It’s always exciting to get back into the darkroom, especially when returning from a trip with a few rolls of freshly exposed film. My recent acquisition of an automatic 35mm film camera has really freed me from fussing about focus or exposure while doing documentary work. Everything flows faster now, and I can afford to pay attention to what’s happening around me than what I have in my hands.
Once the negatives are developed and dried, standard routine is to cut the strips down and scan them for reference. I usually give it a day or two before deciding on which negatives to print. For the keretapi series I’ve decided to stick to 8″ x 10″, a comfortable size which is small enough to hold and large enough to appreciate the elements in each photograph. Any smaller and the interplay between the subjects captured would have been lost.
The top two photos compares a small segment of the image as seen on the computer screen and the print. This is not a scientific comparison of resolution or tone between a digital and analog image, but an ‘eyeball’ reference of the many steps in a hybrid workflow. I am not so much interested in the sharpness of the negative/print but rather the aesthetic qualities of differing mediums and how the image creator responds to it in making creative decisions about the work.
The 35mm negatives were scanned as TIFF files, allowing for extensive adjustments with minimal artefacts. In the comparison above, we can see how the dynamic range in a direct enlargement is much more limited compared to what’s available in a scan. With the digital file, I was able to pull the highlights in the sky down, and balance the composition with details of the foliage in the bottom half with just a few clicks.
The key thing to remember here is that the working print is still at a very early stage of the entire process towards creating a well balanced and toned print. Now that we know what the negative is capable of producing, we can carefully plan the steps forward.
When I made this shot, the intention was to capture the mysterious peak of the mountain (Gunung Stong) as it popped in and out of the landscape as seen from the shuttle train. Just as I framed the mountain in the half-second that it appeared between the trees, the position of the bird added that little punch that completed the composition perfectly. The detail in the foliage was the least of my concern, especially when shooting from a moving train.
While the details were captured on the negative, and is present in the scan, I thought about how it wasn’t necessary at all to include it within the elements that made up this print. What is omitted from the frame is equally as important as what goes into it.
In the next working print, I would try a reduced exposure for the base print to retain the details of the foliage, then burning in the top half (sky) to pull in the highlights. Once both halves are balanced, then I would work on the details, dodged the foliage and the tall tree on the left just a little bit, enough to hint at its presence but not too much as to distract the viewer away from the mountain and the bird.
This print was made without a contrast filter, and so it would be interesting to experiment with maybe a 1/2 grade for a touch of drama. Even without, I am quite happy with the overall mood that is captured in the print.
Dust continues to be a major problem. No matter how much I clean the negatives and the carrier it sits on, tiny specks of dust somehow still manage to creep in. Ideally the darkroom should be air-conditioned room to solve two major problems with ambient conditions in the tropics: air ventilation and temperature.
While the entire process of printing is relatively easy and enjoyable, it is undoubtedly time consuming. One has to consider if the reward is commensurate with the amount of time, effort, and money that goes into producing a single satisfactory print. It is a lengthy process guided by trial and error, not unlike the production of an artwork on canvas, or an elaborate sketch on paper. To a certain extent, the same amount of effort can be argued for digital prints, but the direct connection between human and object is lost. The muscle memory and experience that is called upon to make decisions that would ultimately translate into the final work is absent. With these prints, I can happily look at everything that is both right and wrong, and confidently say, “I made this.”