We got asked to do so much more in the past. Now everyone seems to have short schedules, tiny budgets and diminished expectations of what is possible...

I shot this image back in the 1980's for a theater group. The photo shoot was not some afterthought engineered to fit into a couple of minutes after a dress rehearsal or during a rehearsal break. It was scheduled and the "look" of the shoot was well discussed before anything started. The play was set in a Texas town in the 1940s. We all decided that the look that most appealed to us as collaborative group was both a hand colored look and the look of portraits that were lit by tungsten spotlights. A look that was an amalgam of current, contrasty shadows and the kind of wonderful tonality inherent in images of the time.

We selected a film that would emulate the look of film from that time. It was called Ektapan and was ISO 100 or 125 panchromatic black and white. We carefully posed and photographed all six major actors in their costumes, paying attention to the fall of the light under hat brims and chins. Each subject lit from scratch to match the feel of their character.

Once the shoot was over I took the six rolls of 12 exposure film back to my studio. I'd shot an additional roll of film in a separate A12 Hasselblad film back; one or two frames of each person we photographed. This roll of film was my test roll. I would hand develop it in a single roll tank and evaluate it after the film dried. In this way I'd be able to see if certain frames were too thin (needed more development) or too thick (needed less development) and I could adjust. I ended up custom developing each roll to get exactly the density I thought would print best on one of the two grades of paper I had chosen for the project. The development took the better part of a day!

Once developed and dried I made contact sheets for each roll. One contact sheet for me and one for the marketing people at the theater. I didn't take chances with the people at the theater misreading the edge numbering so I wrote out the numbers with a red China marker. If we talked on the phone I wanted to make sure we were all discussing the same frame....

Once the frames were selected I went back into the dark room with two boxes of 11x14 inch black and white print paper. Not just any print paper but Kodak Ektalure G surface paper. It was the perfect choice for both a long range of tones and also a perfect surface on which to hand color. Why two boxes? One was grade two and the other grade three. The numbers related to their fixed contrasts. Two was softer, three contrastier.

I made three or four identical prints of each selected negative, selenium toned the prints for just the right look and then washed them archivally. I air dried the prints on screens, face down. The prints had to dry overnight before we could start working on them.

My next step was to carefully hand color each print with Marshall's Transparent Oil Paints. I won't bore you here with all the techniques and steps but it took about three hours per print. The extra prints were made so that I could start over on the painting if I messed up. Which I did. A lot. Figure at least 18 hours for print coloring...

Once painted the oils had to dry completely before I could spray the surface of the prints with a fixative to prevent abrasions.  After all these steps the images were delivered in a print box with neutral paper sheets in between each photograph.

The theater had to send them to a color separator to get the scans done for advertising and the programs but I also made a set of black and white prints for newspaper and magazine to use.

Once the color separators did their work each print was matted and framed and hung in the lobby of the theater for the run of the show. It added to the feel of the period piece for people to be able to see the prints in the lobby during intermissions.

Today no one seems to ask for anything harder than putting this better head of our CEO, Chipper, onto this better image of his body in Photoshop. I find it sad that the schedules dictate the creativity and that there is a self-reinforcing expectation among clients that no one is up to do something extraordinary so why even bother to ask? Is it any wonder we like to show prints from a different time?


Mike Rosiak said...


Again and again, as I read accounts of the "(g?)olden days of film," I say thank heavens for digital.

I tore my home darkroom apart about 20 years ago, sold off almost all of it. Still wish I had kept the cold light 4x5 enlarger, though. So many evenings, after (non-photo) work, I'd disappear for hours, emerging at times at 2 or 3 in the morning. Too old for that sh*t now. Still playing with film, though, but scanning it.

James Weekes said...

I am still amazed that you have to explain a process that I did thousands of times over the years. Of course, every time I yearn for those days I will read this piece and go "Thank you!".

Gato said...

I remember Ektalure and Marshall's colors. Just a few days ago I was telling an art teacher about Marshall's and how they had colors like "lip" and "flesh." Sometimes I miss those days.

And much to my surprise, you can still buy Marshall's. Wonder if they would work with any current inkjet paper or ink. I'm pretty sure there is a set somewhere in the back room. I'll have to dig.

Anonymous said...

The only thing I miss from film days is having a set of tangible silver gelatin prints of the best images.

Dave Jenkins said...

Photographing with film was more difficult, but, for me at least, much more satisfying. But to get to the heart of the matter --

Many years ago, I read about a discussion between Bob Schwalberg, long-time technical editor of "Popular Photography," and, if memory serves, Ernst Haas. Schwalberg was rhapsodizing about the latest developments in camera technology, when Haas shut him up with "Ach, Schwapselberg! Have you never noticed that cameras keep getting better but the pictures don't get any better?"

amolitor said...

That's interesting,

I was just reading some remarks from a fashion guy from the Old Days and he was a bit cranky about how MUCH is being demanded these days.

In his day, in his world, printing and retouching were done by experts in this fields whereas now it's assumed that the shooter can do a good enough job of retouching (and there is no printing until it hits the final medium) and furthermore will do it for no extra money.

The only constant is change!

Mike Tesh said...

I think that is true of a lot of things. Just look at old churches compared to new ones. We've sort of simplified a lot of things in modern society. Either because our process has gotten more efficient or because we don't care to spend as much time. They money and expectation isn't there for it. But what you definiely see is a certain degree of craftsmanship that is missing. Craftsmanship that only comes with spending more time on something. Things that most people would pass by and never see, like intricate wood carvings or stone work in old buildings everywhere. Sometimes hidden in corners or high up on the ceilings where most people would never go to. I think the same is true for photography to some degree. Today it's more about the facade, the illusion that something more is there. In the old days it was more about something actually being there because it required the time to put it there.

Anonymous said...

I like using different processes for different work, but then this is a hobby for me and not the day job.

For the day job we've tripled the work we do in the same time (the tools have not increased at the same rate), and while it's exhausting I wouldn't go back.

Anyway, kirk, out of interest, do you ever pitch more ambitious projects along these lines? Maybe no-one asks for it because no one offers?


Edward Richards said...

I published my first book in 1983. While this was long past the days of lead type, doing photographic type and layouts was expensive, as were corrections. The publisher spent money to have a real line editor go through the book and a real layout expert to lay out the book. 20 years later, with type basically free output from Pagemaker, editing and layout had turned into an low skilled worker pouring the document into Pagemaker, running the spell and grammar checkers - really a bad idea on technical writing - and it was a book. Friends from publishing opined that the publishers were accustomed to editing costs as a subset of typesetting costs, so as typesetting went down in cost, they though editing should as well.

I suspect the same has happened with photography. In the days when the output is going on a WWW site or advertising materials laid out in 20 minutes by an intern and printed on demand, people expect the whole process to scale in the same way.

Bill Bresler said...

Sigh. You're spot-on. Standards and expectations are so 20th century.
Did Ektapan come in 120 rolls? I remember 70mm and sheet.
When I was a kid the portrait studio I worked for after school shot passports on 5x7 Ektapan with a big old wooden studio camera with a split 5x7 back. We took 2 shots on 1 sheet.