In late April 2007, I co-instructed a workshop with Don Rommes in the Escalante Canyons of Utah. Don and I have conducted these workshops since 2001; they include a five-day backpack into the extraordinary canyons. Each year we select a different set of canyons to explore. This year we hiked the full length of Wolverine Canyon to Horse Canyon, where we set up camp (llamas carry in the gear for the outing).
On the final day, we hiked back to the trailhead again through Wolverine Canyon. Entering Wolverine from its confluence with Horse Canyon, you’re immediately struck by the convoluted walls on either side of the narrow entrance into this remarkably surreal location.
It was a sunny day, and sunlight was just beginning to edge the north wall, brightly lighting the portions of the wall protruding from the recessed sections adjacent to them. I found one of the sunlit forms to be particularly elegant and lyrical in character, and the patterns of salt leaching into the adjacent hollows to be especially painterly. I set up my 4×5 Linhof Master Technika camera with my 150mm Fujinon lens to photograph it.
Several students were there, so I showed them the difference in the scene with and without a #58 deep green filter, requiring a filter factor of three full stops. For this image, the green filter made an immense difference. The walls were a rather dark reddish brown, though not a deeply saturated color. The salt leaching (caused by rainwater drying in patterns) was virtually chalk white where it had accumulated thickly, and lighter shades of gray where it wasn’t as thick.
The green filter darkened the walls significantly, making the salt patterns jump out to the eye. The sunlit rock, was, of course, still brighter than the shadowed, salt-leaching patterns, and the green filter actually subdued its brightness a bit, which helped keep it more in tonal balance with the rest of the scene. To get adequate separation of detail in the shadowed hollows (I always place the darkest shadows where I want detail in Zone 4 or even higher for negative exposure), I used a 21/2 second exposure at ƒ/22 with the filter. In developing this negative back in my darkroom a few days later, I slightly reduced the inherent contrast of the scene.
The negative is beautiful. My contact proof—always made low in contrast to give me as much useful information about the negative as possible (I use 60 units of yellow filtration for all of mine)—jumped at me in an odd fashion. In it I saw the sunlit form as a stylized crucifix. I hadn’t seen it in the field. Instead, I saw just a wonderfully lyrical form. But the contact proof conveyed a different message to me.
Less than a week after developing the negatives from that workshop, I was teaching another at my home/studio (my “Complete Photographic Process” workshop). Part of the workshop includes a demonstration of traditional printing techniques. I often let the students choose from among several negatives that I have never previously printed so that they can see my approach to a new negative right from the start. This class was no exception. I laid out about 10 contact proofs from recent 4×5 negatives, and they chose this image as the one for the printing demonstration … primarily because it looked to them like the most difficult one to print.
I first explained my strategy for approaching the print. Based on the contrast (or apparent lack thereof for this contact proof, shown here with slightly increased contrast as the “straight print”) I guessed at a level of contrast of 80 units of magenta on the Forte Polygrade paper that I stocked up on recently, when I learned they were going out of business. After focusing the negative, I stopped down to ƒ/9.5 (i.e., halfway between ƒ/8 and ƒ/11), basing my guess of an 18-second exposure under the enlarger on the amount of light that I saw hitting the easel and my desired tones in the shadowed areas. I then told the students that after the basic exposure, I intended to dial the magenta filtration down to zero, and raise the yellow (low contrast) filter up to 30 units, and then carefully burn the sunlit crucifix form in the center.
Let me explain the burn of the crucifix section. During the full minute of burning I use my two-card system to create a small opening allowing light to reach a specific area of the print surface. In this case, I worked my way from the bottom to the top of the crucifix form slowly over a period of a minute, expos- ing only the sunlit crucifix form area-by-area without exposing the adjacent shadowed rock. Thus, no single area of the burn receives more than about 10 to 12 seconds of actual additional exposure, though the total burning time is about 60 seconds.
The first print was almost perfect, but to my eyes the lower corners were just a bit too light and somewhat washed out. I did the same thing on the second print (i.e., 80 units of magenta and an 18-second exposure for the basic exposure), but followed with a full minute of burning on the sunlit crucifix form at 30 units of yellow, then a burn of each lower corner at 170 units of magenta (i.e., maximum contrast) for about 10 seconds each. I was completely satisfied with the second print, the “final print” shown here.
I chose low contrast for the burn of the “crucifix” to keep the tonalities of that section fairly bright and somewhat uniform. I knew that would help it stand out from the rest of the image while preventing too much darkening of any adjacent area receiving unintended additional exposure during the burn. I chose high contrast for the burn of the lower corners to get maximum separation of tonalities between the dark rock and its salt- leach patterns. The final print took on a totally different meaning to me from what I had seen in the canyon. It was very exciting.
By carefully analyzing my contact proof, I was able to develop a strategy for printing this negative nearly perfectly on the first try. I would encourage all readers to make contact proofs of all your negatives, make them all at very low contrast to give yourself maximum information about what’s really on each negative. Then study the ones you choose to print carefully and develop a sound strategy for printing each one before plunging ahead blindly in the darkroom. This approach will save you time, money, and effort and make the whole process much more enjoyable, to boot.