Takeaways from the “Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect” Show at the Brandywine River Museum

Well after several months of procrastination I finally drove the hour and ten minute drive to Chadds Ford to see the what has been called a “once in a lifetime” exhibit containing many of Andrew Wyeth’s finest works, marking the 100th anniversary of his birth. Well perhaps, with the exception of his most famous piece, “Christina’s World”. Apparently the Museum of Modern Art in New York wouldn’t let it out of their sight. Oh well … But you know what? It was one of the greatest exhibits of art I have ever seen!

Alas, for you East Coasters it is now gone. But it will be showing at the Seattle Art Museum in October. So if you are remotely nearby or need an excuse to visit that part of the country, here it is!

I am no expert on painting and drawing, but I continue to visit important exhibits whenever I can and you should too. Why? Because you can learn an awful lot about light, composition and subject matter that can be applied to making better photographs. And this show didn’t disappoint!

Clearly, Wyeth could do it all. He used watercolors and egg tempura, a mixture of dry pigments, eggs and distilled water to create portraits, nudes, landscapes, farm scenes, intimate aspects of architecture and interiors, realism and even fantasy and studies containing psychological twists. His intense and profound work was drawn from the landscape and people nearby the homes where he lived in Pennsylvania and Maine.

The colors were muted yet to me very natural. The light was right and the composition always compelling. He made everyday subjects and activity incredibly interesting and compelling.

The whole thing made me think of what Edward Weston said, … “Composition is the strongest way of seeing”.

As a nice little benny, the museum happened to be located next to the beautiful Brandywine River, so when I was done with the show I took a little stroll along the toe path and made a few interesting photographs along the way.

I left invigorated and with a renewed desire to see more clearly and explore more deeply the surroundings, objects, people and everyday activity that surrounds where I live.

Using Glass Negative Carriers

Wrapping up my marathon printing session (see last week’s entry) made me think about how much I enjoy using my Devere 4×5 enlarger for a range of negative sizes. One of the key features for me is the option for using glass negative carriers.

Many years ago, like most people, I used glassless negative carriers in my enlargers, but I eventually came across a very fine book called the “Edge of Darkness” by the late Barry Thornton. One of the things he discussed was the importance of using glass negative carriers along with other measures (such as proper enlarger alignment) to ensure the sharpest image possible when printing. What’s important is that he provided sound reasoning and solid proof concerning their benefits.

Thornton asked why go to the expense of having a top-flight enlarging lens if your negative is not perfectly flat? But what about dust that lands on the glass surfaces? No big deal. What little dust happens to be on the glass is easily dusted off. The real dust attractor according to Thornton was the film itself, and he was right!

Once I read about this I immediately tracked down a special Devere “master” glassless carrier holder that would accept two pieces of glass. Then I purchased anti-newton ring glass to use for the top piece and several clear pieces of glass for the bottom. On each one I taped a black paper mask with a format window cutout in the middle. So when I print 35mm I use the 35mm masked piece of glass. 6×7 has its own masked piece of glass, and so on. That’s just the way it worked out with this particular enlarger. Other enlarger’s may allow better or more elegant solutions, but I would never trade my Devere!

Once I went to glass I never looked back and I am certain I am getting the most out of my Schneider Componon HM enlarging lenses and making the sharpest prints I can.

My other enlarger is a beautiful Leitz Focomat V35 dedicated 35mm autofocus machine that I purchased after I bought the Devere. The same people that brought you Leica cameras made it. Enough said! One of its best features besides the exquisite Focotar-2 lens is that beautiful little negative carrier. It has an anti-newton ring glass top plate and a glassless bottom plate with containing the 35mm cutout.

Given a choice, I would never own an enlarger that does not provide an option for glass carriers, or that doesn’t have the ability to be retrofitted for them.

If you are currently using glassless carriers I recommend doing your own research on this subject and look into the possibility of getting glass. And if you are getting ready to take the darkroom plunge and are considering purchasing an enlarger, then I would definitely get one that can use glass.

Happy printing!

Mini Review: Arista EDU Ultra Glossy FB VC Paper (aka Fomabrom Variant III) – Part 2

As a rule I don’t enjoy doing marathon-printing sessions, but I have a show coming up during February and was just was asked if I wanted to do one nearby in Philadelphia … in two weeks. I was going to handle the February printing, mounting and matting requirements in an orderly and leisurely fashion, but that wasn’t possible for the Philly opportunity. So I needed to get moving, and fast!

I had tried some more of the Fomabrom Variant III but didn’t have enough to be on the safe side. I decided to order 200 sheets of rebadged Arista EDU Ultra and give it another chance. As you may recall I loved the paper, but one serious problem … the emulsion occasionally peeled off the edges of the paper while in the developer (see Part 1)!!! Going back to the Fomabrom paper, I noticed this happened a few times too. Trouble is I really liked both papers very much, including how they looked when selenium toned.   In the worst case I could go back to the Fomabrom.

So how did it go? No problem through the initial development, stop, fix, rinse, first wash and dry cycle, although several prints exhibited scratches on the print surface. My normal procedure is to stop at this point, then when I have a enough prints to tone I do a water pre-soak, then fix again with pure hypo, selenium tone, hypo clear and do a final wash prior to drying. However, just when I thought it was safe, the icky molting of emulsion re-emerged on the edges of several prints during the hypo and selenium toning steps. Yuck! I always make 4 prints of a particular image to sell and to have just in case there’s a disaster of some kind. And sure enough one print was ruined as the pealing went into the image itself.

Conclusion: I don’t know if the peeling is due in part or exacerbated by having several prints in solution that require constant shuffling. I’m not really sure that should matter. For me to do one print at a time would take forever and I shouldn’t have to do that. So I’m not sure if there are emulsion quality control issues but I want this paper to work. Maybe I will go back to Fomabrom. The problem is that it costs $27.00 more for a 100-sheet box of 8×10 and that adds up quickly. Bottom line: I think it’s critical to be as careful as possible when handling these papers in solution. While capable of beautiful results, their emulsions are delicate!

One Day Black and White Darkroom and Fine Print Boot Camp With Michael Marks 2017 – 2018 Schedule

I am excited to offer the One Day Black and White Fine Print Boot Camp, a fun but intense day of activity designed to quickly and efficiently provide participants with the knowledge and tools necessary make great black and white prints in the darkroom. The workshop will provide a unique experience in a friendly and supportive environment for photographers of all skill levels who wish to make satisfying images using black and white film, traditionally printed on silver gelatin paper to the highest archival standards. The workshop will benefit beginners, as well as advanced students looking for a refresher or new approaches to improve existing skills.

I know that there is a lot of mystery and disinformation about traditional darkroom processes, equipment requirements and the difficulty of producing gorgeous black and white prints. The secret is that it really is not difficult at all and equipment requirements are not onerous.

We will kick off with a constructive evaluation of participants’ prints, participant description of original concept, objective, approach taken, equipment, materials and methods used, and finally printing methodology and procedures employed, along with participant discussion concerning alternative approaches or possible changes in emphasis that could be considered.

This will be followed by a tour of my Workroom and Darkroom, along with an in-depth discussion of equipment, materials, chemistry and other considerations for making Fine Prints. We will then discuss the importance of proper negative storage and making of proof sheets.

Next, I will demonstrate how to easily create handcrafted black and white prints with a minimum of difficulty — and no mystery. We will start by looking at proof sheets. Then we will select one of my negatives to print, determine proper printing exposure time for high values and paper contrast for low values. We will establish and follow repeatable steps to arrive at the final “fine print” as quickly and easily as possible, including application of burning and dodging procedures and use of selenium toner for subtle tonal shift and archival permanence in the final product. Workshop participants will work with the same negative I used to obtain the same results. Finally, I will also demonstrate how to spot, mount and mat the finished print, as well as discuss other considerations including overmatting and framing.

The result is that participants will be able to leave with the knowledge and confidence necessary to be able to print and display meaningful personal images back at home.

Attendees can bring up to three prints for instructor review. Be prepared to learn a lot and have fun!

Workshop Dates:

November 4, 2017 (8:30am – 5pm)

December 9, 2017 (8:30am – 5pm)

February 10, 2018 (8:30am – 5pm)

April 14, 2018 (8:30am – 5pm)

June 9, 2018 (8:30am – 5pm)

August 11, 2018 (8:30am – 5pm)

October 6, 2018 (8:30am – 5pm)

December 1, 2018 (8:30am – 5pm) 

Workshop Fee: $250  

Personal One Day Workshops are also available for $350 (for one person)

The deposit for each workshop is $100. Final payment is requested 3 weeks prior to the start of the workshop. The deposit is non-refundable. If a workshop is cancelled for any reason, your deposit will be returned in full.

Please contact me by email or phone to reserve a spot or discuss these workshops.

info@michaelmarksphoto.com           (215)-348-9171

Make Photographs That Matter … To You

Do you make photographs that matter to you or do you just take pictures?

I really think you’re missing the boat when you are out and about, just snapping away willy-nilly, as often happens when using digital cameras … or you feel you must take that shot because you just have to come back with something.

Now I seem to be making less photographs and I probably print less than most. Not because I have lost interest. If anything, I think I have more interest than I have ever had before. I think what has changed over time is that I only want to make photographs that I feel a real connection with, be it a single picture or one that is part of a larger project. In other words, I want to make photographs that matter to me. Which means I really don’t care if they matter to anyone else, although if they are liked by others that’s fine. Affirmation is not the driver. What is important is that they matter to me. If not, what’s the point?

When you make photographs that matter to you I think they are more personal and therefore more powerful. After all if there’s a real connection between the photographer and the subject matter doesn’t that translate into stronger images, or at a minimum images that are truly more meaningful to the photographer? I am certain the answer is yes … more strong images and/or more personally meaningful images. The result … more keepers. And with that all sorts of good things happen, from making better photographs more often to making photographs that have a real positive and meaningful impact on your life … often in non-photographic ways!

The picture of my Aunt Anna means a lot to me. Growing up, I didn’t live near her or my grandparents in Watertown, NY, but I had many fond memories of my visits to her old home that she and her eight brothers and sisters (including my dad) grew up in. It always felt the same, with time seeming to stand still. Same house that needed to be painted, same furniture, same pictures on the wall, same knickknacks on the furniture, same snoring at night, same kitchen and the same pancakes that were clearly the best ever! There was one thing for which time just wouldn’t sit still, and that was all of us. I had a young family and much to look forward to, but my aunt’s best days were in her rear view mirror.

That summer I brought my family to visit her and my two other aunt’s still living in Watertown. I asked her to sit in her kitchen next her wonderful old stove that yielded all those great pancakes over the years. It’s one of my favorite photographs and one of those that mean the most to me. I also think it is one of my better photographs.

I never saw Aunt Anna again. She passed away not too long after our visit, but I have a beautiful photograph to remember that last fine day we spent together, and the other little things that really matter in life.

Be rewarded … make photographs that matter to you.

Should You Only Look at Beautifully Printed Books?

A couple of weeks ago I visited the Doylestown Public Library. Whenever I’m there I take a look at the photography section to see if there is anything I should borrow. This time I found books by Paula Chamlee, Manuel Álvarez Bravo and Bill Brandt. Well, I finally got around to sitting down and looking at them the other day and the experience made me think about something beyond the actual merits of the photographs themselves. I wondered if low reproduction quality prevents people from enjoying great work and learning from it.

Most monographs produced in the last twenty or thirty years are very high quality, from the resolution and tonality of the images, to the paper used to in making the books. In fact some are so beautiful that it is easy to get drawn in more by the technical quality then the aesthetic quality of the images themselves. I think this particularly true in the case of black and white photography. It is a phenomenon similar to listening to well-produced vinyl records on a high quality stereo system. Sometimes it’s easy to skip wonderful music and great performances if they aren’t of audiophile quality. What a shame!

Back to these great books. All three are wonderful, containing great images by formidable photographers. One book is printed beautifully, the other two are not in the same league. Paula Chamlee is an 8×10 photographer who only makes contact prints. Her work is exquisite and reproduced in the finest quality. The reproduction quality of the Brandt book was OK and the Álvarez Bravo a little bit better. Many of the Brandt images were further handicapped because they were printed in high contrast, so combined with average reproduction … well you get the picture (no pun intended!).

To me the collection of images contained in the rather large Brandt book are the most powerful, but like a great Beethoven performance pressed on budget vinyl that you start listening to, only to lift off the needle and put on something else, it may be easy to casually flip through these pages quickly and decide you’ve had enough. In both cases you are missing out on being exposed (again, no pun … I can’t help myself!) to masterpieces.

Please do not make this terrible and shortsighted mistake. There are many wonderful photographic monographs by the great masters readily available at your library, used bookstore or online. Don’t be dissuaded by worn covers or lower production values. To do so would handicap your efforts to become a better photographer. In short, don’t overlook these gems. And when you find them take the time to study the wonderful and powerful images they contain. You won’t be sorry!

August Photo Chat Get-Together

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, August 27th, 10:00-11:30am at the Zen Den coffee shop, located on ‪20 Donaldson Street, 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!

The Zone VI Compensating Development Timer and Why It Is The Most Brilliant Darkroom Tool Ever Created

The standard temperature for most film and paper developers is 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Of course you can use slightly higher or lower temperatures and adjust development time accordingly. However, it is often difficult to control developer temperature, if only because of the time of year you happen to be in your darkroom!

I know a lot of people don’t think this is a very big deal, but I do. I want the mechanical processes I do in the darkroom to be consistent and fully repeatable and not something I have to think much about. Why create variables to worry about when you don’t have to? Trust me, repeatability and consistency is what really we want for non-creative darkroom tasks!

So let’s say you’re developing duplicate of the print you made last fall using your standard development time of 2 minutes. It’s summertime and the outside temperature is in the upper Eighties. The temperature in your darkroom is around 73 degrees and you can’t get the temperature of the water used to dilute your developer stock solution much below that (Note: Maybe some of you are lucky to have your darkroom located on a main floor of your house, but most people I know have them in their basement, or even attic, where temperatures are not well controlled). Ok, you can adjust your time for the new developer temperature or you can throw some ice cubes in the water used to mix the solution. No problem … right? Well, maybe not, because putting your hands in the tray to agitate your print(s) causes the temperature to rise. Furthermore, your developer temperature will start to climb based on the room temperature.

Now it’s winter and the outside temperature is 28 degrees. The temperature in your darkroom is in the low Sixties at best. No problem getting the water to 68 degrees, but soon the temperature of your solution is going to start to drop even with the heat coming from you hands. I have measured temperatures of my print developer as low as the Fifties!

If you kept a print recipe and followed it (something to be discussed another time), it’s no wonder that the original print you made in the fall looks different … and better … then the ones made in the summer or winter if produced under the conditions described above. Why? Because you have no clue what your temperature really is at different times during your standard 2 minutes of development.   No problem, you say … just go ahead and do a new test strip whenever you make a print. Well, go ahead and knock yourself out. Or maybe you never make another print of something you have done previously. I guess I don’t know how to respond to that one.

Wouldn’t it be much nicer if the print you made in the summer or winter looked exactly like the one you originally made in the fall? Ah … yes!

OK, now let’s talk about film. Same deal as developing your prints. Whether you are developing sheet film in trays or roll film in tanks with manual agitation, or even when using Jobo processors with temperature control units, it can be difficult to establish and maintain temperature control.

What to do? For over 30 years I have used the Zone VI Compensating Development Timer and in my humble opinion it is the most brilliant darkroom tool ever created! Why? Simple … it’s digital timer with a sensor attachment that is placed in your print (or sheet film) developer tray, or in a water bath of the same temperature as the developer in your film development tank. The sensor continuously transmits the “real” temperature of the liquid to the timer, which continuously compensates each second of counted time. The timer also has a foot switch that makes life even easier. So let’s say your standard development time for prints is 2 minutes at 68 degrees, and for film it’s 5.5 minutes. First you select the “Paper” setting on the front of the timer (there are two other settings for “Film” and “Real Time”). Now you place your sheet of paper in the developer tray and step on the foot switch to start the timer. But the “real” developer temperature is only 63 degrees … not 68. Guess what happens! The duration of time for each second counted off (both visually and audibly) actually becomes longer to compensate for the colder solution!!! If the developer happens to be 78 degrees, the duration of time for each second counted off is shorter than normal.

The digital readout on the timer shows 2 minutes of compensated time regardless of how much actual time has elapsed. It could be 1 minute and 55 seconds, or 2 minutes and 10 seconds depending on the temperature of the solution. IT DOESN’T MATTER! I smugly remove the print when the timer says 2 minutes of temperature compensated time has elapsed. Simply brilliant!!!

Unfortunately these wonderful devices are no longer manufactured. However, they are available occasionally on eBay, but can be somewhat expensive. I recently saw one for a good price and purchased it as a backup just in case mine were to die someday. Honestly, I could not live without one of these marvelous devices.   So what if you can’t find one on eBay, APUG or Craigslist? No worries apparently. A software-based solution that comes with a temperature probe is available. It is called CompnTemp and sells for $85. I cannot vouch for the product but it appears to be highly regarded. Finally, RH Designs manufactures a compensating timer called the Process Master II that sells for 219 British pounds. Based on the manufacturer’s description it appears to accomplish what the Zone VI timer does with more programmable features.

I can only speak for the Zone VI timer, which is an utterly simple … and in my experience … bulletproof device that does what it is designed to do with perfection. You can be patient and one will turn up, or look into the other two options.

In any case, make this investment and lower your darkroom frustration level forever!!