Friday, 16 September 2016

Really Real


Not the real thing?
(B&W conversion from Ricoh GR)

I've tried to put a lid on my photo-book addiction since retiring, but just a little one now and again can't hurt, surely, can it? (I know, I know, that's what all addicts say...) But one I couldn't resist and which you might like to consider is the re-issue of The Window of My Studio by Josef Sudek, published by Torst. It's both a remarkable body of work – a true reminder of why photography matters – and a beautifully made book. It's the real thing.

Too few people seem to know about Sudek, which I always find surprising. I mean, how many one-armed Czech photographers of genius have there been? In the 1980s I came across a Sudek portfolio in the Czech Profily series; the real thing, actual prints made from the negatives, though not the really real thing i.e. not printed by Sudek himself, who died in 1976.  I bought it, if memory serves, for just £25 (I did actually check with the seller that some zeros weren't missing from the price). I immediately became a fan, especially of his panoramic images of Prague, and the "Window" series. Luckily, I was too lazy to frame any of them, as the intact portfolio of eighteen prints is now quite sought after. I'm never sure why, as the choice of printing paper really doesn't do them justice.

Back then, of course, monochrome was still very much the "real thing", as far as most amateurs and artists were concerned, although the challenge from colour was gaining strength. Aesthetic considerations aside, the main point was that you could control and fine-tune the entire process, end to end, and – better still – it was relatively cheap and could be done pretty much anywhere. However, if you've only ever seen reproductions in books or mediocre black and white printing on plasticky paper, you probably have no idea of the aesthetic pleasure to be derived from a richly-toned monochrome image well printed on a classic fibre-based paper like Agfa Record Rapid. It's the difference between, say, Cadbury's Bourneville and Lindt Excellence 70% Dark chocolate. Air-dried and split-toned in selenium, the comparison is with, well, name your own choice of organic, fair-trade, single-estate cocoa chocolate.

I bought my first enlarger, a Czech-made Meopta, from a junk shop in 1984 and set up a darkroom in the corridor of my flat, working at night, often into the small hours and, like thousands of other enthusiasts, developed my own film in the bathroom, hanging the rolls of negatives to dry from a clothes line over the bath. To advance my skills, I attended a "black and white exhibition print" course given by Mike Skipper of the Oxford Darkroom, and developed a reasonable level of facility in the black arts of making test strips, judging paper grades, and dodging and burning highlights and shadows.

Sort of the real thing...
(scan from 6x6 colour negative)

But, much as I loved classic monochrome work and that of contemporary exemplars like Thomas Joshua Cooper, Fay Godwin, Raymond Moore, and John Blakemore, I could never quite raise my own game to a satisfactory level. It was only when I made the move to colour that I really started to get anywhere. It was then, "Goodbye, Fay and Ray; hello, Martin Parr and Jem Southam". Sadly, it was also hello, shrinking bank balance. Anyone who has attempted to process and print colour negative film will know why I was only too happy to pay for someone else to do it, but with the arrival of young children and an even more rapidly shrinking fund of time and money, it looked like my output would soon be reduced to the occasional roll of family snaps.

Then, of course, digital happened. I still have the first little colour print I made on the original A4 Epson Stylus Photo printer, which has much the same personal significance for me as Fox Talbot's image of that latticed window at Lacock Abbey does in the history of photography. Nothing spectacular in itself, but containing within it the promise of a whole new era. In the case of digital, an era of colour prints made in daylight, with complete control over exposure, contrast and colour balance, and – incredibly – with all those adjustments saved in an image file, so that multiple identical prints could be run off while cooking the kids their evening meal. People forget how, when using film, each of those essential adjustments and fine-tunings had to be found by making systematic test prints, and then the whole lot repeated every time a print is made. All of them, every time! You'd better have made good printing notes, and have plenty of time, patience, and printing paper to spare. Digital was truly a revolution in quality, convenience, and expense, especially for those of us who favoured colour.

But...  The sense that monochrome was the real, authentic thing persisted, like a guilty conscience. There is a belief in truth to materials that pervades most artistic production, whether it be ceramics, print-making, painting, photography, whatever. Post-modernism has undermined this, certainly, but most true makers still have a strong feeling that certain practices are honest, in that they respect both the nature of the materials used and the necessary skills one must acquire to use them, and that other practices – and in particular shortcuts that enable the unskilled to mimic, without effort, the end-results of mastery – are not. However, when we talk of the authenticity of monochrome, it can only ever be film (or some other light-sensitized substrate) and chemical processing that we are talking about. In digital image-making (where things like instant "watercolour" or "charcoal sketch" effects filters are exactly the sort of shortcut that serious makers reject) monochrome photography is, ironically, only achievable by means of precisely that sort of filter and off-the-peg preset. It's all about creating the look without undergoing the process. How could it not be? A digital image is captured in colour, electronically, in regular rows of pixels. The attempt to render the effect of light on randomly-distributed silver halides (not to mention that tricky repertoire of darkroom skills) can never be anything other than fakery, or, in our current favourite ugly-but-useful word, a skeuomorph*.

Does this matter? When I look at the work of Josef Sudek, I naturally feel the urge to replicate it. Imitation is, after all, one of the surest ways to raise your game. But, as any good forger knows, to make a decent copy you need to use the same materials as the original. Wood-effect veneer on MDF isn't going to convince anyone your bookcase was made by Sheraton, or even Ercol. Though it might nonetheless be entirely adequate for your purposes (for example, for putting your books on)**. So, let's just say that I'm ambivalent about "digital monochrome". No, it's not the real thing, judged by past standards, but we're now in a time when the nature of  many "real things" has changed, and under constant challenge from radically new means of production, reproduction and distribution. Nothing much is the real thing any more, is it? But the fact remains that I'm still a lot more successful with colour than with black and white. Which is hardly a problem, but annoying, and flipping the pages of The Window of My Studio makes me want to do something about that. But, given that I have absolutely no desire ever to set up a darkroom again, I suppose I'll just have to figure out how to fake it better.

The real(ish) thing: scan from B&W 645 negative
New Year storm, Pembrokeshire 1991
(Did I mention I like Thomas Joshua Cooper?)

* Getting strong competition from "euhemerism", though... "The theory that gods arose out of the deification of actual historical heroes".

** IKEA claim to sell one BILLY bookcase every ten seconds, somewhere in the world.

5 comments:

Chris Rusbridge said...

Thanks for another nice article. I've never gone down the darkroom, enlarger route, so anything I might say about the "really real" should be taken with a pinch of salt. But I agree with you about digital black and white. Taking a colour image and converting it in post doesn't seem right, specially when so often you read a comment that implies the image didn't really work in colour, ie black and white was an afterthought.

For some level of authenticity in black and white, I think one should start with black and white film, even if the results do get scanned into the digital domain. And I'd recommend a "one camera, one lens, one film, one year" approach to re-learning black and white. But you've already been there, so maybe you aren't tempted... Mike Johnston talks about this in a couple of old articles on The Online Photographer, the first, I think, called "The Leica as Teacher" (part of his idea was to use a rangefinder, to get you away from the seductive SLR viewfinder, back towards the idea of extracting an image from reality).

I was tempted enough to try this, though only for 6 months. I bought a Leitz Minolta CL and a M-Rokkor 40mm f/2 lens and a bag-full of Tri-X (my favourite black and white film), and used it for everything except family snaps for 6 months (well, I tell a lie as I got a Bessa R3A to replace it part way through, but the same lens). I also started processing my own black and white film at this time (partly to make me really look at the negatives properly, to assess my exposure). I thought it really helped improve my "black and white vision".

In the end I sold the camera and lens and probably only lost about £50 on the deal. These days, you can say that film cameras are almost free, as you can buy quality stuff and sell them again for much the same price later. Films are another matter, of course, specially now that the Pound has dropped!

Anyway, them's my 2p worth...

Mike C. said...

Chris,

Thanks for commenting. Obviously, now that I've gone down the constructed "photo-collage" route, I feel the dilemma about authenticity less acutely -- I'm faking it all the way! -- but what you say about seeing in black & white is true. I think it's that vision aspect that I could never quite pull off.

I do urge anyone who has never seen true master printing to visit the Photographer's Gallery in London where, amazingly, you can get your hands on the Real Thing in their Print Sales Gallery if you ask!

Mike

Thomas Rink said...

Mike,

while I agree that it can't be compared to traditional b/w printing, digital b/w in conjunction with inkjet printing has one argument in favour of it: the large number of papers available. Recently, I tried Hahnemühle Bamboo (a paper made of bamboo fibers on a cotton rag carrier, with a warm tone) for a small b/w project and liked the results a lot. I should mention, though, that my standards for a satisfying b/w print might be lower than yours. While I did run a b/w darkroom in the eighties, I never really made it past the "muddy gray prints on RC paper" stage. I had lots of fun and satisfaction working in the darkroom, though. Problem was that I didn't even knew that something was wrong. (In hindsight, I find that very disturbing. How can I be sure that my current work isn't a hack, too?).

Best, Thomas

Mike C. said...

Thomas,

Quite right -- I've tried a number of papers, too, and quite like Hahnemühle Photo Rag, and a Japanese "washi" bamboo paper from Awa. For a real (fake) fibre-base look, though, it's worth a look at Permajet's "Fibre Base Distinction 360" or Epson's own "Traditional Photo Paper" -- they've *almost* got it just right.

The other thing, of course, is permanence. Properly-processed b&w is pretty much archival (esp. if toned), but chemical colour prints are pretty impermanent (s well as horrible to look at -- why does anyone like Cibachrome??). Pigment inkjet prints are (allegedly) pretty much archival, too. Sadly, I still use dye inks, but they seem to last pretty well, even on display behind glass.

As for judging your own work, you can't beat looking at unframed, real-life samples of excellent work (rather than reproductions in books) and being ruthlessly self-critical. Also, have you ever done a serious workshop with critique sessions? It can be a bit brutal, but well worth doing with the right tutor in the right context.

Mike

Thomas Rink said...

Mike,

yes, I attended two workshops, one with Harald Mante, the other with Michael Lange (the creator of "Wald" and "Fluß"). I brought a printed portfolio to both, and got very encouraging feedback in both cases. Michael Lange pointed out some flaws (tonal balance and inconsistent perspective), which I'm currently trying to address. My remark was a bit tongue-in-cheek: of course, I find it disturbing to be so incompetent that it prevents me from recognising this incompentence ;^) On the other hand, I try to strike the balance between requesting and accepting critique and advice, but not to become emotionally dependent on the appreciation of my work by others. Having a "day job" for income certainly helps.

Best, Thomas