The Print is the Thing 2: Mental Templates and Visualization

In black and white film photography, a key factor in the process of visualization is the translation of a full color world of three dimensions into a two dimensional object made up of values from black to white. In the first 75 to 100 years of photography there was little choice for photographers to engage that fact, with few exceptions like the Autochrome process. There were artistic precedents of course in drawings in charcoal, graphite and inks, and there were the printmaking processes of etching and engraving, woodcut and lithography. The earliest examples of translating the real world into the reproduced world is found in the cave drawings that remain mysterious to us and predate agricultural human communities.

 

For the generations that spent many hours in front of black and white TVs and read newspapers that exclusively printed photos in black and white, there are plenty of visual precedents for imagining the world in black and white, including the reduction to 2-dimensional rectangles. These visual precedents can work in the mind as what I call “mental templates” and help a photographer to make the necessary translation to black and white film and paper. For this reason I have had my students look through multi-volumes of good photographs by photographers who successfully and powerfully made those translations into black and white images. Not only would they spend time with a book, but they would pick out a photograph that especially impacted them, and have to write a short paper describing the characteristics of the image that made it work.

 

The templates can be very helpful but they have the potential to be controlling or limiting. For a budding landscape photographer devotedly studying the works of Ansel Adams, for example, how strong a personality would be required to not produce Adams-like images? While it is as easy as pie to produce a pale imitation of an Adams image, how difficult it would be to out Adams Adams! Ansel himself went to work with some templates in order, the precedents of the 19th century American painters, like Bierstadt, with their heroic visions of the American landscape. But even here he was making the translation from full color to black and white.

 

If one compares the work of Ansel and his friend Minor White it becomes apparent that something more than the application of mental templates is involved in producing their bodies of work. Ansel was not, apparently, a religious man, conservative in many ways but not devout to a faith or creed. His spirituality seems rooted in the land that he photographed, the mountains, the brilliant skies and lofty cloud banks as big as the mountains. White, early on under the influence of a mystical spirituality and with a definite inward turn produced landscape work very unlike his friend Ansel. Yet when he makes the translations to black and white film and paper he utilizes the same tools of translation as Adams; contrast, gradation, acutance, texture and so on. Both photographers successfully brought their personalities, one could say, their inner selves to the work of translation. Pulling that off may be the hardest part!

 

We could outline several components of the process of translating the three dimensional world of full color into a black and white photograph. Acquiring mental templates that help to see what possibilities are at hand, e.g., what other photographers have done in similar situations is one important component. Knowing how to control the materials is essential to achieving success, and this is what Adams emphasizes in teaching the Zone system. The third component is visualization in its most personal and subjective form.

 

Some people have an easier time in understanding their own personal vision than most, which gives them the ability to use mental templates without becoming entrapped in them. For others, it is helpful to periodically take stock of their work to hopefully clarify what is important in their seeing. If I lay out a lot of my images before me, can I see some pattern or tendencies? What do I look at? What catches my eye? Do I take a particular slant on things? Am I able to express something of my own particular character in the photographs? What kinds of my photographs do I consider the most significant and successful? Why are they significant to me? What am I really trying to say in a photograph? How is this My photograph and not someone else’s?

 

These kinds of questions can lead to a much deeper kind of visualization than merely imagining how the colors will translate to grey values in film and print. While that is important, even essential, the deeper element in the act of visualization, which Adams often referred to as an “emotional response” to a scene, is what in the end will separate the competent technician from the artist.

 

Bill Kostelec,

March 2018

The Print is the Thing: On Visualization, Pre-Visualization and Making an Image

Ansel Adams is noted for, among many other things, promoting a working concept some called pre-visualization. His friend Minor White used that term and made much of the concept, but in truth, Ansel preferred the term visualization to describe his approach to conceiving an image. Pre-visualization, he thought, was some kind of double talk. The photographer, he suggested, should imagine, (visualize in his mind) what the finished print would look like before he took the photo. In the Zone system of exposure that he worked out with Fred Archer, this visualization included anticipating the values in the print by combining exposure and development controls. Many photographers have gotten very good at that by following Adams clear instructions, and for many it is a mark of prowess and technical power over the medium to do so.

 

A second related form of visualization is the idea of always printing the whole negative, as a demonstration of the quality of visualizing in the very taking of the photo. We see that quality revealed in the work of Henri Cartier Bresson, whose work was, especially after WWII principally done with the Leica 35mm camera. With Cartier Bresson’s work, we see the power of good composition along with the keen eye of picking the right moment for the exposure. A whole negative print (with no cropping) demonstrates the photographer’s visual and technical skill.

 

In black and white landscape photography done with large format cameras, Adams approach to visualization can be very effective and a quite rational approach to the subject. Using color correction filters and plugging them into the exposure equations can help the photographer produce a finely tuned image, which is always a departure from reality, but which can evoke the drama or the mood that the photographer “visualized.” This is exactly what makes the photographer an artist rather than a camera operator.

 

In the disappearing art of photo journalism the skills of Cartier Bresson serve the photographer well, i.e., compositional finesse and the eye for the right moment. The photojournalist though is not able to employ the calculated approach of the large format landscape photographer. Visualization for these photographers is formed in part by knowledge born of experience in the field and anticipation of how events will unfold.

 

The concept of straight photography, a staple of more than 100 years of photographic theory and debate, slithers like a snake through this field of visualization. In the turning away from the late 19th century camera club obsession with “pictorial photography”, modernist types eschewed gum printing, erasures, soft focus lenses and so on for the reclaiming of the virtues of the camera and lens, to let the virtues and the limitations reveal themselves as integral to the photographic aesthetic. Edward Weston abandoned platinum papers and their endlessly soft gradation for the hard clean look of gelatin silver glossy papers. Adams even wrote a manifesto and helped form a West Coast contingent of photographers devoted to straight photography. It was, in fact, that straight photography as visualized by its apostles and disciples that characterized most of 20th century art photography.

 

At a couple different periods of my life I have worked in a printmaking studio, doing both intaglio, done on zinc and copper plates, and lithography, done on slabs of limestone, and all printed in a press with inks. These processes are very time consuming and there are layers and layers of complications to master if one wants to be an accomplished printer. I have not mastered any of them but have gained a deep appreciation of master printers. One of the things I learned over these periods was the value of working and reworking a plate, which in intaglio processes involves scraping away, burnishing, digging in, re-etching, or in other ways, finessing towards the final plate that will be editioned. An editioned print is the artist’s final say, final vision. Such an approach puts limits on a notion of visualization that would suggest a finished print in mind before the first line is drawn. What happens, to the contrary, is that when the printer pulls proofs as he or she goes through the long process, a final image will begin to emerge as the material, the metal and ink and tools take part in a sort of conversation with the printer. This is indeed a very different concept of visualization!

 

How does that concept apply to photography?

 

I know that there are a lot of Photoshop filters out there and that if you are content to sit in front of a computer monitor you might work and rework all kinds of transformations to a raw picture file. I am not, however, concerned with nor remotely interested in sitting at a computer and being “creative”, though those kinds of pictures will probably continue to win awards in photo club shows. I am totally committed to darkroom photography, and to paraphrase a movie line “I love the smell of fixer in the morning.”

 

In the darkroom there are, I suppose, fewer “filters” to work with. In silver gelatin printing there are the bleaches and toners, there are various developer formulas, there are alterations to the printing process, like lith printing and there are, unfortunately, fewer and fewer printing papers to choose from. There are also the alternative printing processes for which a lot of material and kits are today available. We have done cyanotype, platinum/palladium, kallitype, gum bichromate, liquid emulsion on papers, mirrors and ceramics, and even albumen printing.

 

Lately, I have been playing with combinations of toners, especially bleach and redevelop sepia and selenium. Depending on how deeply one bleaches the silver print, and as well how strong the sepia toning bath is, more or less of the developed silver will remain to be acted on by a later selenium bath. This can be very experimental and fun, and the end result can go from deep disappointment to deep satisfaction, along with an element of surprise.

 

One can nurture a spirit of adventure if he or she starts with the basic premise: The print is the thing! This runs contrary to the working principle: Visualize, then expose, then print in order to achieve your initial visualization. It also contradicts Edward Weston’s mature working method: the negative is the thing. Once he exposed the piece of film, he had it. His contact print was the fruition of his negative.

 

On the other hand, my basic premise has more affinity with Adams’ own dictum, the negative is the score, the print is the performance.. All the concepts I have referred to, straight photography, printing the whole negative, visualizing before exposure are valuable up to the point where they become restrictive. The distinction I make could simply be put that visualization is a living, ongoing process and not simply something that happens only before we press the shutter release

 

In no way am I suggesting a sloppy approach to image making. I use a trusty Pentax spotmeter and place my primary shadow zone. I control the time and temperature of development and do all the necessary steps to get a good printable negative.   Once I have that negative then, hopefully a new conversation begins, creative printmaking, and I am on another road of adventure in the darkroom.

 

 

Bill Kostelec

Feb. 2018

 

 

 

My Nobel Peace Prize Winners

TutuCarter

In the 1980’s I spent about 8 years in Atlanta at Emory University doing doctoral work in the Division of Religion. It’s where I got deeply involved in photography. I was using 35mm exclusively for awhile but then an old photographer suggested I get a Speed Graphic, a “real Camera”, and I found a 4X5 Crown at KEH, which still had a walk-in store.   As my photo work progressed I got some kind of reputation among some of the faculty, and when the Religion Department sponsored a small conference with former President Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu I was asked to make some photographs. The former President was in the library I worked in fairly often as his presidential library was located in the Special Collections area. I was teaching a religion class in the college at the time and had heard a couple students during a break talking about the “Bishop’s daughter”, another student in the class. I asked “Which bishop?” and they said, “You know, Tutu!” Well, I hadn’t known but when the department chair asked me to go fetch the Bishop across campus and bring him to the conference I did, and mentioned to him that I had taught his daughter in the now finished class. He got a bit excited and grabbed my hand. “She loved that class!” he said, which was kind of cool for me, as you can imagine.

 

So we went upstairs to the conference and Jimmy Carter was there with men in dark suits and wires in their ears and the two Nobel Prize winners embraced with big smiles and chatted like old school roommates. That’s how this photo came to be. I was using a Minolta 101 if I recall. Tutu had been a warm and funny companion as we walked across campus. The President though, at one point, gave me a cross look as he sat at the conference table. Being a strict amateur I think I was taking too many photos and so I backed off and sat with the faculty and he relaxed his next gaze in my direction.

 

The negatives turned out well and I made a contact print and some 8X10s for the Religion department and kept a contact print for myself. After getting the doctorate I moved to the Pacific Northwest where the air is dry and it is cool at night in the Summertime. And the first Winter my cabin in the woods burned down and destroyed my entire stash of 35mm negatives plus all my equipment and everything else the family owned except what we had put into a storage unit. Later on I found I still had the contact print.

 

Nearly thirty years later, while working at Gonzaga University, I learned that Desmond Tutu was coming to do the commencement address and I told the story of my photo to some colleagues who spread it around and I was invited to photograph him again, in a meeting with students. Kathy had previously dug out the contact sheet and scanned it, and got a nice copy of the photo from the scan, which we framed. Later on I found one 8X10 print from the original negative. Kathy went with me to the event as a second photographer and I was invited to present the Bishop with the framed photo. He had never seen it. He was excited again, and again warm and funny. He noted that he looked a bit different now and that I didn’t look the same either. He told me that he had driven Jimmy Carter to an emergency room in South Africa when the President broke his leg on a house project. They were still fast friends. The Bishop treasured the photograph, and took it home in his carry on luggage because he didn’t want anything to happen to it. And that’s my story of photographing  2 Nobel Peace Prize Laureates.

 

Bill Kostelec

 

January 24, 2018

 

Some Photo History Questions

Photo History Myths and Legends; Part 1

If I had not gone astray and become a theologian, I think I might have ended up an historian, as the interest I nurtured beginning with my learning to read has continued all these long years. As a film photographer, my historical bent leads me to a fairly small set of “histories of photography” and an even smaller set of collected writings on photography and/or by photographers. Then there are publications dedicated to the work of single photographers or perhaps small groups who in their author’s mind constituted a school or movement. Some of the newer works have displayed a nice humility in understanding by referring to themselves as “a” history rather than “the” history. A big book edited by Michel Frizot, with many European contributors, published in English in 1999 is called “A New History of Photography” while the American publication from 2000 by Robert Hirsch is titled “Seizing the Light, A History of Photography.”

I appreciate such humility. History itself is an ever evolving study. The history of photography is relatively short, even when one takes into account the discoveries and experiments that happened before the fateful year 1839. In my mind the historical significance of photography far outweighs its relatively short time of existence. It is not the technological history though that has such weight, but rather the sociological history of photography’s impact on the world. Marxist critics like Walter Benjamin, doomed to die in a Nazi concentration camp, and feminist critic Susan Sontag, have contributed to an enrichment of understanding of the way photography has both reflected social realities and impacted them. Social realities also impact the way histories are written, the way historians look at the sources.

That’s part of my reason for starting this series on photo history. It will be more like a reflection on the histories we have about a technological development that transformed the world in some very profound ways.

History and biography intersect, but history is definitely the attempt at a bigger picture. Take, for example, the story of the Frenchman, Eugene Atget. That he died in relative obscurity in 1927 means that there really is no biography of Atget. Before anyone thought of writing one, those that might have contributed something to a biography were gone. He left no writings outlining his approach to picture-making, nor formulas for plate processing or printing. There are no Atget “Daybooks” as there are for Edward Weston, no partisan essays as one finds for Paul Strand. Of those who knew him and wrote of it, there is Berenice Abbott who knew him briefly and admired his work to the point of rescuing it after the man had died, and there is Man Ray, who used an Atget image in a surrealist magazine, and who later in life expressed a lingering resentment for the interest and adulation the dead Frenchman had acquired, and scoffed that Atget had no artistic self awareness.

That interest and adulation is where history kicks in and biography drops off. What happened with Atget is that at a time when Modernism had grabbed the attention of artists of all sorts, (and the Catholic Church!) the work of Atget was finding an audience, through the efforts of Berenice Abbott especially, and young photographers were finding in the images a sense of direction and a sort of purification of photographic seeing. This was true of, for example, the young American Walker Evans, soon to become a significant figure in 20th century photography. So Atget IS significant because of the impact his work had on later photographers who became significant for even later photographers! Following the lead of Walker Evans was the 1950s photographic work of Robert Frank, whose book “The Americans”, in turn, influenced the work of Garry Winograd, Lee Friedlander and the like. You see how influence spreads? And we then, at some point make that chain of influence and significance into what we call history.

Bill Kostelec

Note: If you want to see Atget’s work at its best, look for reproductions that preserve the beautiful colors of his original prints. They were made on printing out paper and toned in gold. Straight black ink reproductions lose much of the emotional impact of Atget’s work.

 

Old Equipment: New Images

In a culture that is economically driven by consumerism, we are impressed with the notion that new stuff is better than old stuff. Get rid of that iphone 4 and get the new, improved iphone 8! Your Hybrid Toyota is 8 years old! Get a loan and buy the 2018 model! Sell off your old film camera equipment and get a new Canon digital with 10 gazillion megapixels! I’ve been, I confess without shame, regularly out of step culturally for most of my life, and so with photography and its tools.

We had our annual Holiday Open House the first weekend of January, where Kathy and I make nearly our whole house a gallery space, cook up some spiced wine, and invite folks in over three days to hang out, look at the prints either framed on the walls or in sleeves in racks. It’s a lot of work but a lot of fun. During that weekend a man who in the Spring is going to take a workshop with us handed Kathy a cardboard box with “some old film camera junk”. I didn’t get a chance to look it until Sunday evening. There were a couple small foldable flashbulb units, some bulbs, a couple odd 35mm cameras, a light meter labeled TOWER and one brown leather case that proved to hold an AGFA Karat 36, a rangefinder folding 35mm camera, made in Germany in about 1951.   With it was an instruction manual.

In such situations my response is to get out a few basic cleaning materials, canned air, Pec12, micro fiber cleaning cloth, and so on, and while cleaning, check things out. I get the back open, check the shutter, move the aperture, and in the process get a better idea of what I have. The next step is to load with film and shoot. This I did the next day on a 2 mile walk with my friend Jerry. Then to home, to the darkroom, process the roll. When the film comes out of the photo-flo distilled water bath I hang it up, turn on the light box hanging flush on the wall and look over negatives with a loupe. Now I know much better what I have.

There is a sense of satisfaction when I find good negatives, on several levels. First, if the camera has worked properly that is good. It becomes a user and I enjoy using older cameras. The second level is just that; the satisfaction of using equipment as old as or older than me. This second kind of satisfaction is one way that I refute and reject that cultural norm that we must use the newest to do good work. It’s simply not true. The third level of satisfaction is making good images in this antique process of shooting and processing film. When I developed my first roll of black and white film, (Verichrome Pan 616) at 11 years old, and had my first look at the negatives in the light, I got the same thrill that I get now when I pull a roll out of the photo flo.

A friend of ours pulled out a big brown leather bag a while back to show us her Dad’s old camera. It is an EXAKTA V, sold about 1951 as well, with three lenses, a nice GE Golden Crown light meter and again, a good instruction manual. Holding it up and looking through the 58mm Zeiss lens was a disappointment. The image was dark, and dirty with just one clear circle at the center. She wanted me to try it out. I took it home and pulled the removable viewfinder. The mirror was yellow and brown with places of missing silver. A front surface mirror like this can be very bright but atmospheric acids and other pollutions had basically ruined it. Such a thing is an affront to my sense of the beauty of old equipment. I got on line, found someone selling an original equipment replacement mirror for a different version of the EXAKTA, a mirror that itself was probably 50 years old. I learned, however, that EXAKTA equipment tends to be interchangeable, and I ordered it even though my friend’s husband said “Aw, she’ll never use it.” When it arrived I did a little research online, found a suggestion, pulled the lens and lens mount and looked closely inside with a lens, figured out what teeny metal strips to bend, and I was able to pull the old mirror out and slip in the new, in about ten minutes.

Now both viewfinders are bright and clean and I am on the third roll of film with the old EXAKTA V.

During the Summer we do a couple outdoor Art Fairs. Our black and white prints turn out to be very rare and unusual at such events. A couple Summers back a lady was very interested as we had on display a print of the campus of Gonzaga University and she told me that her Uncle Leo had worked there long ago and that he was a photographer. “Leo Yates, S.J. ?” I guessed. “Yes!” So I told her I have one of his lens and shutters, a Protar VII convertible, in a Compound shutter. It probably dates before 1920 and I got it in a junk box full of old abandoned darkroom stuff. Only later did I trace it to the Jesuit. But this old lens and shutter has produced some of my best 5X7 negatives over the years. I had to have the cable release plug replaced once and sent it to a camera tech in California, Fred with a German accent who used to work on Ansel Adams’ equipment. Fred called me up and said, “Bill, I have been showing your lens to my assistant. Dis is a good vun. Let me go over the shutter and get everything good again.” So, of course, I did and that was maybe 12 years ago and it is still a good one. I used it to shoot Ektachrome 5X7s at a ghost town in Montana a few years back. No problem.

Old equipment is fun and often beautiful in itself. So often Kathy and I have had people stop us and admire our cameras. Modern lenses are multi-coated and so display more contrast and color saturation than our old ones , but that they are sharper than older lenses is questionable. I had to scan an original 8X10 silver print on matte paper of the first graduating class of Gonzaga University. The glass plate negative was long lost. On the monitor it seemed that the print was extremely well detailed and I made a 16X20 ink jet print from the file. The detailed texture from the brick work on the original Gonzaga College building was indeed incredibly detailed. The photo was made in about 1892 and I was working from a matte contact print. Whatever formula that lens was, it did its job very well. For us, the task is to use such equipment to the best of its ability and get good, printable negatives. And then, on to the first print of a new image.

Bill Kostelec