and the fact they were under glass and proper artistic OBJECTS I knoweth not . . all I do know is that they made such a deep impression on my wife and I that we went back to see them again. They were in their own way a photographic Lourdes . . where the outcome could be life-changing.
I left determined to be a better printer . . but haven't succeeded.
But back to that compulsion

I also like to think of printing as being rather like climbing a hill.
You are always trying to reach that distant pinnacle.
You might well reach one impressive top or plateau, but you can always see more tempting ones to head off towards, and each one of those is your image's potential,
But look!
There, miles away!!
The most beautiful one!!!
Well that my friend, that could well be the best print you've ever made in your life . . .
But can you reach it?
It is going to be a hard slog, and incredibly daunting, and you might well fail.
Surely it would be easier to sit down here and take it all in
After all, you can admire those peaks from a distance. There's really no need to trouble yourself, because it probably isn't worth the effort to make it to those lofty snow-covered crags.
And besides, isn't it supposed to be fucking hard?
Well yes, it is, and a number of you will fall along the way and be content to rest your weary bones, after all, this craft stuff takes stamina, steely determination and downright grit.
But then this is your craftsmanship we're talking about. Are you just going to sit there and be content to munch your sandwiches and slurp your coffee on the great tartan blanket of also-ran printing, or are you going to pack it all away, hoist your backpack and get moving before the light goes . . remember, this is one life . . there's only so much light left to determine how immortal you'll be.
You have to keep moving, keep walking, keep taking in the sights and sounds and keep enjoying the journey, because despite the effort involved, remember it is (or can be) a pleasurable activity . .
So my friends, I'll remove my soapbox now and say:
Practice, practice and practice . .
Printing is like learning a musical instrument — you'll never improve if you don't practice.
And you never know, if you keep heading on to those distant peaks, maybe Ansel, or Edward or Wynn will be up there ahead of you on the trail, holding themselves back, just waiting for you with a nice refreshing draught of inspiration.

The snarlin' hounds:

It's a print Jim, but not as we know it. Totally lacking in any impact whatsoever.

Ghastly. Bad Grade Choice and the spectre of the film masking blade on the enlarger causing underexposure on the left of the print.

The photograph has real atmosphere, but the print is as flat as anything.

Even when you think you have a good print, things conspire against you. The black top right edge is a manufacturing fault!

The Cat's Pyjamas:

This is a little series called 'City Of Discovery' all made in Dundee. They're 35mm negatives made with my old Nikon F2 and the 35mm f2 pre-Ai Nikkor.
The pale edges you see next to the blackness of the rebate are adjacency effects from film development.
Paper size is 10x8" and they're nice as physical objects.

This is called 'The Pilgrim's Way' and it was taken on St Cuthbert's footpath, which follows the route of Dere Street in the Scottish Borders. I was so taken by the quality of light and the ethereal feeling I had whilst walking this ancient track that I had to make a photograph. It's probably boring to you, but to me it has feeling. The camera was my Rolleflex T with the 6.45cm mask inserted. The quality of the negative is very fine.

I adore this photograph and print.
The photograph was made on my Rollei T using Trix-X on an incredibly bright day. What you are seeing is shadow and reflection and the dehydrated remnants of water on a window in one of the hot-houses at St Andrews Botanical Garden . . one of the finest little botanical gardens in Scotland - visit it and buy some plants.
Paper was 10x8" Ilford Galerie and I would happily display this print anywhere and not look sheep(house)ish.

Believe it or not these two images were made on the same film and on the same day - they flowed together and all was right with the world.
However, even in my hour of triumph you'll maybe notice in the first print that spectre of the masking blade encroaching on the right side of the image. Still, it'll do for the moment . . should anyone ask me to exhibit these I would of course reprint.
Both are printed on untoned 8x10" Ilford Galerie.

Archival Storage. Silverprint Archival box and crystal clear polyester sleeves.

Donkey derby stables - that's about 500 sheets of fibre 8x10.

The print as a real object

Two more.

This one didn't scan well, so this is all you get.


  1. hi there Herman :)
    you write with a swing, no doubt about it! as a fellow cameraman and an occasional darkroom enthusiast, i read this post with a big smile on my face.
    i can relate and sympathize the frustration one must feel when realizing one is not St. Adams. as modern age printers and craftsmen, we stand in the midst of big casted shadow of past's masters. when i started printing and first encountered the all intimidating term - the fine print - i immediately felt discouraged and weak. it took me some real time printing and contemplating before i started realizing that working under the heavy burden of high ideal is nothing more than castrating.
    lately i have been trying to run away from the concept of the "right" way to print. when i print i try to do my best just enough so the message and feeling can communicate and move from the page out to the viewer. the right dose of contrast helps quite a bit (here's a little secret).
    there is a lot of talk on the forums and places where our kin is rolling these days about maximum black, tonal range, f-stop printing and so on and so forth... this kind of approach can bring you close to that peak you were referring to, but it will keep you away from the true nature of creativity.
    all the best and keep those post coming!

  2. Hi Tal - thank you very much for your kind words - as always, any comments are appreciated.
    The finest printer I have ever met is one Mr. Joseph McKenzie who lectured at Duncan Of Jordanstone College Of Art in Dundee and literally taught me everything. His approach to printing was simple (no split grade footery for him) - graded paper, a thoughtful approach to the craft and care taken at every stage - it was very simple actually, but worked. At the end of the day, I think he felt that a good image would out no matter how it was printed . . it just needed a little helping hand.
    Printing can be an enourmously complex thing, but it is a relatively simple process.
    Thanks again and take care - you are based in Israel aren't you?

  3. great story. last month i had a few sessions printing on ultra-vintage graded paper, found in an old storage house, with expiry date of three decades ago and a strong scent of mold... printing on this stock was an eye opener - there is no high-tech multigrade gizmos to make your life easy and breezy - you have to let the negative and the image tell its tale and flow with what direction it leads. it was a full zen and the silver halide experience.
    oh, and yes, i am Israeli, living in Israel :)

  4. Hi Tal - how did the images turn out?
    I have to admit to preferring graded paper over MG, that being said though, Forte used to make totally wonderful MG paper, but I still reckon the likes of Galerie has the edge on pretty much everything.
    Israel eh . . another country I have never been to!
    Take care

  5. Why bother when Shift+Ctrl+L in Photoshop takes care of everything? Just joking :)

    I was in this boring business meeting yesterday morning when I first read through your post, and I had a very hard time trying to suppress a chuckle: The Basil Fawlty vision that I saw when reading the passage with the printer shaking his fist at the sky...or the shitty stick in the cave...:) Very entertaining writing! Thanks!

    I love printing smallish images on a larger piece of paper with very wide borders, so the City Of Discovery series made a strong impression on me. For me, the Clark Thomson image is particularly fine.

    By the way, about 10 years ago there was another Ansel Adams exhibition that I visited in the Royal Academy (if I remember correctly) in Southbank/London, which was very good. But the absolutely best printing that I've ever seen were a couple of Eugene Smith prints in the Istanbul Modern museum. They took my breath away!!

    Cheers, Omar

  6. the prints came out really nice. one example is here:
    you can see that the paper has a yellow tint to it, while the blacks are a bit cold - the result is a strange kind of almost split-toned print, although no toner was used... a nice surprise.
    this paper was Agfa (brovira if i remember correctly). even after aging for thirty year, it still struck me as an amazing piece of material to work with.
    i guess these kind of finds are rare these days. since i started printing i mainly use Foma Fiber stock, and i really like it.
    Omar - i would love to see one of Smith's prints - he's one of my favorites!

  7. Hi Tal and Omar - thanks to both of you for commenting . .this is the most I've had in a while, so I should be a grumpy old git more often!

    Firstly - Tal - that's a beautiful looking paper and print . .
    Sadly Brovira pretty much passed me by at college - we only ever used Galerie and Kentmere and that was the original Galerie too which could impart a slightly olive-green tone to your blacks which usually required some selenium to sort it out.

    Omar - happy to have made you laugh - I do enjoy writing like that! As for the Dundee prints - I printed them at different sessions and didn't like any of them, then they sort of came together when I was going through stuff. The Clark Thompson was made with an F2 and a pre-Ai 35, f2 Nikkor with an original Nikon polarizer. They're all printed on Galerie . . film I think was TMY2 for all of those.

    And to both of you . .well you know I love Eugene anyway, but I've never had the opportunity to see a physical print . . maybe when the V&A comes to Dundee (which it is doing . . only other one outside London) I'll get a chance. I'd love to see some Walker Evans too . . .

    Thanks once again

  8. Have a look at Terry Cryer's printing. I went to a talk by him and his work is really good.

  9. Thanks Anon . . I was aware of him actually - difficult picture making conditions, but some nice printing.
    My sister's partner was David Warner Ellis (if you Google the name, loads of stuff comes up) - he was a rock n' roll photographer par excellence and again, printed incredibly well considering the difficulty of contrast from a typical stage show.

  10. Great post, Phil, and a good laugh. Swearing can be very effective in the right context and this is the right context! Hard indeed - although Omar makes it seem all too easy.

    Maybe we've all lost something through the ubiquitous multigrade. I noticed that when printing a while back on out of date Record Rapid. We should all get together and start a "return to graded" movement, ditching digital and multigrade like real men (insert war cry).

  11. Cheers Bruce - thanks as always. And yes! RTG starts here . . got the tees printed already:

    See me . . I'm hard.
    Grade 3 And Be There
    Slavich To The Grind
    Soft Option
    (Ilfo) Speed Demon

    and other such innanities . ..

  12. Haha! What about Rogues' Galerie?

  13. Very good Bruce!
    As I say RTG starts here - post coming soon.