Friday, February 15, 2019

Let me count even more ways.

My friend, Christopher, added to my list of ways to neglect details in the darkroom.  (my responses in red).

  • have you ever put the negative in upside down? Yes
  • have you ever forgotten to stop the lens down after focusing? Yes
  • have you ever forgotten to close the door tight? No, but in my former darkroom there was a crack under the door that needed a throw rug pushed against it -- that I forgot from time to time.
  • have you ever forgotten to rinse AND dry your hands before going over to the dry side (sorry, i couldn't resist)? No, but likely only because I wear a glove when sloshing about in the trays.
  • have you pushed your chemistry past it's pull date? Only very mildly -- "one more print to do before I quit for the day"
  • have you ever missed the stop bath, putting your film in the fix right after development? No, missed that one.
  • this is one of my favorites, have you ever forgotten your prints in the wash, leaving them there for a couple of days? Yes
  • and can't forget, have you ever left the wash water too warm, remembering just in time to see your print's emulsion peeling away? No, but I did do that to a tank full of Ektachrome once.  Does that count?
i didn't think it fair to mention leaving a throwaway work print on the bottom of the sink to dry emulsion side down and over the drain hole.  Yes.

It's reassuring to hear that photographers whose work I respect klutz it up too.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Meeting Mary Randlett

Mary Randlett died last week at the age of 94.  Her passion was landscape photography -- done with a 35mm camera in defiance of conventional wisdom about landscapes.  Her modestly-sized prints, 16x20 or smaller, were very nice indeed.  My favorites of her work, however, are portraits.  She did portraits of artists, writers, art administrators, curators ... for decades, largely for the Seattle PI.  Dozens of portraits, hundreds of portraits.  Most of her portraits are casual and all are in available light. She was friends with nearly every heavyweight in the Northwest art scene.

Her reputation was that of a kind of Imogen Cunningham "I don't put up with much." person who did her own thing and wore comfortable shoes.

She continued to work in her darkroom nearly every day until a couple of years ago.

While I heard her speak a couple of times later, I had the pleasure of meeting her only once -- at the time of her wonderful show at the Tacoma Art Museum in 2007.  She was scheduled to give a talk about the show on, I believe, a Saturday afternoon.  Always unsure of traffic, I got there about an hour before the talk was due to begin.  Pulling into the nearly-empty parking area behind the museum I saw an older woman getting out of her car and pulling a portfolio box out of the back seat.

Suspecting the best I went over to her and asked if, by chance, she was ... and offered to carry her portfolio box into the museum.  With an obvious "I'm perfectly capable of carrying it but since you offered." attitude she handed me the portfolio box and we walked in together.  We had a friendly conversation about scouting locations, care and feeding of portrait subjects, film, the craft of printing, the upcoming show -- for about 15 minutes until TAM's curator grabbed her to begin getting ready for the talk. 

Another hero gone.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Let Me Count the Ways!

I am getting back into the rhythm of printing once a week since my darkroom is (finally) finished.  Sloshing about in the darkroom is a good time to think – even with music playing on the stereo.  (Jock Sturges says “It’s a dark room, not a quitet room.)

I have a rather orderly work flow in my darkroom.  I contact print my negatives then stare at the contact sheets for a while before marking the negatives that look promising.  I make 5x7 (or so) work prints on RC paper of each of these and stare at them for a while before deciding which ones that look good enough to finish print.  I make all the work prints using a #2 filter and a guess at the exposure time based on the look of the contact print.  This makes the work print a good source of further guesses on how to begin a finish print.

First I decide what HAS to be right – in most of my photographs that is the skin tones – and I make one or more (usually more) test prints until I’m satisfied with that part.  Then I make further test prints to make the remainder of the print look like I want it to.  Now since I do not live a Zone System life, by this stage of the game I have used at least two contrast filters and added dodging and burning with each of them.  It’s not unusual for me to have a dozen or so steps (written down, by the way) before I’m ready to make the final prints. 

Here’s where the thinking noted above kicks in.  During last week’s darkroom day I was making a mental catalog of the various ways to botch up the final print ….

Forgetting to close the cover on the filter tray so that when the enlarger light comes on white light fogs the paper.

Thinking about changing:

a.       Enlargement factor,

b.      Filter grade,

c.       Exposure time,

d.      Or f/stop
is not equivalent to doing so.

Dropping the dodging tool on the floor and not being able to find it without turning on the room lights.

Forgetting one or more steps.

And my very favorite – after I have the printing strategy in mind I usually rehearse it a time or two before actually putting paper in the easel – forgetting to put paper in the easel.  

Have I missed one that you do?

-- and one more from my printing session yesterday.

When using more than one filter on a print, forget to take the first one out of the filter tray before loading the second one in.

Friday, January 4, 2019

"Craft Doesn't Matter" -- Oh?

I have no idea where this blog post is going.  There are several, intertwined issues involved and getting them braided in a way that makes sense isn’t going to be easy.  A journalist friend, Elliot Marple, was noted for the clarity of his writing.  He rated his essays by the number of “trips through the meat grinder”.  At the end of the post I’ll let you know how many trips this one took.
Thread #1:  A friend, photographer with a razor-sharp eye who is also a master printer, was asked to review the work of an aspiring (but not by any means beginner) street photographer.  When said friend noted that many of the photographs were interesting but that the prints were diminished by blown out highlights, blocked up shadows and muddy midtones.  The haughty response was that content was all important and print quality is merely craft that doesn’t matter.
Thread #2:  Blue Sky Gallery in Portland Oregon recently showed still photographs, films, and books by Robert Frank.  The announcement of the show states:
Conceived by Robert Frank and Gerhard Steidl, this exhibition shows Frank’s work in photos, books, and films in a direct, accessible manner. Frank’s images are printed on sheets of newsprint and hung on the walls or from the ceiling. Frank’s films and videos, which are so often overshadowed by his photographic work, are shown on small portable “beamers” projecting them directly onto the walls. Finally, the exhibition will be disposed of after display, thus circumventing the normal cycle of speculation and consumption in the art market. When the idea for this pop-up show first reached Frank in his small, crooked house in the Canadian village of Mabou, he said: “Cheap, quick, and dirty, that’s how I like it!
Well, that’s not exactly how it is.
The prints are not on newsprint.  However a copy of Süddeutsche Zeitung, in which the prints are on newsprint, is on display in the gallery.  The reproductions are no better than you would expect in a newspaper.
The work in this show is ink-jet printed on long strips of semi-gloss paper.  Print quality is scattered — from barely ok to what I would regard as throw-away.
I understand, even applaud, the emphasis on availability as opposed to the creation of precious objects only seen by the elite in upscale galleries.  On the other hand — I question the assumption that “cheap, quick, and dirty” is an appropriate display strategy.  It would have been pretty easy and not at all expensive to tweak the digital files and produce high-quality digital prints.  Would that have diminished their availability? No.  Would that have made them more compelling?  Yes.  Would that have compromised the notion of destroying the prints after the show comes down?  No — at least not significantly since the digital files would be available to print them again for the next venue in which the show will be shown.  (That practice, however, strikes me as pretentious.)
The prints are accompanied by copies of the many small books that Frank produced in his long career.  I had no idea how many!  In most cases the reproductions in the books, while smaller, are more compelling than the prints on the wall.
Thread #3:  Also in Portland, the Art Museum was simultaneously showing early (1938-41) photographs of the Portland river front by Minor White.  The great (and I say “great” even though I’m not a fan of his work) Minor White lived and worked in Portland from the late 30s to the early 50s.  Before he moved to the abstract style for which he is best known he did a lot of more documentary work.  Among other things, he photographed the Portland riverfront and the historic downtown in Portland for the WPA.
Work from that period was on display in the photography gallery at PAM.  His riverfront work was up then and the downtown work later that spring.
What is obvious, at least to me, in the riverfront work is that even then White was obsessed with the shapes, the lines, the fall of light on an object as opposed to what the scene showed.  With the exception of perhaps four portraits they are totally without living creatures.  They see more than a bit sterile to me.  What is also obvious is that he was a superb printer!
Thread #4:  I subscribe to a service of the wonderful Duncan Miller Gallery in Santa Monica.  Each day they post a few photographs one “vintage”, one “emerging” and one or more just because.  Most of the “vintage” are not by the top tier photographers but sometimes are.  Recently an 8x10 of Margaret Bourke-White’s “Gold Miners, Johannesburg” was listed at $1500, discounted to $950 as their daily bargain. In the same post the “emerging” photograph was a 13x19, ink-jet print of part of the roof and dome of a 1950s vista dome passenger rail car listed at $450 discounted to $400.
Thread #5:  Each year I go to the BFA show for graduates of the Cornish College of the Arts and to the certificate-completion show at Photographic Center Northwest.  There is a little something for nearly everybody at both of these shows but there is a common thread the pieces, by hatchling artists without a non-academic show or publication to their name, are prices from several hundred to a couple of thousand dollars.
Thread #6:  A photographer in Portland (name on request) makes sensitive, exquisite studio portraits, still lifes, and nudes.  He sells them for modest sums, $225 for the platinums and a bit more for the one-of-a-kind wet plate and polymer prints.  A second Portland photographer (name on request) does environmental portraits of his friends and neighbors with an 8x10 view camera and contact prints them.  I don’t know how he prices his prints he doesn’t seem to be very interesting in selling.
OK here goes.  There are three issues tangled together here: one is the how art and craft interact in photography, the second is the setting of prices, and the third is how fame influences prices. 
How art and craft interact:  I don’t know where the “art” and the “craft” collide in photography or painting, or sculpture, or drawing, or music composition, or music performance, or dance or …  For everything but photography my guess is that “art” is seeing or hearing the finished piece in your mind and “craft” is the ability to make the reality look or sound like that.  Perhaps the practice of photography as done with a large format camera on a tripod emphasizing pre-visualization of the print fits that definition as well.  Maybe it doesn’t even have to be a large format camera Mary Randlett did pretty well with 35mm.
For the kind of photography that I do it seems to me that “art” occurs twice.  The first bit is the ability to see what is before me and get it on a negative before it vanishes.  Oh, wait if I don’t have the craft of camera handling down to muscle memory then how clearly I see what is before me probably doesn’t matter because it doesn’t hang around long enough for me to fumble about with camera settings before I record it. 
Second is looking at the contact sheet and deciding which frame should be printed and visualizing what the finished print should look like.  Then craft takes over in the darkroom or on the computer.  Is there room for changing your concept in mid-craft?  You bet another collision with art. 
I often wonder how photographers such as Imogen Cunningham could work with a printer without standing over the printer’s shoulder and directing each step.  Even Ansel Adams, with his “the negative is the score and the print is the performance” seemed to deal successfully with a printer.  Perhaps he was willing to accept Ted Orland’s or Al Weber’s performance in the same way that a composer accepts the performance of his or her music by another musician.  Perhaps the photographer has worked with the printer for so long that the printer has absorbed the photographer’s way of seeing.  Perhaps the photographer and the printer should both sign the finished piece.  Actually, that sounds like a very good idea to me.
What I do know about the collision of art and craft in photography is that craft does matter.  The ability to look at a negative or a work print or a raw file and decide how you want it to look is art.  Making it “look like that” is craft and without the craft at your fingertips or your printer’s fingertips it is going to take a long time to do so.
Saying that you don’t care about craft is a cop out unless (and this is a very big “unless”) you have good enough chops to make if look any way you damn well please and you choose to make it look it look like that.  Salvador Dali once noted “: Learn to draw and paint like an old master. … then you can do whatever you want.  Dali could choose to paint like Rev. Howard Finster but certainly not vice-versa.
The aspiring photographer in Thread 1 has neither the keenness of vision (unlike Robert Frank) to make the content strong enough to carry the day nor the chops (unlike Minor White) to make the prints beautiful enough to carry the day.  (I’ve seen quite a few of his prints.)  My guess is that Robert Frank does have the chops and that his choice for the appearance of the prints in this show reflects both his very gritty view of the world and  using them to reflect his dystopian approach to recording shape, line, light and shadow.
John Barth said (slightly paraphrased) “My feeling about technique in art is that it has about the same value as technique in lovemaking. Heartfelt ineptitude has its appeal and so does heartless skill; but success comes with PASSIONATE VIRTUOSITY.
While I understand and certainly admire both the work of Robert Frank and Minor White I would, in simplistic terms, place White on the “heartless skill” side of the fence.  I wish I could place Frank on the “heartfelt ineptitude” side but I cannot because I believe he has the chops to make a splendid print but chooses not to do so .  While I’m being simplistic I’ll place both of the photographers in Thread 6 and the friend mentioned in Thread 1 as “PASSIONATE VIRTUOSOS
How fame influences prices:  The short answer is “a lot” (no kidding).  Photographs are an oddity in the art world (no kidding again).  My art purchase budget does not include popping $950 for the Margaret Bourke-White “Gold Miners” no matter how much I admire that image (a lot).  Would I be equally happy with a modern silver print of that negative at, say, $200?  You bet.  I happen to have a beautifully printed book with an approximately 8x10 reproduction of that print in it.  If I ripped that page out of the book (an immoral act in my opinion) matted and framed it and put it on the wall could I tell the difference between it and a silver print?  Well, yes with a careful look.  Would I admire it as much as I would the silver print?  Well, very nearly every time I walked by it.
That’s not the case with other mediums at least not that clear a case.  Part of that, of course, is that a modern silver print of “Gold Miners” would be indistinguishable from the original at least to the naked eye at least to my naked eye.  Moreover, the making of such a copy would be relatively inexpensive, albeit requiring the skill of a master printer to do so.  Would the copy carry the same price tag as the original?  Of course not.
Paintings, well not so much.  Would a skilled copy of “Girl with a Pearl Earring” carry the same impact as Vermeer’s original?  Well, when art museums in the United States were being established they often sent copy artists to European museums to copy famous paintings that were unavailable to them.  Many of these very expensive copies are still hanging in sundry prestigious museums and the few I’ve seen look pretty good.  Would they hold up well when hung next to the original?  I’d love to find out.  Would the auction price or insured value be as much as the original?  Of course not. 
Meat grinder count is up to six and I’m still not satisfied with how it wound up but I’m going to post it anyway.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Remembering Joe Budne

Joe died September 29 at the age of 94.

He and I became friends shortly after they moved to the Seattle area about 20 years ago.  Before retiring he was a photographer and, especially, an art director for major advert. agencies in New York.  

As a young man, Joe was an artilleryman with Patton's 5th army during their march across the low countries and across Germany.  He came back with a serious hearing loss that it took years to convince the VA that it just might have been caused by standing around a howitzer for several months firing as many rounds in an hour as they were trained to do in a day.

Joe, having started college just before going into the army, resumed his studies on the GI bill.  He had thoughts of staying in France and going to the Sorbonne but really wanted to go home to New York.  He originally decided to study engineering -- not one of his better ideas since Joe and mathematics were not (and are not) friends.  With a BFA and, later, an MFA he soon found his niche in advertising.  While he was a plenty good photographer, etcher, sketcher, ... his real talent was design.  After we became friends, when I had some piece of photographs and text looking good I took it to Joe for a review.  He would leave a trail of red marks all over it -- "this font is 1 point larger than it should be", "right-justify this picture and make it 1/4" smaller", "set this title in a sans serif typeface" ....  None of the changes he proposed were major (well, rarely) but after I made them the difference was very obvious.  I learned a great deal from him and repaid him by keeping his computer files more or less (often less) organized.

After Joe and his wife moved to a retirement community he got out his sketch pad and pencils again.  We had lunch together nearly every week and up until a month or so before his death he came to lunch equipped with pencil box and sketch pad to do quick portraits of people in the cafe.  As soon as he picked up the pencil the tremor from his Parkinson's disease stopped.  Even as his memory failed as soon as we started talking about art he was 30 years younger.  Earlier this year he worked with a young artist to do an etching based on one of his Life Magazine prize-winning photographs.

He was a talented, unceasingly optimistic, witty, gregarious man with a quirky sense of humor and an excellent way with words.  Making friends with him was very easy.  I miss Joe and a lot of other people do, too. 

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Harold Balasz -- Another Hero Gone

Today's Seattle Times had an obituary for Harold Balasz.  I had the pleasure (and it certainly was a pleasure) of being on staff with him for one of the annual Centrum Foundation workshops for gifted high school students.  Apart from being an exceptionally talented, skilled, hardworking artist he was a splendid human being -- warmhearted, open minded, funny ...  I wrote about my portrait of him in my blog  in July 2014 (complete with misspelled "portrait" in the title that I just noticed.

Another "Harold" anecdote that I just remembered.  At the end of the class days at the workshop we of the staff were likely more tired than the students -- they were a lot younger and overcharged with the experience of being in a group of kids each as motivated and eager as they were.  One of the older students -- high school senior -- was badgering Harold to draw her portrait.  He was tired and ready to throw in the towel for the day but she wouldn't give up.  He finally said "Oh, all right.  Take off your clothes and I'll draw you."  She, flustered, gave up.  At the faculty meeting that night somebody asked Harold what he would have done if she had taken off her clothes.  Shrug of shoulders -- "She's 18, I would have drawn her."

Harold didn't put up with much socially or politically either.  Here's my favorite of his posters -- hanging proudly on the wall behind me as I write.

As the saying goes -- I shall not meet his kind again.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Another "I want to be like him when I grow up."

The Seattle Art Museum is currently showing a wonderful retrospective exhibit of 110 paintings from the long career of Andrew Wyeth.  (He was actively painting until shortly before his death at 91.  He's my new hero -- I want to be like him when I grow up.)  I saw the show earlier this week and I'm going to go back and see it at least once more before it closes -- likely several times.

Ever since I saw this show each time my mind goes into idle one of his paintings pops up like a mental screen saver.  I love it when that happens.

He is categorized as a "realistic" painter and that he certainly was. 

However, he hotly denied that he was painting exactly what it looked like but how he felt about what was before him-- putting his own stories, his own memories on the board rather than a photorealistic likeness.  That said, his skill as a painter makes looking at them strictly as a likeness quite plausible.

Painters have it easy (the photographer says with tongue firmly in cheek) -- if there is something they don't like in the background they just don't paint it in.  We photographers are stuck with what is actually there (Photoshop helps but ...).  But I digress.

Wyeth is primarily known for moody, introspective paintings of his beloved Chadd's Ford PA and the coast of Maine -- and for nudes, especially the "Helga" series.  He also did portraits -- lots of portraits -- spectacular portraits.

Wyeth's portraits fascinate me -- most are "environmental" in that the subject is presented in context that adds to the story he was hoping to tell.  Unlike Arnold Newman's environmental portraits, however, the context is not nearly so explicit -- Newman's portrait of Stravinsky at his piano, for example, would not allow you to think of the subject as anything but an accomplished musician.  Wyeth's portraits are certainly made more rich by knowing his story but are also rich in that I can see a story of my own in them.

I am going to round up some reproductions of Wyeth portraits so I can study the poses and the lighting in depth.  There is a lot for a photographer to learn there.

Thinking about this (a lot) the light bulb that finally came on is that I am trying to do the same thing with my photographs.  The great Henri Cartier-Bresson once said:

"Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again.  You cannot develop and print a memory."

Yes, photography demands that you be there, point the camera in the right direction, release the shutter at the right time. But when you are there, you do point the camera in the right direction, you do release the shutter at the right time — then you create a window into the past in a way that no other visual medium can match -- well, unless you can paint like Andrew Wyeth.  Then you can develop and print a memory or at least glimpse it — spy on it.  Or maybe when a viewer looks at a photograph they see their own story in it.  I hope so.