Monday, April 18, 2016

Stumbling Into The Light

You know there's that thing called a Preternatural Glow that can precede dawn (so long as it isn't overcast)?
Well, as a long-time very early riser, I can confirm that there is - it's my favourite time of day too and often brings to mind the best photograph I've ever seen in my life.
Well, at least it might have been the best photograph I've ever seen in my life, had I had
a/ a small tripod
b/ a loaded camera!

My Dad used to have this great saying: 

The Things You See When You Haven't Got Your Gun 

It's a great saying and in my case could easily have been applied to my photographic unpreparedness.
I was driving along near The Caterthuns in Angus - they're two iron Age hillforts outside Brechin and my goodness the view from the top is astonishing. Anyway, it was pre-dawn, really dark, and I was bumbling along a lane in my old Nissan Micra and there before me (outwith the reach of my headlight beams) was a spread of land that opened out from the high country I was in, for miles and miles downwards to the Eastern horizon and the North Sea.
It was like the land had been cut away for my pleasure and wonder and I had this downward slope of immense landscape to bask in; and there, huddled together in the field beside the road, was a smallish herd of cows.
I like cows - you know where you stand with a cow, anyway, this lot were all lying down, cudding away, and to a cow, were watching the dawn coming on in the same way I was.
The light was so faint it only lit them gently, but they all had a look of utter peace on their faces.
Cows appreciate the unusual and art - did you know that? It's true - whenever my Mum used to hang washing on our whirlygig washing line, it always attracted a herd of interested moos who would stand and watch for ages until they'd eaten all the grass nearby in the adjacent field and then wander off murmuring appreciatively. .
Anyway, I digress - I stopped the car on the tight verge, switched off the engine, rolled down the window and listened. There was a massive silence gently filled with warm cow sounds (no not that Jenkins . . . report to the headmaster immediately) and a sense of all not only being right with the world, but also a sense of peace which literally did pass all understanding.
It was incredible and had I a camera that could have frozen the moment, I would have done so and astonished people, but sadly, that was not the case, and so the scene is forever only imprinted in my memory until I shuffle off to the immortal skip . . .
But that was the glow, the preternatural glow. It softened and made so very beautiful the faces of the cows and draped itself so gently over the world that it turned the astonishingly ordinary into something otherworldly and timeless.
It was a herald of good portents for the day and lifted my spirit to soar upon the morning breeze (yes you've got to feed the inner caveman sometimes) and this is what it did.

Photographic, Silver Gelatin prints can have that glow too. 
It's a rare thing but does seems to be do-able. 
I've seen it in real prints from the masters at exhibitions, I've seen it in a wonderful book on the Maggie's Centre in Dundee, by Peter Goldsmith and I've also seen it in some incredibly early Photogravures from the pages of Camera Work. 
Incredibly to me, I've even sometimes seen it in my own prints . . . but it's rarer than rocking-horse shit, however sometimes you just stumble upon a combination that works.
In my case, it was FP4 rated at EI 80 developed in 1+50 Rodinal (well, R09) at 20C. 
The resulting negatives were printed on ancient, long-expired Agfa MCC at Grade 4 (100 Magenta on my DeVere head) - I've had to use this equivalent grade to bring the paper back to life - anything less and the paper is mud - my goodness though, I wish I had a dozen or so boxes of it.  
The prints were developed very ordinarily in Fotospeed developer, Kodak stop and Ilford fix and given standard Selenium toning for archival purposes. And that was it! Incredibly exposure was standardised at 16 seconds at f22 on my Vivitar lens, with a tiny (and I mean tiny) bit of burning judiciously applied here and there. 
There was no Split-Grade Faffing, no Wizard-Cape Theatricals, no Snake Oil - just straight printing
I often wonder with the screeds of books written about the darkroom dark arts, how much of it is snake oil. Get the exposure right in the camera, and printing should just come down to either expansion or contraction of contrast and a modicum of artistic license in the form of dodging and burning. To me, printing should be like that marvelous recipe your Grandmother passed down to your Mother - simple; any amount of tarting up just takes away from the utter simplicity of the original thing.
Anyway, scans below. Of course scanning can never duplicate the physical presence of a print, but you can get an idea - believe me, they do, on the whole, glow.

Please feel  free to comment - I am quite proud of these - they're printed about 8.5" x 8.5" on 9.5" x 12" paper and obviously I've cut the borders off to accomodate the image area in scanning . . . . 
Bruce Robbins reckons the look comes from a combination of light, surroundings and circumstance, and he could well be right. I'd set out to photograph some shoreline, but this being Scotland, it started pouring and I ended up getting stuck in the underpass bit of a certain well-known road bridge near me. It was really chucking outside, but inside it was weird and reflecty and damp and photographic! 
And yes, I know the third one has rendered me as a Brass Rubbing . . I quite like it. 
And I also know there's a bit of squintyness in the form of converging verticals - it was pretty dark in there.
Film as mentioned was FP4 - I like the look of it so much I am thinking it would be good to standardise on it - a truly great film.
And that's it really - I had a fantastic time photographing these and an even better time printing them.

TTFN and remember, pease pudding hot, pease pudding cold, pease pudding in the pot, nine days old.


  1. @"It softened and made so very beautiful the faces of the cows and draped itself so gently over the world that it turned the astonishingly ordinary into something otherworldly and timeless."

    That's just lovely, Phil. I can see that scene in my mind's eye. Your prints look great on my ipad screen. Have you read Mike Johnston's article about "The Glow". He seems to be talking about much the same thing. Maybe you should give his "recipe" a try. I've been meaning to do it for some time.

  2. Thanks Bruce - I do enjoy a bit of flowery prose!

    and no, I haven't seen his article - will have a search and see what I can find.


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