My Black and White Method – Simplicity in Silver
A friend (who himself is well-published, both in the commercial and artistic realms) recently commented to me on what he regarded as my superb printing method: He complimented me on what he saw as an almost infinite tonal range, balance of light and shadow and luminescence in my black and white work. He thereupon asked me a technical question about how I achieved such seamless dodging and burning as to be undetectable. When I told him that I never dodge and burn, he was astonished. Surely, I could not achieve what he regarded as such flawless prints without doing so. Further, he felt that I was “limiting” and “restricting” myself by working within so narrow a window of lighting opportunity. Actually, I find it quite liberating.
How I arrived at my method of printing arises out of a decades-long quest for perfection in printing. At root of this quest is a single overriding factor: Poverty.
It was because I was broke and in college that I embarked down the road to the perfect print (not that I’ve achieved a “perfect print,” but if that is one’s goal, he will come a lot closer than if he simply wings it). Because the only camera I could afford was a Ricoh KR-5 Super with a 50mm f/2 lens, I needed to compensate for lack of sharper lenses, such as are produced by Nikon or Leica. And, since I wanted my pictures to be rich with detail and information, such as could be found in medium and large format photographs, I selected the finest grain film readily available, Kodak Panatomic-X, rated at 32 ASA. I’d put my camera on a tripod and stop down the aperture to f16 and take advantage of every mil of depth of field.
When processing my film, I was looking for a developer that would allow a full tonal range while preserving high acutance and sharp contrast. I experimented with many developers, and found that while Accufine and using sodium sulfite produced finer grain, these also cut down sharpness. Finally, I hit on the right developer with Edwal’s stalwart FG-7, which — when diluted at 1:30 — was also extremely economical.
Paper selection is equally important. In that, I splurged, using Agfa’s legendary (but now sadly defunct) Portiga Rapid graded contrast paper. However, since I could only afford one box at a time, I only used no. 3 paper, necessitating precise metering for film exposure in the camera.
I print at f16, using Rodenstock and Leitz lenses, which I find ideal for maintaining sharpness, while bathing the paper gently with light from the finest glass the world has known. I also use a grain focuser.
I have found Kodak Dektol developer to be ideal for print development. Using constant agitation, I left the prints in the developer up to eight minutes to evince every bit of grey scale inherent in Portriga Rapid. This is a favorite method of the legendary Baltimorean photographer A. Aubrey Bodine. I was most fortunate to have been passed along this bit of printing wisdom by Benita Keller, a great Maryland photographer in her own right. Bodine has fathered an East Coast aesthetic for black-and-white printing that, while much more obscured to public knowledge than the Zone system favoured out West, hearkens back to a simpler, more honest feel that is strangely more dramatic than all the myriad film and darkroom manipulations over which f/64 aficionados obsess.
Of course, since I first got involved in photography, both Pan-X and Portriga Rapid have disappeared. In my quest to reproduce the feel of that luxuriant combination, I have turned to Agfapan APX-25, and found that Agfa’s Multicontrast RC (you read that right, RC) when toned in Kodak selenium at 1:5 gives me total control over the process without sacrificing greyscale or contrast. The beauty of the Multicontrast paper is that it hovers right about grade 3, and I rarely use any filtration for contrast. The reason for my aversion to darkroom manipulation is simple: Dodging, burning and filtration are corrective measures. It is much easier to produce a properly exposed and developed negative that requires little or no correction.
Now that I have a little more money, I shoot with a Nikon FM-3A in 35 millimeter and with a Rolleiflex SL-66 (a beautiful piece of workmanship from the 1960s) fitted with a razor-sharp Carl Zeiss 80mm Planar lens. I favor the Rollei, because I can get into a shooting rhythm with it, something that has escaped me with my cumbersome 4x5 Agfa/Ansco view camera.
I shoot primarily in Agfapan 25 and Kodak Panatomic-X (found a secret stash in a friend’s freezer and swapped him for fresh Fuji Velvia 1:1). Unfortunately, about five years ago, Agfa stopped production of its APX 25 film (which I have fortunately hoarded). The good news is that old-school Adox black and white fine-grained film is now available from the Croatian manufacturer, Efke. After doing a few test rolls, I have found that the Efke R-25 film outperforms the Agfapan 25 in acutance and with a yellow filter, is comparable in tonality. It is now my go-to film.
However, I will stray off that path when a project’s needs dictate, as with my series, Looking Down. I had wanted to shoot Hyde Park’s sidewalks grainy, but without sacrificing sharpness. After experimenting with Kodak Tri-X, developed in Agfa Rodinal 1:50, I found the perfect combination. The resultant grain, though large, could never be called “clumpy” when processed in Rodinal. Rather, it is jewel-like, luminous, befitting the series’ rough-hewn subject matter.
Finally, while I strive for perfection in printing, I do so by the standards I have accepted. My earliest influences were the German Expressionist films by such directors as Lang, Murnau and von Sternberg. After years of striving to recreate the feel of their work, I believe I have finally succeeded with my series, Concrete Cathedrals. The grain elevators so depicted in that series could have been photographed in 2002 or 1922; they evoke a feeling of time out of mind and thus capture the timeless grandeur of their subjects.
While a goodly amount of detail can be discerned in the shadow area of my prints (and in any properly exposed image), I place a negligible premium on shadow detail. To me, it is a pointless intellectual exercise to try to turn dark into lightness. I let darkness and shadow be what they were intended to be: Pools of black, canopies of nightfall, penumbras of angst and swathes of dark mystery, concealing from the eye a secret and uncertain world that was never meant to see the light of day.
That’s why it’s called black and white photography.