What’s this Self Doing in My Photos?

written by: David Vestal

The excellent photographer Tio Cabron takes me to task. He is a bright lad of 70 or 80 summers—like me, not exactly a spring chicken—and he makes persuasive points. I quote from his letter: “I feel it necessary to chime in while you’re waxing philosophic on the man or the product. I don’t think they can be separated. And that’s because: You know the old saw ‘No man is an island’? Bull! Every man (and every woman for that matter) IS an island and that’s where all this curiosity and lofty analysis springs from. Nobody knows [anything] about the person Read more »

Print Size

Some Thoughts on Large Photographs
written by: David Vestal

Painters probably began it after World War II. It was tactical. If just one of your canvases filled a whole wall, and three more took up the whole gallery, no room would be left for others. I suppose the saying, “If you can’t make it good, make it big,” dates from then. Photographers took up big printing somewhat later. Most of them waited until after photography became capital-A, or salable, Art, which happened at the Witkin Gallery in New York in 1969, when a show of moderately large prints by Ansel Adams (16×20 inches? 32×40?) sold out at $150 per Read more »

The Uses of Futility

written by: David Vestal

Here I am, constantly taking new photos and printing old and new ones. I know that for lack of time, money, and energy, my printing can never catch up. And I’m not famous, although some solid people like my work. Seeing that fame-and-fortune-wise it’s all for nothing, I should be miserable, right? The dealers who sell my prints at prices I could never afford sell few enough so that my income from their sales in 2008 was less than I spent on photo supplies. Meanwhile many photographers whose work seems worthless to me, as well as a few good ones, Read more »

Numbers, F-Stops, and Good Pictures

written by: David Vestal

Before f-stops, there was a consistent set of lens aperture numbers, the Uniform System. Its lens openings were US settings. As you stopped down, each US lens opening had half the speed of the one before it. But that system left no place for openings larger than ƒ/4. The ICP Encyclopedia of Photography gives the US system’s equivalents to f-stops as follows: US 1=ƒ/4;US2=ƒ/5.6;US4=ƒ/8;US8=ƒ/11;US16=ƒ/16; US 32 = ƒ/22; US 64 = ƒ/45(?); US 128 = ƒ/90(?); US 256 = ƒ/90(?!); US 512 = ƒ/128(?). Something fishy there. The encyclopedia is wrong. Those are typos and/or errors of calculation. It skips ƒ/32 and Read more »

The Shock of the Old

Some prints are old; some prints are good— they’re not always the same print
written by: David Vestal

“The shock of the new” is a popular cliché, but not too much of what is publicized as new and shocking lives up to its hype. I’m reminded of a night in the early 1950s when Dorothea Lange, on a visit to New York, came to Sid Grossman’s class. I was one of the students. We were awed by her presence, but she showed no interest in us. She had also visited Alexey Brodovitch’s more famous class, attended largely by leading fashion photographers, and here’s what she said about them: “They talk a lot about shock and impact, but their Read more »

Two-Filter Printing on Variable-Contrast Papers

written by: David Vestal

In the January/February 2009 issue of PHOTO Techniques, Dick Dickerson and Silvia Zawadzky correctly said and showed that printing with two contrast filters— a low-contrast one such as Ilford’s #00 and a high-contrast one such as Ilford’s #5—will not give us “richer” black-and-white prints than printing with any one of the contrast f ilters provided by Ilford, Kodak, and other manufacturers, or with no filter. They then concluded, not altogether correctly, that split-filter printing “does not afford access to a print appearance (contrast, curve shape) unattainable with single filters; it just takes longer to get there.” Intermediate grades In saying this, Read more »

When In Doubt

written by: David Vestal

After 60 years of photographing, one of the few things I’m sure of is that I don’t know how to make a photograph good. I have a fair chance of doing that whenever I photograph something I’d want to show you—something that gets my attention and pleases or stimulates me visually. I make black-and-white still photographs, so that sound, smell, hot, cold, and color don’t register in them. I enjoy the whole sensory experience, but everything that works in my pictures has to do it visually in motionless black, gray, and white tones. Paths of motion are recorded, but their Read more »

Don’t Delete

Images, Old and New, Are Pay Dirt
written by: David Vestal

A recent task was to tell the gallery that represents me in New York City just how many prints I have on hand of each of more than 100 photos. They have one to three prints of each one. I found no prints at all of several. That was the easy part. Of the rest, I found from one to several prints of each. Finding them required (1) a long-overdue filing frenzy, looking through many prints and putting each one in its place among my boxes, and (2) going through the boxes to find all the prints I have of the photos Read more »


Vintage JPEG on the Fly

written by: David Vestal

“I photograph on unplanned impulse when I’m moved by what I see. It’s not predictable. For me, acceptable imperfection is the price of spontaneity, and that’s often a good bargain.” On Systems In both traditional chemical and digital photography there are systems for photographing things that hold still while the photographer calculates. These include the Ansel Adams-Fred Archer zone system of pre-planned film exposure and development and a newer digital method that combines separate exposures for the subject’s light, midtone and dark areas to get optimum print tones and colors over the whole exposure range. The results can be quite Read more »


Ilford MG Art 300 Paper

written by: David Vestal

I must start with results or it will take too long to get there, as it did in my darkroom. Here’s most of what I’ve learned about Ilford/Harman’s new Multigrade Art 300 black and white paper. It is a whole new kind of printing paper, technically inbetween conventional fiber-base and RC papers. It comes up quickly in the developer and the prints wash more quickly than what Ilford now calls “baryta FB,” but not so quickly as RC papers. Conventional FB processing, although with luck it works, is no way to handle this paper. I had to learn an approach Read more »