Place and Time

By David Vestal Back to

Besides limiting us, location may define us. I’m told I am a New York street photographer. Well, I was one, and may be one again. Here in Connecticut there are no New York streets: What to do? Not New York streets, unless I take a trip. In most places, light strikes and bounces off things, and is refracted, diffused, and otherwise trifled with by other things. When there’s light we can photograph almost anywhere.

Time also matters. I took New York street pictures when I was there. That was some time ago. Why not photo- graph where I am now? Don’t worry. I do, did, and always will. We can photograph any time except in the past or future. We take pictures in the present. Our time is monopolized by now, but it’s a sliding now. It used to be the future, and will now, like our just-taken photograph, recede into the past. Our photo taken now shows only the past.

Time travel

We are time travelers. We move constantly away from the past, some of which we can remember, and into the future, of which we know nothing. That doesn’t keep us from making guesses that are often right about the next second, minute, or hour, but miss more and more as we guess farther ahead.

All photos are taken here and now, and all those of the past or future were or will be taken there and then.

That said, it seems strange that many photographers try to enter the past by taking up methods long discarded but now revived. One thing that makes me think of this is the 2007 workshop program at Photographers’ Formulary in Montana. I think that other workshops have similar lists. I’ll divide this one into techniques of the past, the present, and the mixed. All of these, of course, can be done at any time, but I’m thinking of the times when they prevailed.

The past

  1. Emulsion making and coating with Ron Mowrey
  2. Gum oil photographic printing with Karl Koenig
  3. Carbon, van Dyke, cyanotype, and platinum with Sandy King
  4. Master class, platinum and palladium printing with Dick Arentz

5. Wet collodion, phase II, exploring wider frontiers with John Coffer

  1. The allure of albumen with Zoe Zimmerman
  2. Pyro and the fine print with Gordon Hutchings
  3. Bromoil with David Lewis
  4. Cyanotype artists’ books and quilts with Laura Blacklow
    1. Discovering the carbro print with Kevin Martini-Fuller
    2. The gum platinum print with Kerik Kouklis
    3. The art of collodion with Will Dunniway

13. Daguerreotype, a contemporary approach with Jerry Spagnoli

The present

1. Re-imagining the landscape with Craig Barber

2. The mind’s eye, collage, bookmaking, printmaking with Theresa Airey

3. Contemporary handcoloring techniques with Jim McKinnis

  1. Fine silver printing with Les McLean
  2. Seeing, planning, and printing the fine photograph with Bruce Barnbaum
  3. An inquiry into lensless photography with Tom Persinger
  4. Traditional photography at its best with David Vestal and Al Weber
  5. Polaroid/digital transfers and digital printing with Kathleen Carr
  6. Contemplative landscape with George DeWolfe and Tim Anderson
    1. Crafting the exquisite digital print with Dan Burkholder
    2. Fine printing and darkroom skills with Tim Rudman
    3. Lith printing and toning with Tim Rudman
    4. People and places: travel portraits and landscapes with David H. Miller

The mixed

Beginning precision digital negatives for platinum/palladium with Arentz and Nelson

What century is this, anyway?

This list splits 50/50 between now and way-back-when. That is all right, but seems strange. Each of those old media has its own special charms as well as difficulties, and it’s good that capable photographers keep them going.

Then let me add some other worth- while media from the past:

There’s POP [pea-oh-pea], short for printing-out paper, which needs no development because it darkens during exposure, and masks itself in a way that helps keep contrast under control while doing so. It’s great for contact prints of contrasty negatives. The hard thing here is to judge exposure well. You have to print dark because fixing makes the print very much lighter. To get the print color you want with silver halide POP, you put gold chloride toner in the fixer. That’s how Eugène Atget printed. Berenice Abbott might have found it easier to print his negatives after his death if she had also used POP, but she didn’t. (Platinum and palladium emulsions also self- mask during exposure, especially in the POP variant invented by Captain Pizzighelli. Carl Weese has done much excellent POP platinum printing.)

Handmade photogravures were printed on damp paper in an etching press from grained copper plates. This was P. H. Emerson’s favorite way to print. He also liked platinum, but he hated bromide paper.

The ambrotype was a collodion-on-glass photo whose thin silver deposits served as all its light tones in front of a black velvet background. It resembled the daguerreotype in that its most exposed areas were the picture’s light tones, but an ambrotype’s black was not a silver mirror like the daguerreotype’s, and could be seen clearly from any angle.

The tintype was a variant of the ambrotype that used emulsion-coated, black-enameled iron plates. It was cheap and produced decent, almost-instant photos. As late as 1950 there was a tin-type company, the American Ferrotype Co. in Brooklyn, New York. It went out of business when street photographers with ponies, the photographic equivalent of organ grinders with monkeys, switched to Polaroid.

Historical note: In 1947 or ’48 the Photo League threw a party that featured, among other delights, a tintype camera, rented from Brooklyn with its supply of plates and chemicals. For fifty cents you could have your tintype portrait taken by electronic flash. We borrowed the wet-battery flash unit from W. Eugene Smith: I personally painted the background for those tintypes, a rough brush drawing of “Ansel Adams at Point Lobos.” I’d never seen a picture of Ansel, so I made him up. By some miracle there was a slight resemblance.

All of these media produced excellent photos, and I know of no better reason not to use them than the difficulty and expense of getting and learning to use the plates, papers, chemicals, and other ingredients and equipment they require. Each, when new, replaced some earlier form of photography that was harder to use or produced less good quality. I’ve seen many gum bichromate prints made since 1950, but very few recent ones approach the quality of most ordinary ones from around 1900. Platinum and palladium have fared much better in revival. Potassium bichromate is now called dichromate.

To make perfect digital negatives for platinum printing seems to me a lovely joke, though it is sure to work beautifully when used with good judgment. I certainly don’t disapprove, but it doesn’t tempt me.

I am much more concerned with pictures than with how they’re made. These days I make my black-and-white negatives on Tri-X and HP-5, and print them on Ilford Multigrade IV FB, which suits my work. When I use a digital camera I print in black-and-white inkjet from its files, as well as printing inkjets from scans of my silver prints. To me, my black-and-white inkjets on matte paper look much like good photogravures and good platinum prints, but my interest in inkjet centers on the qualities of inkjet, not on its chance resemblance to other media.

While photographing where I am, I print in the conventional media of my time. This has no special virtue, and I don’t have should or shouldn’t on my mind. I just like working simply.

About the Author

David Vestal
David Vestal is a photographer and teacher whose publications include The Art of Black & White Enlarging (1984) and The Craft of Photography. His photographs are exhibited internationally and are found in numerous private and public collections including New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. The wit and wisdom of his commentaries have long earned him a strong following among readers.