Photography, Presentation and Insomnia

What do you do at 2:30 AM when you’re stricken with a bout of insomnia? Why you tackle a prototype matting job for a very large triptych (3x 10×13 images in a 20×40 mat/frame). Which of course you mis-measure the windows in the horizontal dimension, ending up cutting them 1/4″ too wide. 

At least I didn’t screw it up prototyping with 8 ply mat board (which I’ve been known to do before). I think the sequence and the tonal values works for the series, which I’m titling “Head, Heart, Hand”. Or something to that effect. 
I think sometimes (perhaps most of the time? All of the time?) presentation can make or break an image. Its success is the culmination of many decisions that begin with the decision of what camera and film to pick up before heading out the door in the morning, following through to what to point the camera at, on to what developer, paper, process, cropping… it doesn’t end until the framed print is hung on a wall, sequenced with the rest of the prints in the show. They all build on each other. 

Head, Heart, Hand – Capitoline Museum, Rome

What do you all think of the sequencing of this triptych? Head, Heart, Hand, or the other way round? Any other critique/feedback is welcome.

All three images were shot on Kodak Tri-X, in my 1956 Rolleiflex 2.8E. Film developed in Pyrocat HD, printed on Ilford Warmtone MG fiber paper processed using Ilford Warmtone developer. 

Darkroom Printing: Technique

When doing enlarging of silver gelatin prints, it is often a prerequisite to a finished print that you do some burning and dodging to get the finished image exactly the way you envisioned it. And to compound the challenge, the area you want to burn or dodge is seldom neatly covered by an out-of-the-box tool like an oval, circle, or a straight line. That’s when you have to get creative and make some custom burn cards. This image I made was a perfect example. In a straight print, the sky is merely gray, and has a wisp of cloud on the right side that unless burned in looks like a bad printing mistake. 
To get the sky burned in, without losing details in the roof, I had to make a custom burn card. I took a stack of paper boxes, placed them on the easel, then my burn card on top. I projected the negative onto the card, traced my outline, then cut it out. When doing my burning passes, I held the card at approximately the same height as it was when I cut it. You can see it in the second photo in action. The only way to get more precise with burning and dodging is to make a contrast mask and sandwich it with the negative in the carrier during exposure. That technique presents a whole new set of challenges because you have to get the mask in absolute register with the negative, and deal with dust on four surfaces, not to mention the possibility of newton rings. 

Private Tutorial – Platinum/Palladium Printing

I recently completed a one-on-one private tutorial in Platinum/Palladium printing with Mat Marrash, who you may know of if you listen to The Film Photography Podcast. I’ve known Mat for several years now, having met him at Photostock in 2013. He’s an extremely gifted photographer who mostly works with an 8×10 view camera, and does a lot of work with infrared film. Mat knows a lot of the same folks I know in the alternative process field, including people I’ve learned from, so I was deeply flattered that he chose me to learn from.

Mat With First Print
Mat With First Print

Yes, Mat is a very talented photographer in his own right so a lot of what we did in this session was easy for him. BUT, he did make it challenging by starting off working from 8×10 inch negatives, instead of starting with 5×7 (the smaller size is easier to coat evenly when you’re new to the process, and costs 50% less per print). I want to show this as this was his first ever (!!!!) palladium print. We hit the first one dead on, out-of-the-ballpark, ready to frame and go up on the wall. This extremely beautiful process is quite easy to learn and should not be intimidating to anyone interested.

And here is his second ever print, which added another wrinkle – the negative he used was one he had previously shot, not planning to make a palladium print with it. We developed all his film, the negatives we made that weekend along with some other negatives he had made previously, using the development regimen I use for my work, and we were able to produce some excellent prints even from those other negatives.

Mat's Second Print
Mat’s Second Print

Private one-on-one tutoring can be arranged at any mutually convenient time, and can cover a wide range of topics either specialized for fine-tuning your process or just a deep hands-on introduction to the process. Contact me for details on pricing and scheduling – as this is an a-la-carte arrangement, I need to know what you are looking for in order to give a quote. Tuition will include your own set of chemistry and any paper we use in the class.

I’m offering my group class at Glen Echo Photoworks next weekend, December 10-11, if you are interested in getting your feet wet without committing to a one-on-one workshop, This is the perfect opportunity. Tuition is a very modest $250 plus $50 materials fee (chemistry, paper, and all instructional materials). The class runs from 10 AM – 4 PM Saturday and Sunday. You can register here at the Glen Echo Park website.

The Belair and its Russian Lens

For those curious what the heck I’ve been talking about when I mention my Lomo Belair X/6-12, and the Russian glass lens for it, here you go. The Belair is an odd little beast – collapsible folding strut camera, takes 6×6, 6×9 or 6×12 centimeter negatives depending on which insert you use, is manual focus, scale focusing (you guess the distance and set it on the lens, and compose through an un-coupled viewfinder), has only two aperture options – f/8 or f/16, has manual film advance via red window, yet has an automatic shutter over which the only control you have is changing the ISO dial. Bulb exposures are an option.

The camera out of the box comes with some plastic fantastic lenses (a 90mm and a 58mm). The 90 has perceptible but not egregious distortion, reasonable contrast, and acceptable sharpness. The 58 is, well, not so good. The viewfinder for the 58 has less distortion than the lens does! After the Belair had been out for maybe 6 months or a year, they introduced a limited run of Russian-made all-glass optics for it – a 90mm and a 114mm. I got into the Belair game too late to be able to buy the glass lenses from Lomography, as they were sold out. The lenses were also quite expensive from Lomography, the Belair vendor. I believe they were something on the order of $300 apiece.

The Belair with the 114mm lens
The Belair with the 114mm lens

After having used the Belair with the plastic lens for a while, I got the itch to try and find the glass lenses. That’s when I discovered that they had all been sold, and nobody had any old stock sitting around. They didn’t show up with any frequency on Ebay either. I had particularly wanted to find the 90mm, but no dice. Then along came someone selling their 114mm. The price was good, so I jumped on it rather than take a chance on missing out.

Front view, the Belair with the 114mm lens
Front view, the Belair with the 114mm lens

In addition to the primary reason for getting the glass lens – the glass in the lens with its exceptional sharpness and flare resistance – the ability to precisely control focus is another benefit. The plastic lenses have four distances marked on the barrel – infinity, 3 meters, 1.5 meters and 1 meter (infinity, 9 feet, 4.5 feet and 3 feet for the metrically challenged). If you wanted to focus in between, you had to guess at the distance and hope the depth of field would carry the day. The Zenit-made 114mm and 90mm lenses have many intermediate distances marked on the focusing ring, which is silky smooth without being loose. The ability to much more precisely place your focus means that you can intentionally place objects in or out of focus. This is a major artistic control and a very welcome addition.

The Zenit Belairgon 114mm, and its controls
The Zenit Belairgon 114mm, and its controls

I’m including this scan of a negative made by the 114 so you can see the sharpness and particularly the flare resistance – I’ve had more flare on my Rolleiflex with the lens hood attached with the sun NOT in the picture. While Russian camera bodies may have been shall we say quality-control challenged (particularly in the Soviet era), their optics are truly outstanding. This should be proof enough to put doubt to rest that Russian lenses are up to par with their German and Japanese peers.

Hampton House, Towson, Maryland
Hampton House, Towson, Maryland

The image was shot on ten year out of date Ilford FP4+, and developed in Pyrocat HD.

Sinister Idyll: Historical Slavery in the Modern Pastoral Landscape – Hampton Estate

Here are the first two from my visit to Hampton National Historic Site, in Towson, Maryland (just north of Baltimore). More will be forthcoming, but I wanted to get these two posted right away. Hampton was at its peak, a several thousand acre estate. It was built as the country home for the Ridgely family, who made their early wealth through ironworks. One Ridgely would be governor of Maryland. The house itself was famous for being a centerpiece of entertainment and gracious living, having greenhouses and a subterranean icehouse on the property, providing the Ridgelys and their guests with seasonal fruits, ice water and chilled beverages year-round, an extreme rarity in 1790 when the house was built. The main house has thirteen bedrooms on three floors, a sitting room, great hall, dining room, parlor, library/music room, kitchen and laundry.

House Slave Quarters
House Slave Quarters

This octagonal garden, roughly 8 feet on a side, is built inside the foundations of the house slave quarters. It was a two-story structure, and some three families of house servants shared it. While the US Park Service guides (who give outstanding tours of the property) tell you explicitly about the structure and its purpose, no marker in the garden indicates its history.

Park Road, Hampton
Park Road, Hampton

Today, Hampton Lane divides the Hampton historical site. What is remarkable about the property is that so many of the farm structures remain – the dairy with its spring-water-fed cold water bath for the milk and butter, the horse stables (the Ridgelys were big horse racing fans, and kept the stables within eyesight of the mansion, another unusual feature, as well as a no-longer-surviving racetrack of their own), the overseer’s house and slave quarters for the skilled labor (stable hands, dairy workers, etc).

You can see the overseer’s house inside the white picket fence to the right of the scene. Hampton is open as a public park, and many people come there to ride their bikes and exercise their dogs. Today it is a beautifully maintained pastoral landscape in suburban Baltimore. While again, the Park Service does yeoman’s work in interpreting the space, and has provided outstanding documentation on the website for Hampton, the interpretation of the site requires you to actually go inside the structures and talk to the park service guides. It is possible to visit, and if you don’t engage, be completely oblivious to the fact that the parkland you are walking through exists by and for slave labor.

Palladium Printing- developing an exposed print

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Just a real quick video of an exposed print being developed. This is what a develop-out print looks like, and how quickly the developer works. The print is almost fully realized in the first twenty seconds of the development cycle, but you still need to give the full two minutes to let the highlights fully develop. 

This is what the raw, unexposed double-coated emulsion looks like. I double-coat to get better shadow depth and highlight separation. You can see the two coatings on the lower left. The reason I’m willing to double-coat is that I’m making such small prints that the extra cost isn’t prohibitive. 


And the finished print. I think the end result justifies the added labor and expense. 

SINISTER IDYLL – HISTORICAL SLAVERY AND THE MODERN PASTORAL LANDSCAPE – Sully Plantation

Sully Plantation is another historic homestead in the Washington DC suburbs. Today, sited across the road from the Udvar-Hazy Annex of the Air and Space Museum and the runways for Dulles International Airport, it is a tiny oasis of parkland in the middle of major development. This is one of the older properties I’ve been to, with the current house begun in 1793 and completed in 1799. It was built by Richard Bland Lee, Robert E. Lee’s uncle and the first Virginia representative to Congress. The property covered some 3,100 acres. It had been in the Lee family since the 1740s.

Kitchen at Sully
Kitchen at Sully

This is the kitchen at Sully. On the other side of the massive fireplace is the laundry. While it gives the appearance of bustling domesticity and comfort, it is still the site of slave labor that would have been conducted from before dawn to well after sundown seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year. The comfort and ease of life of the Lee family and their guests would have been the product of this room.

Recreated Slave Cabin, Sully
Recreated Slave Cabin, Sully

It bears minding that this one-room cabin with no glass in the windows, no insulation in the floor, walls or ceiling, a single stone fireplace for warmth in winter, and a long walk to the well, would have been luxurious by the standards of the field slaves. They most likely lived in large barracks-style buildings at considerable remove from the Sully house, with less privacy and fewer conveniences. Contrast this with the big house, with glass pane windows, carpets, fireplaces in every room, imported mirrors to brighten the parlor when the sun went down, feather beds, and a kitchen outside of the house to keep cooking odors and the risk of fire away.

Sully House and Dependencies
Sully House and Dependencies

A view of Sully from the slave residence’s perspective. On the left you can see the stone dairy house – a structure with spring-fed pools to keep milk, butter, and other perishables cool year-round. Next is the smoke house where they would have smoked meats to preserve them, and then the laundry and kitchen, connected to the big house by a covered walkway. All this would have seemed like an alien world to the field slave, and still a strange place they worked in but did not belong to for the house slaves living in the cabin with this view.

Walkway from Kitchen to House
Walkway from Kitchen to House

I’ve subtitled this one “Fifty Feet is a Thousand Miles” – although that covered walkway from the kitchen to the house is a short distance, walking it with breakfast, lunch and dinner made for someone else’s consumption every day of your life must have produced some significant cognitive dissonance for the women who worked the kitchen.

I remember hearing from a friend whose wife was a docent at Sully that Mrs. Lee remained friends with and corresponded with her personal maid for the rest of her life, even after her maid was freed from slavery and she had returned to Philadelphia where she was from. These kinds of friendships, and they did happen, certainly complicate the narrative of slaveowners and the enslaved, but it is still no excuse or balm for the absolute moral failure that was slavery. The friendship of a woman and her maid is not compensation for the remaining hundred-plus men, women and children who worked twelve hours a day in heat and cold, rain and snow, planting, tending and harvesting crops all for the profit and comfort of someone else without compensation or even decent living conditions.

Photography, Alternative Processes, Really Big Cameras, and other cool stuff

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