I began photographing in the mid seventies. The Monterey Peninsula has a vibrant photographic tradition (think Ansel Adams and Edward Weston), and has attracted many photographers to its stunning landscapes and shorelines. Surrounded by this kind of community, I became obsessed with photography. I spent every spare moment with my camera or locked away in the darkroom. Those first few years were amazing; each new print seemed to be getting better, and my understanding of the medium was expanding. Then one day nothing seemed to be working. I could not make a photograph that satisfied me. The harder I tried, the worse it got; I started to panic.
It’s been over 30 years since that first creative block. I’ve learned that during these lulls, if I focus my energy in other directions, such as the practical business side of photography—getting my work out there—that inspiration will eventually return. The first 15 years of my photographic career were spent photographing landscapes, still lifes, nudes and abstractions in the West Coast style of large format straight photography. In 1990 I was introduced to platinum printing, and spent the next two years obsessively producing 4 x 5 platinum prints until I hit another creative block. When I had regrouped, I came back to the camera with a new idea: it became the body of work I call Ice Forms. The work involves freezing botanicals in blocks of ice and photographing them. My inspiration for the work is simply my love for still life, plus an accumulation of visual experiences: looking through a piece of amber or watching the light streaming through my glass of iced tea.
I began mentally juggling all the variables. What size tray could my freezer accommodate? What flowers should I try first? The camera would definitely be my 4 x 5, since I envisioned the photographs as 20″ x 24″ silver gelatin prints. I wanted the printed subject matter to be larger than life and I wanted the color of the prints to be warm.
I use an 11″ x14″ stainless steel darkroom tray to make the block of ice. The botanicals are placed in the tray, covered with water and put in the freezer. Occasionally the plants will float, and in this case I place the plant in a thin layer of water, which freezes quickly. Once the ice sets, I add water to the desired level. The block of ice is usually about three inches thick. I have been asked many times if I use any special water. I don’t; it comes out of the tap. I do add a small amount of Photoflo to the water to break down the surface tension. The quality of the ice is never the same. Sometimes it freezes clear, sometimes milky. Sometimes bubbles or fractures will form. Also, there are two sides to the ice, the surface against the tray and the top surface. They are always different. All of these variations make the outcomes unpredictable.
The first flowers I photographed were tulips, purchased at a local grocery. I placed a few of the flowers in a tray of water and a day later brought them out of the freezer to photograph. I heated the bottom of the tray with hot water and the block of ice slipped right out. My first photographs were done with natural light. I put the block of ice on a windowsill, just as light from the sun was beaming in. It soon became clear that using natural light was not practical, given seasonal changes and my daily schedule. It was often impossible to be home at the opportune moment. All the lighting of the Ice Forms is now done with a Bowens 4000 strobe. The block of ice is placed on an acrylic stand with the strobe three feet behind it.
I photograph using a 4 x 5 Galvin view camera and a 150mm Sinar lens. My film of choice for almost 30 years was Kodak Ektapan, developed in D-23. Now that Ektapan is no longer available, I am using Ilford FP-4, rating it at ASA 150 and developing it in HC- 110 mixed 1:30 (from the concentrate) for 14 minutes at 70 degrees.
The 4 x 5 negative is placed in a Beseler 45 MCRX enlarger equipped with an Ilford 500H variable contrast head and 150mm EL Nikkor enlarging lens. In the early eighties I was printing on Oriental Center paper, split toning the photographs in a very strong selenium solution. This produced a print with tones that went from a reddish brown to a cool blue. As with so many silver papers, Center is no longer available. I had to find a substitute, so I chose Ilford Multigrade IV fiber base paper. To obtain a similar toning effect, I borrowed a technique from my friend Hal Gage, a fine art photographer working in Alaska.
The print is developed in Kodak Dektol developer at a dilution of 3 parts water to 1 part developer, with times ranging from 2 to 3 minutes. The print is stopped and put through two baths of plain hypo. (My fixer formula is 2000 ml of water, 200 grams of sodium thiosulfate, and 10 grams of sodium bisulfate). The prints are fixed for 5 minutes in each of the two baths. After a short rinse, the prints are put into a bath of Kodak Hypo Clear, (mixed according to the manufacturer’s specifications) and selenium. I use 60 ml of selenium to 2000 ml of clearing agent at 90 degrees, and tone the prints for 2 to 3 minutes. After a 15-minute wash, the prints are toned again to obtain their final color. According to Gage’s method, I use Kodak Polytoner, with 20 ml of toner to 1000 ml of water at room temperature. I place the print in the toner for 30 seconds and then transfer the print to a water bath. The print stays in the water, without agitation, sometimes up to 20 minutes, until the desired color is obtained. (Note: Kodak Polytoner is no longer available. You can find a substitute formula in the Darkroom Cookbook by Steve Anchell, third edition). The prints are then washed for one hour.
As I mentioned before, the final result of each image is unpredictable. I’ll be alternately delighted or disappointed by the results. One thing I’m sure of: unexpected outcomes keep me coming back! This process becomes my opportunity to create order from chaos. My newest body of work finds me careening in a totally new direction. The current work, entitled Kanchi (The Quiet Place), combines my love of free-diving with my skill at platinum printing. The images are impressionistic portrayals of the life and landscape beneath the ocean’s surface.
Product Resources: Camera: 4×5 Galvin view camera; Lens: 150mm Sinar; Lighting: Bowens 4000 strobe; Film: Ilford FP-4; Chemistry: HC-110 developer, Kodak Dektol developer; Paper: Ilford Multigrade IV.