The joy of rediscovery

I miss my darkroom.

Unlike many friends and colleagues, I still have it, although it’s been in boxes in storage for nearly 10 years. I saw it this summer when I moved my stuff from one storage unit to another – the Omega B22 enlarger, Gralab timer – it’s all there, just missing chemistry and paper. Well, and a dark space of some kind…

But enough pining for what’s not readily available; let’s talk about what is.

When I was digging through the darkroom boxes I ran across something I’ve been looking for, for years – a box of high-contrast Litho negatives. I haven’t printed these negatives since at least 1981. A long time.

These were the outcome of a project/lesson I had with my mentor Howard Stephens, whom I’ve written about previously. Still in their protective sleeves, the negatives were begging to be looked at, to be played with, even printed. Thanks to great scanners in this darkroom-less age we live in these negatives have a new life, and with that new life, new possibilities. The initial scans look great; the images look as they did when they were originally printed.

This rediscovery opens the box again for these images. Printing, toning, using unique papers, adding watercolor, colored overlays, hand tinting and on and on – not even counting manipulation in Photoshop!

Rediscovery is providing the opportunity to do something meaningful with the images – yet again.

 

Look where others aren’t

The fun part of creating art is seeing what no one else sees and sharing your unique perspective. Much like the Wall Street adage of “when folks are buying, see who’s selling” – when others are looking up, you should be looking down.

The Pantheon in Rome is one of my favorite buildings ever. Beyond the sheer concrete engineering feat that was accomplished nearly 2000 years ago, it’s simply a captivating building. As one walks into the vast rotunda (as tall as it is wide), one can’t help but gaze skyward at the oculus, an opening in the center of the dome. Rain and snow come in through this 30-foot diameter hole in the roof.

And sunlight.

Only light from the entryway and the oculus illuminate this temple. Given its vast interior and the role the oculus plays, one’s eye is naturally drawn upward toward the opening and the sunlight streaming in through it

Once, as I followed the light from the opening to the floor, I wondered where it went afterwards. The answer came in the image here. The light bounces off of the floor and illuminates the wall opposite creating a whole new experience in this wonderful building.

Are you looking where others are and if so, why?

 

Every. Single. Day.

I have a goal to feed this internal creative hunger; to expand my mind and eye and grow my craft; to make my photography the best it can be.

To that end, I devote time to photography every single day. Certainly, some days have a greater emphasis or get more time than others, but it is a conscious decision to do something photo-related at some time during the day – every day.

Maybe it’s shooting. Or developing. Or printing, transferring, scanning. Reading, studying another’s work, learning a new technique, listening to others, talking with someone. Or writing. In every case, something meaningful related to photography.

I have a desire to be the best I can be at what I do. To be that, I need to constantly learn and grow and move my art forward.

Richard Avedon once said, “If a day goes by without my doing something related to photography, it’s as though I’ve neglected something essential to my existence, as though I had forgotten to wake up.”

Every. Single. Day.

 

Half of photography is luck, the other half is looking

Which half do you want to rely on?

Photography is naturally about seeing. Looking for the right moment – the right angle, the right light, composition, everything – is critical so when that moment presents itself, you’re ready.

You’re present in that moment.

One doesn’t need to walk about all day long with camera pressed to face, finger on the shutter release, but one does need to be looking at all times. Have his/her eyes truly open to notice that certain something that makes a moment an image.

Looking doesn’t require any special skills or special training. It’s just about being aware of where you are and what’s around you. Sorting through the clutter to find the essence. Thinking in terms of borders – what’s included in an image and what’s not. Being this aware takes some conscious practice, but it’s doable without being an intrusion on one’s life. Rather, it becomes the way one normally sees the world. Being in the moment at all times.

Being in the moment is about consciously using one’s senses – all of them, to absorb that point in time. A five-senses test so to speak: How does where you are right this minute look, sound smell, taste and feel – and how can that be captured in an image?

Being aware ensures that one is ready when life presents “the decisive moment” as Cartier-Bresson taught us. The difference between capturing golden light or grey. A telling expression or just another face. Being ready to
capture exactly the image that needed to be caught.

Then the other half – luck – takes its turn by helping you be in the right place at the right time. Or is it luck?

Playing with the box

We’re always told to “think outside of the box” which is generally a good way to live one’s life. Sometimes though, playing with the box can be just as stimulating, as it was when we were little kids making a fort or spaceship out of any empty box we could get our hands on. Add a few markers and some string and we were transported to another place altogether.

Howard Stephens, my mentor, was someone who played with the box throughout his life. His “box” was black and white photography, but when combined with some available materials transformed already interesting images into completely new works of art. For comparison, he was essentially “shopping” images long before the creators of Photoshop were out of diapers. Of course, his “shopping” was done in the darkroom – the old fashioned way.

One of his favorite techniques was creating high-contrast or “litho” images, where he’d take a well-exposed medium tonal range image and turn it into a high contrast image using ortho film. (The comparable technique today is a simple slider in most digital software…) He’d usually transform it a couple of times, removing it further from it’s broad tonal range before printing the final high-contrast image – frequently on film.

Then the fun would begin.

He’d layer colored paper behind the film or paint with tempera on the back of the image – or both – to get the result he desired. He played with the box, transforming otherwise normal photos into one-of-a-kind works of art using a little of this and that to create the final image. Too cool.

I learned the litho technique from him one fall afternoon. He gave me a list of supplies to buy and told me to call him
when the chemicals were mixed and I was ready. We went to the darkroom where he ensured I understood the steps in the process just to the point that I had a successful result.

Then, in his usual fashion, he walked away, leaving me to play with the box; to find my own way, experiment and create with the materials available. It was a lesson that I’ve carried with me to today using a variety of media to create that final image.

What a guy, what an artist and what a teacher.

P.S. Just a few weeks ago I found my old litho negatives. Can’t wait to play with them again and see what I can come up with all of these years later…

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