It feels like time to resurrect another post from the old blogspot archives. This one, from January 2014 is about when I first began to see the potential for every negative and the seemingly endless possibilities of interpretation in the darkroom.
Have you ever had a moment of pure coincidence, where you were in the right place at the right time for something great to happen? I had one a few months ago – it was early May and Jess and I were out celebrating our 2nd wedding anniversary (how time has flown). We had had an expensive month what with moving house and Jess changing jobs so we didn’t really want to go away for a break. We decided to just have some nice time off to relax and enjoy each others company.
We had a few outings, one of which included a shopping trip to Manchester. Even though i’m a manly man with a manly mans beard, I do enjoy a shopping trip. And when you get to spend it with your beloved even better (see how I am laying on the affection – although soppy this will earn me bonus darkroom time at a later date). We wandered round for hours, pottering around the usual shops, enjoying our time together. When you live in Preston, Manchester is like shopping heaven – which brings me to the focal point of this tale. Manchester houses the closest analogue camera/darkroom store to where I live, namely the Real Camera Co. Whenever I am in the area I make a point to pop in, even if I don’t need anything. The chance for me to go into such a store is such a rarity that to pass it up seems foolish. No amount of googling or apugging can ever make up for seeing cameras in the flesh. Hasselbalds, Mamiyas, Bronicas, leicas, Graflexes etc are all lined up ready to be drooled over.
They also have a nice little book section to peruse through. I decided to have a pick through as darkroom books are always a treat to have and you never know, there may be a few hidden gems. Eventually I stumbled upon a book called Creative Elements by Eddie Ephraums. I wasn’t familiar with his work but I bought the book anyway as it was only a couple of pounds and it seemed interesting. Only when I got home and started reading did I realise the magnificence of what I held in my hands! If you are unfamiliar with this book I recommend you go onto amazon immediately and fork out the paltry sum of £2.04 so that you too can own it. Unlike other darkroom books Ephraums takes a number of his own images and talks you through what he did from setting up the camera, developing the film and creating the final print. He includes his dodging and burning charts, and most importantly he reveals his mistakes throughout the process. The best part of this book, however, lies in what Eddie shows us can be done with a "mediocre" negative. Almost every developed film has at least one frame (be it landscape, portrait or whatever) that is dull, flat and lifeless. Whilst we usually pass these by in favour of “superior” negatives, Ephraums shows us that these frames should not be so forgotten.
Take, for example, the following three frames (sorry about the quality, they are just mobile phone pictures taken straight from the book):
If I had these shots on a negative, i'd probably play around with them for a while but then end up moving on to something else. Now look at what Ephraums did with these shots (again, sorry about the quality):
A complete transformation! By effective use of dodging & burning, creative choice of paper grade and use of toning & bleaching, Ephraums is able to completely change the look and feel of the image which is something I hadn't really come across before. Naturally I had read and seen may examples of dodging and burning etc at work, but I had never considered how they could be used soextensively in completely changing an image. Which I guess is where art and expression come into photography.
This revelation led me to look back over my old negatives. Unfortunately the reason most frames on my old negatives didn't get printed was because of scratches, fingerprints and blemishes on the emulsion. However, I remembered the roll of film I had recently shot on a day out with a friend. We had gone up to Ribblehead so that I could take some photos and he could paint the majestic viaduct. The weather was grey and overcast with sunny spells so I didn't hold out much hope for getting any great photos. But still, it was nice to be out for a day with a close friend. We took an appropriately oversized picnic, set up our chairs and took in the beautiful scenery. The moors of the Forest of Bowland and Yorkshire, although quite bleak, are beautiful places which are often overlooked by many in favour of the Lake District. Unfortunately the viaduct was very popular with walkers that day so I couldn't get a clear shot. Also some moron thought it was fine to drive his van down the footpath and park right in front of the viaduct, thus saving himself 5 minutes of walking time. I didn't really visualise having a bright white van in the foreground of my final print! On another note, why oh why do people use trekking poles when walking along the flattest and widest footpaths in the world? The only time you need to use trekking poles are if your walking up a mountain. And I mean a mountain, not some little hump in the Lake District!
Anyway, I decided to leave Daniel painting and go for an explore of the local area. I found a few small caverns and limestone pavements, but nothing that I fancied shooting. I looked to the horizon and saw a distant hill, small and long, with fields in the foreground and some nice clouds in the sky above it. I thought "what the heck", setup my tripod, composed and exposed. I only shot two frames that day which felt wrong, but at least I had a good time doing it. Fast-forward a week or so and my film is developed and dry (I used up the rest of the roll a few days later on a day out with Jess). By the way I promise I don't just go out all the time - I do some work too! Anyway, the film was dry and I did a quick contact sheet. A few frames looked promising so I stored that information in my head for when I got a chance to print.
Jess is out at a wedding all day and it looks like she's not getting home until late. That means i've got at least 2 hours after work for some quality me time. Into the darkroom I go. I didn't really fancy doing any lith printing and I was in a landscape mood so I reached for the Ribblehead and Bowland negatives. I decided to give the hill shot a try, even though it looked a bit dull and uninteresting. Everything was a flat grey and seemed a bit "meh". I decided to have a quick thumb through Ephraums book to get some inspiration before I cracked on. A few test strips and proofs and I was in the area with my base exposure. I did a few more strips for dodging and burning and then tied it all together onto one print. A bit more work required. A little more dodge, a little more burn and then suddenly a decent-looking print started to appear. A few sheets later and I had a print I was very happy with indeed.
I decided to switch from RC to FB paper as I wanted the look FB gets with the sepia-selenium toning I had in mind. I adjusted my exposure accordingly and compensated for drydown. A few minutes later I had the print in my hand and it looked good. I ran into the kitchen and set the tap running whilst I set up my toning gear. I previsualised sepia and selenium for the final print so I laid out my trays. After the wash I slid the print into the bleach for around 8 minutes, pulling it just as the shadows were starting to lose density. I didn't want to bleach back the whole way because then the selenium would have nothing to work with. A quick rinse and then into the sepia for a few minutes. The print turned a lovely sepia tone, better on the FB paper than it would have been on RC. Once toning was complete I did another wash and then put the print in the selenium. I used a mix of 1:9 as I only wanted a slight colour shift. The shadows went a deep brown and the sepia highlights and midtones turned from a yellow to a deeper, richer brown which was exactly what I wanted. After leaving the print to dry I was left with exactly what I wanted.
Compared to the original flat print the final print is so different and i'm really happy with it. So what do we learn from this long and winding tale? Never ignore a seemingly dull or uninteresting negative. With a little work and dedication you can breathe new life and energy into an image. Plus, everyone loves seeing a complicated set of dodging and burning plans written down don't they?! And it feels good to really work at a print and shape it. All that is left for me to say is "thankyou Eddie", without your book I may never have unlocked the potential of many of my negatives.