In last issue’s Master Printing Class, I wrote about my impressions of Machu Picchu in Peru, and the photography I did there both prior to and during a workshop I instructed in April 2009 (specifically the first photograph I made there). This article deals with the final photograph I made at Machu Picchu, as the workshop drew to a close. I’m already looking forward to adding to the Machu Picchu portfolio when I travel down there again next year for another workshop.
Machu Picchu lies at the head of the Amazon rainforest. It sits atop a knife-edge ridge 1,400 feet above the Vilcanota River, with the river turning a 180° curve in its gorge below, creating nearly vertical cliffs down to the river on both sides. Those cliffs rise up to peaks towering thousands of feet above Machu Picchu, all covered by dense jungle growth. A few, topping out at 19,000 and 20,000 feet, are draped with thick glaciers. It’s a stunning location, with the ruins and the landscape vying with one another for attention.
I photographed there for two days prior to the workshop earlier this year, and another two days during the workshop. Next year, we’ll expand that to three days during the workshops. My hope is that we’ll be given the same variable weather conditions that we had this year, where we alternately experienced rain, fog, and sun, but very little wind—conditions that couldn’t be beat.
Of course, I didn’t just photograph as if there were no students there. I also worked with them throughout our time together. And they worked with me, taking interest in what I was doing when I set up my camera.
One final picture
On the final morning of the workshop, we had several hours to photograph within the ruins. It was another perfect morning, with variable conditions continuing. So we all did a lot of shooting. But we had an absolute deadline of 9:30 a.m. to pack up and run out to catch the bus down the cliffs in time to catch the train.
Right before 9:00, I climbed to one of the highest points within the ruins just as a brief episode of sunlight shined through a set of openings— windows, as it were—in one of the massive Inca walls facing toward the east. Clouds quickly covered the sun, but during the several seconds of sunlight that I observed, I realized that a potentially wonderful photograph could be made as soon as the clouds lifted once again. Actually, I didn’t even need the sunlight (though I recognized that some sunlight could be a special benefit); I simply needed a few openings in the clouds below the ruins to see the canyon walls and also some cloud openings above to see a bit of the mountains in the distance rising up above the wall.
So I set up my camera with none of the distant landscape visible. But, not to worry, I thought. With conditions changing as swiftly and regularly as they were, I realized that shortly after I set up, I’d get the atmospheric conditions—and the photograph— I wanted.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work out exactly like that. My camera was focused, the aperture was set, and the film holder was in place, with my very last sheet of film ready for exposure.
I then waited for the openings in the clouds. Five minutes went by. Then 10 minutes. (I had only 20 more minutes before I had to hightail it out of there.) Another couple of minutes went by and a student wandered over, asking what I was doing. I told him I was waiting for a break in the clouds, and he said he would wait there with me. Another few minutes went by…by now, 15 minutes in all. It was really socked in. My companion suggested that things weren’t looking good. Twenty minutes went by. He suggested I give up and pack it in. I stood my ground. Finally, I had just five minutes left.
Suddenly clouds started swirling around rather wildly. The canyon wall became visible and within seconds a few of the mountain peaks and ridges started showing up. (Not even the parting of the Red Sea could have been better.) I waited a bit longer. They both became more visible. Finally I snapped the shutter. I had no more than two minutes remaining before I had to run. But I got it! It was a joyous, celebratory moment.
Printing the negative
The straight print shows that all of the lower half, except the several areas receiving direct sunlight, is quite dark compared to the upper half, specifically the clouds across the top of the image. But film can easily encompass the extreme range of brightness that was inherent in the scene. So it was of no real concern to me. I simply made certain to have ample exposure in the shadows below, so as to later develop the film at slightly less than normal contrast, which I felt would produce a wonderful negative with printable densities.
Not surprisingly, printing the negative requires some serious effort. But I expect that to be the case in at least 50% of the negatives I produce. There’s no free ride here.
I print the negative as if it’s two separate negatives. First I expose the lower half, right up to the top of the wall (and even a bit above the wall) at a moderate contrast level: 30 units of magenta filtration. Then I dial out the magenta and dial in 130 units of yellow f iltration, exposing the upper part of the image, down to the top of the wall, and even a bit into the wall, to get detail into the sky, and to make the contrast transition invisible at the top of the wall and lower sky. But I then also have to burn the upper part of the sky, especially the upper left corner considerably, or it ends up being almost blank white. The burn is substantial, but it can be done…and was.
Still, just like the image from last issue, the wall serves as a frame—or series of frames—for the landscape beyond. The landscape is really the prime subject, seen through each of the three windows, and above the massive lintels topping the windows. The wall itself is of exceptional interest, even though it serves as second f iddle (though not by much). The original 16×20 print-inch of this negative shows tremendous spatial depth between the nearby wall and the distant cliffs and mountains. It’s just what I was hoping for.
My basic thought about the image is that I’m glad I had the perseverance to wait out the clouds, right up to the very end. My patience was rewarded.