Have you ever got up and started printing shortly after the crack of dawn and pretty much gone straight through the day until late at night? I did … once. It was a true experience and something I’m not sure I would repeat. Nothing against Michael Smith or by extension his charming wife and similarly wonderful photographer, Paula Chamlee … but it was a lot!
A number of years ago I had taken Michael and Paula’s weekend workshop in Ottsville, Pennsylvania, not far from where I now live. We hit it off and stayed in contact after I returned home. I was asking some follow-on questions and one thing led to another … Michael asked me if I would like to assist him for a weekend. The objective: to print 100 photographs of Chicago for book publication and exhibition. I obviously accepted and made plans to take him up on his offer. I’m not sure whether I would call it fun … however, it was certainly worthwhile for me to assist a master and I came away with more knowledge and insight than when I arrived!
Both Michael and Paula make contact prints from large format negatives – 8×10 and larger, using long discontinued and beautiful Kodak Azo silver chloride photographic paper. That’s it. No enlarging at all! At the time we got together they had enough stored in their freezers to probably last them until they can print no longer. They also market their own popular Lodima paper, designed after Azo. Both papers are beautiful and have a very long scale. Both Smith and Chamlee use Amidol developer with it (Lodima is Amidol spelled backwards!). In short it harkens back to simpler time and those famous images made by Edward Weston and other greats during the Forties and Fifties.
We had to work in an efficient manor and Smith was very strict about this. But efficient does not equate to sloppy, or printing without giving each print everything you had. Fact is that Smith is so good and it turns out that contact printing using these papers requires comparitively little manipulation!
I tried my hand at 8×10 for a while, but not long after my marathon experience I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t best for the way I work and landscape really wasn’t an area I was going to focus on. Nevertheless, one of my most beautiful pictures is a contact print made from an 8×10 negative shot in Vermont. I still remember the experience vividly. I was staying at a friend’s. Woke up and looked out the back window. The light was beautiful and I quickly gathered up the gear, ran outside in the snow, set up and made the photograph. And yes, printing it was pretty easy just as it was with most of Smith’s images. Interestingly, I liked the look of it best on paper designed to be use with enlargers. In this case the long discontinued but never forgotten Forte Elegance VC paper.
No, I don’t think I will ever participate a printing marathon like that again … and certainly never alone. But I came away with something very important from the experience. You can do great work in the darkroom if you have done your best to do great work in the field. That means a well-seen image that is properly exposed. Slowing down is the key, whether you are using a very large view camera like Smith does and making contact prints, or using a 35mm camera for enlargement. The contact print is certainly a jewel-like piece of art, but so too can be your enlarged photographs, even ones made with 35mm … if made with real care and appropriately sized.
It really is all about craft, and yes being as deliberate as possible in the darkroom. That means don’t waste time. Focus on the task at hand so you can get to the finish line efficiently. Do not sit. Do not listen to music. Do not take phone calls. Do work in the same manner every time you print. Write down your steps and make a print recipe. Take your time to adequately determine the proper print contrast using VC or graded paper. That is being efficient. Do not make an “educated guess” concerning which contrast to use. You may be wrong and that’s an inefficient use of time for sure.
Smith works fast, not because he is rushing to get done. He has honed his skills and applies them methodically, both in the field and in the darkroom in order to reach his goal … to create an expressive image! We can all learn from that.