Monday, November 17, 2008

Contact Printing Frames

Let's start at the beginning: contact printing frames. The most common piece of equipment you will come across in alternative photographic processes.

I'm only half joking about the central role that the contact printing frame plays in alternative processes. The need for this piece of equipment illustrates some fundamental points in common for various popular processes.

First, many alternative processes are only sensitive to UV light. Because of the impracticality of producing a UV enlarger, you must have a negative the size of the print you want to create - and that negative (emulsion side) must be held tightly against the sensitized material. Enter the contact printing frame.

Second, there are some practical mechanical issues in constructing a simple contact printing frame. These devices are virtually unchanged since the early days of photography - a piece a clear glass in a wooden frame (I've been told you can sometimes find antique Kodak models at flea markets being offered cheaply as oddly constructed picture frames). Typically utilizing metal springs on the back to press the negative into contact with the sensitized surface, the ability to get a uniform contact is more difficult the larger the frame - with 16" x 20" being considered the practical limit for a mechanical frame. Given the difficulty of traditionally creating large negatives for contact printing, and the difficulty in ensuring good contact mechanically between the negative and the sensitized surface, it is the case that prints tend to be of a modest size (8"x10" or 11"x14" being popular standard sizes in the past).

Third, contact printing frames typically boast a hinged split back. "Why?" you may ask. The purpose is to allow you to check the progress of the exposure by loosening half the back, folding it away and looking at the emerging print. Many alternative processes exhibit either a partial print out (as in palladium printing) or a full printing out (as in Printing Out Paper - POP).

The third point is a matter of great practicality. I bounce back and forth in conversation between the terms "alternative" and "historical" printing processes. Most of these alternative processes were also some of the earliest practical means of reproducing multiple prints from an original image.  The readily available form of UV light was of course the sun. The intensity of sunlight varies by time of day, by season, and by weather. It's a wonder that much early progress was made in England in photography given the weather I've seen there. With exposures often measured in many minutes, the progress of the printing was periodically checked by ducking indoors or into shade with the printing frame, opening up half the back, and taking a look. And then returning to complete the exposure.

Starting with cyanotypes, and a small used contact printing frame, one can enjoy the sun and explore alternative photography cheaply. 

Enough of these asides - in the next entry, let's just simply make a print.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The World Journal of Post-Factory Photography

In scrambling around for information on alternative and historic processes I've come across some material in a roundabout way. One extremely useful publication was The World Journal of Post-Factory Photography published by Judy Seigel. In her own inimitable style, Judy sets forth in 9 issues stories of practitioners, methods and how-to's for alternative photographic processes.

The issues are invaluable. With articles by some of the foremost practitioners of the day, responses in subsequent issues, discussions of different approaches to a problem - more informal than a textbook - more approachable than a few fragmentary notes on the web.

In the next couple days I'll be covering my experiences with the cyanotype process. It was this simplest of processes that led me to track down Judy via the Alt Photo mail list.

I am not sure if the nine published issues are still available? Issue One is on line (a large scanned download). I got my shrink wrapped (clear plastic - no hiding my passion) set of issues and curled up for hours.

Issue Five was a gold mine of information about the cyanotype process. Invented by Sir John Herschel (a famous polymath) in 1842 it is one of the first photographic processes invented. Anna Atkins produced the first photobook, on British Algae, in cyanotype. The issue profiles perhaps the leading modern practitioner of the cyanotype process, John Dugdale

The cyanotype process has one significant drawback for some people - it produces blue images (Prussian Blue to be precise). It was widely used as the blueprint process to copy design and architectural drawings. Dugdale's worked sparked my interest in this historic process - as he is able to transcend and express himself beautifully in blue.

More on the cyanotype process later.

Beth Moon

Beth Moon and I have been running across each other more and more frequently. I met Beth briefly through Mark Nelson when he was working with her on his Precision Digital Negatives system. I was also working with Mark (and still am) and ran by her place to take him out to dinner. Beth makes large digital negatives to contact print in platinum using Mike Ware's method - a process I find challenging even to read about!

If you're unaware of the nature of many of these historic processes, they are often only UV light sensitive, The fun side effect is you can work with ordinary incandescent bulbs on and see exactly what you're doing and who is doing what. Not requiring a darkroom, converted garages make an ideal place to set up your work area - the weather is pretty good in California and the cars don't mind staying outside. Beth declined to join us for dinner as she was fiercely focused on making prints. I saw a woman extremely engaged in making art.

When I talked to Beth - in our class on polymer plate photogravure that we took with fellow student Gitta Carnochan - I was impressed by her vision and direction in her printmaking. She looks for a process that expresses her view of how the image should be presented. I tagged along with her to a private (with me semi-private) workshop on oil printing with Larry Shapiro. Again, she was looking into a process to see the technique and determine whether the end result had merit for a future project.

I too often slip into the technical side of photography and do not spend enough time considering the goal in presenting the final image in the best way.

Beth is good for me.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Michael Garlington

I had the opportunity to meet Michael Garlington recently in his darkroom in Petaluma, California. I'm glad the directions were good - as there is no cell phone coverage where he lives and works - he's off the beaten track in more ways than one.

I am fascinated not only by his work - my favorite being The Fishmonger's Daughter - but by the extraordinary passion and energy he exudes. Watching him print in a converted barn is a blast - as he moves his hands through the air under the light of the enlarger looking for an organic connection to the final print.

He is wandering Europe now, and last I heard was in the Greek Isles shooting away. He is making his way to Germany to create another photo car.