Photo Notes

September 26, 2018

Courting Chaos

Curt #2

I’ve been working on a project involving my 11X14 camera for about two years now. I’ve done more than a dozen shoots with the camera. The first show of this work will take place on November 2nd at Indiana Landmarks (1201 Central Ave, Indianapolis, IN 46202). Images will be available for sale at the show. I may make prints available on line as well. I’ve included small digital versions of the images with this blog. Theses versions of the images are only a shadow of the final prints, so please come to the show if you can.

Wayne #2

These images are figure studies handled with a very unusual and chaotic process described below. Many of them are nudes and several of them are disturbing. I’m writing a lot about the process in this post but I should also share some thoughts about the results. I’ve found the entire project to be a voyage of discovery. I really did not know how the project would evolve when it began. My response to the images continues to change as I prepare them for the show. I am very happy with the way the finished prints look. They have a strong impact. There are a lot of parts of the images, wings horns and make up designs that have symbolic impact. The images seem to invite the viewer to create a narrative from them. My narrative involves ideas about escape. I hope you’ll find them interesting. I’m sure the project will continue to evolve.

I’d like to share some thoughts about the inspiration, the process and the results in this blog. There are a lot of places I could begin this story because this project integrates photographic techniques I learned in high school with image manipulation techniques I’ve learned as recently as a few months ago. The project integrates inspiration from my first trip to Europe in 1971 and continues with images I saw this year. Finally this project requires me to come to terms with allowing chaos to be a co-creator in my photography; as a commercial photographer for more than four decades I’ve been fighting chaos. A commercial photographer wants to control and direct images to produce effective visual communication. In this project I’ve used special processes to push the images into shapes I couldn’t predict or control. The results have been the most surprising images of my career.

Mindy #14

I saw a series of sculptures by Michelangelo called the Prisoners when I was in Europe in 1971. I was about fifteen at the time. At first these images appear unfinished, especially in comparison with the David sculpture, but when I continued to stare at the pieces they seemed to be struggling to escape from the marble. The effect was quite surprising to me at the time: the seemingly unfinished sculpture conveyed movement while other sculpture remained static. It’s now almost fifty years later and I still remember the effect and the details of these sculptures.

I remember seeing an Edward Weston photograph of a pepper just a few years after I saw the Prisoners. This image also had a lasting effect on my development as a visual artist. The design of the image was beautiful, but the medium: a silver gelatin photograph was also gorgeous. Of course I had seen photographs before, but this was a contact print from a large format negative. Over the years, in my classes and in working with photography, I’ve often met people that think photographs are somehow independent of the medium in which they’re presented. So a person might think that they’ve seen “Moonrise Over Hernandez” by Ansel Adams because they’ve seen it on line or in a magazine or a book, but a fine photographic print by Ansel has a different effect than an image from an offset press or a computer display. In order to appreciate a creative work it helps to see the work as the artist intended. Of course there are many posters of paintings by Van Gogh or Monet and so many others, but is seeing theses posters equivalent to seeing the original painting? It was the effect of the actual Weston print that allowed me to see beauty of the medium.

Cassie2 #14

Of course there are so many images that affected my way of seeing, and these images, but the work of Man Ray is really part of this process. Man Ray worked in a variety of media: doing sculpture, painting and photography. My perception of his work changed when I saw original pieces at the Getty in Los Angeles. Many of the reproductions of his work are just poor quality, which affected my understanding of his art. When I saw original pieces I was able to understand the technical mastery inherent in the work. This was important to this project because I realized that he was solarizing his negatives in a way I had never seen before, more about this later. The way that Man Ray integrated creative and innovative technique with creative images is spell binding.

On another level this project began when I purchased an 11X14 inch camera. While it’s not necessarily difficult to think about scaling up a camera “it’s just the same thing only bigger” the reality is pretty impressive. A full frame dSLR uses a sensor that is 1X1.5 inches, regardless of how high the sensor resolution; it’s a small area. The camera for this project has a capture area of 11X14 inches. In addition, while the sensor may have high resolution, film resolution is on the molecular level. The total amount of information you can capture is mind blowing. The costs of the thing are pretty impressive as well; a single sheet of 11X14 inch film costs eight dollars. Adams used 4X5 inch camera much of the time; Edward Weston used an 8X10; Brett Weston did use an 11X14 camera occasionally. The problems of using a camera this size are not just expense and weight, it also needs a lot of light. So when I got the camera I wasn’t sure that I would use it much, maybe just a couple of times to prove I could master the thing. Then, after a lot of thinking, I came up with a way of using the camera to make images that I couldn’t create with any other camera. I decided to explore solarizing (re-exposing) the negatives. I am aware that some people refer to the solarization process as the Sabatier effect, but I prefer to use the term solarization.

Shelby #9

This is similar to what Man Ray did, during the processing of his film he re-exposed the negative to light. This creates a reversal effect. This was a pretty common process when I was in high school, but we solarized prints rather than negatives. When you solarize a print the white area of the print black or gray, which can look pretty compelling. It’s impossible to entirely predict what will happen, and even if you do the same thing twice, the results will be different. The thing about Man Ray’s solarization process is that he turned the black areas of the image white AND he could make multiple prints that were the same. This was because he solarized the negative rather than the print. This creates another big problem-you have to process modern film in total darkness (yes, even black and white film) so you can’t see what you’re doing. When Man Ray did this people used orthochromatic films; films that couldn’t see red light, so he could see what he was doing. I realized that I could shoot 11×14 photographic paper, which can be used under safelight. Since I have an 11×14 inch scanner I could take these negatives, which were on paper, and scan them. This enables me to interpret the images in Adobe Photoshop. The reason that the large area negative is an advantage with this process is that you can choose what part of the image you want to re-expose and you can also choose what part of the image to re-develop. Most of the time I used a Mini-Maglite to re-expose the negative and various paint brushes to re-develop. Of course what actually happens to the image when you re-expose and re-develop is chaotic, almost totally unpredictable. Thus I am courting chaos in making these images.

I did a couple of blog posts when I started this project: http://siskinphoto.com/blog/?p=3401 and http://siskinphoto.com/blog/?p=3207 and http://siskinphoto.com/blog/?p=2871 . These posts detail some of the development this process. One of the first things I discovered was that the material I was using to shoot, Ilford Multigrade RC Glossy, was much more light sensitive than I would have thought. It has an ISO of about 100 when used with strobes. I was able to set up a sodium vapor safelight, which made it possible to move around the studio quite easily when shooting. One of the greatest advantages of shooting the paper is that the processing is quick and easy. You can develop the RC paper in about a minute. Even with re-exposure it was only about 5 minutes from exposing with the camera to seeing the negative in white light. Almost as quick as Polaroid! In addition, since the large scanner was in the studio I could scan and reverse the images in short order, so the subject was able to leave with prints! The entire process was very fun and interactive.

Leslie #6

Part of that interactivity was the team that made these images. Of course that includes the models, but it also includes David Kidwell, assistant extraordinaire, and Julie Powers, makeup artist for angels and devils. Julie did a couple of really remarkable things for this project: first she designed the make-up for all the models. This is tougher than it might appear because the Multigrade paper doesn’t react to color in an even way: reds and yellows are very dark while blues are brighter that you would suppose. Julie also arranged for all the models, THANKS! David managed set up and kept me on my feet all through the shoots. Now that I’m in my sixties I couldn’t have done it without him! Each of the models was special. It can be difficult to come to terms with normal pictures of yourself, it’s more of a challenge when you’re teaming up when chaos. You know that all of the images will present you in unpredictable ways. My thanks and gratitude to all!

In another way this project began at University High School in Los Angeles, specifically in bungalow L79. At sort of the end of the campus was the photography classroom. I first learned about photography in that classroom. The instructor was Arnold Rubinoff. Arnold was teaching things that really weren’t common in high school photography. I remember learning to make color prints from him. One of the things we learned was how to do solarization. I remember that a couple of the students were particularly enthusiastic about the process. There is often a line that defines the transition from a normal tone to a solarized tone, referred to as a Mackie line, and these two students created an image that was nothing but a Mackie line. They used a process that involved a wash, squeegee and a controlled re-exposure under an enlarger, then putting the image back into the developer. I based my process on what I remembered from that time. I remove the print from the first developer after most or all image development has taken place. I rinse the image and squeegee the water off the print. Then I use a Mini-Maglite with a #5 Ilford Multigrade filter to re-exposure the print. I usually do this from a distance with my fingers occluding some of the light. This gives me more time and more control over the second exposure. The filter also changes the contrast of the second exposure. Then I use a variety of brushes to add developer. I usually use a more concentrated developer with the brushes.

Andrea #5

There are a number of important insights that led to this process. Of course one of the first problems that had to be solved was the cost of film. Other people have reached this point and turned to litho film. This is a graphic arts film that is designed to hold only black and white tones, no gray tones at all! It can be processed to hold grays, but there are issues. Particularly the stuff is really insensitive to light. The ISO is around 4. As I mentioned above the Ilford Multigrade is about ISO 100, which is almost 5 stops more sensitive to light. This is the difference between shooting at f11 and f2. Since most lenses that cover 11X14 are f8 or slower you can imagine that the speed of the material is critical. Another important moment was when I realized that I had an oversized scanner. My original thought was to remove the emulsion from the paper and put it onto a clear base, which would have been very difficult. Scanning the images was easy and quick.

One of the ideas I had after I got my first large digital printer was that I could make negatives on tracing paper and make traditional darkroom prints. I did make this work, but didn’t follow it up. The images were fuzzy flat and hard to print. I returned to the idea for this project. While I was exploring the negatives, digital prints from my Canon printer were great, but they don’t have the same impact as a handmade print. I used the printer to make negatives on a clear film from Fixxons. I was then able to use these negatives to make cyanotype prints and silver gelatin prints. I mentioned cyanotypes in the blog post I referred to earlier and in this blog post: http://siskinphoto.com/blog/?p=2243, which is from my last show. This post also describes silver gelatin prints. For this show I used multiple coats of cyanotype chemistry on blotter paper. The images have a very dark maximum tone as a result. Because the prints are hand coated each cyanotype print is different, even if made form the same negative. Cyanotype prints do change over time, which is part of the charm. For the silver gelatin prints I used Ilford Multigrade Warm Tone Fiber base paper. Fiber base papers use a barium clay coating called baryta that produces the white tones. I like this much better than resin-coated papers (RC) that use a titanium dioxide to make the whites. In addition when you air dry a glossy fiber based paper the surface looks fabulous. I also toned all the silver gelatin prints with selenium, which makes a more agreeable print color as well as adding to the stability of the final print. There will also be a couple of large color prints as well. While the actual process is done with black and white material, false color does come in during scanning. I’ve manipulated the images to enhance this effect. Since original negatives are so large the prints can be very large as well, which makes for a very powerful print. One more thing about prints, I believe that the price of a print should reflect, at least in part, the amount of actual hand work done by the artist rather than the size of the image.

Rubella #14

Actually shooting with the camera is pretty tricky. Some things are like working with any large format camera, for instance the image is upside down and backwards on the ground glass. Over the years I’ve become used to that. One problem that particularly affects the 11X14 is bellows extension. The closer your lens is to the subject the further it is from the film. I know this seems exactly backwards, but trust me it’s the way it works. What might not be obvious is that as the lens gets further from the film, there is less light on the film. If you are shooting a head and shoulders portrait with a 35mm camera you don’t have any bellows extension; if you’re shooting with 4X5 film you might have a half stop of bellow extension; with the 11X14 camera you’ve lost about 2 stops of light to bellows extension. This means it’s dark on the ground glass when you’re focusing and composing AND you need a lot of light to make the exposure. Most of the time I was using between 5000 and 7000 watt-seconds of strobe power to make the exposure. My lens was generally set between f11 and f16. While this seems like it would give you plenty of depth of field on a digital camera, on the 11X14 it gives you only a matter of millimeters of focus depth. So focus is critical, which makes it very important for the model to stay in place! Another aspect of bellows extension is the way it affects your lens choice. The normal lens, if there is one, for an 11X14 camera is about 450mm, or 18 inches. If you were shooting that same head and shoulders shot, which is close to life size on an 11X14 camera, you’d need about 1000mm (39 inches) of bellows to bring the lens into focus. That makes the camera really difficult to keep stable and to adjust. So you generally end up shooting with shorter lenses which wouldn’t cover the film at infinity, but they do just fine close to the subject. My favorite lenses for this project were a 12 inch red dot Artar from Goerz (f9) and a 14 inch gold dot Dagor (f8) made by Kern for Schneider. Both are classic formulas. The Dagor was originally introduced in the 1890s, and the Artar in the early years of the twentieth century. Both of these are later lenses that benefit from modern coatings. I use the 12 inch Artar for head and shoulders and the 14 inch Dagor for full body shots. I used a few other lenses on occasion including a 48cm Goerz Dogmar (f5.5) and a 270mm Wide Angle G-Claron from Schneider (f6.3), but they just didn’t keep the subject/camera distance in a good range. When I first got the camera I also got a 24 inch Gorez Artar (f11) but it required too much bellows to be useful in the studio.

The camera itself has some basic challenges. Of course the fact that it’s a working 11X14 camera must be in its favor but… It’s built out of parts from other cameras. It’s built on top of a drawer, like something out of a card catalog. This allows it considerable expansion, but it also means the camera can’t fold into any portable configuration. It weighs a lot, so the tripod needs to be a beast. I’ve used several tripods with it, and now I’m using an 8-foot camera stand. The focus skips out of alignment, which is annoying. The bellows sag. There is a plaque on the camera proclaiming it as the Pernicamera Model Number 0001, built in 1995 to 1997. I’d like to meet the person who built it. I don’t use a shutter with the camera at all. I keep the lens open, but all the illumination, once the paper is loaded, is from safelights. I trigger the strobes with a radio slave to make the exposure. This makes it easier to do multiple exposures and to move the subject between the exposures.

Dana #5

I hope to see you on November 2nd. If you’d like more information about a specific image please let me know.

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One more thing, there are almost 8500 people registered on this blog. Wow! Thanks everyone.

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