Tuesday, 2 June 2009

The Darkroom for Bluffers

I had an unprecedented number of visitors yesterday, due to a mention of the previous post in Mike Johnston's esteemed blog-cum-water-cooler spot The Online Photographer. Thanks to those of you who left comments (and thanks to Mike -- it's nice to know that [some] people realise when I'm trying to be funny).

I should say to any new visitors who might choose to come by again that this is a photography-led but not photography-driven blog, in that I write about whatever I feel like writing about, which quite often has a photographic angle, but quite often doesn't. I couldn't care less about the cameras or lenses you use, and anyone referring to the latter metonymically* as "glass" will be banned.

I put a fair number of my own photographs up, simply because I like to, and very few of anyone else's because I believe in copyright. Sometimes I don't feel like writing anything at all, and just put up a few recent pictures. At least eleven people seem to have found this a congenial arrangement, and that's fine by me. Frankly, I don't think I have enough chairs for MJ's alleged 30K readers.

Anyway. I thought I'd return briefly to yesterday's subject of the darkroom, in a less satirical mood, and mention a couple of outstandingly interesting books. These were published way back in 1977 during the second Heroic Age of Photography by Ralph Gibson's Lustrum Press, and are entitled simply Darkroom and Darkroom 2. The format is simple but effective: leading photographers are asked to describe their darkroom activities and techniques, and they do exactly that. It's totally absorbing. I can't imagine anyone not being enlightened or entertained by Emmet Gowin's use of contour maps (who knew?), or Larry Clark describing "Walter Sheffer's formula for a dynamite developer" in this way: "you can see sheffer's a good poker player (that's aces over sixes) ."

Best of all, if you read these books with the (now admittedly antiquarian) attention they demand, you will get to bluff your way in any Golden Age of The Darkroom chat, without ever getting your fingers wet. The illustrations alone are worth buying the books for.

The Lustrum Press published another short series that is well worth looking out for, especially if you want to get the full flavour of that byegone era. These are the oddly named ":theory" books, of which "Landscape : Theory" and "Contact : Theory" are particularly worth seeking out. Same formula: leading photographers are asked to talk about what they do best i.e. make photographs. Don't be misled by the "theory" in the title -- in 1977 no-one yet really knew anything about theory in the scary sense-- it's simply an attention-grabbing title. For example, "Contact : Theory" asks how the chosen photographers made use of their contact sheets ("What's a contact sheet?") which -- at the time -- was a novel and almost outrageously intimate question. As someone once said, the real "decisive moment" was when Cartier-Bresson looked at his contact sheet, and decided which frames to print.

As to Ralph Gibson's own output under his own imprint, well... Extremely collectable, but simply not my cup of tea.

* Or is it synecdoche? I used to know all that stuff... You'll still be banned, whichever it is!


Struan said...

Congrats on the traffic Mike. For me at least, it's a relief to read a blog that's not just about photography. Like politics and journalism, it's possible to be too professional.

And it's not just because I spent my youth picking tar balls off my feet at Hillhead and Stokes Bay.

I have never understood the mystique of the darkroom, or the oft-repeated thrill of seeing the image come up in the developer. The real magic has been done by the emulsion chemists: drinking their potions is an almost purely mechanical act.

Mike C. said...

Struan -- thanks (and I see we both got a mention on wood s lot the other day -- now that's true fame!).

N.B. I may have a treat lined up for you -- we found a pretty little coppiced wood near Hinton Ampner on our Sunday walk, and it's very photogenic. It's also rather dark, however, but if I can persuade myself to lug a tripod over there I may soon have some pictures that you may enjoy.

All I have to do is find my tripod...

Struan said...

What can I say? The man obviously has taste :-)

Seriously: Raymond Meeks deserves more attention, so It was good to see a widely-read blog pick up on the new book.

I look forward to seeing some coppice pictures. I have my own photos of individual coppiced stools from this area, but they are all relics, accidentals or dying elms making a last-ditch effort. As far as I can see, nobody actively coppices woods here any more, and I would love to explore the visual possibilities of all those palmate forms in close proximity.

I don't know the woods at Hinton Ampner, but in general Hampshire County Council deserve credit for encouraging coppice renovation in the cause of biodiversity and habitat preservation. My aerial post was partly born out of a frustration with trying to identify coppiced stands of woodland to seek out on future visits to the area. Any tips gratefully received.