Creating a portrait of an actor. The time on the back end was always a bitch.

Actor, Woody Scaggs, was in my studio for a photo shoot we were doing for Zachary Scott Theater. The play was The Illusionist. We did all sorts of shots with a transluminated crystal ball and also with second actor. What I really wanted was a dramatic image of Woody so when we had the rest of the images in the bag I asked him if we could do a solo shot directly into the camera. 

The fun thing about photographing actors is that they seem to get what I want in my images. I can give them a thin story line or even a feeling and they translate it so well. This expression was exactly what I was looking for. I think we spent all of five minutes making this one and probably half of that was spent timing Polaroids. The image endures as one of my favorites.

What I love about it, in addition to Woody's great energy, is the interplay between the light and dark areas. I also consider the border treatment to be part of the overall image's design. The light side of his hair is contrasted by the black line running down the right edge of the frame while the dark shadow on the other side of Woody's face is offset by the bright background, and all of it is contain between undulating borders. The flaring borders were caused, in printing, by my use of a Pictrol mechanism just below the enlarger lens which flared the highlights into the shadows while non-linearly distorting and diffusing them.

The image above is a quick shot of the 16x20 inch work print in one of our flat files. When I got a good first print I would write useful information on the front and the back. On the back of the print are the exposure times under the enlarger, the toning, washing and other information, all in pencil.

There was always an investment in process when we worked with film and prints. I was never able to hit everything perfectly on the first print and, many times, when trying to mix vision and technical clumsiness I would print ten or fifteen 16 x 20's in an attempt to get everything on the paper just right. I thought about the discipline forced by process this morning. When I shot this image I worked carefully to get just the right expression but always mindful that we had some sort of budget to hew to, whether external or self-imposed. Once I was mostly sure that I'd hit the right mark I developed three or four tanks of fim. That took an afternoon. Then the film dried overnight. The next day I made two sets of contact sheets, 24 sheets in all. One set for me and one set for the client. I selected a final image and set up the dark room with oversized trays.

I went through the process of making test prints and then a final test at full size. We'd take that final test and put it out to dry. We needed to see how the paper image would look once it dried down. Prints always looked darker dry than they did in the fixer tray... If we needed quicker feedback we'd stick a chunks of the final test print in the microwave to dry it quickly.

Once we had the windage I'd go back and print iterations. Different burning and dodging methods. Different implementations of the Pictrol. Experiments with different paper grades and all the rest. Once a print came out and was as perfect as I could make it I could have 20 or more hours invested in that one artifact, not counting the shooting and prep time. Is it any wonder that we had a different regard for the final product? 

And, of course, if I put the ten prints I have of this negative side by side none of them are strictly identical. There were changes in the way my hands moved across the paper when burning and dodging. The chemicals drifted in temperature and potency over time. Even the selenium toner changed subtly from print to print. In fact, just about any hand made print from the film age could/should be considered a one off.

The contrast to that work was my documentation of the work this morning. I put the print on the floor, stood over it and shot it in the available light of my studio with a handheld Sony a58 camera. Once I knew I'd worked cooperatively with the camera's built in image stabilization I stopped shooting, walked over to my desk and stuck the card in the side of the computer, grabbed a frame and then spiffed it up a bit in PhotoShop. Two minutes later it was in this document, ready to anchor my thoughts and my words.

There is still a resonance from the older work that guides me today. We may have ditched the physical craft but the idea of the work still informs the way I shoot today. We're near the balance point though. The point in time when my tenure with film based systems just slightly exceeds the amount of time I've worked with digital. Close to a 50/50 split as a working professional.

Everything you've done informs this one moment. The moment right now when you make today's art. 

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  1. Is it a fair comparison? If I was shooting casually would I not just drop off the roll at Costco and pick up prints in an hour? If you were shooting digitally for a client wouldn't you be putting a lot more work into the back end of selection, processing, client approval, more processing, DVD burning and so on?


    1. Sorry Sam. That's just a silly. We would never have dropped of our work at Costco on a big project like this. In fact, I would never have let anyone else even print my black and white. Digital as time consuming? Only if you are very *slow*

  2. A future post on your 'sloppy borders' techniques please?


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