The subject of working methodology continues to fascinate me, so I hope you'll forgive me if I give it a little more air. I wanted to describe the methodology that I came up with after years of photographing and used for years. (To those of you who never shot film, this will seem strange and foreign, like a description of washing clothes on a stone at the river's edge. But bear with me.)
I forget what post it was in which a commenter brought up the "touch once" concept. It comes from the field of Time Management. The idea is that if you want to stay on top of your organizing, you work out a method that requires you to deal with everything only one time, after which you never have to deal with it again (unless you want to, of course). That allows you to move into the future without being bogged down by the past (and without the necessity of Draconian solutions like burning all your past work, which seems...well, counterproductive, at the very least).
Here was my method: I'd shoot as I went about my life. Every second or third evening, I'd develop a tank of film standing at the kitchen sink—a chore than took about an hour or so from start to cleanup for three rolls of 35mm, which for me meant 105 pictures. (Why 35 pictures per roll? Because that's 7 strips of 5, which was the capacity of the PrintFile 35-7B archival sleeves I used. Why the PrintFile 35-7B? Because it was easily contact-printed on a single 8x10" sheet of RC paper, leaving room for the holes made by a three-hole punch.) I'd then hang the film in a closet to dry.
The next morning, I cut the filmstrips into sections and loaded them into the negative pages. Believe it or not, this was the most onerous part of the process for me. I hated doing it. I don't know why; it's not particularly difficult, or even particularly time-consuming. I just didn't like it.
When I had twelve or fifteen pages of negatives accumulated, I'd contact print them. Like most photographers, I had that process all worked out. Standard enlarger height, aperture, time. Very quick. I could knock off a set of contacts very quickly whenever I had chemicals set up.
My next step was to edit—to mark the contact sheets for workprinting. My rule for myself was that I had to look at every single frame on the contact sheet through the magnifier—no skipping. My reasoning was, I had cared enough to shoot the picture when I had the camera in my hand—I should care enough to look at the result for four or five seconds. (I wonder how many digital photographers spend five seconds just looking at every single exposure they make, "enlarged" on the screen. Not very many, would be my guess.)
And I had a rule for workprints, too: I allowed myself between one and six frames on each sheet (that is, out of every roll of 35 exposures). The reasoning here was that even on a contact sheet that seemed a total waste, that bored me, I felt I needed to resist the temptation to dismiss the entire roll just to get past it. The one-worprint minimum rule was basically a hedge against laziness. Having to print at least one picture made me deal with the roll and exercise editing discrimination. And limiting it to six was to counteract the opposite tendency—there were some rolls I'd get enthusiastic about; I would want to workprint nearly everything. But I knew from experience that workprinting an entire roll was too much work, and would bog me down. So I forced myself to narrow the choices down to six in those cases.
The mechanism was simple. The first time through with the magnifier, I'd mark every frame I was interested in with a red slash mark in the corner. When I was finished, if there were more than six so marked, I'd go back over the marked ones and indicate which to print by making the slash into an "X."
With a stack of sleeves and contacts, the next step was workprinting. Again, this was automatic. My negatives were consistent enough that I could simply expose the paper (8x10, usually) to a standard size and time, and get a good enough print to look at. I'd expose them all first, then batch-process them through the chemicals. (If I'd screwed up and one or two of them weren't adequate, I'd go back and re-do those.) It was quick and easy, although of course not as easy as clicking on a JPEG file and seeing it instantly on your computer screen.
The last step was to put all the workprints up on the wall. I long ago noticed a very curious phenomenon...I'm honestly not sure whether this is just a function of the way my particular brain works, or if it might work for other people too. What I found was that my brain sorted out my workprints without me having to do anything but look at them. Time and time again, I'd put two dozen workprints up on the wall thinking all of them were pictures of roughly equal quality. Two days later, I could safely get rid of half of them, because my interest in them was at an end. At the end of four days or a week, there would be two or three pictures I continued to love to look at, and the rest just seemed like duds.
Curiously, some of the more obvious, "pretty," successful pictures—the ones I thought were the best just after finishing the workprinting—would not last past this screening process.
That was it. The sleeved negs and contact sheets went into a 3-ring binder, and the workprints went into boxes. There they stay. I have a bunch of binders in the closet and thousands of workrprints in metal-edged boxes. The negatives can slumber in their binders till I die; as long as they stay dry they're perfectly stable, and they never have to be touched again. When I want to enjoy my photographs, I just grab a stack of workprints and flip through them.
Making fine prints is a whole different area for me. I'd do it when I felt like it, but it wasn't part of the process for me. As I never exhibited or sold my work, that wasn't a problem.
There's a rub
The primary limitation of the method I've just described was simple: intermittent poverty. The method worked fine when I could afford all the materials, when I had a darkroom or access to one, and when I had sufficient time to do the work. Those conditions were not always met simultaneously, however. Sometimes I was too poor to buy film in rolls, and had to bulk-roll my own; sometimes I would have to "hold off" buying sleeves; sometimes I had no workprint paper or had to workprint on whatever paper I could scrounge (I remember some particularly nasty out-of-date 5x7 "pearl" or "lustre" surface paper that took me an eon to work through. I forget how I came by it, but I came by an awful lot of it).
But when the system worked, it was beautiful. I now have all my negatives from various periods of time perfectly "dealt with"—no need to go back and spend more time or effort on them. Certainly no need to covert them into a different format every five or ten years! I could never do that. It's only the work from those periods of time in which my life was in disarray, or when I didn't have a darkroom, or when I didn't have the funds or the time to work, that my system broke down. The work from those periods is still in various states of incompletion. Fortunately, the former times were more common than the latter.
I have never worked out a sensible or methodical "touch once" method for dealing with digital shooting. Why? Old dog, new trick? Dislike of computers? Subconscious resentment of the fact that I have to relearn everything from the camera to the software to the printer every two to five years? The fact that I can't seem to take digital shooting as seriously as "real photography"? (Don't be offended by that last; I could never take color photography seriously either, and I could never accept using RC paper for finished prints. Those are all prejudices, not principles).
No idea. I just haven't, is all. That's all I can report.
I would think, though, that the "touch once" imperative is still very important—and the more work you have, the more important it is. And the longer you have been working, the more important it is. It keeps you free. If you deal with your work completely as part of your regular methodology, you are more free to move on, unencumbered by festering obligations to the past.
If only it were as easy to do as it is to say.
P.S. I really should have illustrated this post, but scanning a bunch of those old workprints is something I've never gotten around to doing...plus, I gave up on scanners after my fourth one broke five months after I spent $650 on it....
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Martin Doonan: "Interesting, and almost exactly the same process I use for digital (except on the computer). I'm one of those who does spend several seconds with each frame enlarged on the screen. The trick, for me, to achieving 'one-touch' [I think the term of art is actually 'touch it once' —Ed.] in the digital realm has been automation. One action to import and number the files. A simple system of cataloguing (part of the first evaluation). One click archive, back-up and filing into a working folder. Not a single other part of my life (digital or physical) is in anyway organised but I got onto the business of organising my digital photography early and haven't looked back. It also means I'm more inclined to want to take phoographs because I've made it easy to deal with them when I get home."