So I was approached by a publisher recently to write a photographic text book, a technique manual on alternative processes photography, really highlighting my work in silver gelatin and palladium printing. There is no contract in place, but the initial conversations seem quite favorable. I am a little hesitant about taking on such a project, and yet it also seems like a good opportunity (if nothing else, I can get more of my own photographs in print).
The other day, I went for a jog, and as is often the case, when I got back I had a flurry of writing for 40 minutes. I thought of this writing as a potential introduction to this manual. Still in draft state, and really just an idea, but this is where it stands. The first picture here is mine (as well as a few others), and I’ve actually already thought it would be a nice cover for this technical manual – the anatomy of an eye.
It was close to twenty years ago, but I still remember it vividly. I was taking a week long, intensive workshop on photographic printmaking taught by Frank Gohlke. We spent our time together working on advance silver gelatin techniques – bleaching, toning, using print brighteners – and were also introduced to a few other of what we called alternative processes – palladium, kallitype, and cyanotype. I know that learning these techniques at this time proved important, as many of them have continued to be apart of my life’s work, but that’s not what I remember most.
About half way through the workshop, at the end of a long day printing, Frank pulled out some boxes of photographs he brought along to show us. This was an important time in Frank’s career; Measure of Emptiness was recently published, and he was still involved in making his photographs of Mount St. Helens, rephotographing some of the original landscapes he made during the his initial survey of the eruption. He showed us his prints from these projects. And then he also showed us pictures he had collected from friends and colleagues – Eric Paddock, Lois Conner, Robert Adams, Paul Caponigro, Walker Evans – and as he spoke of these pictures, he was full of wonderful wisdom, intelligence, and love. It his me like a ton of bricks, and I know I had to know more about it.
Close to this time, I landed my first job in photography, working in the photography department at the Colorado Historical Museum. My first day there, the chief curator in the department, Eric Paddock, came down with a small selection of 20×24 glass plate negatives made by William Henry Jackson and the Detroit Publishing Co. He gave us two days to print the negatives. There were three of us working in the darkroom, and it took all of us to handle and move the negatives. These were a remarkable couple of afternoons, to see the skill and technique that must have gone into making such large negatives, to see this view of landscape in Colorado I had known all my life, and share in these experiences in helping to make the prints. That really sealed the deal; I knew I was a black and white photographer.
Working in the museum offered a number of other great resources and learning opportunities. In addition to housing the William Henry Jackson and Detroit Publishing Co. archives, it was here I first saw photographs by Timothy O’Sullivan, Laura Gilpin, and Lee Friedlander, as well as my first albumen prints, tintype albums, and carte de visite.
It was several years down the road before I set up my first photographic studio. I was young, recently out of college, and working for minimum wage. I knew from these past experiences that I didn’t need expensive equipment to make photographs. I was living in Denver at the time, and knew it would be easy to print my photographs under the sun. I bought an inexpensive 4×5 camera, went to a junk-yard north of the city and got a used, stainless steel sink, salvaged construction materials from my Dad’s business, and built my first darkroom for around $100.
Despite my lack of resources, I wanted to make pictures as well-crafted as those photographs Frank showed us that afternoon. I made gum bichromate and platinum/palladium prints under the sun.
Each fall, I tell my students that despite the fact that each of them has a camera in pocket (is it possible to buy a phone with a camera now?), none of them know as much about photography as they think. To illustrate this point, I turn my classroom into a camera obscura (a trick I learned from Abelardo Morell while working with him during my years in graduate school). It’s not a difficult trick – make the room light tight, and then make a small, circular hole for light to come in – and yet, without fail the students are dumbfounded. I then go on to talk about how we reached photography today.
I firmly believe that real photographic literacy means looking at and knowing as many photographic guises as possible. I try not to prioritize any photographic technology; in my teaching practice, I introduce and encourage techniques from the 19th century to the present. In this transitional period, as photography becomes more and more digitized, I often regret how quickly and easily we forgot what we once knew. I believe that the more tools and techniques one has as a photographer, the greater the photographic vocabulary, and thus the more possibilities available.
Anyway, just some initial thoughts……