The Approach to the B&W Photograph That Never Was

During the 1980’s and early 90’s when I was more inclined to be inventive, one of the many ideas I had that never saw print was to use color film for making B&W photographs. Unfortunately, not all the pieces were in place at the time. They did all come along, sort of, eventually, but not in an order that was conducive to the actual birth of such an approach. Not until now, anyway.

You see, much of making a fine art B&W photograph has to do with the manipulation of color. I have talked about this before on this blog. One can manipulate gray tones by manipulating the colors of a scene and by choosing the color sensitivity of one’s B&W film. Choices are limited now, but once, you could choose between films sensitive to only blue light, or blue and green, or blue green and red; today’s modern panchromatic films. There are still blue and blue/green sensitive films, but for the most part they are special purpose films, usually of higher contrast than normal.

The colors in the scene were manipulated by the choice of color filter through which the photograph was taken. Filters lightened their own colors and darkened all the others. Between filters and film choice, the alteration of gray tones was a useful tool, but not broadly so. You could only use a single filter per photograph. If more manipulation was wanted, tough!

Some years ago I invented and published a technique called Dye Dodging. It involved using specialized dyes employed by color photograph retouchers. I repurposed them to manipulate the gray tones of a B&W image, in the darkroom. A blank piece of film was attached to the top of the negative and both made immobile in the negative carrier of an enlarger, so that the carrier could be removed from the enlarger, the dyes applied to the blank sheet of film where required and the carrier returned to the enlarger for a fresh print. The blank sheet threw the dyes out of focus so that the work done was not detectable in a print. It was quite effective. Sadly, this technique is no longer available because the dyes no longer exist. The lady who manufactured them and taught their use is deceased. (This did not stop an entirely shameless individual from publishing what he mis-represented as his own idea, an idea blatantly borrowed from the early 20th Century and having nothing whatsoever to do with my technique, under the title:  Dye Dodging.  And he did so in the exact same magazine where I had  published the original Dye Dodging technique. Unfortunately, the magazine had a new editor who was something less than observant.)

At any rate, if memory serves me, the concept of dye dodging was what stimulated my original thinking on the subject of using color negative film for capturing B&W photographs: the logic being that if images were captured on color film, there would be no need for the tedium of using color filters or choosing which film might be more appropriate at the moment. A standardized approach could be taken to image capture and color manipulation of gray tones could be postponed until later, in the darkroom. This would also allow experimentation with different gray tone alterations based on color. The scene colors would be there in the negative, so all the filters could be available via a single image capture. This broadened the potential printing options for a B&W image, considerably.

A great idea that was fundamentally sound, except for a few deal breakers. There was no Zone System for color negative film. That would come later, but I could not know in advance what I, or others might invent. (Working separately, I and a fellow named Robert Anderson, invented complete contrast control for both color negative film and color paper, unknowingly announcing our discoveries in the same issue of the same magazine, in 1990.) So, there was no contrast control via film development for color negative film, at the time. Development of color negative film was standardized. And there was no paper on which to make B&W images from color negatives: well, not a viable one.

There was a paper for just this purpose. Kodak made it and it was called Panalure. It was a panchromatic B&W paper designed specifically for making B&W prints from color negatives. But it came in only one contrast grade (again, this problem was at least partially remedied by later inventions, but I could not know it at the time). No approach to B&W fine art photography could be based on a single grade of paper, but worse, far worse…

Panalure was a resin-coated paper: anathema to the fine art B&W photographer. No self-respecting artist would ever consider offering prints made on a plastic paper. That was the end of the trail.

So there you have it. The lack of an adequate paper for printing was the real killer of this idea. Until now!

Digital photography, in particular the scanner and the inkjet printer, have breathed, if not new life, at least new viability, into this concept. Now, a photographer can capture an intended B&W photograph on color negative film, scan the negative and alter gray tones via the manipulation of the colors, in Photoshop. Whether printed digitally or a new negative made for printing by chemical means, this route is finally viable.

Of course, one can now accomplish very much the same thing with a high-end digital camera, so the desire to stick with film must be strong. And then there is the fact that only three color negative films still exist in sheet film sizes, all made by Kodak and carrying, shall we say, impressive prices. Though I think B&W films will be around for a very long time yet, I suspect color negative films will soon breath their last. All the indicators point in that direction. After all, Kodak makes color films for which they DO NOT make a single paper on which to print them!

The approach now actually exists, though somehow I doubt it will be a blockbuster. Timing IS everything!!


The Half Life of Stupidity is About 300 Years

I have no idea why I would have thought the advent of digital photography might reduce the stupidity that haunts the photographic world. The disappearance of all those photography magazines that specialized in selling snake oil to hobbyists made me think the nonsense might be over. Not a chance. It persists and even thrives.

If you have children, you have no doubt played “Whack-a-Mole”: that silly game found at chain restaurants serving bad pizza and paper bowls of sticky macaroni and cheese; restaurants designed to appeal to both children and parents fond of explosive diarrhea. Writing about photography is a constant game of “Whack-a-Mole”. The very same stupid and indestructible ideas keep popping up over and over, no matter how many times someone tries to exterminate them. Some of these recurring stupidities span CENTURIES. Three centuries, in this particular case.

In the 1800s, photographers knew little if anything about how photography worked or how to control it. Hurter and Driffield would not come along for a while yet and photographic processing was more like alchemy than anything else. Photographers put things into their developers that provided no benefit whatsoever, or worse, diminished the outcome of the development process considerably. One of the really bad ideas of the era was to suspend your film in developer, walk away and come back an hour or two later. This was called stand development at the time, among other names, and achieved considerable popularity, as incredibly stupid ideas generally do. It was born of ignorance and superstition, and produced considerably less than optimal results. Little or no agitation was provided so, uneven development combined with severe over-development was usually the result.

Later, this kind of development approach was modified to be employed as a method of contrast reduction in order to accommodate negatives exposed to a too-long range of subject reflectances. There were several variations on this theme for contrast reduction and they worked moderately well because agitation was reduced, not eliminated, developer dilution was generally increased, and time and temperature were carefully controlled instead of left to chance, as with the original concept of stand development. Instead of leaving film in the developer for hours, it was removed before heavily exposed areas had a chance to approach full development. A very bad idea was converted into a fairly good one.

In the early 1990’s I wrote a four part series of articles on the topic of contraction, a more modern term used to describe the intentional modification of film development in order to reduce negative contrast: the various old, but useful, contrast reduction techniques that morphed out of the original bad idea of stand development.

The first in that series of articles explained in considerable depth and with more than ample proof, why those older contrast reduction techniques were lacking, had all along been used to address the wrong problem and had become even less efficient in their action because of recent improvements in film technology that reduced their original, limited effectiveness.

I don’t know who the 19th century assassins of stand development might have been. Possibly Hurter and Driffield, themselves. It was nonetheless, well murdered somewhere between the late 1800s and the next century. Photographers stopped repeating that nonsense completely: for, oh, say, a century or so.

In the mean time, I did my very best to kill the offspring of stand development in that 1990s series of articles and even offered up some sound and versatile replacement techniques in the same series. It seems my skills as an assassin are not quite adequate. The old obsolete techniques are still used widely. Oh well, I understand that bloodletting is also making a comeback.

But more astonishing than the continued survival of antiquated contrast reduction techniques, and bloodletting, is the recent return of stand processing. I am still aghast at finding  proud declarations on the internet almost every day that film X was stand developed or, semi-stand developed (meaning the photographer had the good sense to employ at least some agitation). At least there are no patients proudly proclaiming their doctors applied leeches! (Or, are there?)

Dredging up an old, failed development approach is bad enough, but the excuses for doing so are worse. Far worse. A number of proponents of the newly rediscovered stand development approach actually have the gall to claim that, normal development with agitation, and while paying attention to time and temperature, is just too difficult and tedious for them. They simply don’t have the time to stand there for five or ten minutes paying attention to one of the most simple and straightforward chemical processes on Earth. (Seasoning food is often significantly more difficult!) It makes one wonder if they also have difficulty brushing their teeth or washing behind their ears.

Others claim they get sharper images with stand development. Some make this claim while in the same breath, lamenting that their negatives are often unevenly developed! Well, DUH! Stand development is a written guarantee for uneven development. Uneven development was in large part responsible for the original demise of stand development.

In their defense, users of stand development may in fact, sometimes get what appear to be sharper images. They are not sharper, but they can appear to be. Sometimes. Higher accutance, which is a result of what is called the adjacency effect in film development, is the source of this illusion of increased sharpness. It is a genuine effect, though slight. There are developers and approaches to development that do indeed produce the illusion of greater sharpness. They were useful when lenses and films were considerably less sophisticated than they are today. There is now little need for accutance developers. Films have advanced a great deal. So have lenses.

One cannot criticize a photographer who proclaims a need for sharper looking images, a possibly legitimate pursuit… unless of course, that photographer happens to be one whose images are not sharp because he does not use a TRIPOD: the usual reason for unsharp images. What is the point of claiming a desire for sharper images when the photographer insists on doing the very thing required to guarantee unsharp images? Many of the images I see on the internet, the makers of which proudly proclaim their use of stand development, are quite clearly images captured without the benefit of a tripod. Actual image sharpness is a product of a good lens and A TRIPOD!!! Not of magic development. No approach to film development can remotely match the increased real sharpness provided by a tripod. If you do not use a tripod, do not dare claim you use a developer because you want increased sharpness!

About the most ridiculous excuse I have seen thus far is, “I need those ten minutes for more important pursuits.” You know what, I refuse to dignify that by even commenting on it.

At this point, the only thing I wonder about is whether or not this moronic idea will actually make it to the next. a fourth century! I’m betting that it will. Any takers?

I was going to quit writing right here and save my next thought for tomorrow. But two curmudgeonly posts are not better than one, so I will tack it on here and bring up a second stupidity, while finishing the venting of my spleen at the same time. This is a modern stupidity, one that I could not entirely fathom until just today. It is called, Bokeh, and will no doubt, also span centuries.

Bokeh is a made up term for the appearance of out-of-focus areas of a photograph. It is apparently a bastardization of a Japanese term. I started seeing comments regarding bokeh on the internet about ten years ago, like: “Oh, what beautiful bokeh your photograph has” or, “this lens has better bokeh than that lens“!

Bokeh has been adopted as yet another pointless distraction for many photographers to use as an excuse not to get about the hard work of making photographs worth seeing. That I understand. Photographers have always sought out such excuses. It explains most of the photographic gadgets on the market.

An out of focus area in a photograph is either there intentionally, or due to incompetence. If it is due to incompetence, the photographer probably would not want viewers staring into it and marveling at it.

If it is there intentionally, then clearly the photographer wished to direct the viewer’s attention elsewhere in the photograph, causing one to wonder why anyone would be remarking how beautiful the out-of-focus area may or may not, be! If they are doing so, then the photographer obviously failed in his attempt to redirect attention. The supposed beauty of such a failure, is irrelevant. If viewers are looking where the photographer clearly intended they not look, the photograph is landfill.

When I first started writing  articles for photography magazines, I made the mistake of allowing a couple of my articles to be published in a widely-read, though somewhat less than credible magazine. When you offer up new technical information, where you publish it is everything, if you expect your work to be taken seriously. The results of your new medical research will be widely ignored if you publish it in German Shepherd Monthly. I regretted giving those articles over to that questionable magazine almost from day one. The magazine had no credibility.

(The majority of my articles were published in Darkroom & Creative Camera Techniques, a highly respected magazine that suffered no such lack of credibility. Fortunately, all my more important articles appeared there.)

The Brand X magazine (German Shepherd Monthly), on the other hand, had a reputation, of which I was unaware, for publishing nonsense along with the occasional more worthwhile content. Among other things, advice to wash your film in the toilet in case of water shortage, or to use dish soap in place of Photo-Flo, just in case the world ran out of Photo-Flo, are things that stick in my mind. Can’t imagine why! In fact, I have mentioned those two ideas in the past, possibly in the hope that doing so might somehow result in my absolution for that regrettable, though brief, association.

Today I learned for the first time that Bokeh burst on the scene as a contribution from the exact same person who headed that Brand X rag when the toilet and dish soap ideas were published. Now, it all finally makes sense! They are three ideas that clearly come from the same source and all belong together… filed under, useless.

So, if you should run into someone preoccupied with bokeh, tell him you want to teach him a wonderful new development process for negatives with bokeh, called, still development: in toilet water; with dish soap. And toss a teaspoon of instant coffee into the developer while you’re at it, just for good measure.