I had just begun my Masters Post Graduate Degree at RMIT.
I was soon to be married.
I had just bought a house with my ever patient partner. The house was a rare find, a large backyard, facing north, but more importantly a large garage, long enough to store 3 small cars. At last I was about to get my darkroom. It had only taken 8 years.
I had been fortunate however in those years between graduating from Uni, and settling down. I worked as a technician at a photography school and so had 24/7 access to all the processing and printing gear I needed. Like most people however I was scavenging and collecting any and all darkroom equipment I could afford as I waited to find the right space to set one up.
By the time we had bought our house, I had bought an Omega enlarger, and rescued 2.5 meter grey plastic sink,from the school I worked at. I switched out the condensers for a Zone IV cold light head, and saved up for a metronome for it as well. The enlarger came with 3 gorgeous Schneider Rodenstock lenses [50mm, 80mm, & 150mm], and a turret head allowing me to print from 35mm to 5×4. These days it’s either 6×6 or 5×4, but my archives are an endless source of contemplation. The best thing about my enlarger after the Zone VI metronome is the foot pedal used to operate it, keeping my hands free to burn and dodge.
The bench it rests upon is big enough to store other hardware such as my 5×4 camera and paper and notebooks as I work. When it came time to start building, I settled on an ‘L’ configuration, due to the sloping roof of the shed an the height of my enlarger for my 3 meter by 4 meter allocated space. I built the benches myself and rigged a temporary hose into the space, with roughed in plumbing ready for permanent connection when finances permitted.
The previous owners had left a plan press in the garage, so this was coaxed into use as a bench top, which housed a set of custom built shelves for negatives, contact sheets and work prints. I also had a custom built film drying cabinet in storage ready and waiting. Currently I have only cold water from an external tap running into the space, only a problem when printing in winter, bucketing hot water into the space in not an inconvenience at all. The sink is big enough to print 16 x 20, with a added on sink used as a place to put a wash tray. As my workflow usually involves long deliberation between work prints and finished prints these days, I only ever need room for 4 trays, Dev, Stop, Fix & rinse easily accommodated in my sink, these days I rarely print this large anyway.
I use pegs angled slightly on a specially built rack for storage of jugs beakers and other chemical ephemera above the sink. I have a separate shelf for my dry chemicals, and storage under the sink and benches for any other things that need to be kept out of the way. Another of the useful tools I use in this space are, some triple beam balance scales for making custom developers. I like to air dry my prints so I have hung a nylon rope across the ceiling for this purpose.
*Originally posted to Tumblr 7 years ago, now with fresh pictures.
Life and time commitments make it difficult to plan shooting. Working around good light and the best seasons complicates this. To then process film on top of that, means a lot. Not to mention that materials, such as black and white papers, are running out as well. This puts me in a quandary. It means, my creative energies would be better spent exploring ideas and the world around me. using other means, preferably with a lens and a light sensitive material of some sort.
Technological changes mean I can create good quality images quickly . Excellent ones If I’m careful in an analogue sense] and easily using the smallest of devices. The caveat being they will probably only ever exist in cyber space. Why then not explore other ideas now. I mean all that other stuff, I’d felt was important for all this time, is it important? In this image saturated media landscape? Why not just see if I can’t get the ideas across using the simplest of tools? With nothing more to deal with than the 3 most important elements of photography. Light, Time, Space.
Well hey presto! Here I am using a mobile phone and or a small camera. Hopefully getting some idea across about the world I see. one that I am somewhat incongruously part of. One that I can share in real time or in a myriad of other ways.
There is somewhat of a leap of faith here. Between finely crafted silver gelatin prints, and the bulk of work I’m producing these days. So let me retrace my steps. Somewhere between 1994 and 2004, I started meandering in other directions. A Grad. Dip. Ed and an MA, were two of them. Computers the internet and Desktop Publishing were other side interests. All the while, digital cameras are following Moore’s Law. Desktop printers are getting better and better. By 2004 I’m hooked into flickr using my Nikon Coolpix 5400, bought after travelling the world. This is the first digital camera I owned, capable of producing reasonable A4 prints. It is not the 1st I ever owned. The first I owned, had died a quiet death in Wales on the same trip. In the interim had produced 13,000 plus images, a tiny selection of which made one of my 1st e-books, “buy, buy, buy”.
The current iPhone I use now create both RAW and HEIF files. I have printed these files to A2, so my digital toolset is getting physically smaller. All in all a good thing. Now I spend a large amount of time choosing images to upload to flickr. Book creation forms a major part of my creative energy now too. As film prices have skyrocketed that aspect of my production slows. I now too have a scanner at home. I plan on revisiting my 30 year old colour film archive. This project alone should produce I hope at least 2 or 3 bodies of work. Also, several social media sites have risen attempting to usurp Instagram.
But I digress. As I said 2004 and getting a flickr account, was somewhat of a turning point for me. The first few years on flickr were pretty insane. Eventually I picked up on some patterns and ideas that were not dissimilar to the real world. Particularly amongst amateur photographers. For example.
35 mm DSLRs produce better images than point and shoot cameras, allegedly.
Shallow Depth of Filed has some special magic quality about it. Which in turn, spawned a slather of cults/followers/groups 11,000 on flickr at time of writing.
Skin/sex sells, but I guess I knew that already but had forgotten it
Subtlety/complexity was often overlooked
Democracy exists in a way I’d never experienced it before [is this a unique web/forum thing?]
I don’t need to upload daily, and can even ‘curate’ my images in advance before uploading.
Anyway, I enjoyed those first few years prior to the Yahoo buyout immensely. I still do enjoy my time on flickr, but in a much more pared back kind of way. Two of the factors I enjoy about flickr, are. The amount of folks who seemed prepared to push the envelope on photography. The interface design, particularly compared to ‘deviantart’ and ‘fotolog’. In the beginning though it, flickr or my experience of it, was still somehow tied into the idea of a polished and finished ‘object’. You know the stuff I’d learnt at University.=
Somewhere around 2006/2007, things slowly moved in another direction. I knew it was pointless obsessing over colour and colour management. This is still a very poorly misunderstood idea. Not to mention, interfaces and browsers interfere with these factors anyway. I began wondering then, how I could add a layer of complexity to my images that was uniquely digital. How I could use flickr and the internet to exploit that? So I then began looking at other ideas.
Maps have always fascinated me. They, give some clue to your geographical location. Which in turn hints at who you are, and in turn may give some clues to your culture. One thing that is unique to digital photography is, Exif Data. Digital exif data maps to the second when you made the image. The Web itself has grown to allow people ways to geographically and visually place images into maps. These images then add data to larger databases. Databases that collectively and individually add to the greater understanding of who we are, and where we are.
Time, place, identity/memory are driving factors behind much of my output. Yet. I’m also still not only interested in what makes a photograph “good”? But now, how I can use the simplest of tools to create images this way? The biggest change for me though is, that I carry at least one and often 2 or 3 small digital devices everywhere. And can work at an intuitive level that I’ve never been able or allowed myself to work at before. [Once I’ve learnt how to exploit or overcome the shortcomings of each device]. Intuition is for me the most difficult of creative processes to justify. In this day and age, of huge staged, over-manipulated, images. That adorn the halls of many Arts institutions.
For me, seeing comes before speaking. Therefore why an image I made exists is often more a visceral thing than an intellectual exercise. Although, the intellectual stimulus that a good photograph provides IS important too.
Let me finish off by, presenting one of my favourite little poems I picked up while studying at art school. It for me sums up art and photography so well.
So we’ve established in the beginning, I was interested in what I would call a fine print. Based on the concerns of other photographers who’ve gone before me. Such as Ansel Adam’s Technique, and later, feebly attempting to explore the surreal and philosophical underpinnings of Frederick Sommer’s ideas.
The next and final question is how, do you make/get a fine print? When one starts to get serious about your prints, it easier to produce good prints from good negs, plenty of shadow detail, not too blown out in the highlights, with hopefully a long scale of tones, [all based on a well published list of characteristics of materials.]
Long scales of tone, then give you license to manipulate them, the tones. Grain was a no-no, and high contrast was considered bad form, unless you had a good reason for it. Remember this is based on the ideas that the f64 group had pioneered.
This necessitated knowing your materials intimately, both film and paper. [I still use the same film today as when I started exploring materials over 30 years ago, but not the same developer or paper.] It also often meant lugging a tripod EVERYWHERE, because like good ol’ Uncle Ansel, you shot at the smallest possible aperture to get the maximum amount of Depth of Field. Usually on Medium Format or Large Format Cameras to help keep grain to a minimum. To keep your images sharp, you not only ALWAYS used a tripod, but a lens hood as well. Depending on your film developer combination*, even on bright sunny days, the best you sometimes could get was 1/8 a second at f22. Being a ‘landscape’ photographer, I never practised hand holding at low speeds, and today I still feel a little weird shooting wide open.
As a consequence I rarely photographed on a whim, and unless I was lucky enough to have a boot full of gear with you at all times, making images required a level of preparation and planning that would make trips to the Himalayas look like a picnic in the park.
So; given the effort required to get your gear to the spot and with hopefully good light, you also needed to get the best neg you could, you were always trying to make sure you exposed the negative correctly, and then developed it to it’s full potential, if you were developing your own black and white film. I think I’m pretty good at developing my own b&w, but when compared to the ‘masters’ I learnt from I’ve another 20 years of practice to go.
Bad negatives, and I have plenty of them, were the bane of my life, but often got fewer and further between, as I became more skilled at my craft. Ever wonder what to look for in a bad neg?
Here’s a list of ‘straight photography’ no-no’s unless the idea or the print is enhanced by it**.
Camera Shake, not to be confused with poor/incorrect focus
Dust and scratches on the Negative/Print
Poor/Incorrect focus, neg or print
Empty blacks with no detail in a print
Highlights with no detail, in your prints unless spectral like chrome
Flat or Muddy tonality in your prints
Poor tonal separation in your prints
Chromatic Aberrations or other lens defects, in your print
The one thing bad negatives taught me, and many other people was, “How to make a good print”.
So how many photographers on any of the social websites out there walk EVERYWHERE with a tripod, a medium or large format camera, have tested their materials and equipment extensively and know their place in the broader history of photography?
Well not me that’s for sure. That’s why I love my mobile phone and my desktop publishing software, and flickr and the web in general.In part three, I will elaborate.
*At one point in my experiments, I used a Developer called pyro, with a recipe for it, that lowered my favourite film down from 400 ISO, to 6 ISO, it gave beautiful long scale negatives, but was very tricky and messy to work with, in the end I settled for, my own hand made D25. I’m now using a 2 bath developer solution, with a long PH buffer after the developer.
**Artists Like Joel Peter-Witkin and The Starn Twins, took this all to another level, as their work is the antithesis to these ideas, and I admire and respect these artist’s work immensely.
On my old blog in what feels like an eternity ago. I wrote a series of articles about how I ended up where I did. I have decided to republish them here in 3 parts as well, with small footnotes given the changes in the web landscape since, and in particular what is now called “social media”.
So; here we go.
How I got Here Part One?
or… Why I do what I do, the way I do it.
This is not much more than a historical backwater, where, after chatting to a photographer on flickr about film grain of all things, I felt the need to lay out my cards. So, please do not read around siesta time, or after the consumption of alcohol.
The classic way to begin these things is to ask yourself, 3 questions. What, Why, How.
So here goes. What?
Interesting, engaging, beautiful images; with a camera or cameras, that express something more than what was in front of the lens when I pressed the shutter, or perhaps question the notion of what all the above is, amongst many other things. Memory and Identity figure in there pretty highly too.
Why? Well that’s a bit longer and harder to answer, here goes though.
Picture this, it’s 1984 or 5. I am a twenty something living and working for the weekend [as a cab driver]. After a year or so I realise this is probably not going to lead anywhere engaging. So I decide I’d best get back to school and give something a go. Also, I had recently bought a 35mm SLR camera; [duty free] and was pretty disappointed with the results. I wanted better, and some obscure part of my imagination had often looked around and ‘seen’ things and thought “that would make a good photograph”. Some research and digging around had me apply to the 2 main Colleges that taught Photography in town[Melbourne Australia]. I got interviewed, but lucked out, [knowing what I now know this is no surprise]. Both recommended a folio building course, one even recommended what was then Brighton Technical School. I enrolled. It took 2 years to get a handle on my craft and produce a decent folio. Then on to University I went. Another 3 years of working on my craft, with the accompanying exploration of history and theory. Modernism was considered passé, and with Post-Modernism at its height, it [postmodernism] wasn’t that interested in art as finely crafted objects, more ideas, or that’s how I interpreted it. Nonetheless I was interested in finely crafted objects, namely photographic prints. Prints that were interesting, engaging, beautiful, irrespective of their subject matter, but above and beyond all else photographic.
While I was at art school I’d learnt about many aspects of our rich photographic history and the ideas that surrounded its current state of play. One such idea was Pictorialism. In the mid to late 1800s photography was still struggling with its identity, organisations like the Linked Ring, were busy trying to promote photography beyond its humble uses and into the realm of art. In doing so, they used techniques that involved heavy manipulation of their negatives & prints to make them look more like paintings.
An American circle of photographers later renounced Pictorialism altogether and went on to found Group f/64, which espoused the ideal of un-manipulated, or straight photography.
Here’s a list of the Photographers Wikipedia consider members:-
John Paul Edwards
Willard Van Dyke
Those of you who know me in person pre-flickr will see a pattern.
Other Photographers I was exposed to at College, were, Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal, Richard Misrach, to name but a few. Robert Adams, was part of a group of photographers in the 70’s who had been labelled ‘The New Topographers’ from an exhibition of the same name. This was all very new and exciting for me, as I had through a series of experiences prior to returning to College gotten interested in ‘Landscape Photography’. All these photographers still adhered to the ideas about photography, that a photograph was just that, yet unlike Ansel Adams their subject matter was far from sublime.
What I wanted to be sublime was the print, the silver gelatin or ’Type C’ print that hung on a wall and people looked at and admired for it’s inherent beauty and for the ideas it expressed, in the context of a broader photographic history.
This post originally appeared on my old free WordPress site, and as we approach 20 years of flickr I thought it was worth re-sharing here.
Flickr was launched on February 10, 2004 by Ludicorp, a Vancouver-based company founded by Stewart Butterfield and Caterina Fake. I stumbled upon it somehow in late 2004. At the time I was a bit over fiddling with my vicnet site and my tripod site
I had at least one blog at the time on blogger. I had a looked at several of the fledgling services on offer at the time. Some are on this list on wikipedia. None of which really appealed to me. Flickr however seemed somehow more ‘edgy’. I signed up, and off I began on a wild journey of discovery. I began with a free account and kept my uploads within the free parameters for a while, but very quickly saw the benefit of a ‘pro’ account.
I was vaguely aware of online communities as I had been online since 1995. And as a voracious reader I was constantly following links all over the shop learning tons on the way. But this was my first ‘community’.
Those first few years on flickr were amazing I got to meet many wonderful local photographers and engage with many international ones too. The Melbourne group in particular was very social and we met quite regularly for a while. We even organised a group exhibition in 2006. It was entitled ‘Web to Wall’ and was held at a gallery called Smith Street Gallery.
One thing that has always struck me was how many of the Melbourne flickr community had an IT background. The late 90s and early 2000s in my memory was a good time for people in that industry. Many were in their 30s and were in demand and paid well. They could afford expensive cameras and computer hardware that was also expensive. Was this a trend across flickr, maybe, it’s hard to tell? But I feel the convergence of high speed internet, new and cheaper digital cameras and lowering costs of software and hardware along with the demographic, augmented the rise of flickr.
The first few years I didn’t really have much of an idea out what I was uploading and why. I had no plan or direction. Eventually I worked things out. More on this in a future post. It is plain to me that I use the service in a very differently to a lot of flickr’s users. And for this reason flickr is still very important to me.
The statistics alone make it worthwhile. My work would only ever have been seen by a small group of people who were able to attend my physical exhibitions.
Also over the years flickr has been part of a subset of research that looked at photography, the web, social media and the networked image. A search on acedemia.edu, for example reveals over 80 thousand results. This also makes the service in my mind completely relevant.
In 1998, as part of a larger and very personal quest I flew to Whyalla, in South Australia. I carried a lot of camera gear with me, so much so I was charged excess baggage on the return flight home. I flew all the way to Whyalla via Adelaide and collected a rental car there. I spent a few days exploring the area, and shot a lot of colour negative film. I remember the skies really being dramatic. I tried, in vain to capture this. I used a caravan park in Whyalla as a base and would spend all day out driving and exploring the area. I believe I got as far south as Franklin Harbour.
As I begin scanning my archive I was reminded of this trip. It was the era before the internet burst into the public consciousness. So no blogging, cloud based notes or smartphone to jot down pictorial notes. I vaguely recall borrowing a laptop from work, to write with I assume, but at this stage can only find meagre scribblings in my journals of the era.
It seems I shot about 22 rolls of 120 film on this journey, I’ve yet to count or find the black and white, either 5×4 or roll film. Of these I have edited down to about 20. Despite the problems I encountered processing the film there are still a a handful of images that resonate with me. I have yet to find the 5×4 film I shot on this trip and the one preceding it, in or about 1996 or 1997.
I was recently gifted a scanner. Thanks to Gary. This now means I can scan any or all of my analogue work on an as needs basis. All I need is time. This image has always stayed with me since I made it around 1992. It is one my earliest successes using 5×4 inch film. However it never moved beyond a contact print as the emulsion had been damaged in a couple of places.
Now using Affinity Photo, I am at least able to resurrect it and use it online. I may some day get a commercial scan and make a big print from it. In what context I’m not sure. I use Affinity Photo because it has a perpetual license and a few technical advantages over PotatoeShop.