The photograph from 1985 in the previous post reminded me, in turn, of another from the same period. In this case, an indirect portrait of the man whose course of tuition in photographic and darkroom skills turned me from a bloke with a camera into a photographer, Mike Skipper. I wrote a short appreciation of Mike when I learned he had died in 2010.
Even though I gave up film and the black and white darkroom years ago, many of Mike's words still pop into my head whenever I look through a viewfinder, or evaluate a photograph. "Take a reading from the shadows, and stop down twice -- shadow detail is important!"; "Always look for a strong black and a strong white: avoid scenes which are just mid-tones"; "Who needs a tripod when you've got two hands and a forehead?"; "Drop my EL-Nikkor lens and I will kill you"; and so on... The standard stuff of a thousand photography evening classes, but memorably conveyed with real commitment and infectious enthusiasm*. Mike was the first person I met who lived photography.
The mid-1980s were something of a heyday for the fully hands-on monochrome image, though in retrospect it was more of a last hurrah. New materials like Ilford Multigrade and Galerie papers were still coming onto the market, because supplying the millions of three-colour-films-a-year camera owners was still profitable enough for the big players to keep "niche" materials in development for an important but tiny minority of three-monochrome-films-a-week enthusiasts. Not to mention a thriving global village of cottage industries making darkroom gizmos -- ever-better enlargers, more efficient print-washers, convenient paper-safes, etc.
In 1984, most of the prominent "art" photographers were working in black and white, producing archivally-processed prints on fibre-based, silver-rich papers, often toned with selenium -- a ridiculously hazardous substance -- to lock in the permanence and give those characteristic purple-brown shadows. Unlike, say, learning to make etchings and engravings, learning the skills to produce fine prints in the darkroom still seemed a very contemporary thing to do; you felt you were joining a living, growing tradition. But not for much longer. Within a decade, most notable photographers were working in colour and rapidly going digital, and monochrome film users had become the backwoods holdouts of photography, perpetually on the defensive about "craft", with their lines of supply always threatening to dry up. Rather like etchers and engravers, in fact. And you can't give those state-of-the-art darkroom gizmos away, now.
Warm, neutral, and cold-tone Skippers
* I nearly wrote "with real passion", but I have come to loathe the contemporary uses of that word, as in in "We are passionate about shelf-stacking at Tesco". A post is underway...