Saturday, August 30, 2014

A portriat of Harold

While looking for something else I found the negative of this portrait -- taken 25 years ago.  I had no idea why I didn't print it then so I printed it Tuesday.  Not a bad portrait if I do say so myself and the little scrap of picture frame in the upper left corner keeps it from looking like something taken against white seamless.  I wish that I could claim that I included it on purpose.
Before reading further, take a minute to look carefully at this portrait.  ...... Done?  Ok -- With no context it is a portrait of an older man, at ease, dark eyes not directed at the camera, thoughtful expression -- or is it wistful?  He is casually dressed and his hair is rumpled, moustache could use a trim -- clearly not a person for whom looking nattily attired and formal is important.
Here's the first layer of context.  Harold is an artist -- a well-known artist -- who draws, paints, sculpts, and does enameled metal panels.  He has works in a whole lot of museum collections and public art commissioned work in at least Alaska and Washington State.  He is also an accomplished teacher of art.  Does that change your perception?  Is his expression one of contemplating a drawing in progress, a conversation with a student, an idea for a new piece?  Is his appearance congruent with your image of a successful artist?
Second layer.  At the time, Harold, several other people, and I were instructors at a week-long workshop camp for gifted high-school students.  The students, from high schools all over the state, were incredibly smart, talented, and hardworking.  The workshops were all in the arts -- photography, drawing, theater, writing, musical composition -- except for my geekshop on artificial intelligence and one on oceanography.  At the end of the week the staff all met with the workshop organizers to debrief, relax, and congratulate each other on being able to stay ahead of the students (a daunting task).  All of the staff agreed that we had never had so much fun in the classroom or studio/classroom.  I took this photograph during that meeting.  Now what?  Is he tired from a very long but intense week with a gaggle of brilliant young people?  Is he wishing that all his classes were that rewarding?
One of Roland Barthes' hot buttons is the ability of a photograph, more than any other kind of art, to bring a rush of memory to the viewer.  (However, he takes quite a few pages to say that.)  As soon as I saw this negative the memory of what was happening at the time certainly came back to me in a rush.  I can visualize the cast of characters around the table and nearly verbatim the conversation.
The theater workshop leader, Susan, was describing her very successful week. Each evening during the week one of the workshop leaders presented a program to all the staff and students on their own work.  For her program, Susan did a series of short vignettes, portraying a different character in each one.  Between the vignettes, Susan took a few seconds on stage to become the next character --  expression, body language, posture, and accent.  Without costumes or scenery and only a few simple props, she became a stuffy male investment banker, a depressed and harried housewife, a glamour photographer’s model, a little girl upset about her first day at school -- and several others.  She was dazzling!  She was magic!  She was completely believable in each new persona. 
She was not only an excellent teacher but a wonderful role model especially for the girls that (like Susan) were not particularly physically attractive.  One of her students later told me that they were all convinced that Susan could walk up the wall and across the ceiling if she wanted to.  Susan's workshop had convinced her for the first time that her own ordinary looks did not bar her from acting.
Just before I took this photograph Susan had recounted that the parents of two of the girls that had signed up for her workshop had withdrawn their daughters at the last minute when they found out that Susan was lesbian.  That's what Harold, and all the rest of us, were contemplating. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Roland Barthes deconstructed

A year or so ago a friend of a friend asked me to be a guest speaker at the beginning photography class that he was teaching at a small local college.  He, the teacher, is not a photographer but instead was a freshly minted MFA and adjunct faculty member of their fledgling art department.  He felt that having a real live photographer talk to the class, show some work, and participate in the class critique of the student's assignment for the week would be a good idea.  I agreed to do so and it turned out to be a lot of fun.  I spoke about why I do the work I do, how I do it, whose work I admire and why, and how I get my work shown.  The class was about evenly divided between students who needed a liberal arts credit and students who were really interested in photography. 

Near the end of the Q&A session following my talk one of the latter, a young woman who had already asked several perceptive questions asked: "Have you read Barthes?" (Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida).  I allowed that I had, indeed, taken a run at it several years ago but had found it nearly impenetrable and had given up on about page 10.  My answer elicited a growl of agreement from the class so I enquired why she asked that question.  It turned out that they had been assigned to read Camera Lucida as an introduction to the appreciation of photography as an art form.   Their instructor, looking a bit sheepish, allowed that the class had found it to be a difficult read.

Time passed.

I happened upon a copy of Camera Lucida in a used book store for a dollar and decided, with 20 or so additional years of reading about photography under my belt, that I would take another shot at it. 

Yep, it is a difficult read.  This time, however, I soldiered through to the end.  Here's my synopsis:

Photography has a unique ability to record what something or somebody looked like at a specific time and place.  This gives it the power to be a window into the past that no other visual art has.  Some photographs are interesting, even compelling simply because of their historical, cultural, or anthropological content.  Others, less common, are fascinating beyond that.  The latter photographs have a property that isn't related to specific subject matter or photographic style because they are scattered through many genres and many photographer's works.  He would like to discuss these two attractions to certain photographs using the methods and vocabulary of philosophy but can't figure out how to do so even though he has given them borrowed Latin names.  Since the methods of philosophical discourse don't seem to work his next strategy is to examine some photographs that exhibit the latter and try to infer the general from the specific. 

At this point, about 40 pages into the book, I was pretty excited about it -- apart from the fact that he took 40 or so pages of very convoluted text to get through the paragraph above.  I, too, feel that some photographs have some property that I cannot articulate that makes them very special.  I, too, have examined every photograph I find that I feel possesses this magic quality (which my friend Bryan calls foo-ness – see the footnote) and have attempted with very limited success to infer the general from the specific.

Several days later I picked up Camera Lucida and opened it to the bookmarked page (page 90) and read the lead sentence of the first paragraph: "I can put this another way."  The words that popped into my mind were: "Oh, please don't!  Spare me!"  In the intervening pages he had described a variety of photographs that  move him deeply and concluded that they do so because of some detail, often trivial, in them that related to his own life experience -- a landscape (urban or rural) in which he feels he could habitez, more like "inhabit" than "live there".  In the case of a James Vanderzee portrait of a family, one of the women is wearing a necklace that reminds him of one that his mother wore.  These connections are, of course, intensely personal and he opines that there must be something more universal.

He then went through an exhausting (not exhaustive) examination of a series of photographs of his mother ending up with a snapshot of her at about age five and winds his way back to what he started with in the introduction -- photography is unique in the art world because it works only if the photographer (operator) aims the camera at the subject (referent) and pushes the button at a specific instant.  [Obviously, he did not consider the work of Jerry Uelsmann.]  By so doing the photograph opens a window into the past. 

In the final 30 or so pages, he continued to belabor the notion of a photograph as a window into the past and as a reminder of death either already happened or yet to come.  This is an issue I sometimes think of: "This lovely young woman was dead before I was born."   However, his "This was but is no more." while true hardly seems like a pivotal reason why photography is different from every other visual art form. 

In 119 pages (less a few pages of photographs) of very dense and convoluted text he has looped back to what he stated in the introduction with the sole addition of the memento mori reference to the photograph as a reminder of death.

Moreover, contrary to my going in opinion (at page 40) that he was trying to track down the properties that make specific photographs "special" while others are not his goal was to uncover the universals that make all photographs different from other visual art mediums.  Moreover, he is attempting to wrap words around something (he was a professor of lexicology, after all) that I am convinced is essentially visual -- that may not even have words to describe it -- and that's ok with me.

I'm glad I slogged through this swamp but it is clearly a Bryan type 1 experience (something for which once is definitely enough) and no help at all in my quest for foo-ness.  Leave out the memento mori and the late Bill Jay, teacher of photography and prolific (and highly opinionated) writer about photography sums it up in two sentences:

Photography has the unique ability to show what something or somebody looked like at a specific time and place.  The only hard bits in photography are which way to point the camera and when to push the button.


*About foo-ness:

The term "foo" originated, as far as I know, in the absurdist comic strip Smokey Stover -- although the strip's author, Bill Holman, contended that it means "good luck" in Chinese.  Smokey was a fire-fighter (foo fighter).  I wonder if the members of the post-grunge band, Foo Fighters, know about Smokey or were even born when the strip was current.

Holman made a serious but ineffectual effort to introduce "foo" into the English language, perhaps inspired by the possibly apocryphal story about a wag who introduced "quiz" into English overnight by hiring urchins to write the word on walls all over Dublin.  However, "foo" did enter a language -- just not English.  Practitioners of the computer language LISP (in my opinion an absurdist computer language) adopted "foo" to mean something, anything, important but not yet defined.  From LISP, "foo" migrated into C, C++ and likely a lot of other computer languages that have evolved since I stopped even trying to keep track.

When I began trying to identify the mysterious properties that made a few photographs so extremely compelling, my friend Bryan suggested that the property was obviously "foo-ness" -- important but not yet defined, perhaps indefinable.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Albumen printing is a Bryan Type One Experience

My friend Bryan proposes that everything we do can be put into one of three categories. A Bryan Type Zero experience is something that you never need or want to do -- be in a serious car accident, fall from a high place, etc. A Bryan Type One experience is something that it is necessary or pleasant or useful or illuminating or amusing to do once but that's enough. (Barbara says that seeing the plays "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" and "Waiting for Godot" are each a Bryan Type One.) A Bryan Type Two experience is everything else.

Albumen printing is a Bryan Type One.

I've enjoyed learning how to do it with some skill. I'm looking forward to having these glass negatives printed in a way that is appropriate to their age. When I'm finished printing them my firm resolve is never to do albumen printing again.

There are two reasons for my resolve. First (and most positive) is that my own photographs are not well suited to the look of albumen prints. The albumen print is a beautiful, rich brown/black with a slightly soft image and veiled highlights. For my own photographs I prefer a sharper-edged, cooler image. The second reason, more pragmatic, is that I regard the albumen printing process as a pain in the neck. Allow me to describe it.

Albumen printing is a "printing out" process. That is; the image is formed on the paper by the light that strikes it -- sort of like an apple darkening after it's cut. As such it is "self-masking" -- the darker areas in the image form relatively quickly but then the darkened image itself limits how dark it will get by blocking the incoming light. A printing out process is ideal for dealing with extremely contrasty negatives (such as vintage glass plates). However, it is definitely a contact printing process since the exposure times are minutes to tens-of-minutes in sunlight (thirty minutes with my CF studio lights). This, of course, implies that the negative must be the same size as the print you wish to make. Ah! That's the first complication. I wanted to make small prints but not as small as the 4"x5" negatives. In this digital age the solution is to make a digital negative from the scans of the glass plates. I've done this for a couple of other projects so all I had to do was to get 'calibrated' on how dense and how contrasty to print them. Several further complications are not so simple to untangle.

The first step in albumen printing is to coat high-quality water color paper with an emulsion of albumen and chloride salts. Thankfully, Bostick and Sullivan stand ready to sell you pre-coated albumen paper. [As an aside, Bostick and Sullivan is one of the more pleasant companies to deal with that I've ever found. Their materials are excellent; their shipping is quick and reasonably priced, if you call with a question you will reach a human -- likely one of the co-owners or their family -- who will track down an answer.]

However, as it comes from B&S the paper is not light sensitive -- it must be sensitized and dried immediately before it is used. It is sensitized by brushing (and brushing, and brushing, and brushing) a coat of silver nitrate on the albumen-coated paper. The silver nitrate doesn't soak in -- it reacts with the chloride salts in the surface of the albumen to form silver chloride -- which is more-or-less light sensitive. After the surface of the paper becomes dull instead of shiny (by the way, this all must be done in very dim light) it must be dried with a hair dryer --- and then a second, lighter coating of silver nitrate applied and dried again. Theoretically you can keep the paper for a day or so before you use it -- not my experience; even a couple of hours is enough to visibly fog the highlights.

Now the intrepid printer puts the negative and freshly sensitized paper into a contact printing frame and put it to bask in the light for an extended time. Being an organized type of person, I established the exposure required to make a good black/brown in the darkest areas without fogging the highlights enough to bother me. Good -- now I know how to expose the negative and how to adjust the tones in the negative to produce an attractive print. Ah, if it were as easy as I make it sound.

After the exposure is completed the print must be washed thoroughly (six two-minute water baths) and then languish for 15 minutes in gold chloride toner. The toner step changes the tone of the print from a nearly foxy red to the beautiful brown/black and plates a layer of very stable gold chloride over the image. Then a quick wash and the print goes into two sequential fixer baths (five minutes each), another quick wash and five minutes in a wash accelerator (helps get the fixer out of the paper) and finally, sports fans, into the archival washer for a half hour.

As the print sits in the fixer bath it is alarming how much it appears to bleach lighter. Don't fret -- it will darken again as it dries and (slightly) more when it is heated to flatten. However, the result is that you don't know exactly how the print will look until it is dried and flattened.

This is not a process for one who craves instant gratification.

There is a sort-of Zen component to any darkroom process -- even with modern materials and processes -- but this two-hour vigil is over my tolerance. It has increased my admiration for my photographic ancestors for which this process was their everyday experience.

The few prints that I have so-far made are very satisfactory and look a lot like I hoped they would.  That said, if and when I get the fifteen or so prints for this project done and matted on unbuffered, acid-free mats (another complication is that the normal mats I use will cause the albumen prints to fade) I have no intention of starting another project that is best done with albumen.



Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Throuh a glass (negative) darkly.

A while back -- to be truthful about it, 40 plus years ago -- we stopped at a yard sale in the rural countryside near Lockport in western New York. We often stopped at a yard sale when we were driving around the quite new to us area. Everything was so old there compared to the west coast from whence we had moved.

Since we had a good sized Dodge family van at the time we even sometimes bought things when we stopped at a yard sale. I bought a small oak bookcase along with (at the insistence of the seller) the books that were in it. Most of the books were of the likes of Readers Digest condensed books. Among them, however, was an album of several hundred photogravures of England, Scotland, and Wales collected in 1903 by one Maude Grant Kent. It seems that when a well-to-do young person took the tour to Europe that collecting photogravures as souvenirs was the thing to do. With only a little detective work (some years later when Professor Google was available to help) we found that Ms. Kent lived in Chautauqua, New York.  But I digress. 

I also kept my eye open for cameras and old photographic equipment. Over the several years we lived near Buffalo I accumulated twenty or so box cameras and folding cameras of varying ages and pedigrees and a kerosene darkroom safe lamp. Most of the cameras were (of course, being so close to Rochester) Kodaks but I did catch a couple of Ansco 35 mm cameras, an Ansco half-frame 35mm camera, and on the day in question an Imperial Camera Company 4"x5" glass plate box camera.
Last fall I decided that it was time to unload a couple of good-sized boxes of photographic mathoms (mathom: an object that you don't need but is way too good to throw out). Professor Google was very helpful in dating and even estimating prices for all the cameras except for the Imperial. I could find the company -- short lived from 1898 to 1904 before being bought out by Conley View Cameras. However, I have yet to find even a mention of their 4”x5” glass plate box camera (but I know they existed -- I own one).

The Imperial has a handy compartment behind the slot into which the two-sided glass plate holder fits.  It allowed the user to transport a box of glass plates or a couple of extra pre-loaded plate holders. There was a box of unexposed glass plates in the camera but they had long since been light struck and were no longer useable. However, at the same garage sale I had also bought two boxes of glass plate negatives, doubtless taken with this camera. I looked at them briefly -- they were family pictures from a farm home, perhaps the house in the yard of which the sale was held. It's a pity I didn't take a photograph of the house. The negatives are a bit soft and of varying quality (as you would expect from a box camera) but all but a few of the 16 or so are quite printable -- maybe. I had passing thoughts of trying to print them but the thoughts passed before I did so and soon forgot about them. But last fall there they still were, languishing in my boxes of photographic mathoms, and I decided to try to print them.

Well, being in the digital age now I decided to scan these glass plate negatives and take a really good look at them. My friend, Craig, volunteered his scanner that will scan a 4"x5" negative (mine won't) and we spent a Saturday morning doing so. We also scanned three other glass plate negatives -- obviously taken with a much more sophisticated camera -- that I bought at another yard sale later. These three I had contact printed at the time on Velox paper. [For the uninitiated, Negatives as old as these are notoriously difficult to print on modern materials even if you have an enlarger big enough to carry a 4"x5" negative (I don't).  However, as late as 40 years ago you could buy Velox, a Kodak paper specifically coated for "contact printing" -- that is; sandwiching the negative directly on the surface of the paper under a piece of glass and exposing the sandwich to light. Of course, that means that the print of a 4”x5” negative is also 4”x5” -- big enough to inspect but not much else. Contact printing papers are, of course, long gone now.]

When I am in an antique (or junk) store I will often see a box of photographs labeled "instant ancestors" -- family photographs with no family, mostly without even a name. I find them sad.  Somehow I find these negatives even sadder. They were important enough that they somebody had kept them together and in the family home since the early 1900s – or maybe just never were noticed in the attic.  In either case they should belong to the great-great-grandchildren of the people shown in them -- not to some photography enthusiast that lives 2725 (I looked it up) miles away. Moreover I have no idea who these people were and not a prayer of finding out anything about them.

I decided that I am going to adopt these photographs -- print them and write the story of who these people are.  Just to make it more interesting I'm going to combine the two sets of negatives into one story.

But wait! "Print them" is another issue. In a sane world (not mine, obviously) I would make digital prints of the scans that Craig and I did -- carefully toning them to take on the look of 1900-vintage prints. Professor Google and my library of books of photographic history told me that they were likely to have been printed on albumen paper. Yes, "albumen" as in the protein in egg white and blood serum. The photograph above is a scan of an albumen print that (a little foreshadowing of an upcoming blog post) I made from one of them.


Sunday, January 19, 2014

Water Music

Sorting and filing color slides was never my favorite activity; especially since I don't do it very often and it gets ahead of me.  Let’s be honest about it: I hadn't done it for about 20 years and it was really ahead of me.  However, the digital age was upon me and I really wanted to scan the (no kidding) five or six thousand color slides then residing in various cassettes, notebooks and boxes.  It took me about a year and a half to do.

It was sad to see how much many of the vintage slides have faded.  If only I had stuck to Kodachrome.  If only Kodak had stuck to Kodachrome.

There is nothing like a photograph to bring back a rush of memories.  Most of these slides were family snapshots and it was fun to see my children, now all grown, at age five or so splashing in the Hoh river.  Among the small fraction that were not family snapshots was a still-bright slide featuring the Fremont Bridge yawning open into a genuine pacific northwest azure sky for us to pass.  Handel’s “Water Music” floods into my mind and I don’t need a slide to see Louis, baton flailing and hair flying.  The chamber orchestra was new then and full of vigor – just as baroque music is supposed to be. 

Bob’s wife was on their fledgling board and invited us to come on their water music cruise and fund-raiser – me to take color slides for their publicity.  Most of the slides I took (all of the best ones) went to the orchestra but a few of out-takes were still in my hoard. 

The pre-restoration mosquito fleet steamship Virginia V pulled away from fishermens’ terminal and took a right into the ship canal towards Lake Union, orchestra playing lustily in the main salon, polished brass whistle commanding the Ballard bridge, the Fremont bridge, the University bridge to open before us, moustachioed captain at the wheel, sun pouring down on the Texas deck where I stood next to the wheelhouse blissfully going into sensory overload. 

Fast forward to early fall of that year; fund-raising successful and we were invited to a celebratory party.  The site was Bob’s A-frame cabin on a steep slope somewhere in the Issaquah Alps.  Built on the cheap as a weekend cabin he bought it in bad need of repair and worked his usual miracle on it; kitchen and living area with sleeping loft above; bathroom below the kitchen along with a soundproof room for the generator that ran the pump and the stereo; a circular stair made by his madman Mexican iron-wright replaced the ladder to the loft; and a wood-fired hot tub just off the deck that he wrapped around three sides of the cabin.

The cast of characters was most of the orchestra and (less Bob’s by then ex-wife) their board, Bob, his girl-friend Suzie, and a gaggle of hangers-on like us who had helped with the fund-raising.  Virginia brought her two-manual harpsichord and we schlepped it up the slope to the cabin where she was cheerfully tuning it.  I brought my projector and had the slides from the cruise running continuously. 

It was another sun-drenched afternoon.  Bob scored several cases of just-ripe beaujolais that tasted like drinking sunshine.  Lots of people brought cheese and bread.  No color slides are needed to recall semi-clad (well, some of them were semi-clad) figures dashing to and from the hot tub or Suzie, Vernal, a couple of musicians and I, all half drunk on music and sunshine -- the other half on beaujolais -- lying in the meadow while the swallows darted above us.  At dusk winding up with the entire mob in the cabin while Virginia played the cadenza from the 5th Brandenburg concerto with me and two others sitting under the harpsichord. 

Louis has left for other musical pastures, Suzie dropped out of sight when she and Bob split up, Vernal is dead.  The orchestra is well established and, well, a bit staid – as am I.