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

 

 

 

Photo History 2

Photo History; Myths and Legends Part 2

 

A while back a friend gave us a photo book; “E.O. Hoppe’s Amerika”[1]. I’d never heard of Hoppe though the book’s author said that he was one of the most famous photographers of his time. Given that I had by then read as many histories of photography that I had, well, I found that rather odd. It was the quality of his photographs though, that compelled me to think about Hoppe’s absence from these histories.

 

Hoppe was German born but a British citizen and a contemporary of Alfred Stieglitz. A successful portrait photographer in England he came to the U.S. to open a portrait studio in New York City and made several trips across the country, making a sort of photo portrait of the land and the people that were new to him. In fact, he did something remarkably similar to what Robert Frank did some 30 year later that produced Frank’s book “The Americans.”   Though the concept was not completely new it was Hoppe who was the first to put it into practice in America. [2}

 

To get the importance of the discussion, you must look at Hoppe’s work from his American excursions. Bold, dramatic, compositionally experimental, all of these things are evident, especially in his city work. A nation of steel and glass was what the cities were proclaiming with innovative architecture and an industrial, and not pastoral key. Hoppe was brilliantly modernistic in his photographic approach, even using out of focus elements in his city work where and how they had not been used before, (at least not on purpose.) His images include street portraits made with the full awareness of his subjects (unlike the famous series from Strand) and they include out-of-work men, Jews, blacks, immigrants, Native Americans : Noble heads these.

 

Hoppe was a full blown Modernist, especially in the city work, utilizing the “modern” camera’s mobility, speed, and ability to capture quality negatives that earlier photographers, with earlier and less developed equipment, would have had a harder time capturing. His work parallels the work of those we identify as the premier photographers of the Modernist movement, Stieglitz, Strand, Frank Eugene, etc. He was well known, published many books and was widely exhibited in this country. as well as his own.

 

So why is he relatively absent from the history of photography? Here’s a suggestion. The photo-secessionists noted above were immersed in a “battle” to gain the stature for photography as a fine art. Because galleries and salons and art critics had been either reluctant to or adamant in refusing to grant such status to photography, that also meant that those photographers who considered themselves artists also felt snubbed by the fine arts establishment. The “good” galleries would not show photographs.   Stieglitz is credited in many accounts as the chief warrior for such a change in status, especially in those accounts he himself makes. Hoppe, on the other hand, could care less about the whole controversy, and this did not ingratiate him with Stieglitz and his little circle. With New York City as the self-proclaimed center of the American art scene, Stieglitz took on the role of Guru/Godfather/Prophet, in regards to the place of photography as art in America. Those who, like Hoppe, were focused more on the craft itself , (and making a living at it), rather than their identity or status as “artists” tended to get lost or buried in the chronicles of the historians who took this sense of the battle for art photography very seriously.

 

All this is making me think again about the issue of photography as a fine art, but as well to a more fundamental question of the meaning of fine art as a concept. We have several friends who are what we call “clay people”. They do ceramics and we happily own some of their pieces. For many, pottery is considered a lesser art than let us say, painting. But what does that mean? It may mean something to galleries marketing art. It may determine relative financial value for the work itself. That clay work requires less skill and craft than painting or printmaking is simply not true, however, and the art market often looks a lot like the stock market, including big doses of speculation with future values in mind.

 

The Stieglitz camp’s obsession with status as fine art was also matched with their earnest efforts to make as fine of photographs as possible, with their own focus on craft and technique. In this they were completely at one with those like Hoppe who tried to be the best photographers that they could be.

 

Certainly one of the most enjoyable and intriguing aspects of film photography is the absolute requirement of good technique, and as Kathy and I dig deeper into the craft of it we are continually replenished by the nearly bottomless well of possibilities. Nothing in this commitment to craft and technique is antithetical to the creation of art. In fact, it is absolutely essential to it.

 

[1] E. O. Hoppe’s Amerika, Modernist Photography From The 1920’s. by Phillip Prodger.,2007, New York, W.W. Norton & Company

[2] Romantic America: Picturesque United States (New York: B. Westermann Co., Inc., 1927) and Das Romantische Amerika (Berlin: Ernst Wasmuth AG., 1927)

 

Bill Kostelec

see:   http://www.eohoppe.co.uk

 

 

 

 

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

 

Using a Fungussy Lens

LADYINBLACKUsing a Fungussy Lens

I have a Canon screw mount lens from the early 1950s. It’s a Serenar 50mm f 1.8 in a shiny bright chrome mount. It came on my Canon III. It has a fungus on an internal lens element. My camera tech did not want to disassemble as far as it would have taken to get to the fungus, so we let it go. This is a lens with a very good reputation. It was created fast, sharp and contrasty. It still is.

The coating on the front and rear elements is in nearly perfect shape on the Serenar and I have used it happily from time to time. Still, it has a fungus. The other day Kathy and I went downtown Spokane to photograph the MLK Day march. It was cold, but bright and sunny. I decided to take two cameras, a Minolta SRT 201 with a 135 Rokkor, and my M3, with appropriate adaptor and the Canon Serenar. I wanted to see just what I could get out of the fungus, afflicted lens in bright, contrasty light.

I shot two rolls of film through it, a 24 exposure roll each of TriX and TMAX 100. Most of the exposures were made at f11 or between f8 and f11. The fungus is translucent and it is off center.  The set up area for the march was at the Convention Center with its high and brilliant white block long wall that faced the late morning sun directly. People standing up against or close to the wall threw distinct and sharp shadows behind them and the light made for some very interesting images.   Figure no. 1 is of a lady dressed in black, just a couple a feet away from the wall. I was standing straight on and parallel to her and the white wall. At 1/250th of a second between f8 and 11, the TriX negative is nice and sharp. When I printed the first copy of this I used a 3 ½ filter on Seagull VC fiber paper, and the first print was too light. What did reveal itself in this print was light from the wall behind subtly bleeding around the edges of the lady’s dark clothing and hat. Very subtly. I increased the print exposure by about 50% and got the good print, illustrated here. There is no sign of the flaring, no fog obscuring detail and I think of this as a successful exposure. Obviously the fungus had glowed in the brilliant wall light. My lens hood could not hold that back. Still, the quality of the negative is good and I printed without any burning or dodging.

FLARINGINMARCH

The second image is near the end of the march with a lot of brilliant backlighting. As my custom, I put myself into a shadow area, this time a multi story building whose roof just cut out the noontime Winter sky from the shot. Any light that could flare the fungus in the lens would have to come from the reflections off the street or windows or shiny objects on the marchers. In this case it was hair and pavement and a parked car. Here the effects of the fungus is more pronounced and there are several little bursts of white light on distant marchers where the sunlight backlit hair. The shadows and light on the pavement was very striking in reality and the fungus I think tended to emphasize that in a very pleasant way. If I’d used my Summicron 50mm instead perhaps the backlighting would have been cleaner and more controlled but I am really happy with the fungal glow.

So what is the lesson here? My Dad told me a long time ago, “Don’t throw it away. You could use it someday!” I learned my lesson. A photographer’s equipment does not have to be perfect, nor new. It just has to be used properly, and at the appropriate time. So, make some pictures.

Bill Kostelec

Processing Film and the Good Life

The Good Life of Processing Film

 

The other evening, Kathy processed her first 8X10 negs in my BTZS tubes. She had processed 8 X 10 in a tray before but I was the only one using the tubes. It was also her first time shooting the 8X10 Eastman Commercial View Camera that I spent a lot of hours getting into shooting condition last year.

She was amazed at her negatives. We did the first two at 6 minutes in Xtol at 72 degrees, thinking that we could alter the time for the duplicate negs if necessary. It wasn’t. The next afternoon she made contact prints on a Foma contact printing paper and now apparently, I am going to have to find a hiding place to stash at least some of our 8X10 film!

My favorite format for sheet film negatives is 5X7. As I have always enjoyed framing and shooting 35mm film, the aspect ratio of 5X7 seems ideal to me. It is a lot like 35mm in that way. Having a working Beseler 5X7 enlarger with a cold light head also helps to add value to that format. Still, when we want to produce a large body of work, as in last Fall’s trip to the Eastern Sierra, we both shoot a lot of 4X5 and medium format. Film processing, as well as cost, contributes to that choice. We both process 4X5 in restaurant trays, used for, I suppose keeping food hot, a brilliant innovation that Alan Ross showed us a year or so ago. We used to use hangars in Kodak rubber tanks. It is an easy and nearly foolproof method and being very hands on, also satisfying.  8X10 and 5X7 film has been more problematic and the acquisition of the BTZS tubes was, and Kathy will now allow me to say this, a rather good move on my part.

I enjoy processing film more than I enjoy printing. The moment a negative first comes into the light is like (well not quite) when the newborn baby first is wheeled into the room. There it is, full of potential, full of promise and hope! (I’m not sure if I’m talking about the baby or the negative. Sometimes I get carried away!)

In any case, whenever I use the digital camera to make an image, the act seems so prematurely done, and so incomplete in a way that I find very unsatisfying. Sitting at a computer just doesn’t feel like a photographic activity to me, partly because of too many years in a sedentary sitting at the computer job. Processing film, on the other hand, makes me smile and hanging negatives to dry and going into the house, where Kathy inevitably asks, “How do they look?” is what I call, “the good life.”

Bill Kostelec

 

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.