Why I Still Create Fine Art Prints in the Darkroom
I am not quite sure what "having gone digital" really means, but I think I understand what most people mean by this question and inference.
I can only answer this question for myself because I have no idea why any other photographer, analog or digital, chooses their medium and workflow. I will forego any darkroom or film versus digital banter in this article because your time is more valuable than that and I may actually become ill if I go down that path.
First and foremost, I create.
I create with intent and my output is a fine print intended to be viewed and appreciated by people.
I am primarily a large format black and white photographer, but that doesn't define me. I learn, mature, grow, and evolve over time and experiences, and therefore my photography tracks with my changes.
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Black and white photography is about light for me. No other genre captures the feeling of light like black and white silver gelatin prints in my opinion. Even the most expensive digital camera in the world can't handle light the way film can.
Analog film and the darkroom has more possibilities than I have time to explore, much less master. The wide variety of mediums (film, paper negatives, direct positive paper, dry plates, ortho film, wet plate, etc.) helps me transcend the difficulties that are inherent with sharing an experience in a three-dimensional world to a two-dimensional print or plate.
In simple terms, each of these mediums has their own unique characteristics and qualities that I match up with my vision for my subject or scene. I have mastered every aspect of my workflow and that releases me to focus on the creative aspects.
When I use large format sheet film, I use the zone system to expose and develop my negatives. Don't confuse this scientific and masterful control of the relevant variables as a cold and static approach to creating something emotional and impactful.
The zone system doesn't shackle me to documenting reality. In truth, I can purposely depart as far away from reality and documentarian approach to photography as I intend.
If I choose to use dry plates using emulsion that I handcrafted in my darkroom, then my approach is intuitive and based on gut feeling with a little bit of experience. Ordinary emulsions dating back to the 19th century were effectively colorblind and only sensitive to UV and blue/violet light. With UV light ever changing at different times of the day and year, this approach is about as far away from the zone system as you can get.
Why do I share these contrasting approaches with you? Mostly because I want to highlight that I don't need modern digital camera gear and fancy computers to create emotionally moving artwork that has value to people. While I have no opinion about modern day photographers that choose to empty out their bank accounts with the annual upgrades to the latest digital gear, I simply want to point out that I don't have any desire or see the need to be part of that never ending cycle.
Conversely, it doesn't mean that my photographs are superior or any better than a contemporary photographer that chooses to use the latest and greatest digital gear. I am clear about the methods that help me create my vision and that is all that I honestly care about.
I am passionate about creating my artwork with my hands. I love using raw materials to express my creative vision. I am very computer savvy, however, I don't use the computer in any part of my fine art process, other than marketing and communicating with my friends and peers and taking snapshots of my real prints and posting them online for others to view.
After I pre-visualize the story that I want to tell, I rely on my technical skills that I have earned over the years to produce the components necessary to meet my vision. This starts with my negative selection, then I move to exposure considerations, then my choice of developer formula to mix, the type and length of development, paper selection, and ultimately dodging and burning as appropriate and a host of chemical formulas that I have at my disposal. This tactile experience is part of a lost era that I hold very close to my heart. Instead of looking at my methods and approach as outdated and undesirable, I view them as a huge advantage over contemporary approaches.
Making a fine art darkroom print is a long and physical process. I enjoy printing large gallery prints and this process is intense because the process is very physical and difficult to manage, even with help from an assistant. I also love to create large format contact prints that require a controlled process with very high technical standards. There is nowhere to hide with large format contact prints. You are forced to get it right in the camera and on your negative.
The use of traditional mediums such as film, paper negatives, direct positive paper, dry plates, wet plate and others allows me to express how I see the world and how I want to communicate to my viewers. The last part is the key. It is how I want to communicate my stories in visual form to those that want to view and experience my art.
The textures, form, and presence that I am able to utilize in my darkroom process is my mode of communication to my viewers.
One of my favorite photographers, Clyde Butcher, says "If you are going to create a piece of art, then why don't you do it right?".
As Clyde says, creating prints in the darkroom is the true artisan way of making fine art prints. Every print is a unique project within itself and every print is slightly different.
Another important aspect of my choice of medium and workflow is my target market.
I work with professional designers, galleries, and collectors that seek fine art prints that are unique and compelling.
They know what they are getting and seek out my work because it meets their criteria.
I am not sure the average person today fully appreciates the work that is required to create a fine art darkroom print. The perception of photography has been reduced to a mobile phone and "Photoshop" which makes me personally sad. Another possibility is that they do understand, but simply don't value it.
From the time I travel to a destination and locate a scene or subject to the time I create an actual fine art print that I am happy with, it may be weeks or even months. This approach sounds like a nightmare to many contemporary photographers and at the very least, a horrible business plan.
My contemplative workflow allows me to think and reflect and improve my prints. I see the slow and lengthy process as a benefit. When I stand in front of one of my gallery prints, everything that I have done up to that point is worth it, no matter how long it took.
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Keywords: analog photography, black and white, clyde butcher, darkroom, film, fine art, ilford, kodak, landscape, large format, nature, photography, slide film
I totally agree with you regarding film photography and darkroom!
I would not trade my darkroom experience for spending tedious hours hunched in front of the computer screen as computer image manipulation is uninspiring for me.
I use photo shop only when digital is requested by my clients, but never for fine art black & white prints.
Greetings from Vancouver Island, Canada
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