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.

 

10,000 photographs

“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” Henri
Cartier-Bresson

I’ve always liked this quote and, while never totaling my collection of negatives, slides, Polaroids and digital images, wonder when I passed my worst photographs. Someday when I’m bored beyond belief, I’ll count them…

Just the other day I picked up Malcom Gladwell’s recent tome “Outliers”, where he discusses the threshold of 10,000 hours of practice for one to be truly proficient, whether it’s for hockey, computer programming or to become a musical virtuoso.

Is it a coincidence that 10,000 is the magical number; that Cartier-Bresson and Gladwell both mentioned this threshold? I suggest not, especially in the heyday of Cartier-Bresson, which consisted of shooting 120 roll film (generally 16 images to a roll). At that count, one needed to shoot 625 rolls to hit 10,000 images – actually not that many rolls when one is shooting professionally on a daily basis. The rhythm of shooting, the routine, the constant learning that came with each roll moved one’s art forward. The key is that with film, every image mattered as every image had to be set up, framed,
focused and then shot – no motor drive or automatic focus back then. Plus, every image had a price associated with it – the cost per frame for the film, the chemicals to develop and the paper and chemicals to print the final image. One did not waste images if at all possible, forcing one to consider every mashing of the shutter release.

In our digital world, one can hit 10,000 images in a couple of days without really trying. What’s the cost? Zero – just the one-time cost for a memory card that can be written over multiple times. No cost to develop, save the one-off for some software. And one needn’t print an image to view it in its final form.

When trying to achieve the 10,000 mark, it’s not enough to hold the trigger down, let the automatic shutter/focus/everything do all the work and reel off tens of images at a time in hope of capturing that one shot. That’s counting on luck, not skill. One must shoot, review and learn from each and every image that’s captured. Like Cartier-Bresson did, only it’s a lot easier today thanks to the helping hand of technology.

The challenge, as always, comes down to seeing – what do you see, what do you capture and why? After 10,000 images I think one knows what to see and why.

When did I pass 10,000 images? I really don’t know, but if those are my worst, bring on the best.

On digital

My leap to digital was actually more of a saunter. I’m
sentimental by nature and switching from film – which had been my close friend
my entire life – to digital felt like betrayal. I loved (and still love despite
many years of not hanging out in a darkroom) the magic of watching an image
materialize beneath the safelight; the truth appearing before my eyes.

Yet the world had gone digital and it was time I became
current. When I made my entry some five years ago, it felt strange. Here were
these images in color, when I had always worked in black and white. The images instantly
appearing on the little screen on the back of the camera felt like I was
cheating as I was seeing them before I had done any work in the darkroom.
Sitting at a computer “working” on the images with a mouse instead of standing
in the dark with tongs was just plain weird.

But I’ve grown to appreciate the benefits of digital. One
key one is when taking photos of people – and I’m not working with models –
nothing opens them up more than seeing their image on that little screen. Once
they see what I’m shooting they become so much more receptive, enhancing our
connection as we work together. It is an absolute game-changer that was
unavailable with film – unless one had the luxury of sharing Polaroid images.

I still have my negatives and it’s amazing to see how many
times I had one – just one – image of
a subject to work with. It was a result of being conservative with my film due
to cost considerations from when I was first learning. Even in later years, I
took only a few images of a subject maximum. There’s a certain beauty in that;
a certain discipline in trying to get the exact image one time. Most of the
time it worked but there were many times that one image didn’t work and I was
left with nothing.

But then I sometimes question my craft with digital – am I less
precise with digital than I was with film? Because there is no cost of shooting
hundreds of images versus a few, I find myself shooting many, many more of a
given subject than I ever would have with film. Does the nearly unlimited space
for images make me a sloppier photographer than I used to be? I actually
believe the answer is no, however the jury is still out as I have too many
images that need attention for me to fully ponder that one for now…

I’m now accustomed to working on images in Photoshop or
Lightroom, making the same adjustments that I would have done in the
darkroom – working the contrast, dodging, burning, cropping. The only thing I’m
missing is a fixer-scented candle to light while I’m sitting at my
computer…

Page 1 of 11