Prints. Sharing. Archiving.

Lou.  Printed on Oriental Seagull Warm Tone Paper.  From a 35mm negative shot in a Contax RTS 3 camera with an 85mm Zeiss Planar lens.  

Back in the hallowed days of yore we needed to share the images we made with our friends, clients and collaborators.  But we did not have a thing called the "internet" that was useful in any way to artists of the time because simply loading a scanned image (if we'd had scanners that could do great file from negatives.....) would have taken forever because we used a process called, "dial up."  A one meg file might take hours and hours to upload.  And where would we have uploaded it too?  There was no Flickr or Shutterfly or Piccasa.  Nothing.  

Put it on our website?  Pre-1996 very few of us actually had websites.  Very few.  

No, we shared in a quaint and inefficient way back then.  We made paper prints.  

Here was the process:  We'd photograph our model or subject in the studio and when we finished and had exchanged pleasantries and promised each other that we'd do this again "real soon" we parted company and I would get down to the other 95% of the work.  First I'd go into the darkroom (we called it that because it really was dark.  It had to be dark for the processes to work) and I would carefully open a canister of film  and even more carefully wind it on a metal reel.  If you didn't do it just right the film would stick together in the developer and become ruined.  I'd do this with four rolls of film at a time.  Once the film was on the reels I'd stick it into a metal developer tank and make sure the light tight lid was firmly on top.

I'd mix developer and water and then, with a baggie of ice cubes or a baggies of microwaved rocks I'd raise of lower the temperature of the solution to 68 degrees (f), figure out the time needed for development in the style I wanted and then pour the solution into the tank.  Suppose my process called for eight minutes.  I had to pay attention the whole eight minutes because the tank would need to be agitated every 30 seconds. (If you were using a highly dilute solution of Rodinal for better edge effects you might only agitate every minute but your developing times would be longer).  

As soon as the timer hit the right time I'd open a little cap on the top of the lid, quickly pour out the developer solution and replace it with a solution of glacial acetic acid and water.  This was called stop bath and would stop the developer activity.  A thirty second time period, with constant agitation was usually just right.  Then I would dump that solution and replace it with a fixer solution, which also required manual agitation.  Joy of joys.  Once the film was fixed I would open the tank and rinse out the fixer with fresh water.  Then the film would go into a series of wash steps intermixed with a dunk into a fixer neutralizing solution.  Once washed (an hour?) the film would be dipped into a dilute solution of a Kodak product called, Photo Flo, which helped the film dry without water spots.  The wet film would be carefully squeegied between my fingers and placed to dry overnight in a dust free cabinet.  The film would just hang there like bats...

If I shot more than four rolls I would need to repeat the whole process until all the film was developed.  

In the morning I'd carefully take down the dry film, cut it into strips of five negatives each and put it into archival pages.  We did this both for storage and because it was a great was to hold the film in place for making contact sheets.  I won't bored you with the construction of contact sheets but it was just like printmaking and it gave me a thumbnail of each image on the roll.  Very helpful for editing.

Once I'd selected an image I would put the negative in the enlarger.  But I need to step back and say that each film format used a different negative carrier that would hold the film flat and in place in the enlarger.  It was the fashion (for about 50 years) to cut out the negative carrier so you could see the edges of the film.  This was to ensure that the negative carrier didn't encroach into the "live" film area so you could print all the detail on the negative.  It was also an artistic affectation which was, when used, meant to show that you had not cropped any part of the negative in your print making.  Attesting to the fact that you had "seen" the final image at the time of capture.

The carriers generally did not come filed out and this meant that each practitioner would sit around in the evening after buying his new enlarger or just a new negative carrier and file out the sides.  Too much and the negative waffled in the gate.  Not enough and the carrier covered a small portion of the frame.

So the line you see around the image of Lou is raw light shining through the clear edge of the film negative.

To print you needed three basic chemical solutions.  Developer, stop bath and fixer.  You also needed a print washer.  Especially in the days before RC coated papers which required shorter wash times.  I won't bore you with the techniques for getting exactly the exposure you wanted or the manual and largely unrepeatable process of burning and dodging but it was a skill acquired by hard experience and there was never an "undo" command.

All the actual work was done under red lights that limited your ability to see the actual tones you were producing on the paper.  You were, for some intents, flying blind.  After developing (with agitation) and stop bathing (with agitation) and fixing (with agitation) you would then wash the print very, very thoroughly.  Think hours.  And I won't go into selenium toning because the pleasures and pains of the process are still vivid to me in an uncomfortable way....

Once you made your double weight, fiber paper prints and they turned out alright (ask me about "dry down") you would need to dry them face down, on clean screens, overnight and then, if you wanted them to live life flat you might also need to smash them between pieces of smooth art board in a hot dry mount press.

Now you were ready to show off your work.  Well, not quite.  No matter how much you tried to eliminate dust it found its way to the negative and became little white spots on my prints.  Just like dust on your camera sensors now.  With "modern" technology we can just clone those nasty little suckers but, back then, we had to do yet another time consuming process.  One that, if you haven't done your own darkroom work you won't even believe.....

We took little bottles of dyes and tiny thin brushes and actually "spotted" our prints.  It was painstaking and took remarkable patience and hand skills.  And since every paper emulsion had a different color tone or color cast, and since the spot toner had to match the emulsion color, you had to become an expert at mixing colors for the papers you'd use.  Think months of practice and hours per print for perfection (rarely fully achieved).

Now you could put them in a box, use a land line telephone to call a friend and meet for coffee so you could show them your prints.  And given how difficult the whole process is we were very careful to keep our coffee cups far way from the box of prints.  We might even wash our hands before sifting through the two dimensional treasures.  And when our friend, client or collaborator had finished looking at the prints we'd carefully put them back into the box where they would wait for the next showing.

That's the reason I scanned and put the results of an actual print on the top of this post.  I thought it would make a nice decoration for the short process history lesson.

As you can see photography was a very intensive process for the people who wanted total control.  Certainly I could have taken my film to a commercial lab but what most people didn't know was that black and white development was/is a very sensitive process and different times, different developers and even different agitation methods produced remarkably different negatives that looked and printed differently.  We didn't do our own stuff because we wanted to, we did it because we felt we HAD to.

I know, I know you spent a whole weekend calibrating your new monitor and making profiles for your printer.  Now you're a craftsman.  Well, maybe so but the next time you hear a photographer talk about how frustrating it is to have learned so many techniques and skills only to find them out of fashion in the current milieu you will understand how arduous the processes once were.

And if a photographer from the 1930's read this he'd laugh and call me a "wuss" for not mixing my own chemicals from scratch or having to depend on super fast, ISO 100 films.  And he, in turn, would be called a "dandy" by practitioners from the 1890's for not handcoating his own glass plates.... and so on.

The real bottom line is that the only important thing is the vision....and yet, the process, to a large degree, determines the vision of each generation and that's what we are constantly building on.

Digital has done much to make photography accessible to an enormously great percentage of the population who, in earlier times, would not have been able to afford either the time or the materials needed to undertake imaging as a hobby.  That they can do so now at the touch of a button is a two edged sword.  Efforts are always more focused the more skin you have in the game.

Anyway, that's how it was and is still done in the traditional film space.  Just thought the younger photographers might find it interesting.  The hardest part was and is finding the right models and figuring out what it is you want to say.