The Death of Photography as a Hobby

The long-time magazine, Popular Photography announced its immediate end this week. Their web sites, too. They are done. Over. Finished. Kaput. Belly-up. Not changing to the web; gone completely. The current issue is the last issue. The last thing they put on their web site(s) is the last thing they will ever put on their web sites.

This magazine along with Modern Photography, a similar circulation size and content publication bought out by Popular Photography just a few years ago were by far the two most significant players in the world of hobby photography for nearly a century. At least eight/tenths of a century, anyway.

If an official line demarcating the end of the hobby of photography is possible, this is it. The special audience magazines I used to write for had circulations of 60-70,000 at most. These two had circulations approaching a million, each, perhaps more in their heyday.

I have mixed feelings about this. I always had significant disdain for both Pop and Modern Photography. Their very clear reason for existing was always, I felt, counterproductive. Their purpose was to lead hobbyists down the primrose path, turning them from potential photographers into collectors of idle and largely useless equipment. There was little or nothing of value to learn from these magazines. And what little information they did impart was quite often glaringly wrong. But, it was wrong information that sold more gadgets and more film, etc., etc. In hindsight, they weren’t creating the equipment collectors, just satisfying them. Most of these readers didn’t really want to put in the effort to become photographers, they wanted magic bullets that the magazines obligingly offered them. In other words, they not only wanted to be lied to, they demanded it!

But these magazines and their readers were also a great benefit to my corner of the photography world, the fine art photograph. Let’s face it. The fine art photography world is a tiny world, indeed. And, we have always done a lousy job of marketing ourselves and educating our audience. AN EXCEPTIONALLY LOUSY JOB!!!

The vast majority of the public does not have so much as a subatomic-sized clue what a fine art photograph is, or looks like. Especially in the United States! Oh, brother! Don’t think so? Your honor, I present as evidence, Peter Lik. Your honor, I rest my case.

The benefit provided to art world photography by Popular Photography and Modern, and their readers was the mass demand that drove and supported the manufacturers of photographic materials. Millions of budding hobbyist photographers wanted to emulate the likes of Ansel Adams, and of course, a slew of nature and vacation and wildlife photographers. They also wanted to emulate professional commercial, portrait and architectural photographers.

Fine art photographers and commercial photographers added together were still a very tiny market compared to the hobbyist and vacation snapshooter. Those were the people who provided the massive income that allowed manufacturers to invest in the research and development that produced the finer materials that my little corner of the world would never have had without them.

If not for us, those hobbyists would not have had anyone to try to emulate, but if not for them, we might never have had the materials we depended on, at all, or the audience we needed to gain world attention. It was an accidental, symbiotic relationship.

Now, there are no magazines promoting photography as a hobby. The professional photographer is gone. There are no commercial photographers, no architectural photographers, no catalog photographers (OK, a stretch, but still), no documentary photographers (What a tragic loss this is! No reason for this, at all!). Though there is no reason for the demand for these skill sets to have disappeared, it has nonetheless. Very poor photographs are being used in their stead, because they are seen as “good enough”. Of course, the wedding, school portrait and Bar Mitzah photographers have disappeared also, so not all is bad. One might claim there may be balance in the universe, after all, but the paparazzi are alive and well.

Except for the aforementioned scum of the Earth, the last man standing is me, the fine art photographer, and a snapshotting, iPhone wielding public that has no idea whatsoever, what that means!

The least affected by the digital photography revolution appears to be, me again, the fine art photographer. At least for the moment. It is harder though. Few hobbyists want to emulate us any more, simply because there are no hobbyists to speak of.

Though I will not miss having to explain to him over and over and over again, that NO, you cannot really do those things you read about in Popular Photography, I will miss the hobbyist and by extension, the magazines that fed him and his pursuits, that fed me.



Magic Developers & The Photographer’s Romance With Nonsense

For the last couple of years I have been a reluctant denizen of Facebook. I follow a couple dozen groups, mostly having to do with photography of course and have come to enjoy it, though I cannot claim to completely get Facebook. I still haven’t figured out what to do with my own Facebook page or how to keep people from posting things there that I don’t want them to post. Until I do, my contributions there will be less than inspirational. In fact, I pretty much don’t put anything on my own page, at all.

There are groups on Facebook for just about every aspect of photography, digital or analog, old processes and new. For someone wanting to learn just about any aspect of photography there is something to be had on Facebook. That is a good thing. And then again, it sometimes isn’t. The death of the photography magazine and the rise of the internet’s everyone is an expert nature leaves someone who is trying to learn equally open to advice from actual experts and the self-appointed variety. There is no filter any more and the result is the unfortunate state of affairs in which old and LARGE sources of misinformation seem doomed to be repeated in perpetuity.

In the late nineteenth century the Kallitype was invented and promptly fell flat on its face. Part of the problem was just poor timing, but much of the difficulty had to do with the constant repetition of false information. An incorrect formula would get published in one magazine, then be copied and republished, warts and all, by other magazines. New advocates would come up with their own formulas, most all of which were no improvement at all, publish those and, well, the end result is that a very substantial portion of what ended up in print about the Kallitype was quite substantially wrong.

Over time this sort of nonsense turned into an unofficial tradition in photography and to my dismay, that tradition has jumped right over the divide into the 21st century, in perfect health.

One of the groups on Facebook deals with new devotees of B&W film. Many are millennials who grew up with digital photography and have just discovered B&W film. From my perspective that is kind of humorous, but their devotion is in most cases, sincere. Sadly, they have also discovered a new generation of experts who are nothing of the kind.

From the second half of the 19th century right up through the first half of the 20th century, one of the most ridiculous but nonetheless fervently believed ideas held by amateur and professional photographers alike was the search for photography’s holy grail: the magic developer.

The pure tonnage of magazine pages and ink devoted to secret formulas and special additives that would miraculously turn a photographer’s negatives into Ansel Adams lookalikes and the resulting prints into masterpieces, was staggering. To my astonishment, the exact same thing is now happening all over again.

The current magic developer is one of several variations on pyro. Now, there is nothing wrong with pyro and its variations. It will get the job done, and well. But it is a staining developer and that is often more of a hindrance than a help. Especially if you are using variable contrast papers, because the color of the stain sends paper contrast off in unintended directions. But the big problem is not the pyro but how it is being used. And it is not just pyro. Other developers are being used in these manners also. Post after post talks about using pyro with techniques for reducing contrast where the subject matter does not call for reduced contrast: split developers/water bath / dilute still bath / minimal agitation, all classes of contraction development (reduced contrast) that I thoroughly shot down as both ineffectual and risky, a quarter century ago. And if you are disinclined to accept my expertise

No problem! These techniques were also shot down by lots of people both before and after me. Even Ansel Adams pointed out that they were irrelevant with modern films.

These are development schemes intended to reduce contrast, as an approach to what in the Zone System is called contraction: intentional reduction of negative contrast for purposes of fitting an overscaled subject to a midrange grade of B&W silver-gelatin printing paper.  These approaches were marginally effective with old thick emulsion films (there are no films like this any more, unless some of the Eastern European junk is still that far behind) but were highly prone to loss of film speed, uneven development and other forms of damage to the image. I debunked these methods in great detail during the early 1990’s and published several new techniques to replace them, techniques that did not suffer from the same serious drawbacks.

Now, someone, probably several someones, is advising people new to film photography to use these contrast reduction film development formulas/techniques for development of normal exposures and subject matter: precisely where they should NOT be used, even if they worked well!

The fact that there are differences in developers is not in question. There are high contrast developers and fine grain developers and low contrast developers and high acutance developers and all kinds of variations. But the differences in this day and age are really quite minor, especially in light of the quality of modern films.

Notwithstanding old communist block films still made with early twentieth century technology being flogged as modern marvels, modern B&W films have no need of specialized developers. They are already fine grain films. They already have high acutance. They can easily be developed to compensate for an overscaled subject with modern techniques that are far more controllable and dependable (talking about SLIMTs here) than any of the older methods that were designed to work with thick emulsion films that no longer exist. Well, that no longer exist unless you are buying cheap, junk film from Outer Slobovia.

One of the things modern B&W films do not do well is to compensate for underscaled subjects. That is, what in Zone System parlance is a subject that requires expansion (prolonged film development for higher contrast). Most modern films will surrender little more than N+1. But more than N+1 also does not require a magic developer. The problem is simply solved by using selenium toner as an intensifier, on top of the N+1 achieved with expanded development for a combined N+2; the most that is required for the vast majority of potential expansion subject matter. If even greater expansion is needed, it is best achieved by employing a higher contrast film with its contrast reduced to the needed level with a SLIMT. In other words use a high contrast film and think of the subject as needing contraction.

Why this rant? Because young photographers are being led astray. AGAIN!! Or, perhaps, STILL. They are chasing magic bullets just like they did for decades under the misguided tutelage of popular photography magazines. And there are still people out there, lots of people, who are more than happy to hold themselves out as experts, claiming to provide those magic bullets.

There are no magic bullets out there. No developer, no film, no secret incantations. Even the Zone System about which I have written so extensively and for which I have invented so many techniques and tools, is not a magic bullet.

Ansel Adams himself admitted in later years his regret that he had overhyped the Zone System such that many users viewed it too, as a magic bullet. The most that can be achieved with the Zone System is a negative that makes it easier to exert control in the printing process. The only magic in photography is that which takes place during printing and that is not magic, but hard-earned skill acquired over years of practice.

The real and ONLY secret in photography is in the making of the print  and that brings us to the real point of this post.

The one thing you do not see in all those Facebook entries is any mention of the rigorous process of making the print. Instead, everyone is frantically searching for magic bullets while simply making straight positives of their film negatives with none of the work required to produce what is traditionally referred to as the fine print. And this is not isolated to silver-gelatin printing, either. It is also happening in what is generically referred to as alternative printing and even in the making of digital prints.

The only magic in photography is that of making the print and that is no magic at all. It is hard work involving a difficult to acquire skill set that few people today even know exists and even fewer pursue.

Strangely, the exact same skill set is required to make a print digitally as is needed in the traditional darkroom. The only differences are that with digital tools one gets to sit down, and there are more tools to accomplish the same things, in Photoshop.

Despite my status as (tongue in cheek) Zone System Guru, my advice to young film photographers today would be this: first and above all, learn to print. Use a single camera, a single lens, a single film, a single developer and develop all your film exactly the same way. Then, print, print, print, print, PRINT! After you have learned to print, in a decade or so, come see me and I will teach you the Zone System and the use of color filters. That, I believe, would be the proper order of things.

Back in the Bellows, Too!

Over the past year or so I have reacquired some large format film equipment. But I don’t know why!

I am not at all disenchanted with digital tools, especially since I have been able to wrestle the inkjet print into submission on my terms and have pinned photogravure to the mat, at last.

Part of it had to do, at least this is what I told myself, with my experiments with 19th Century chemical print processes. I felt I needed to be able to make some negatives for some of those experiments.

Part of it too, was the siren call of all that dirt cheap large format equipment for sale on eBay that they couldn’t seem to even give away.

So I bought a couple of monorails, old Calumets, and a couple or three lenses and set up a small darkroom, for film processing only.  That was very satisfying because I set it up to use equipment and processes I had invented myself. Open-ended tube processing in trays and my pride and joy, SLIMTs!! (Selective Latent Image Manipulation Techniques). This allowed me to feel less like the inventor of the buggy whip, since I would be using them again, even if no one else was. (They are actually still in use around the world, or so people tell me, from time to time.)

Then last spring an older couple was in the gallery and the conversation turned to equipment and process. When talking about photogravure I mentioned how hard it was to find decently priced large darkroom trays needed for preparing paper for photogravure. It turned out he had some and a bunch of other equipment that he ended up offering to give to me. Probably the fastest I ever said “yes” in my life!

So in addition to what I had already acquired, I became the happy recipient of 8×10, 5×7 and more (and better) 4×5 equipment, in addition to the trays and some other nice and timely tools. I am now better equipped with film cameras than I was way back when and I no longer have to stare wistfully at my Epson V700 scanner (the only smart purchase I made when starting the switch to digital), wondering why I have it. I have it to scan all the new negatives I am making for reasons still unknown to me.

But, I STILL don’t know exactly why I have this hardware or what I am going to do with it.

I have been using it. The 8×10 for some portraits of local colorful residents. The 4×5 and 5×7 for some images of the unusual buildings here in Bisbee, but nothing that I could unequivocally state is better done with film. Having camera movements again certainly makes the building photographs easier, but many of those problems can be resolved with a shift lens on the digital camera, and I seldom photograph buildings anyway.

So, I am adding film back into the mix without really knowing why. I can’t wait to find out!

An addendum: 8×10 B&W sheet film from Kodak is $8, per. Ilford film is half that. X-Ray film, depending on which variety you use is $1 per sheet or less, and works extremely well as a continuous tone film, if you use a SLIMT (see above). And if you dial back the latent image bleaching, it behaves quite similarly to what I used to call Zone System Expansion Film, Kodak’s Professional Copy Film Type 4125; a film I very much lamented losing.

Back in the Saddle

It has been more than two years since I posted to this blog. Sometimes life throws an unexpected curve or two. The period of my absence has included the closing of my gallery in Alpine Texas, concomitant with a brief encounter with a woman/girlfriend wholly unfamiliar with any forms of truth, who managed to finagle a little bit of funds out of me, a move to Arizona partly for family reasons and a painfully extended search within Arizona for a suitable gallery/studio location.
I have finally (a year+ ago) settled into Bisbee, Arizona. Bisbee was a mining town, now turned tourist attraction with art galleries, some very good restaurants and lots of B&B’s.

Much of my time the last couple of years has been devoted to wringing the best out of the photogravure process, which I have finally been able to do. I have begun, just today, offering one-on-one workshops in this process. If interested, contact me privately.

Anyway, I’m back. This time I hope for an extended period. Of course like anyone, I need to hear feedback. If I hear nothing but crickets then I will assume no one is out there.

Million Dollar Motel Wallpaper

Million Dollar Motel Wallpaper

Something About This Really Stinks

Within photographic circles, there has been a whirlwind on the internet over the last few days. It involves a recent claim of having set a record for “world’s most expensive photograph”.

Ignoring for the moment the many loudly clanging alarm bells set off by this claim, alarm bells that make one want to demand an immediate investigation, I prefer to address the fact that the mere making of such a  claim, true or not, shines a spotlight on everything that is most despicable about the art world in its present incarnation and the egregious ignorance of the public with regard to art in general and fine art photography, in particular.

 Art Is NOT About Cashing In!

Where did this idea come from that art and artists are all about the big payoff? Why do people buy into this nonsense? This is not a variation of Lotto, with paint! Art is not a euphemism for worldwide casino. The idea of artists is not to see how much money you can make. It is a race to see how much good work you can produce, before you die! In fact, most artists are so disinterested in money that it makes it very difficult for them to afford the materials needed to create their art in the first place.

In my entire career, no conversation with another artist ever began with, “How much money did you make last month?” And I have never met an artist who reported having such an exchange, either. We care about money only to the extent that it allows us to continue to work.

These get rich concepts do not occur to artists and are not part of the real art world. They are part of the faux art world created by promoters and gallery owners. The one designed to relieve fools of their money, especially rich fools who have never read, The Emperor’s New Clothes.

Let me make sure I get this point across…

No real artist cares in the slightest about holding the record for most expensive, “anything at all”! It would never occur to an artist to issue a press release about something so meaningless. That sort of concept is foreign to an artist, senseless. It is no more rational than tweeting about the color clothing worn on that day. It is the art that matters, not the money! Money to an artist is simply a tool that makes it easier to produce more art. This doesn’t mean artists don’t think about money. They do. Mostly because they don’t have any. It means that money does not hold a position of importance in their lives, like it does for so many others. This does not arise from any feeling of superiority. It comes as the result of a highly-focused, single-purpose life where money is simply the vehicle that brings more materials and staves off eviction for another month.

The public, and a shamefully large percentage of the art world, apparently believe that artists are driven to produce new work out of a desire to one day strike it rich. No doubt they believe the lucky artists who do win the art world lotto will retire to a tropical island the next day. What a great seg-way into…

 Public Ignorance is Staggering!

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. Most of the public believe that a fine art photograph is simply a technically superior, much larger, more gaudy, more saturated, better composed, but otherwise identical version of their own national park vacation pictures. They see absolutely nothing in a photograph that wasn’t in front of the camera at the time the photograph was snapped!

To most, there is no detectable difference between the two photographs shown below, save color and contour. The fault for this public defect must be laid at the feet of fine art photographers themselves. The public isn’t educated, because we didn’t bother to do it! And truth be known, many so-called fine art photographers don’t see a difference, either!

Grocery Store Pepper
Grocery Store Pepper by Ralph the Produce Kid
Pepper #30
Pepper #30 by Edward Weston







This is the one and only possible explanation for the fact the public so readily believes a ludicrous fairy tale told by a so-called fine art photographer marching down the street ahead of a brass band, proclaiming himself the greatest this, the biggest that, or the highest priced fill-in-the-blank (with the rude reference of your choice). Such a photographer is a perfect match for an ignorant public, because he too is incapable of seeing anything but the literal. He is the day-glo orange paint to their Elvis on black velvet.

An ignorant public is an easily fooled public, and there will always be charlatans who will claim that a dead fish floating in formaldehyde is art. Just as there will always be a wealthy person foolish enough to pay millions of dollars for it.

I would like to think there are no photographers on that same level, but I cannot find rose colored glasses that heavily tinted. I do hold out hope, and strongly suspect, there actually was no rich fool and that this is a case of complete fabrication. If the rich fool does exist, I sincerely hope that instead of paying cash, he traded a Kinkade painting. Then both parties will have received fair value.


The Handmade Silver Print

The Handmade Silver Print

Tomando Diez Minutos
Tomando Diez Minutos

This morning I was looking through a web site that contained images of photogravures, a strong interest and pursuit of mine, and read a comment about handmade prints having more value than inkjet images. This reminded me that the last several years, most of what I have seen regarding discussions of handmade prints has lumped silver-gelatin in with the far more laborious paths that include platinum/palladium, carbon, photogravure, etc., etc.

Silver-gelatin prints certainly do fall under the heading of handmade, I suppose. But I wonder if anyone has really thought about this at length and looked at it dispassionately, rather than out of fear for their personal ox being gored.

It is still in vogue among some, to speak in derogatory terms about digital prints. I began the very painful transition from analog to digital about seven years ago, not because I thought digital was necessarily better, but because I saw the handwriting on the wall and I wanted the additional tools that digital photography offered. Those tools have expanded a great deal in the interim.

In hindsight, I was right about that handwriting. Two (perhaps more now) of the Kodak films I relied upon, no longer exist. In particular, Kodak Professional Copy Film Type 4125, now gone, was a mainstay for me. I would take 30 film holders with me into the field, 10 of which were always loaded with Type 4125. It got used, a lot. One of the two variable contrast papers on which I most depended is also, no more. I would be hard pressed to work in silver-gelatin photography today, merely because of the lack of materials.


For those who do not know my background…

…and because it is probably needed for credibility in this post. I am a well-recognized expert on applied analog B&W photography, the inventor of a lot of techniques for analog B&W and color, have been published worldwide and am a former contributing editor to the recently defunct, Darkroom & Creative Camera Techniques magazine (last article of mine published was about 1997?). I have the knowledge and skill set with a wide margin to spare, and have analog B&W images in museums from here to Argentina. There are only a handful of people who I might find it difficult to out-do in the silver-gelatin darkroom. In short, I think I know what I’m talking about. Others may have a different opinion.


My premise(s) here is that there really is no added value to a silver-gelatin print based solely on the fact that it qualifies, technically, as a handmade photograph and that, based on those criteria which are held up to qualify a silver-gelatin print as handmade, inkjet prints are then also, handmade. That a collector would prefer silver over digital simply because silver is supposedly handmade is just absurd.

There is absolutely no virtue in something being merely handmade. We all have treasures we made in Kindergarten. They are truly handmade and none of them belong in galleries or museums (despite the ravings of morning-show hosts). A handmade object has no particular value as an object of art, unless skill and knowledge are also applied. There are many handmade silver prints out there that had no skill and very little knowledge involved in their production.

So, let’s first define the term handmade with reference to the fine art photograph, as including a high level of skill and knowledge.

Último Fotógrafo Callejero
Último Fotógrafo Callejero

Now we can go through the process…

First, we need to separate the high-level skill and knowledge from the donkey work. Loading a negative into a film carrier, raising or lowering the head of an enlarger on its column, focusing the image and starting an exposure, all require some skill and knowledge, but not anything a child can’t learn in a few minutes. Nothing really handmade about any of that. Anyone can do it.

Likewise, after the paper has been exposed, everything is pretty much drudgery. There is a certain amount of skill in running a piece of wet paper through successive trays without damaging it, but hardly anyone oohs and ahhhs over the fact you didn’t crease a piece of wet paper, even a very large piece of wet paper. And one must know how long to process, how to fix properly, tone, wash, flatten, spot, mount, cut a matte, etc. Spotting in particular requires a lot of skill, not easily acquired. (One mistake while spotting often means a ruined print.) But these are all after-the-fact things that no rational person would include under the heading of handmade, and are really just donkeywork. Backbreaking, intense, mind-numbing donkeywork, but donkeywork, nonetheless. When a painter completes a work, we do not include the coat of varnish he may put over it as a valuable addition to the handmade aspect of the painting.

The only meaningful handmade part of making a silver-gelatin print comes between the moment the enlarger exposure is begun, and the moment it ends. (The paper comes in a box, from a factory. Nothing handmade about that, either.) A lot of things can happen in that interim including dodging and burning, flashing, paper grade changes if using a variable contrast paper, and, well, um, er… not a lot more!

Now, I made that interim between turning the enlarger lamp on and  off, sound very trivial. And it is, on paper (pun intended), about as trivial as many would like to make the digital printmaking process sound. But that supposedly trivial period during exposure takes many years to master. That mastery is decidedly not trivial. What happens between on and off is the real handmade aspect of the silver-gelatin photographic print and has been described by more than a few as being like a ballet. (Somehow, the thought of a fat old man in the darkroom doesn’t quite jibe with ballet for me, but you get the idea.)

What happens in the hands of a master, between the beginning and end of an exposure in the darkroom is truly inspiring, truly creative, truly handmade and truly art. But precisely the same ballet happens in front of a computer screen! The only meaningful difference is that one gets to sit in a chair and has more tools at his disposal.

In the darkroom, most of what happens during exposure is burning. Dodging can only be done for the length of the base exposure and not even that. If your base exposure is ten seconds, you can only dodge for eight or nine of them. Burning can be done for seconds, minutes… there is no limit. In fact, most fine prints are almost all burn and very little base exposure; sometimes, none at all.

There is zero difference between what happens during an exposure under an enlarger and what happens in Photoshop, save that what happens in Photoshop can be done more precisely, with more repeatability and with a greater array of tools. When an image has been created under the light of an enlarger, it is run through the automatic routine of the processing trays. When an image has been created in the glow of a computer screen, it is then run through the automatic processing tray of an inkjet printer. All that printer does is the drudgery of laying down ink where the photographer has told it to. All the processing tray does is develop the image already there.

During an analog exposure, one uses a simple piece of cardboard to add additional exposure to some areas of the image. In Photoshop a broader array of tools is used to do exactly the same thing, but more precisely and with more repeatability. In fact, in Photoshop, it doesn’t have to be repeated. It can be done only once. Oddly, very similar hand motions are used with the computer mouse to burn or dodge an image, as those used in the darkroom.

(I don’t recall any record of anyone ever claiming that a cave painting qualified as handmade, but an oil painting did not, because the oil painting was made with better tools that were more precise and easier to use.)

No less skill or knowledge are required to build an image in Photoshop than are needed in the darkroom. In fact, because of the greater array of tools, more skill and knowledge are probably required for Photoshop, if one intends to take full advantage of them. The nonsense repeated about Photoshop and requiring less skill is just that, nonsense. Digital photography does not take anything away from analog photography. But the reverse is also true.

The image, and the quality of that image, should be all that matters. That a photographer has fingernails blackened by selenium and a bad case of dermatitis brought on by repeated exposure to Metol, does not in any way make his images superior. The mindless automaton aspect that many would like to ascribe to those who today employ newer tools is just as ridiculous now, as it was every time it has been applied to others in the past 100+ years. There is absolutely nothing automatic or mechanical about a fine art photograph made digitally, and no special virtue that can be automatically ascribed to any photograph made by any means, old or new.

For anyone still tempted to speak in low terms about the digital print as opposed to a handmade silver-gelatin print; beware the folks making platinum/palladium, or gum, or carbon or photogravure or Colloidian or Daguerreotypes (Now, there’s some real handmade stuff for ya!) who might wish to make a case against YOUR ox!

It’s not whether you make an image by coating collodion onto a rock whilst whistling A Hard Day’s Night, that matters. Only the final image matters. If it looks like garbage, and an awful lot of handmade prints do, it matters not at all that it was handmade, except, perhaps, to a very, VERY foolish collector.


Not Everything New Is A Good Thing

Not Everything New Is A Good Thing

I wasn’t going to post today. Have a lot to do and little time. But a reader’s comment yesterday got both brain cells firing at once.

A year or two ago, someone, long since forgotten, told me that schools had stopped teaching cursive. For you older folks, that means longhand or script. (Don’t know why some people have to meddle and substitute a new word for what was a perfectly good existing word, except when there is an agenda behind doing so.) At first, I thought the person was joking. Not so. Apparently, children are now taught to print, but not to write, and barely that, the excuse being, now that we have computers, handwriting is no longer necessary.

That has got to be one of the silliest, and frankly, most stupid ideas I have heard in my life. It makes me question whether or not the folks who made such an absurd decision shouldn’t be relieved of their employment positions by being bodily thrown from the building. The practical uses notwithstanding (what if your battery dies?), handwriting is a form of expression, an art form if you will, and the second such form of expression (finger painting being the first) through which a child can connect with the world and share something of himself with others. It is unique to every single person on Earth and constitutes one of the first meaningful achievements in one’s life. It is part of becoming a civilized human being and essential to it.

Only one gratuitous photograph today. This seems to be the appropriate place for it:
Vergüenza (Arequipa, Peru ~ 1980 — Vergüenza means “shame”)

I’ve mentioned before that I am working on getting into photogravure, in a big way. The method for platemaking that I am using was developed (partly; the more I look into it, the more I find that a host of others have contributed) by Don Messec. He posted two short videos on the process, here and here, a few years ago. Those videos will give you the idea, but they are far from complete and Mr. Messec would like you to spend some money taking his workshop(s) to learn the whole process, which nonetheless has some problems he says he has yet to work out. Not having that money, I spent the last year or so experimenting, filling in the missing pieces and working out the aforementioned problems. Anyway, this long walk around the barn leads to the fact that I have, of course, been keeping notes. But not on my computer. That just seemed inappropriate. Clearly inappropriate. My notes on this new process are written in pencil, in a handmade, 8.5″x11″ leather notebook with light brown pages, hand-sewn to the leather. A long leather strip is used to close the book by wrapping it around the outside. (Purchased on eBay from a talented craftsperson. I just looked, she doesn’t seem to be there any more and there is now a LOT of poor imitation.) That is simply where such notes belong. Of course, if I had not been drilled at length in handwriting as a child, such a notebook would be simply a useless amalgam of leather and paper, because I would be incapable of writing in it, or at the very least, doing so would be such an arduous task as to make it wholly impractical. To handicap a child, let alone, generations of children, with the inability to write words on paper and the capacity to do it well, if not elegantly, is a crime, and absolutely, not progress.

Today I received an email. One of those solicitations from Amazon; you know, for books their software has deduced you might buy. Sometimes they are wildly nonsensical. Today, they thought I would buy two ebooks on the photographs of 19th century pictorialist photographers. EBOOKS! Why on Earth would I want a digital book of 100+ year old photographs? That makes no sense to me, at all. From a practical standpoint, in digital form, you have no idea what the images are going to look like compared to the actual photographs. And they are going to look different on just about every digital device. At least on paper, whatever the printer’s approximation of the original might be, that approximation will appear the same to everyone who buys the book. More importantly, there is a tactile, intimate experience with a book that is never going to happen with the digital format. A book of fine photographs belongs on paper, not on a screen. A digital instruction manual, on the other hand, makes perfect sense.

I recall an old Star Trek movie in which the crew landed on a planet where the indigenous people had rejected technology, even though their technology was far more advanced than that of the Star Trek crew. They lived a bucolic life, devoid of all the advanced tools they were more than capable of employing. That struck me as a very dumb premise. It makes no more sense to completely reject technology than it does to embrace it so absolutely as to reject all the finely honed skills and wonderful benefits of the past.

People can use and benefit from advanced technology without also rejecting all that has gone before. Many superior skills and ideas from the past are now lost forever, because new technology has replaced them and no one bothered to continue with the old. The so-called obsolete has a lot to teach us. (That includes people.)

Technology should be viewed as providing useful tools that are not always appropriate. Life is at its richest with a blend of both old and new. Progress is of little value when it leaves behind something that used to feed the soul.

I believe this is why there is currently somewhat of a resurgence in alternative photographic printing techniques. People are striving to reclaim some of that connection to a more complete experience that is often lost with new technology, digital photography in particular.

Though I have completely transitioned from analog to digital photography, that does not mean I am blind to its shortcomings. Digital camera resolution is decidedly inferior to analog, though analog printing rarely used all the resolution contained in film. Inkjet prints, especially those made on coated papers that are supposedly ideal for the purpose, are cold, sterile and far less permanent than their manufacturers would like us to believe; the reasons I print on watercolor papers.

Film and analog paper are disappearing at an incredible rate. Most of the B&W printing papers that existed just  few years ago are gone. The many varieties of film have also largely vanished. Several of the techniques I invented for B&W photographers are now unusable because the films they relied upon no longer exist. Soon, analog B&W photographers will have a choice: switch to digital, or make their own B&W printing papers. This could be a good thing. Silver-based B&W papers at their best were frankly, not all that wonderful. Getting them to surrender a visualized image was often an uphill battle. Photographers might just end up producing something significantly superior, by hand.

Anyway, enough of my rant against blind, rampant consumerism and the adoration of technology. If the old is better, keep it. If you prefer analog photographic materials, stick to them. I’m 100% behind you. I have yet to experience anything in digital photography that can match the smell of a roll of 120 Tri-X on which the seal has just been cracked open.


Is Fine Art Photography Really Printmaking?

Is Fine Art Photography Really Printmaking?

Today’s gratuitous photographs are three images of little old ladies in Peru. The word “vieja”, means “old woman”.

The Fine Art Photograph At A Serious Crossroads

Until very recently, there was no doubt about what constituted a photograph. A photograph, whether vacation snapshot or fine art, was an image derived via a lens, by photochemical means, on paper! Then, the photograph got hit by the cross-town, Digital Express.

There were brief forays into other substrates; metal for Daguerreotypes and Tintypes, glass for Ambrotypes, a variety of materials. And of course there were lantern slides, followed later by the more familiar, 35mm color slide (aka transparency), also just different substrates. But, the target by and large has always been paper and the intent, to produce a tangible, precious object. The question now is, how has that all changed? Or, has it changed?

Not very long ago, less that twenty-five years, most photographs ended up on paper. Film was still king and aside from some pretty anemic scanning options, and transparencies of course, the only thing that could be made from film was a print. Now, very few photographs are printed on anything at all. They are kept on smartphones, uploaded to web sites, stored on hard drives, almost everything but being printed. Photographs meant to be shared are simply emailed, instead of making extra paper prints, especially since there was never a paper print to begin with. Children are probably already asking their parents, “What’s a photo album?”

Vieja En Las Oscuras
Vieja En Las Oscuras (Arequipa, Peru ~1980)

If a print is desired, inexpensive inkjet printers abound that can produce a very high quality image. Anyone with the price of a printer and the ability to read an instruction manual, can turn out good results. Those who struggle with instruction manuals can pay a small fee to someone else for similar, or even better results, at a low price.

How does all this affect the fine art photographer? Is a digital image just as desirable as a paper image? Perhaps more so? Is an image on a screen just a little bit less real than one on paper? Is it less tangible? Has the public lost its fascination with physical photographs? Is an actual print, now just old school and unremarkable because pretty much anyone can do it, or have it done?

Moreover, can an image that exists only on a screen be a fine art photograph, at all? It would probably not be difficult to make an argument that it can, especially in the current artmosphere (you heard that term here first) that seems to reject virtually nothing that is effortless and new and everything that is old and requires skill and training. You won’t catch me making that argument, but I can see someone taking that position and defending it, successfully.

This all leads to the inevitable question: Must a fine art photograph be defined as a physical object? Or can it consist only of electrons, and still be legitimately called a fine art photograph?

Vieja Con Bolsa De Plástico
Vieja Con Bolsa De Plástico (Arequipa, Peru ~ 1980)

I can’t necessarily solve the mystery, but I think I can tell you what’s coming because of it. Until very recently, a fine art photograph was absolutely a physical object; a print on paper (or occasional other substrates). It couldn’t be something else because there was nothing else for it to be. To many fine art photographers it will remain just that, forever. But the people who view art as something ever-expanding and ever-advancing (one has to ask if all the changes they champion have to be, by definition, advances, and why some aren’t in fact, reversals) will insist that photographs that are not physical objects are still art, and still valid. I suppose there will be those who choose to live in both camps, but the majority of photographers are going to split at precisely this intersection. Those who prefer a path of least resistance and smallest effort will absolutely go the route of the non-physical image. It is a LOT easier to produce. But it is also highly fugitive.

Paintings have a physical presence that cannot be scanned, and displayed on the internet. The essence of the painting is lost. Part of what makes a painting, a painting, is its physicality. The same is true of the fine art photograph. In order for it to be complete, it must have presence also. A fine art photograph is a work of art, on paper. (And occasionally on other supports.)

Fine art photographers will continue to make images on paper, because that is what the photograph is. It is not complete unless it is a physical object. Fine art photographers by and large are going to remain makers of images on paper.

Vieja Con Bastón
Vieja Con Bastón (Arequipa, Peru ~ 1980)

This leads to another interesting question: Is fine art photography really a branch of printmaking? Printmaking is producing art on paper with ink, not what analog photography usually was, but certainly what happens with a photograph and an inkjet printer today. In fact, digital photography is assisting photographers greatly in moving even closer to printmaking, because now, an inkjet printer can be used to create an enlarged digital negative, or in my case, an enlarged positive, for printing photogravures. The whole world of chemical-based, alternative photographic printing has been broadened tremendously by the advent of digital photography and it is quite probable that a significant proportion of fine art photographers will use those digital advances to make an ever-expanding variety and improved quality of analog photographic prints. 21st century digital technology is helping modern photographers to make better 19th century process photographs on paper. Ain’t technology grand!?

Where fine art photography is going from here is a big deal. I’d love to see someone else’s thoughts, aside from my own. Please feel free to post your opinions and ideas.


Reproduction Hides A Multitude Of Sins

Reproduction Hides A Multitude Of Sins

Buying Fine Art Over The Internet Is Very Risky

This post is a necessary precursor to fully understanding the next post, coming up tomorrow(?).

My first experience teaching photography was at a school in Atlanta, where I was hired in about 1982(?) to teach studio lighting. I’m a natural light photographer. Go figure! I’ve actually forgotten the name of the school and am pretty sure it isn’t there any more. That was thirty years ago. (It was on Peachtree Road, but then, in Atlanta, all the roads are named Peachtree.)

I had an educational experience of my own while there. One of my duties was to supervise my class while they were in the darkroom, making sure they didn’t ruin equipment or themselves. So, I saw a lot of their photographs first hand. As beginning students their photographs, from a technical standpoint, were, well…
they were, beginning students.

The school had its own internal organ and I was handed a recent copy of it some time after starting to work there. The purpose of the publication was to encourage students by giving them a place to show off their images in print. Most all of the student photographs in that issue were ones I had already seen in the school darkroom. I was shocked by what I saw. The apparent technical quality of those images was greatly enhanced by the reproduction process, despite the fact that the printing process was nothing at all to write home about. It was just standard, two or three dots to the inch, very poor quality halftone.

What I already knew to be absolutely awful photographs didn’t look half bad as reproductions. I have since seen the same phenomenon many, many times. The same is also true of the computer screen. It makes really, REALLY bad photographs, look not so bad at all. This realization led to one of my standard axioms for the last several decades: “Reproduction hides a multitude of sins.”

Oddly, the opposite is equally true of good images. Reproduction in print or on the computer screen seems to rob images made by skilled artists, of a great deal. Offset and digital reproductions of well made original photographs that I have seen, have been decidedly anemic by comparison. This too seems to be pretty much a universal law and of course, makes it exceedingly difficult to know from an image on a web page or in print, whether or not the original is actually any good. Most images are inferior and all inferior images are made to look much better by virtue of reproduction, while at the other end of the spectrum, superior images are brought down significantly by the same processes, losing a very great deal.

Part of that loss is due to the inherent degradation suffered because of the reproduction processes themselves (halftone or digital) and part is due simply to the fact that reproduction eliminates the far from inconsequential physical presence of a fine art image on paper.

A reproduction is simply a representational, matter-of-fact, stand-in for a fine art photograph, stripped of all of the intimate experience of the original image on paper. The feel, texture and three-dimensionality of the paper and the subtlety of the image thereupon, are missing. There is no there, there. (Gertrude Stein) The soul of the image is absent.

This is why it is risky to buy art over the internet. Bad images are made to appear substantially better than they are. Good images are robbed of their souls. I am certain this is equally if not more true, of paintings and sculpture.

(Sooner or later, somebody is going to say, “David Kachel says to pass up good looking art on the internet and buy the stuff that looks awful.” Who knows, it could work!)



Scenic Locations Worst Place For Photography Workshops

Scenic Locations Worst Place For Photography Workshops

My Next Workshop Will Be Held At The City Dump

I’ve given a lot of workshops (not for a decade or so), all centering on the Zone System when it was in vogue and when I was half of a big deal as a Zone System “guru”. Now, if the Zone System is brought up in conversation (it isn’t, unless I bring it up) it is usually greeted by blank stares and the word, “huh”. (Is “huh” a word?) Because I was teaching the Zone System, close proximity to a multi-station darkroom was far more important than access to a beautiful landscape. My students were mostly indoors the whole time, with an occasional foray to a nearby park in order to gather cannon fodder.

Found Objects Still Life (very much in early stages)
Found Objects Still Life (very much in early stages)
NB — You may have noticed that there is no link connected to the above term “Zone System”. I googled it. After two pages of wildly incorrect definitions, I gave up. I once reviewed a Spanish language book on the Zone System while giving a workshop in Mexico for Kodak. It was a beautifully made book. Unfortunately, the author had no clue what the Zone System was or how to make use of it. It really isn’t that difficult, but most of what was written about it over the years, by authors other than Ansel Adams himself, was wrong.
The Zone System is simply visualization of the final print you wish to produce and based on that visualization, controlling the manner of both film exposure and subsequent development, so as to provide a negative that lends itself most easily to producing that visualized print on the type of paper most likely to lend itself well to that negative and the envisioned manner of printing. (Not rocket science.)
It has nothing whatever to do with matching negatives to grade 2 papers.
And BTW, I have yet to see any reason at all that the Zone System is in any way applicable to digital image capture and processing/printing, as some are apparently claiming. None. Zip. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Goose egg. That’s like applying bicycle mechanics to space travel.

Most others who give workshops have had a different approach; one that tended to appeal more to the outdoor experience that a lot of workshop attendees seek. I certainly understand that. A beautiful locale is much more pleasant than a darkroom and lecture hall, and almost certain to attract more students. But I wonder about the wisdom, with regard to actual learning, of taking students to a location famous for low hanging fruit!

OK, on second thought, I don’t wonder about it, at all. A happy workshop attendee will result in more attendees in the future. The easiest way to get happy students is to take them somewhere they are sure to get the best images of their life, even if they wear blindfolds while photographing and someone spins them ala pin-the-tail-on-the-photographer, before setting them loose.

I mean, really! How difficult is it to get the best images you ever captured when you are at a workshop in Yosemite, or the slot canyon du jour? (The next person to show me a slot canyon photograph is risking his life.) Low hanging fruit. Easy pickin’s. Certainly gratifying, but perhaps not the best way to learn. In fact, definitely not the best way to learn.

One of the great hurdles of becoming a fine art photographer is getting beyond reproducing other people’s photographs, and moving on to making your own. Most, never get beyond this point.

Of course, we all have to start out emulating someone. Nothing wrong with that. It is educational, provides experience, and helps us get wherever it is that we’re going. I was an Ansel Adams clone for years. I believe there is now a twelve-step group.

But if one is at a workshop in Yosemite! Well, the outcome is almost certain to be extremely Adamsesque and worse, the easiest images there. The low hanging fruit. We all like an easy one from time to time (I never pass one up), but real work is required to make any meaningful progress. And the best place for that is where there isn’t any low hanging fruit. Without it, one has no choice but to sweat.

The way to learn is by photographing garbage! Junk!  A landscape with so little to offer, it tends to make the weak-willed contemplate suicide. Advancement is achieved by making something out of nothing, not by doing what everyone else and their uncle can do just as well. No pain, no gain. Agony is the secret to success.

Fortunately, just about everyone has that agony readily at hand, without having to spend hundreds of dollars on gas and motels to get there. It’s usually right where you live. Pick a nearby location with little or no promise. Work it until you start producing good images. The harder it is, the better for you. When you are sure you’ve exhausted the place, keep going back until you have at least three more.

When finished, you may wish to follow this exercise with copious amounts of alcohol, followed by a weekend trip to some place with a lot of low hanging fruit!

Rinse. Repeat.