Making Pictorial Prints

Techniques popular from 1850 to 1949 provide ways to put texture and mood into your photographs

By Barclay Travis Cook Back to

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Photographers don’t have to be limited to strict recordings of what’s in front of our lens—we are entitled to use both imagination and creative strokes. The enhancement of an image can bring it to a state beyond what a camera can capture. This is the fine art of pictorial photography, where imagination and talent are coupled to produce original hands-on work. Texture-screen printing and chiaroscuro are the essence of classic pictorial photography, while Photoshop manipulation is a direct descendant of the pictorial photographic artist.

A pictorial print can be of any subject; the main thing is that the artist has worked the image: that is to say, he or she has used another medium outside the range of camera, film, and paper to enhance the work. Historically, a texture negative (Figure 1) was often combined with a standard negative to yield an image that recalled other two-dimensional art such as drawing and painting. The practice annoyed many conventional two-dimensional artists and continues to, even today, in some art communities.

In making a pictorialist print, texture and tonality are usually the two elements of the image that are first addressed after the selection of a fiber paper that serves as the base texture.

RC paper is not favored for pictorial prints because of the smooth surface. A textured paper acts as a tooth to hold the strokes of a pencil or other material used to enhance a photograph or negative. Materials used include texture screens, ink, carbon, lamp black, oil paint, watercolor, bleach, sepia—whatever it takes to build the image and arrive at the desired effect.

My most frequently used tools, besides a texture negative, are Marshall’s Photo Coloring Pencils and Berol Karismacolor pencils. As your experience grows, other tools will depend on your creativity and need.

Masks

I couldn’t work without a mask. Very rarely do I shoot the perfect negative, because daylight is a single source with high contrast. This can lead to dark, underexposed shadows, so I use graphite or lamp black on a 5×7 ground glass to bring deep shadows into balance with adjacent tones of the negative, increasing detail, etc. If you have never made a mask before, it is easy and simplifies printmaking by giving you a high degree of control over your work. I use an Omega D II 4×5 enlarger that allows me to easily combine the negative carrier with a 4×5 or 5×7 ground glass that accepts lamp black to control light transmission. The glass has an etched surface that makes it simple to both apply the graphite and clean it off again. This procedure has a learning curve, but is easily achieved with attention to the variables of negative contrast, and so on. One should apply the graphite or lamp black on the portions of the mask that match up with areas where the negative is too thin.

The addition of a glass mask to a negative carrier causes some light to leak from the enlarger head, so I wrap a black leather shroud around the head to prevent light leaks that can destroy a print.

I have used Ilford paper for years with great results; its texture complements a texture negative and imparts the look of intaglio to a photographic image, especially when the entire negative is printed, including its natural edge. This imparts the appearance of a hand-pulled image from an etching press. The texture negative is a photographic negative of a texture—etching lines, string, cloth, or anything else you think could work with an image. I often use the texture negative in Figure 1, but any number of textured materials can be photographed and then printed in combination with the picture negative. When sandwiched, you create an illu- sion that will build depth and tonality not achievable with a plain print.

Combining texture and picture

The texture and picture images can be combined in two ways. The texture negative can be sandwiched with the regular negative in the enlarger or it can be contact-printed with the paper during enlargement, as in Figure 3. So you will need a texture negative the size of either the original negative or the final print. Texture negatives are available in a vari- ety of sizes, but you probably will need to shop around to find them. (I recently saw vintage texture negatives for sale online.)

Texture negatives are sometimes referred to as screens. Should you decide to make one, after you have decided on the texture, remember to underexpose the texture negative by one-half to one stop so your texture doesn’t overwhelm the primary negative.

An 11×14-inch negative is very easy to make from a 35mm negative using a process film and your enlarger. This is a measured procedure, but once you have a good screen negative, the trial and error is over. Make sure to keep notes and don’t be intimidated by the process of creating your texture negative; it is no different than a regular print except that you are using process film. Your creative juices will be enriched by research into the work of Leon Robert Demachy (1859–1937, France), Alfred Steiglitz (1864–1946, USA) and William H. Mortensen (1897–1965, USA); they were masters of tone, texture, and image structure.

Creativity is the main ingredient, and experimentation will play an important role. I believe the use of the texture screen is of minimal difficulty; if you have a yen to reach beyond the camera, this will provide direction for any given image or style.

Many of Photoshop’s tools are taken from photographers’ manipulations during the pictorial period, with the guesswork taken out. This effort, for the classic photographer, is a “must have” and “must do” for some serious creative achievement. When all is said and done, film and digital have the same goal—good original art. Count yourself in the minority on this one and build a portfolio worthy of the classic photographic artist.


About the Author

Barclay Travis Cook
Contributor
Barclay Travis Cook is a published, senior art photographer. His credits include the National Archives, magazines, museums and collectors. He is a collector and active photographic innovator. He may be contacted at bwphotoart@cdaonline.com