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.