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Ending the silver

August 14, 2010

This post will probably make one of my good friends weep, but here we go.

Before there were digital cameras, photography was done by exposing silver halide emulsions to light, developing them in chemicals, then projecting light through the resulting negative onto similarly treated paper, then developing the paper in chemicals and drying the resulting print.  It was back then – up until about 15 years ago – that I was professionally involved in traditional photography.  I did camera repair, and did industrial and archival photography on the side.

What a lot of people who had a photo course in high school or college don’t realize is just how technical this craft could become.  Behind the Ansel Adams print they admire, for example, is a lot of science, and many of his books are masterpieces of technical writing as well as of art and even English prose.  To control the process you have to do controlled experiments and I did – calibrating the combinations of film, light, developing, enlarger, paper, and chemicals to get the result that I wanted.  By the time I sold any prints from a given brand of film or paper, I’d already explored how it behaved with shadows and highlights, at what contrast, and with what chemicals, and recorded the findings in my notebooks for future reference.

Well the camera repair business tanked when cameras became too sophisticated to repair in a small shop, and I wasn’t making enough in photography to pay the bills.  So I dove into computers and started studying at a furious rate.  It’s resulted in a string of jobs that have worked out well for me.

From my photo album; On Digital Photography

But my darkroom sat, for fifteen years.  Gradually I got rid of most of the heavy equipment – cameras and enlargers and print washers and dryers.  I still have some enlarging easels and beautiful Honeywell/Nikor film developing reels, and no idea what to do with them.  But I am cleaning out that room.  I don’t want to leave it for my kids to deal with.

And my “paper safe” – a specially constructed cabinet designed to keep out light and to be self-closing, was full of fine photographic paper: Mitsubishi Gekko, Agfa, Ilford, Arista, Kodak, even some East German Orwo.

This is expensive stuff and as you can see from the picture, there was a lot of it.  Last night I opened the paper safe – with the lights on – , and methodically emptied the boxes into a single large box for the next county toxic-waste pickup.  The empty boxes, I threw away. 

It was a strange feeling, and commemorates the end, I suppose, of my involvement with traditional photography a decade and a half ago.  I’ve been through quite a few digital cameras, and they’re just now beginning to catch up to film quality at a price point that I (no longer making a living with my camera) can afford.  I’ll soon purchase a Sony NEX-5 to compliment my Canon G11, and be approximately back where I was when I had Yashica medium format and Olympus OM-1’s and OM-2’s.

And I do mean; “approximately” because damn, those Olympus SLR’s were awesome cameras.  The Olympus slogan was; “Match your skills to ours” and they were an absolute joy to use.

NOTES:

  • It is true that some of the photo paper, still sealed, might still have been usable.  But professional-quality printing requires careful standardization, and 15-year-old paper would require a whole new set of tests to establish performance.

  • I wondered if the Barry Lategan image on one of the Ilford boxes would constitute child porn today.  We live in different times…
  • If you have never read a book by Ansel Adams, start with his autobiography; it is non-technical and a quite wonderful view into an amazing artistic and scientific life, and into the development of photography as a recognized art form.  (Also his description of Ronald Reagan was quite a hoot.)  Then read The Making of 40 Photographs and if you’re still going, read his classic trilogy;The Camera, The Negative,and The Print.
  • Check out this image of The first digital camera
Categories: Uncategorized
  1. August 16, 2010 at 07:21 | #1

    My tears arise twofold:

    • For all the wonderful prints you didn’t make on those papers

    • For the cost of the cuurent offerings of silver-halide papers

  2. August 16, 2010 at 08:16 | #2

    I took enough courses at Southern Illinois University to constitute a minor, I suppose. Film, paper, chemicals, enlargers, etc. It paid off for me when I went off to law school at the University of Florida. I worked shifts in the darkroom of the college paper The Alligator (now, was that the name? Memories fade).

    I recall the obsession in the photo department with the “artistic” nature of photography, and the strongly-espoused views by the young instructors that all “artistic” photography was black and white. That turned me off enough to quit the program. One older instructor, mostly concerned with the journalistic side of photography,correctly predicted the demise of Life and other mags.

    Anyway, I went for many years uninterested in photography, only getting back into it a few years ago—all digitally. I didn’t even take cameras on trips—espousing the view that carrying and using a camera was the enemy of effective seeing and appreciation of sights.

    I still have my old Leica M4 in a closet somewhere, with a couple of lenses. Maybe I should use it as a paperweight.

  3. August 18, 2010 at 19:29 | #3

    Gerry:  I would be interested in the M4.

  4. August 18, 2010 at 21:02 | #4

    WeeDram; I don’t think the paper would have been any good.  And remember I went through a patch there where my chronic pain made darkroom work very difficult.  It still would be, though digital makes it possible again for me to do photography.

    Gerry; I miss your photographs.  Do you have a photostream on Picasa or Flicker or someplace?

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