Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Fog Outside, Prints in the Darkroom

 Woodbury, Connecticut

Tuesday overnight we got a couple inches of incredibly dense, heavy snow. It's been cold enough that it's still here Wednesday afternoon, though a lot of it is sublimating into fog. So, a good afternoon to make prints. Some more from my 1992 Carnival series.


Willimantic, Connecticut

Back entrance of a former F. W. Woolworth building. Now out of service again.


Monday, December 28, 2015

First Look

From scans made a few days ago. First look at palladium prints from digital negatives made these small format pictures shot back in 1992, a traveling carnival.

Scanning Large Negatives

Yesterday afternoon I scanned nine pictures made in 2004 and 2005, some of my, "Southern Mountains" series, shot along the Blue Ridge Parkway and in West Virginia. It turned out I had never done high res scans from the negatives; the gallery on my web site was scanned from prints. They're 7x17-inch negatives, made with my Korona Panoramic View. In the past I used a troublesome Microtek tabloid scanner which got (almost) the whole negative in one pass, but needed lots of care and feeding to handle the range of a black and white negative. It also broke down, was badly "repaired," and then got orphaned for driver support. Almost typical of digital equipment, buy it, use it as much as you can, because within five years it won't work any longer, for one reason or another.

So I'm scanning the negatives with an Epson V750 Pro, which has a transparency scan area of just 8x10 inches. However, whether by sheer accident or plan, the scanner lid doesn't "bite" a negative that's longer than the bed. So you can safely scan the negative in two passes. Which is really tedious.

But it works quite well. It's the first scanner I've had, and I've been using them for 25 years, that has software that can understand a black and white negative. Previous scanners have all thought black and white film was just color negative film without color, which is totally wrong. Color negatives are soft mushy dye clouds with a heavy orange mask, all of which was perfect to work in projection printing onto color print paper. But it drove early scanners crazy. At the same time, when flatbed and slide scanners got to be reasonably useful, they did color slides pretty well, color negatives OK if there was a preset for the specific film type, but couldn't do black and white negs worth a damn. I always figured it was because the designers had no idea what a black and white negative is. It's silver deposited in gelatin, and has a density range much more like a color transparency than a dye cloud negative. So you had to tell the scanning software that you were scanning a transparency. Use the preview/prescan tools to make it look like a good negative. After acquisition, you inverted the file in Photoshop to make it a positive. Scanners that made horrible scans when set to "black and white negative" delivered perfectly usable scans, if you lied to them. The V750 can be set correctly and take in the full range of black and white negative with room to spare at both ends of the histogram.

Another point is that scanner previews are never accurate. If you work hard to make the preview perfect, you will usually get a bad scan with clipped shadows and highlights. This is still true with the V750. I set the prescan controls so there is plenty of headroom and footroom. Nothing below Level 20 and nothing above Level 235. This delivers a file that is delightfully like what David Vestal said about Walker Evans's prints—"Pale, but all there." Since the acquired data is in 16-bit grayscale, there's lots of room to use a Curves Adjustment Layer in Photoshop to bring the tone up to a good dynamic range.

I place the film on the scanner glass emulsion side down, the wrong way, because the emulsion side is much less likely to suffer Newton Rings than the shiny back side of the film in contact with the glass. Little tabs of tape, six of them, pull the neg tight which helps scan quality and also reduces risk of Sir Isaac interfering. This is a drag, but I keep reminding myself how much less trouble it is than wet mounting on a drum scanner.

Along with having to scan each picture twice, the pieces have to be oriented and assembled. Each scan gets rotated 90° clockwise or counter, then rotated Flip Horizontal, then saved. Then I select the pair in Bridge and call up Photoshop and Photomerge. It's important then to select the last option, Position Only. Otherwise PS will imagine all sorts of stuff that it thinks should be perspective corrected, with disastrous, and sometimes hilarious, results.

Here's the assembled scan in a screen capture from Photoshop, edges cropped away, and given its initial tonal adjustment using a Curves Layer. "Dawn, Bean's Farm, Birch River, West Virginia, 2005."

UPDATE: Just a note to say that comments have somehow been getting routed to an "awaiting moderation" folder at Blogger instead of showing up in my email, so several have just been posted and I'm not sure how long they've been sitting around.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Foggy Morning, Mid-December

Bantam, Connecticut

On the 11th of this month after a warm overnight, as predicted by weather forecasters there was heavy fog all around the Litchfield Hills of northwestern Connecticut. Winter fog just isn't something we ordinarily see around here, but the weather has been anything but ordinary. There was also a short period of time where the fog was just thick enough, and just thin enough, to see a clearly defined disk of the sun with a surrounding halo, all with a subject brightness range the digital sensor could handle.

As the fog burned off, the light retained a sunrise-like glow much later into the morning than usual.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Unusual Clouds, and Scanning Old Negatives

Middlebury, Connecticut

Tuesday I wrote, talking about West Texas, that here in southern New England, we don't see clouds that hang as a thin dark strip above the of course Wednesday on my way to Waterbury to get supplies for the cats, I saw this. Really, I don't think this happens a lot around here, but there it is. The helicopter in the sky is a nice touch at a large enough display size.

Scanning all yesterday afternoon, once again from pictures made 25 years ago. This time, the series was with a traveling carnival in the spring and summer of 1990. Today, remembering something Bill Pierce told me a few years ago, I decided to forget about the pesky film holder for the Epson V750—it might be useful for batch scanning twenty negatives at once but it just gets in the way doing one high res scan at a time. So I taped each neg directly to the scanner glass, just as I do with large format negatives, and used 4800 ppi, four times what I need for 8x10 and 7x17 negatives. The tabs of tape with folded ends along the outside edge of the scanner are for those big negatives.

I think the scans are better than I got years ago from a Minolta dedicated slide scanner. And better than with the film holder. The scanner adjusts for holder or glass (film area guide, see first option under Original in the basic Epson scan window, below) and I suspect the focus at the glass is better. One great feature of that old Minolta scanner was that it focused for each scan. No focusing the Epson, we're stuck with the way it came from the factory. Scanning with the emulsion side down, then flipping in Photoshop, helps prevent Newton Rings since the emulsion isn't as shiny as the back of the film, and in fact of 15 scans only two got attacked by Sir Isaac, and had to be redone.

Here's a snap (not screen cap, mind the moiré), of the zoomed prescan. As with any scan I've left it quite flat with plenty of detail in the shadows and highlights. Once the scan is made I snap it up as needed with a Curves Adjustment Layer in PSCC. Another advantage, one that I wanted with this particular set which I think I will print in direct digital monochrome rather than Pt/Pd, is to retain the black edge, film border, just as I used to do using a filed-out film carrier in the enlarger for silver printing.

Don't know how well this will read, but here's a screen capture of a Bridge window with the afternoon's scanning. Click on any of the images in the post to see them all more clearly.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

West Texas, last part (with addendum)

Where I live, on the western side of Connecticut, there are no horizons. Your view is to the next hill. To see a long, flat, horizon line, you'd need to drive down to the south shore and look out across Long Island Sound. So I was really struck by the immense horizon views out there on The Plains in 1992. Also, it was amazing to realize how far away the horizon, and objects seen against it, really was. The grain towers in particular stood out at a distance, and I couldn't believe how long it took to reach one, riding at 65 mph on two-lane state highways. 

The long flat strips of cloud that look like a negative defect when scanning were also surprising. Don't see those back east, either. I've since gotten used to the look of big, flat, land from years later work on my drive-in theater project, which took me all over the country. But scanning these negatives and working on the results (also now in the process of printing them in palladium from digital negatives) reminded me how struck I was by the immensity of the Great Plains and High Plateau.

Even when the horizon isn't obvious, the sense of flatness on the High Plateau is palpable. Something I found again with the drive-in theaters project. Sometimes a broad view was needed to establish a theater's landscape setting. Other times, just a little bit of steep West Virginia hillside, or as here with the muffler shop, just enough sense of that totally flat horizon, is enough to establish regional location.

Also, if anyone is curious, here are copy shots of the cover and a couple of spreads from the hospital fundraiser brochure that took me out to Lubbock in the first place.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

West Texas, Part Two

Somewhere between Lubbock and the New Mexico border. These oil pumps were everywhere.

Clovis, New Mexico. A downpour that nearly caused a flash flood.

Out on the high plateau. It really is flat out there.

Monday, December 21, 2015

A One-day Vacation in West Texas, 1992, with a bit of New Mexico

One of my clients back in 1992 was a fund development consultancy in the Boston Area. I did the design, photography, and production supervision (print) for fund raising brochures (they handled the text.) Several of the clients I worked with were healthcare organizations.

The brochures were nicely produced (if I do say so myself) and were printed in a limited run of 1,000 or so. They were primarily used as pitch support to be handed to the people fund raisers hoped would be six-figure donors. Then distributed more widely to get the story out. Always sent to all local media outlets.

St. Mary of the Plains Hospital in Lubbock, TX, hired the consultants to help with a campaign to raise money for a new addition and support for community outreach work. I flew out on a Tuesday and spent part of that afternoon and all of Wednesday wearing my metaphorical art director's hat. Scouting locations, recruiting staff and patients to appear in the project, working with the consultants' staff person assigned on site for the campaign, as well as the head of the hospital's PR department. I shot the brochures in a very documentary style, in black and white, using 'real people,' no models or stand-ins, real narratives in pictures and text.

Thursday and Friday I switched to my photographer's hat to shoot the list of situations we'd scheduled to fill the twenty-four-page brochure.

The airlines at this point had a strange promotional program—I never quite figured out what the rhyme or reason of it was. If you booked a round-trip ticket with enough days in between, four or five I think it was, including a Saturday overnight, there was a big discount on the fare. Much more than the cost of an extra night at a modest hotel. I was doing the work on a project bid basis, not day rate, so any savings would stay in my pocket. Never having been to West Texas before, I planned to get a good night's sleep after the wrap Friday evening, then take a single day vacation on Saturday.

Saturday dawned dark and stormy. Wandering around Lubbock looking for things to photograph wasn't going to be such a fun time. No problem though, my rental car had unlimited mileage, so I could go exploring for no more than the cost of gas. I headed due west on Texas Highway 114, through Smyer, Opdyke West, Levelland (aptly named for the High Plateau), Whiteface, and more. In the rain. No, I don't remember the town names; I'm using AppleMap.

I left most of my gear back at the hotel, took a small bag with two Leica M6 cameras, 35 and 50 Summicrons, and a few rolls of Tri-X. I pulled over to the shoulder for anything that looked interesting. A few times some other interesting thing happened after I'd stopped. At some point I crossed the border into New Mexico. Portales, Clovis. Farwell on the NM/TX border, then through Muleshoe and Sudan on a 45° angle headed back for Lubbock. It stayed dark and stormy all day, which I really enjoyed visually. I wound up back in Lubbock early in the evening, having used, as I recall, 560 of those free miles on the rental. Had dinner at a vegetarian-friendly Mexican restaurant, and caught a mid-morning Sunday flight back to Bradley.

For the next couple days I'll post pictures from the one-day vacation. I've just scanned them and worked up digital negatives. I'm going a bit contrarian and trying the set of ten pictures as miniatures, little 6x9-inch palladium prints, since everything is bigger in Texas, and it seems appropriate for the dark, brooding conditions that Saturday.

on the road, west of Lubbock, Texas

Bobtail heading east, toward Lubbock, on 114

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Making Palladium Prints, Notes and Snaps

It seemed as though some visitors here might be interested to see some of the steps in making Pt/Pd prints, so I took some snaps during this morning's printing session. First, write notes on the back of the sheet. Notes kept in notebooks don't track with the actual prints, even if you try to keep a number or key system.

A template is helpful to mark the area to be coated. I use a lot of different sizes and formats so this one is marked for print size and format of the original, along with square inches, which determines the amount of coating solution needed. That also varies with the paper in use. The table surface is a heavy sheet of plate glass: solid, and very flat.

The coated sheet needs to be dried accurately and consistently. Too damp and you get muddy prints, or maybe ruin a negative. Too dry and you get nasty brown edges and harsh tone. The easiest way to work is to establish a good temperature/humidity environment in the printing room. This morning I had a nearly ideal 65°F and 50% humidity. I had to run a humidifier for a while before printing. After the coated sheet "sets" for five minutes and changes from shiny-wet to a perfectly matte surface, I run the film dryer with no heat, just fan, for 5 to 10 minutes, depending on what paper I'm using. This stabilizes the sheet at the room temp/humidity without risk of over-drying.

After exposure there's a faint ghost of print-out image. Then the image develops almost instantly when the developer is poured on.

A print sloshing in the developer for a 90-second development time. The print is from a digital negative based on a 35mm film capture from 1992.

Coated and dried/prepared sheet, ready for printing.

Negative from another picture added.

Faint print-out image from another negative.

Two prints, processed, draining into the sink. Once they're a little dry they transfer to fiberglass drying screens.

I'll have more about this particular set of pictures tomorrow.

Shop Window, Closed

Torrington, Connecticut

For as long as I can remember, this was a small, family-owned jewelry store, just off Main Street. Now closed.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Weathered Sign

Thomaston, Connecticut

The sign is a little worse for wear. The cold light looks like winter, but it's so mild that people are dressed in light jackets and sweaters.

Back home, I've finally begun to experiment with using my digital negative system to try reimagining some of my older small format work as palladium prints.

(Orthodox Church service, Belgrade, Yugoslavia, 1970)

(wedding celebration, New Delhi, India, 1970)

My negatives are carefully filed in archival boxes. The contact sheets, not so much. So I've been scanning hundreds of rolls of film to make "digital contacts." Since my scanner can only do transparent media to 8x10 inches the proofs get cropped at both ends of each strip, but the point is just to be able to locate the pictures, as in this roll from 1990, which starts with shots of my father at his house in New Jersey, then moves to preparations for the opening of a show of Tina's paintings at The Susan Isaacs Gallery in Wilmington, Delaware.

Outputting 11-inch wide files from a 35mm project in 1990, two-up on 13x19 Fixxons film.

Meanwhile, the winter continues to be unusually mild, but still, it's December in New England, so at least some heat is needed, and Roxy has found the best seat in the house.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Late Autumn

Washington, Connecticut

This year I became fascinated with the very subtle color of late fall. Here in Steep Rock Preserve's Hidden Valley section, looking west toward the Shepaug River.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Digital Contact Sheets

Woodbury, Connecticut

A tedious task, but then, so was making contact sheets the old fashioned way. I've finally begun to explore printing some of my old film work in platinum via digital negatives. I have several Facebook posts about that, put up recently, if anyone is interested. Doing that reminded me that, while my negative filing system of 46 years of work is solid, my collection of contact sheets is, well, not so much.

Besides, once done, the digital proofs will be much easier to use. I'm not sure it's any faster to do than RC contacts in the traditional darkroom. I'd expose six sheets/rolls in a row, then gang process, then another half dozen sheets. The scanner moves along quite slowly, probably because it is processing the information to scan negatives directly to positive. It also (this is an Epson V750 Pro) hogs the whole computer—Momma don't allow no multitasking 'round here—so I've cranked up the creaky five year old iMac to log on and put up a post. Also to have some stuff to read online while waiting for the scanner to address the next roll of film.

The other thing about digital proofs is that they're essentially free. Aside from time and effort, several hundred sheets of RC silver paper would cost quite a bit. The only cost this way is the tiny part of a three terabit hard drive they'll take up.