Just last week I finished the printing for a small portfolio from negatives that I took in Paris in 1978. I was there, alas, on business, for 10 days each in early April and in early October. With my twin, brand new Canon AT-1’s in hand, one loaded with Tri-X and the other with Kodachrome, (I'm still using those cameras, by the way.) I had a wonderful time in the limited time left over from being an engineer.
In addition to having a day job in 1978 we also had four kids around the house ranging in age from 17 to 7. I didn’t print a lot of the negatives at the time nor did I do much with the slides.
About four months ago I took a third or fourth or fifth look at Peter Turnley’s book “The Parisians” and wondered if I had enough photographs from Paris to do something with them. I have made a desk calendar each year for six years – did I have enough, roughly 55, to use for this year’s calendar. Apart from scanning the slides (all my slides – some 5500 of them) a couple of years ago I hadn’t seen either the slides or the negatives for a very long time. Fortunately, I have a filing system for the negatives and scanned slides that allowed me to round them up with a modest amount of rummaging around.
Here’s an aside: when Kodak stopped making Kodachrome they did the world of photography a great disservice. Not only were those 30-odd year old slides unchanged from the day they were processed but the scans of them were creamy smooth and beautiful – a joy to work with.
After I scanned a bunch of the negatives and did black and white conversions of another bunch of the slides I had plenty for the calendar and it looks pretty good if I do say so myself.
That was so much fun I decided to make a small silver print portfolio selected from the Tri-X negatives. Twenty is a magic number – that is the number of prints, mounted on 2-ply board with tissue interleafs, that will fit in one of the handsome 11x14, black, 1-inch deep boxes I buy from Lumiere (unpaid advertisement). Besides that, twenty is a nice number – enough prints to make a nice small show but not so many that it turns the portfolio into a major project.
“11x14?” you say. That is a conscious choice on my part. I believe that the BIG PRINT rage facilitated by wide-carriage digital printers is often overkill. Last summer I saw Mitch Dobrowner’s beautiful prints of gathering storm clouds at Blue Sky in Portland. They needed to be big – and they are – and they are spectacular. That does not mean that bigger is better for every photograph. “Because I can.” isn’t a good reason for printing big. My street photographs are not of large-scale subjects and do not require large-scale prints. (Haven't I ranted about this before?).
The portfolio prints I currently make are 7” on the long side for rectangular prints and 5 ¾” on a side for square prints. With these dimensions all prints can be mounted on portrait-orientated mats with the title printed below directly on the mat. This makes a handsome presentation and the small size invites you to come up close to look at the print. I finished mounting the prints over the weekend and I’m pleased with the result. Now I need to hustle a show for them.
A couple of observations: What I am interested in photographing hasn’t changed much in the 33 years between taking these negatives and making prints from them. Along about 1989 I took a workshop with David Bayles (co-author of Art and Fear) on “finding your direction”. After looking over what I regarded as my hopelessly directionless portfolio of 50 or so prints, he assured me that I already had a direction – that I was working in the tradition of Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau, Ronis, Boubat, Eisenstadt … -- and, since that clearly was what I enjoyed doing, to do more of it.
On the other hand, I sure make better negatives than I did 33 years ago. Several of those negatives were real darkroom challenges. I also am a better printer than I was 33 years ago. I dredged up copies of the few prints I made shortly after returning from Paris but I don’t intend to show them to anybody.
Doing this portfolio was good for me. I revisited a very pleasant episode in my life, I wound up with a finished body of work that I’m proud of, and I got in a lot of darkroom time. I wonder what else is lurking my shelf full of three-ring binders full of negatives.