Author Archives: Michael Marks

Henry Gilpin, Photographs

Henry Gilpin was a truly great photographer and human being. I had the good fortune to meet him during the mid 1980s when I took two workshops with John Sexton in Carmel, California. Afterwards, I had the further good fortune of having career responsibilities that periodically took me out to the San Francisco and Silicon Valley for the next ten years or so. Whenever I was there I always figured out a way to get down to the Monterey Peninsula to visit with John if he was around, but always with Henry and his wonderful wife Doris. He always made time to see me, often for spur of the moment flybys. I remember making several five hour round trips from San Francisco to Monterey just to get together for short visit or dinner. It was always worth the drive!

He was absolutely world class, but didn’t have a pretentious bone in his body. Probably one of the most unselfish people I’ve ever met and certainly one of the best teachers I’ve had the fortune to learn from. Henry remains far less known then he should be. Most likely because he was not a big self-promoter and probably didn’t care too much about that sort of thing. What he really cared about was making wonderful photographs and teaching others how to do the same thing. One of my most prized possessions is his stupendous Highway 1. When I was getting ready to purchase that print I asked what his favorite size for it was. 11×14 – so that’s what I bought! It hangs on a wall in my workroom, right next to the entrance to my darkroom. I spend a lot of time in both rooms so I see it often.

Another prized possession is my signed copy of an exquisite little book, Henry Gilpin, Photographs. Typical of Henry; he never told me it existed. It’s a somewhat rare book, published in 1997 by the Monterey Museum of Art to commemorate the exhibition of his work. I found out about it by accident while rummaging around the Internet … sadly, a couple of years after he passed away in 2011.

It’s a small slender book containing nineteen jewel-like black and white images inside, and a real one attached onto the cover. All of his best works, including Highway 1 and Wonder Lake, just to mention two of them. To top it off it includes an eloquently written essay by John Sexton, Henry’s one time workshop student, colleague and long-time friend. I keep it in a protective plastic bag, prized possession that it is. When I look at it I admire his work and think the many fond memories I have. I can’t say enough about this wonderful book. Suffice to say, if you appreciate beautifully seen and created black and white photographs of the land you should endeavor to find a copy. It can be found occasionally at used bookstores and on eBay. Start looking … if you find one you won’t regret the effort!!

My February 17th – March 2nd Exhibit at the Colorida Art Gallery

I am very pleased to announce that I have a one-person exhibit showing from February 17th through March 2 at the prestigious Colorida Art Gallery in Lisbon, Portugal.  A selection of ten of my favorite photographs depicting people in their everyday lives and surroundings will be exhibited.  These images mean a lot to me so I am very excited about this wonderful opportunity.  Hey, if you just happen to be Lisbon stop by for a look!

Working with the Leitz Focomat V35 Enlarger

As I have previously mentioned I own two enlargers. One is the Devere 504 4×5 that I’m convinced is built to withstand a nuclear blast effect and continue soldiering on. The other is my Leitz Focomat V35 dedicated 35mm autofocus that I purchased after I bought the Devere. I love the Devere and truth be told I do use it most of the time, even for 35mm. Part of the reason had to do with my Zone VI compensating enlarging timer I used with it that seemed to develop a phantom problem that’s now gone. So I decided to go with the V35 for some new work I just printed – and I’m happy I did!

Let me cut to the chase. It’s a wonderful tool for making beautiful images. Is it perfect? No, but few things in life are. But now that I have reacquainted myself with the pleasures of using this finely crafted instrument I don’t plan on letting it sit idle for long! Mine has the standard black and white head to use with graded paper, a VC head and color head. In a previous entry I discussed why I use a color head for greatest control with variable contrast papers so I won’t repeat that here. Take a look, as I am convinced this approach is really the way to go.

The V35 was wildly expensive when manufactured. Lore has it that it became so expensive to produce and sell that this finally caused Leica to shut down production in 1995. If you were to take one apart and look at its construction, including the autofocus assembly, then weigh the associated necessary tolerances in the enlarger as a whole and its structural rigidity, and finally consider the stupendous Focotar-2 enlarging lens that is supplied with it you would see that the V35 was made with the same dedication to precision as an M series camera.

The great news for 35mm printers is that you can snag one of these beauties for as little as a few hundred dollars if shop carefully!

Some people complain that the V35 doesn’t compare with the previous autofocus models – the Focomat 1, not to mention the more rare and very expensive Focomat 2 (for negatives up to 6×9) that is considered by many to be the holy grail of enlargers. I cannot really tell you as I haven’t tried them, or even considered them for a couple of simple reasons: I like diffusion light sources which is what the V35 is designed for, the quality of the Focotar-2 lens; the huge expense of the Focomat 2 without a diffusion lights source (3rd party products are available); and the fact that I have the Devere 504 with Schneider Apo Componon HM enlarging lenses, equipped with easy to use below the baseboard focusing controls.

Yes the V5 has a heavy-duty precision injection molded plastic outer shell that covers all the inner mechanisms and wiring. I’m sorry if that bothers some, but perhaps trying one will help to get over this non-issue. And then there are the complaints that the Focotar-2 lens is not that great. Well for those that have purchased the lens separately for use with other enlargers … guess what … they only work optimally with the V35. Then, finally is the issue of Styrofoam. Yes, Styrofoam. I’ll admit I wondered about that too but found out that from one source that the reasons for its use inside the light chamber include its high reflectivity that contributes to high light output, and its excellent thermal properties that negate heat buildup at the negative stage. Ok, that’s good enough for me and I can now sleep at night!

So here are my likes and dislikes:

Likes

  • The exquisite Focotar-2 lens. It’s a 40mm wide-angle affair designed specifically for the V35. As such, it enables you to make huge prints on the baseboard if that’s your thing. Not an interest to me, but the lens sure is a beauty and produces great results.
  • Autofocus capability. I still check with my grain magnifier occasionally but I’m not sure why. Always spot on!
  • Ease of use. It’s autofocus and compact in size. And the nicely built precision negative holder is spectacular!
  • The wonderful and easy to use negative holder that incorporates one anti-newton ring glass surface. That’s all you need because it abuts another glass surface in the above assembly for an absolutely perfectly secured flat negative.
  • The bright illumination.
  • It’s rigid and vibration free.
  • Great precision overall. It’s a Leica (sorry I couldn’t help myself!) – just incredibly well built.

Dislikes

  • In my experience the light bulbs don’t seem to last that long. Perhaps it is the brand I have been using. As I was about to begin my recent printing session I turned the enlarger on, focused and … poof … the bulb blew. No problem. I had one left. Except that when attempted to remove it from its ceramic (I think) plug-in housing I seared my finger because the housing was so hot $#%^&*! So much for a decent fingerprint … I think the one on my left index finger is permanently altered! Note: I have found a source that charges $7 per bulb so we will see how these work out.
  • No intermediate click stops between main f stops on the lens. This perhaps makes exact printing repeatability more difficult.
  • The enlarger needs to be turned on to easily see all settings, including those on the color head (and other heads) and the lens. This is an annoyance for sure, but I have a homemade handheld mini safelight thingy that enables me to see the settings in the dark.

Bottom line – the advantages of this wonderful enlarger and lens crush the nits I have. If you want a dedicated 35mm enlarger with a diffusion source that happens to be autofocus and uses one of the best enlarging lens available, this is the one to have!

Mini Review: Arista EDU Ultra Glossy FB VC Paper (aka Fomabrom Variant III) – Part 4

Let me state right up front that I love the prints I make with Arista EDU Ultra Glossy/Fomabrom Variant papers.

This is the forth and possibly last installment of a series of entries that chronicles what is turning into a love-hate relationship with these wonderful papers.

First, what I love. Printing just plain seems easier than it has ever been using other papers. Not sure why. And I love the look – neutral to slightly cool with a bright white base. Super highlights, deep blacks and fantastic shadow detail. Perhaps it also has something to do with the print developer I started using around the same time I began experimenting with these papers. That would be Photographer’s Formulary Liquidol developer. Use of the new developer began out of necessity when I finally used up the last bag of my old standby Zone VI developer. As previously mentioned Liquidol is said to be a replacement for that fine product. As the name implies it’s a liquid concentrate that mixes 1 part to 9 parts water and develops most papers in roughly 1 minute. I am now completely happy with the developer and it’s my standard. And here’s a plug – I can’t say enough about Photographer’s Formulary. They really care about analog black and white photography … and their customers! I recently received a bottle of Liquidol that had begun to leak in its shipping box. I called the company and a replacement was quickly shipped and delivered to me, no questions asked! We photographers need to support companies like Photographer’s Formulary that produce great products and stand behind them.

Ok, now what I don’t like. I have gone through several hundred sheets of these two papers. Perhaps I have just had some particularly bad luck with the batches I have received. In some cases I have had cases where the emulsion starts to peel from the edges during development. At other times this annoying problem occurs when the paper hits the selenium toner. I tend to tone only when I have a lot of prints. My procedure is to develop, stop, fix, rinse, wash, dry, then store. My next step is to gather the prints I want to tone, then do a water pre-soak, fix again with pure hypo, selenium tone, hypo clear and do a final wash prior to drying. As with my last go around I reported on earlier I experienced some serious peeling of the emulsion at the edges of the paper.

But wait, there’s more! In some cases when developing prints I have noticed what looks like small scratches in the print surface. Perhaps the emulsion is extremely delicate and easily scratched by fingernails, etc., or it comes this way from the manufacturer. I don’t know and can’t figure it out #@$$#%^!

Here’s what I do know. It’s frustrating, not to mention troublesome when you spend $100 (Arista Foma rebranded) or $128 (Fomabrom) for a one hundred-sheet box of 8×10 paper and have to deal with these problems. On the other I hand I enjoy printing with the stuff (mostly) and am captivated by the results I get. Yes I know … I probably wouldn’t have these issues with Ilford products, but what am I supposed to do? It’s like being hopelessly in love with someone who has issues. There’s no choice … you just can’t let her/him go.

Is Darkroom Photography Still Relevant?

That is the title of an article by Russell Hart, which appeared in American Photo Magazine on February 1, 2016. It’s an interesting piece about whether colleges are still maintaining traditional black and white darkrooms and teaching students how to use them, or not bothering and just focusing on digital capture and processes. The article opens by saying that “Reports of the death of analog photography have been greatly exaggerated. In the consumer world, film may have been sunk by digital technology, but wet black-and-white darkroom photography is alive and well in academia.”

I’m not so sure I would agree with his last point about the “consumer world” as it appears film has made a nice comeback recently; in many cases led by the young! On the other hand, I would agree that when it comes to commercial photography, digital absolutely reigns supreme and it is unlikely there would ever be a chance of turning that back. Blake Madden, who heads the photo program at McDowell Technical in Marion, North Carolina, supports this. “We discussed the issue at length, but given that the world of commercial photography was going almost exclusively digital, we thought it was in the best interest of our students. He points out that he has just two years to prepare his students for possible careers in photography, and that having to teach the mechanics of traditional approaches might impede that.” Not sure I would agree with that last point either.

Maxine Payne, who heads the photography department at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, “sees traditional black-and-white as the only true path in a liberal arts setting. She uses it to disabuse new students of the notion that they are already photographers.” Now that is an interesting point! She goes on to say “what that often means is that they’ve taken pictures with their phones and put them on social media, or gotten them into a high-school yearbook or art show,” she says. “Rarely have they printed those pictures on anything more than a home printer. They also have no sense of failure, because they can shoot as much as they want and just delete what they don’t like—or use an app that corrects and often changes the original image to fit preconceived notions, usually from popular culture, about what makes a good photograph.”

Craig Stevens, professor of photography at Georgia’s Savannah College of Art and Design agrees. “Digital technology is so good that it creates an automatic acceptance of the end product, as is, he explains. Using black-and-white film defies that notion. Students must consider exposure, development, and how technical choices combine with aesthetic decisions to affect the final image, he says. It forces students who have grown up in the fast-and-furious world of digital to slow down.”

Finally, Professor Payne believes that traditional methods make “students think harder about their own photography; … that the benefit of learning darkroom photography is relevant to other aspects of their academic and personal lives as well. They learn that an investment of time in anything they do yields greater understanding and appreciation, and ultimately skill.”

I agree wholeheartedly with these educators, but I feel what they are saying should not be limited to the learning experience of college students. When you take a moment to think about it, everyone is really a student. Especially when it comes to something like photography. We should always be trying to learn … what to do and what not to do and when to do it and when not to. Learning to see better and realizing what really isn’t all that interesting after all. Exposure, composition, light. I could go on.

The article points out that not all educators agree. Some feel that given today’s photographic world, it’s best that a college student’s schooling be a digital one.

I know that the hard work that comes from making film based images and then printing them in the darkroom forces me to continually think hard and endeavor to improve. What am I doing right, and of course what have I done wrong? After more that 45 years at it I still make plenty of mistakes, but I think … and hope … I learn a lot more. And that’s both exciting and rewarding!

So getting back to the original question “Is Darkroom Photography Still Relevant? Of course it is! Not only for college students … but also for any student of photographic craft … or for that matter … of life.

Get Closer For the Essence of a Photograph

I recently read an interview of the street photographer John Free (He happens to work solely with black and white film and prints his own work). In it he discusses how difficult social documentary, photojournalism and street photography are and goes on to say, “In street photography, it all must be done with one photograph and with no caption to help explain what cannot be seen. No caption and no posing, make street photography the most difficult form of photography that I have ever been involved with. My professional work in social documentary photography was very helpful in teaching myself how to get closer to the subject. Closer in many ways, not just where I stand, but how I can convey my feelings about a subject in my photograph of that subject. To bring as much life and understanding into the image, in order for the viewer to better understand the image.”

I think he has done a rather good job of capturing why it is so important and what it means to be engaged in a nearby space with your subject. Not only when making photographs of people, but also when it comes to their surroundings. This approach makes a stand-alone image better, and can do the same for a group of pictures in a documentary piece. Just look at the photographs the great Eugene Smith did for Life Magazine to see what I mean!

I like the 50mm lens best, but many use 35mm lenses in the same manner. And I’ve used 40mm lens equivalents with great results. These include the 80mm and 90mm lenses made by Mamiya and Fuji for 6×7 and 6×9 format cameras. I would estimate that 90% or more of my photographs over the years have been made with a 50mm or near 50mm lens equivalents when using formats larger than 35mm. Perhaps it is the way I see the world. I like to concentrate more closely on the subject at hand, being careful not to include what might be extraneous information. For many, the 35mm lens works best, and I also use it on occasion. It really doesn’t matter. When it comes to photographs of people, the point is to get as close to your subject as you feel comfortably doing, and in a way that doesn’t violate personal space. Then of course the key is to click the shutter at the right moment under the right circumstances!

When I am out I really don’t make a lot photographs. That’s because I try to make pictures only of what moves or entertains me in some way. And when I look at my proof sheets the choices for printing get narrowed down after careful inspection. Even after a print is made and living with it for a while I may decide it needs more work … or it may not survive at all. That’s how I do it. Finding something meaningful, getting close with an appropriate focal length lens, only making prints of real keepers, and finally making sure the final image says what I wanted to say.

Doing all of these things enables me to get “closer in many ways, not just where I stand, but how I can convey my feelings about a subject in my photograph of that subject.”

January Photo Chat Get-Together

It’s a brand New Year and hopefully a good one for everyone reading this!

Time to get together again to discuss our photographs with the ever-expanding group!

Yes, how about joining us and getting together to chat about our photographs and the stories behind them. What was your intent in making the photograph, what were you trying to say, was it a success? If you made your print, were there any particular challenges involved?

This is not a discussion focused on gear — the idea is to share insights, get constructive feedback, learn a few things, relax and make new friends!

Well, if this sounds interesting and fun, how about joining me in beautiful downtown Doylestown, PA, in the heart of scenic Bucks County, and we will get together over a cup of coffee.

Photographers of all levels are welcome.

Bring only a couple of prints to discuss. Obviously the prints should be Black and White and should be film based!

The get together will be on Sunday, January 28nd, 10:00-11:30am at the Zen Den coffee shop, located at their new address on 41 E State St, Doylestown, PA 18901.

Email or call me at 215-348-9171 if you are interested. First come first serve!

I look forward to meeting you!

Lee Friedlander, Cray at Chippewa Falls

In the late Eighties I was working in the White House and got very involved in promoting US high technology competitiveness. Of particular interest and importance was the small US supercomputing industry. Through my work I happened to meet and get to know John Rollwagen, CEO of Cray Research. During that time the Science Advisor to the President, who happened to be my boss, decided he wanted to visit Cray Research and meet Seymour Cray, it’s resident genius and pioneering founder. After some difficulty I was able to arrange the trip to the small town of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin to visit Cray’s research and manufacturing facility and get together with Seymour and John. It was a visit I will never forget, beginning with our lunch together at the Flame. I never saw or spoke to the “father of supercomputing” again but I will always cherish the memories of that great day! Tragically Seymour died in 1996 due to injuries suffered in a car crash.

Another takeaway from the trip was a copy of the book Cray at Chippewa Falls, by the great Lee Friedlander, given to me and signed with a nice inscription by John Rollwagen. I own it proudly and take it out from time to admire the photographs it contains and to remember that day so long ago.

So what about the book? Friedlander was commissioned by Cray Research to document the workings of the company for its 15th anniversary in business. To me Cray at Chippewa Falls is a wonderful example of a documentary project that includes environmental portraits of Cray workers, the town of Chippewa Falls where they worked and lived, and the surrounding countryside. The book contains almost 80 black and white photographs and is beautifully printed. They do a great job of capturing what it was like for those building the enormous and state of the art supercomputing machines 30 years ago in small town middle America.

One of the most fascinating things is the obvious dichotomy between the work “Crayons” did in their high tech day jobs and their lives outside the company in Chippewa Falls. By looking at these wonderful images you gain a strong sense of what it was like to build these great machines, that were so powerful for their time, yet today would be rivaled by something you can hold in the palm of your hand. At the same time you get a real sense of the beauty and vibrancy of small town life in America’s heartland during what now seems to be a much, much different time.

Cray at Chippewa Falls had only one printing run and is accordingly somewhat of a rare and pricy book, yet it is certainly available. I’m not sure how it compares with other Friedlander books, as it’s the only one I own. But one thing I’m sure of is that you couldn’t find a better guide for what to do if you wished to create your own documentary project on the area you live in and those that work and live there too. For this reason, for all the great images, and of course for those reasons that are personal to me, I am extremely grateful to own this wonderful book.