Saturday, February 21, 2009

Cavallo Point Lodge

I met Beth Moon this morning to look over some vintage and modern photogravures I've picked up recently. I brought books The Sonnets from the Portuguese, Taken from Life, and The Artistic Side of Photography. I brought a portfolio of photogravures by Laryew titled Nus: Cent Photographies Originales de Laryew circa 1920, and two separated photogravure leaves from Stieglitz's publication Camera Work.

Beth suggested we meet at Cavallo Point Lodge, where Elizabeth Opalenik and Brigitte Carnochan had taken her for her birthday. This is a very cool find. The hotel is situated at the base of a turnoff on the road to Sausalito just over the Golden Gate Bridge in the historic Fort Baker. The converted army quarters from the turn of the 19th century are beautifully appointed and afford a stunning view of the bridge spanning to San Francisco. Beth's reason for this meeting place was the public spaces are used to display photographic exhibitions.

I arrived a bit early, as there was no traffic. I walked into the restaurant area to grab a table and a cup of coffee. As I put down my backpack, I saw above my table a print of a magnolia by Imogen Cunningham. I walked up to the hostess and asked if there was a description of the Cunningham exhibition, and of course there was. All works from the Imogen Cunningham Trust are for sale. I walked around the room between sips of coffee.

Beth arrived and mentioned that all the rooms have works by contemporary photographers, and the gift shop offers monographs describing the work to accompany your stay in a room. We looked through the books above, and compared the photogravure leaf of Rebecca from Camera Work by Frank Eugene to a smaller photogravure of the same image in The Artistic Side of Photography. The Camera Work piece had much greater detail and tonal scale than the book print, and was gorgeous.

The last book we looked at was Volume III of the Journal of 21st Photography, The Clandestine Mind. Featuring the work of photographer John Dugdale, the deluxe book has seven photogravures (printed by Jon Goodman) and remaining images printed in lush tritone. The photogravures had a depth and a texture the excellent tritones lacked that held our gaze allowing little escape.

Beth took me to another common area on the second floor that was showing several large works from the series Ashes and Snow by Gregory Colbert before we ran off on our separate ways.

Don't forget to check out the art in the bathrooms

Monday, February 16, 2009

Sonnets from the Portuguese

I went up to the Antiquarian Book Fair in San Francisco this past weekend. There were many bookstores selling their wares ranging from illuminated manuscripts to 8" x 10" glossies of Bettie Page ($500, signed - thanks, I already have one). I was looking for examples of photogravures in books. I stopped at several booths, and spent about three hours walking around. Pretty much for nought. Too many books to open, too many booths, too little time.

On returning home, I went to my faithful resource and tracked down a copy of Sonnets from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, with 20 tipped in photogravures by the pictorialist Adelaide Hanscom (Leeson). The sonnets were written immediately prior to her marriage to Browning, the most famous being Sonnet 43.

I have been tracking down and acquiring original vintage examples of dust grain photogravures being guided primarily by a list to be found at the truly wonderful site The Art of the Photogravure. They have good reproductions of significant photogravures from the early 1900's, but the images on the web pale in comparison to the originals.

Adelaide Hanscom began significant contributions to pictorial photography with the illustrations she produced for The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Her images are heavily manipulated (starting with glass plate negatives) to achieve a painterly style - this same approach was used for the Sonnets from the Portuguese. Many of the images do not look photographic. The Rubaiyat is perhaps the first book to show a photograph of the male nude. One of several tragedies in her life struck in 1906 when the San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fires destroyed her studio and all the negatives for the Rubaiyat.

Hanscom combined multiple negatives and drew in backgrounds and borders to achieve her artistic effects. The border designs reflect the aesthetics of the Arts and Crafts Movement at that time. The images for the sonnets were taken over the years from 1903 to 1915. Several of the images were made in Danville, California where she taught drawing in the high school. The house she lived in while there still stood as of 2003.

Tragedy began stalking her at a quicker pace. Her husband was killed at Verdun in 1916. Her father Meldon died after a brief illness in 1919.

In 1921, she spent all year in the Agnews State Mental Hospital in San Jose, California.

In the morning after my order for the sonnets, I got an e-mail from Ian Kahn, owner of Lux Mentis book store saying he was at the fair in San Francisco and I could pick up the book that day if I liked. I liked, and drove up 101 to San Francisco for a second time in as many days. A surprise at leaving, I spied a single volume of Curtis's epic work The North American Indian at the booth across from Lux Mentis. At $30,000 I very carefully, simply and only viewed the exquisite photogravures.

The pages of the Sonnets from the Portuguese are heavy and rough edged requiring turning each one by one, the tipped in gravures are sumptuous. The printing is sensual matching the sonnets. I spent a rainy day reading the book and viewing the images.

Adelaide Hanscom died in 1931, struck by a car as she stepped off a trolley in Pasadena, California and was all but forgotten.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

"Well played!" whispered Monica.

I have been acquisitive of books on photography from the late 1800's and early 1900's for a few reasons. First and foremost is to get original source material on photographic printing processes that were not yet considered historical at the time. Second, I've been looking for images of vintage equipment and advertisements for use in this blog. Third, I've been looking for fine examples of photogravures and some books from this period have exquisite examples. 

One such find was The Artistic Side of Photography: In Theory and Practice by A. J. Anderson, a fundamental statement on pictorial photography published in 1910 with hand pulled gravures whose production was overseen by Alvin Langdon Coburn.

I curled up the other night reading it and relishing the gravures. The book's curious structure is one of presenting the material on pictorial photography then recapping the points in analogy with a third person (besides the reader and the author) named Monica. I wanted to share one brief dialogue (with two gravures from the book), which as I read the passage was left wondering if photography was a metaphor for something else.

The Pianola versus Billiards

"They say," said Monica sadly, "that artistic photography is like playing the pianola; and I don't like the pianola, Mr. Anderson."

"They do say it. I have heard even Evans say it; but it isn't true." The girl's face brightened.

"If I had to make a print from a negative taken by someone else, and my work consisted only in softening some parts and emphasizing others, then I should be like a pianola player. Pictorial photography is like billiards."

"Go on! Please go on!" urged Monica.

"One has to calculate the angles at which the light rebounds from an object, just as one has to calculate the angles at billiards; one has to calculate the rebound from soft and coloured objects, just as one has to calculate the absorption of energy and alteration of angle in the rebound from a soft cushion; one has to get the exact strength in both exposure and development, just as one has to get the exact strength in a billiard stroke; and one has to play for the break. A break commencing with exposure and ending with a perfect print from an enlarged negative is no small break, and each step must lead up to the next."

"Well played!" whispered Monica.

"All this time the hand is governed by the eye and brain, just as in billiards; but herein lies the difference: in making a billiard break, two players aim at exactly the same result - an addition to the score; whilst in photography each artist aims at something entirely original. Good average pictorial photographers are about as common as good average billiard players; but taking everything into consideration, is it strange that absolutely first-class men are rare?"

"No, indeed." said Monica.

"As rare as a Roberts or a Stevenson?"

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Mike John Ware

Dr. Mike John Ware is an accomplished British photographer and rigorous chemist. An Oxford University doctorate in chemistry, his research focused on molecular spectroscopy. Mike has undertaken fundamental studies in historic photographic processes and preservation of photographs working with The National Museum of Photography, Film and Television and The Victoria & Albert Museum. Mike brings to bear hard science on alternative processes, providing refreshingly authoritative original material to a landscape littered perhaps to often of incorrect information passed from one historic text to the next. He has written three books that are in-depth modern classics of alternative photographic processes. 

The first, which is perhaps the bible of cyanotypes today, is Cyanotype: The history, science and art of photographic printing in Prussian Blue. Describing its history, practice and variations Mike presents his New Cyanotype Process which is a modern revision of one of the oldest methods of reproducing a photographic image to paper.

The second and third books form a pair, and are still in print, covering the use of gold in photography, and the chrysotype or gold print. Gold in Photography: The History and Art of Chrysotype is the first published history of gold in the arts and photography. It is a very good read on the use of gold in art, its manifestations and it many uses in photography and a history of the attempts at creating a practical method of printing in gold going back to Herschel. Mike perfected a practical method of gold printing he calls the chrysotype, a process by which a wide range of tones can be achieved. Ironically, the only tone that can not be achieved in the chrysotype is that of gold itself. Mike delves into areas of chemistry and materials, including nanoparticle theory unknown to Herschel, to finally explain the appearance of gold prints and to solve the puzzle of creating a practical method. This ability to convert pure science into practical methods of photography is one of Mike's strengths. The second book in the pair is The Chrysotype Manual: The Science and Practice of Photographic Printing in Gold which presents instruction for the advanced alternative process photographer on how to create chrysotypes using Mike's new method. 

Mike Ware's web site is a trove of information on the iron-based alternative photographic, or siderotype, processes. There is a detailed article on the re-invention of the chrysotype process.

Alternative photography process books are typically done in small printings, destined most often to never see a second edition. The Cyanotype book is only available used and fetches a premium. The chrysotype books are still available on and can be paid for by Paypal.

I am not one to give out advice in strict ways, but these books on chrysotypes are a gold mine of information on the iron-based processes in general, and will occupy a place of honor in your collection. Don't complain to me when they go out of print. You have been warned.

Mike Ware's photography can be found in his online galleries.