« 'Pass It Along' | Main | The Henri Cartier-Bresson Show »

Wednesday, 18 August 2010


Man oh man do you bring back memories. I used to work with a woman at a museum photo lab who had put herself thought school as a printer in NYC. She could take just about any negative, (we had everything from 35mm stuff shot by scientists with modern cameras back to glass plates and old large format roll films), eyeball it under the safelight and make the print first time.

I certainly learned a lot about how to do production custom printing from her.

She went from boss to mentor to friend; I need to drop her I line.

I've mentioned this in connection with another post, but seems worth repeating. The late Fred Picker, despite his many detractors, was a fine teacher. And, among his subjects, was the printing process. I learned it from his workshops, but he also produced a video series, including one on printing, now out of production. Some may find it through the net.

Fred demystified the process, which admittedly has a huge judgment component, and articulated the rest through a series of repeatable steps, including use of his 'recipe sheet.' No magic, just a way to write down steps for consistent and reliable repetition. (He also wasn't shy about selling products to help in this regard.)

I surely wasn't an expert printer. But, as you say Mike, I had the time and the process to go about working on a print until it was very good, and most likely better than most labs could produce, at least without requiring a huge expense for special custom work.

The digital world could use someone with Fred's teaching ability. I wonder how he might have fared in this fast changing new realm. I still try to apply the same discipline to my digital prints as I did in my darkroom days. The actual steps may be different, but time and a disciplined approach (and of course that judgment thing) remain at the core...thanks to Fred.

That is one of the most exquisite portraits I´ve seen in a very long time on my screen. I can´t tell if it´s a difficult negative to print ,it´s beauty distracts every time I´ve looked at it. I know I´ve asked before but what about a post on Sally Mann and her work? I seem to recall you´ve interviewed her a couple of times.

Great portrait Mike. No I didn't know it was difficult to print... until you told us. :-)

Thank you so much for that Mike...it really helps clarify things for those of us that don't "get" wet printing. It still doesn't explain the oohs and aahs over certain prints or printers (in fact, it seems like it should lessen how impressed people seem to be - but maybe that's just my mistaken impression).

To me, based on this article and to make a bit of a digital analogy, print quality seems to be more akin to something like white balance selection. You can choose ones that look good and are perfect for what you envision, or you can choose white balances that are bad to awful.

But you can't choose a white balance that is brilliant or that someone else couldn't have chosen, given enough familiarity with your work.

(Hopefully that makes sense.)

Do you know anything about the time spent by expert printers directly employed by photographers? Obvious examples include various people who worked for Ansel Adams over the years. On the one hand it was basically a commercial proposition; Adams was having the prints made to sell for money mostly. On the other hand, he was signing them, and his reputation was the one that they would affect.

What you say about Charlie Pratt for example suggests one of the reasons collectors like prints made by the artist. Really, they should find out which artists were good at printing and which were good at hiring printers, though.

On your portrait there -- very nice shot, first of all.

The obvious problem is with the knee and forearm in direct sun, plus the sharp edge to the sun (makes burning in rather harder). If those were in fact troublesome, you handled them well.

Nothing else strikes my eye as likely to be hard, so you handled the rest of the problems excellently.

Time yes, and... cost of materials.

Hitting a bullseye 80 straight times with the first shot is what a Hollywood action hero does- except Voja did it in real life.
And god knows how many times...

As someone with the most rudimentary darkroom skills, maybe you could explain breifly the work that went into making your beautiful print of Sally Mann? I can tell the contrast is huge, so how do you tame it?

Not a comment on the printing but just my first impression of the picture.

It is a charming lady but seems to be going to get a hit by a rock on the top right. Then I really have a hard time to get that she is Sally Mann. Really? Completely not the image of Sally Mann, especially not the lady in the what remains DVD and those other video. The feet up is a bit of her I guess.

I guess black and white picture always get some very different look.

Really good points (Charlie Pratt's approach still works a treat for digital) but all somewhat overwhelmed by that picture of Sally Mann. I can sense a bonus print sale coming on.

Turnley's articles are a terrific read, and like others have noted, indirectly argue that there should be some preservation of the knowledge, skills and tricks that these great printers have amassed.

The articles also made me realize that my own judgement with respect to my printing needs to be adjusted. I'm a reasonable printer, but I am printing my own work in a manner that pleases me. I've never had the challenge of printing another person's negatives to their satisfaction. I suspect that it would be very educational. Also, it is probably worth my time to hire a great printer to make a print of one of my favourite negatives to see how someone else may interpret it. It likely wouldn't be a reference print for me, but the differences between my best print vs. theirs would be informative.

I didn't notice that Sally's print was difficult, as I was lost in fantasy...

I know, as a photographer that has worked printing before RC paper and machines (try printing 100 8x10's in a row, then and only then processing them in a tray 25 or so at a time. The worst part is running the all through the drum drier.) Time is really, really, really money there.

I hope that these articles will display why it isn't an artistic imperative for a photo to be printed by the photographer. That's a regrettable change in our society along with the idea that all musicians should perform only original music. Sure it works for Ansel Adams and the Beatles, but ask yourself, "Am I them?"

"That is one of the most exquisite portraits I´ve seen in a very long time"

Thanks very much. I think Sally will make the "final group" of prints that I intend to make in my new darkroom. I'll be sharing my plans about that ere long.


Nice portrait, Mike. And, no, the effort doesn't show at all! But if that light coming through the window is indeed direct midday sun, this photo must have been hell to expose and to print. I'm very impressed.

You're going to tell us all about it, right?

well Mike, your print of Sally Mann is special because I can see the negative and I would have taken weeks....! Scary. But very well done!
You are right, of course, in that Voja can print in the style of many photographers, quite a special skill.
I was called a "master printer" in the past, but of course only of my own pictures! I'd spend 10 hours, to sometimes 2 weeks on a print; one picture of mine I revisited for 2 years, printing it until I was finally satisfied and showed it in a collection in the Koffler Gallery in Toronto- at least it drew the most attention.
I look at my old printing-notes now, a record of perhaps 13 steps to print one picture using various cardboard shapes to dodge as well as my miniature flashlight diffused with tissue, to burn, counting "one elephant, two elephants...to whatever...!"
So you are right of course,the non-professional can be very much better as a printer..I even had my own recipe mixing Ilford Multigrade with Edwal's Ultrablack developers. All a question of time.
(I'd like to think something has transferred to my digital printing these days.)

David B.,
No, that's not quite the right analogy. That would be a good analogy for something like exposure--there's a right one for what you want to achieve, but there's no exposure that's available to one person that's not available to another person.

A "work of art" would not quite be the right analogy either, because the range of options is much more limited--making a print is not a blank canvas. But perhaps the proper analogy would be somewhere in between the two.


"Adams was having the prints made to sell for money mostly"

No, I'm pretty sure Ansel made all his own prints. He had assistance in the darkroom, but he never turned over control of the printing process to others. A chef in a great restaurant doesn't do every task himself, but he's there, he's responsible, everything is done under his direction, and he gets the credit.


Stan B., Garry Winogrand printed that way too. He exposed his negatives, threw the exposed paper into a drawer, and then developed them all at the end of the *week*. I'm sure those were just what we'd call "workprints," but still.


Thanks Mike! I really needed to read this as I was starting to think that maybe I really shouldn't go back in the darkroom. I could "read" my own negatives too at one point, as you have so aptly reminded me - though even that is a skill that requires pretty consistent darkroom work. I could never be the equal of Mr. Mitrovic, who sounds like an extraordinary person, but I don't have to be. And I hope you do talk more about printing in the future.

PS - whatever effort is required to print this beautiful picture of Sally Mann is worth it IMHO.

Mike, if you make a bunch of prints of it in your new darkroom, I would be a hair-trigger away from buying that. Note, I have a Weese pt/pd that I'm still finding a place to hang.

It's been so long since I printed it that I can't really give you a blow-by-blow. The negative is exposed perfectly for the face and hair, and her legs and forearm in the lower left as well as the white blob in the upper right (it's a stone statue of a woman's torso) were both badly blown out (overexposed).

At the time, however, I had just read about an experiment that David Vestal did--I can't remember where it was written, but I'm sure it was David--in which he said he had always assumed that burning in with a radically lower contrast filter wouldn't work because it would be too obvious. But then he tried it, and determined experimentally that it worked just fine. So the basic exposure of this print was with a 2 1/2 or 3 filter and the lower left and upper right were heavily burned in with a 0 filter. The burning was so extreme I had to open the aperture to get enough light. It was tough to get it to look right (i.e., to get it so you won't notice it!).

There may have been some other refinements but nothing out of the ordinary.

The camera was a Nikon 8008 and the lens an AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.8, and the film was Ilford HP-5 Plus developed in ID-11. (You might ask how I remember that...well, for some strange reason I remember the lens I used to shoot virtually every picture I've ever taken, going back to when I was a boy. And that's despite having used hundreds of different lenses. I don't try to do this; I don't do it on purpose. I just remember it. I really don't know why.)


Now I _really_ want to get my enlarger assembled and start trying to print...

That's pretty much just the way she looked 22 years ago. A very beautiful woman.


Nope, can't print that one in volume. I'd have to scan the print and print it digitally! [g]


I think you underestimate the potential synergy that collaboration brings. Most work can be improved by practised or even left-field input of sympathetic others.

BTW, the Charles Pratt story comes from Ralph Steiner's preface to "Charles Pratt Photographs", one of my favourite photography monographs.

"A home darkroom worker with decent skills and adequate equipment can make a really good print, one that is every bit as good—although maybe not exactly in the same way—as one made by a master printer."

Exactly. Too many people get all obsessed with technological details. Sure, the latest and greatest equipment can be nice, but it's not necessary.

I liked the prints I made with my old crappy Omega enlarger. Sure, my Saunders with a variable contrast head was a little easier to use, but I can't really argue that the prints were automatically better. Because they weren't.

Good prints are good prints. And there are tons of ways of getting there. I mean, Edward Weston made some amazing photos of veggies with less than ideal darkroom equipment (understatement).

Did Ralph write that? I thought it was John Gossage. I just got Ralph's "A Point of View" the other day. Pure fun.


I was very fortunate, my first job in professional photography was working for a commercial and portrait photographer who cared more about the quality of his work than how long it took to make a print. I learned good habits right from the start.

BTW- I haven't been able to stop looking at that portrait the entire day. And it is only in part due to your notable printing skills- must be the composition...


I think I concentrate too much on her camera and the skull etc. to notice that she could be a model!

On the printing process, is that what we call split grade printing these days?

BTW, mind to post the negative for us who used to see negative to appreciate more difficulty, if the negative is easy to find.

Also, would definitely get one of your prints if I can afford it. May be even two, one as a reference in my dark room and another one for hanging up! (I would explain to my Dear Half that this is a lady many decades ago ...)


I was very pleased to see "A Brief Comment on Printing" follow the wonderful Voja Mitrovic story, since I spent two days last week printing three negatives. When I read (referring to Voja) "... and in one hour, he printed the remaining 80 negatives..." I was a bit dismayed.
It's not that my prints are perfect, but I don't think anyone could achieve in five minutes what took me two days. I'm slow as molasses in the darkroom these days, but there's a lot to be said for the luxury of taking one's time.


Since you are featuring articles concerning printing, It would be interesting to hear your views on the relative merits of prints made from film negatives and those made digitally. You may have already done this but, if so, I missed it.


Bill Lewis

Fantastic shot and fantastic print.

That's a lovely shot, Mike, and worth the effort. I hope you give us a round-up when you print it again, because a.) it's Sally Mann, who is beautiful, talented and articulate, and b.) I still harbor fantasies of turning part of my basement into a darkroom, and with you doing it I don't have to; I can enjoy it vicariously through you.

Just a brief thanks to everyone who said something nice about my picture of Sally (who liked it too). I appreciate the compliments.


It might be worth noting that the origin of the word amateur is from the Latin "to love" or some one who does something for the love of it. I can speak from experience about ruining a hobby that I enjoyed (woodworking) by turning "pro". This is not a mistake I'm prepared to make again. I love photography and as an amateur I can take however long I choose on a print, after all I'm the only person I have to please. That doesn't mean I don't set high standards for myself, just that I can take as long as it takes to get there. Steve Willard

With digital raw files and monitor-on-the-wall viewing of images, amateurs can be like Charlie Pratt: live with the first post-processing awhile then do it again.

I’d like to add one small, but very important, point to the discussion of traditional black and white printing. There has been much talk about the fine points of darkroom work and the desire for more specific information about how to "make a fine print."

But all the technical instruction in the world won’t help unless your aesthetic standards are high in the first place. And this only comes about by looking at original prints made by "master" printers….not by looking at book reproductions and certainly not by viewing prints on the web (though both can be helpful), but by actually being in the presence of real fine-art prints.

I can recall the many times I stood before exquisitely printed images and marveled at the depth of shadow tones I had never imagined possible, or highlights so delicate and fragile I kept my eyes fixed on them for fear they would evaporate and disappear.

Admittedly, such experiences didn’t teach me exactly how to achieve these effects in the darkroom, but they expanded profoundly my understanding of what is possible with materials readily available.

So I would beseech anyone aspiring to become a "fine printer" to see as much original work as possible and as often as opportunities arise. I know this is not so easy for many, but there is simply no substitute.

After some four decades in a black and white darkroom, I would say that printing is the easy part. Training the eye and broadening one's comprehension of the vast world of tones patiently waiting on the surface of printing paper is the tough part.

Joe Cameron

Amateurs could live with a first try for a while even on paper; I had a fishnet on the wall in my office that I would clothespin prints to after making them, and see how they wore for me.

For those of you who are fans of Sally Mann this may be of interest, we will have to wait till the end of November.
Sally Mann: The Flesh and The Spirit
Here is the amazon link through TOP:

Yeah, getting both of the eyes and the arm and the cheekbones right while maintaining a lot of local contrast looks like it was a bear to print.

It's like going to a concert, show, or sporting event where practitioners of the discipline in question say "how did they do THAT?" and the lay observer asks "do what?"

BTW my advice on hitting the exposure and dodging first time on prints is to use a yellow safelight (sodium duplex for example) and a blue enlarger light source (codalight high speed for example). It makes it easy to nail the exposure within a quarter of a stop by eyeball, and the blue light makes your lens sharper as a bonus. Oh, and use two developer baths.

When is that Sally Mann photo going on a print sale?

"When is that Sally Mann photo going on a print sale?"

Alas, never. It is one of my lost negatives. Even if I had the negative, it's too difficult to print to print in volume. The only way I could sell it is to do a digital scan and an inkjet print. Which is not out of the question, except my Epson V700 broke not three months after I purchased it and I have not yet had the fortitude to deal with getting it fixed.


The comments to this entry are closed.