Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Technical details

“Silver printing has been often doomed, but it still survives”

Henry Peach Robinson & William Abney, Preface to The Art & Practice of Silver Printing, 1881


The fundamental precept of this project was to shoot in the simplest possible way. That does not mean the easiest way, that would almost certainly have been to utilise an automatic digital camera. In this context simple means with least technical intervention between the subject and the final print.

A second imperative was the nature of the final output. I believe that making prints is an important part of the photographic process; it is essential to me that the print has not only good tonal values but also possesses tactile qualities with a certain weight, feel and look.

These two factors taken together determine the photographic techniques employed.

Firstly this means that the project was shot using film. Furthermore I decided to use black and white film and not only that but use a simple single layer emulsion FP4 rather than one of the more modern formulations created largely to aid mechanical processing and printing.

Secondly I chose a developing method. The system chosen involves developing the film in a covered dish using the developer Pyro. This is quite an old-fashioned developer in that fell out of general use over 80 years ago. However although it has been superseded by metol based developers this is largely because their better keeping qualities suited commercial darkrooms rather than for any intrinsic photographic benefits. On the contrary the slow staining action of the Pyro gives a fine grained negative with a unique look and colour, it provides the lovely smooth graduation of tones required for this style of photography. Unfortunately these historic processes do not come with instruction manuals and a certain amount of trial and error was required to get the system to work.

The mantra of simplicity requires that the camera chosen offer the minimum amount of automation. The equipment used was a large format Sinar view camera which produces a 5" x 4" negative. The Sinar permits the lens and film planes to be moved independently making it possible to produce images which are in focus from close the camera to infinity and to ensure that vertical edges remain vertical in the image. The drawback is that the camera is quite bulky and can only be used when mounted on a tripod. It is also extremely heavy.

The film is loaded into the camera as individual sheets, one image per sheet, using a carrier known as a dark slide.

Focusing is achieved by looking at a ground glass screen at the rear of the camera where the image can be viewed laterally reversed and upside down. These factors, which could initially be thought of as drawbacks, in fact turn into benefits by slowing down the photographic process so that the shutter is released only once everything is ready. It is the complete antidote to the snapshot.

Finally the developed negative was printed in a traditional darkroom onto fibre-based silver gelatin paper. The resulting print was selenium toned which should ensure that the print is archival and will last for a very long time indeed. The prints themselves were then carefully pressed flat and have been archivally mounted to acid free board using linen tape. This system maximises the longevity of the prints. The prints are not dry mounted and can therefore be removed from the mount without damage should the need arise.

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