I've gotten a number of questions about the techniques that Michael A. Smith and Paula Chamlee use, and I've been a bit negligent about filling in those blanks. Better late than never! Here goes.
Most unusual is that they are devotees of contact printing paper. (The category here being fiber-base black-and-white photo paper, of course.) The amount of light getting to the paper from an enlarger is very limited, so papers designed for enlarging have to be of high sensitivity to avoid excessively long exposure times. Not so with the more old-fashioned contact printing papers—which could be, and often were, exposed with a plain old light bulb hanging from the ceiling!
There's a lot of subtlety to emulsion science that I'll gloss over here, but very basically, chloride papers were slow (i.e., relatively insensitive to light) and had a naturally warm (browish-black, sometimes slightly greenish) tone; bromide papers were fast (sensitive to light) and had a naturally cold (pure black, blue-black, or slightly purplish) tone. Time was, back in the early-to-middle 20th century, that pure chloride papers were prized for their superior image quality, while bromide papers were considered quick-and-dirty materials best suitable for things like newsroom work. As enlargers became more common, papers with a chemical mixture of silver chloride and silver bromide salts in their emulsions—called, naturally enough, "chlorobromide" papers—became common. Chlorobromide papers were thought to give a good balance of neutral image tone along with adequate speed for enlarging. For many decades now, most black-and-white photo papers have been chlorobromide enlarging papers.
When Group ƒ/64 rebelled against the then-prevalent pictorialist mode of art photography, by making pan-sharp, unretouched images with sharp rather than soft-focus lenses, another way they expressed their rejection of the older fashions was to use cheap newspaper-room bromide papers. They actually made this popular enough that a generation or two later, "pure bromide" papers had become a status symbol in certain quarters in their own right, and at least one fine-art paper was marketed as being "pure bromide." Pure silver chloride papers were on the way out, and nearly became extinct.
The last of the old contact printing papers, Kodak Azo, had been in danger of discontinuation for some time. Michael and Paula worked very hard to keep it alive, eventually—reluctantly—becoming dealers of the paper just to help extend its life and its availability—for themselves, but also thinking of other photographers who used it. It was finally discontinued when Kodak stopped making photo papers in the middle of the last decade. But Michael and Paula still have some, to this day.
Here's a picture taken just a few days ago (Tuesday, I think) of Michael holding an 8x20-inch negative made with the camera in the top picture. The vacuum contact printing frame is under his left elbow, with a sheet of paper in it.
But that's hardly all. Famously, Michael and Paula embarked on a personal crusade to singlehandedly revive the nearly extinct pure silver-chloride contact printing paper. This they have done; their paper is called Lodima Fine Art. It is now the last pure chloride paper and the last contact printing paper* on Earth.
The venture has been almost quixotic, very much a labor of love. The R&D took six years. They've lost money on the project...but then, they were never in it to make money in the first place. When I think of all the photographers I know who have anguished over the demise of their favorite materials...there are so many who would have loved to do something similar.
That name—Lodima—leads us to our next subject. Note that it's "amidol" backwards. And what is amidol? It's a traditional, very old-fashioned paper developer that dates all the way back to 1892. It's touchy stuff. For one thing, after a while it will stain what it comes into contact with. There is a famous picture of Edward Weston, which unfortunately I can't find online, showing his fingernails stained black from immersion in amidol (either that, or he was a proto-goth). It also fogs paper fairly readily unless you're careful, and has a short tray life. But it became famous as the developer than Weston used and swore by, and from the middle of the 20th century right up till now it has had its fans and adherents, who feel its distinctive properties make it special.
So Michael and Paula aren't "just" large and ultra-large format photographers. They're also famous (some might say notorious) within that world for adhering to a very traditional and almost vanished technique: they make only contact prints, on pure silver-chloride contact-printing paper developed in Amidol. (They also develop their negatives by inspection, the same way Edward Steichen used to. I won't say they're the only ones using that ancient technique today, but they must be among a rare few.) It's an extremely traditional and also a very uncompromising technique.
In our current Print Offer, which ends tomorrow, Michael's "Rio Nell'Elba" photo is printed on Lodima paper; the other three are printed on NOS (new old stock) Kodak Azo.
These are not old pictures, and they don't attempt to mimic bygone styles. But I think that perhaps especially with Paula's "Jökulsárlón, Iceland" photo, you'll notice a distinctly antiquarian gestalt to the print; it's not hard to imagine it as a vintage print you might see on the wall of a museum, a testament to the craft of days gone by.
*Okay, one of the last. (See the Comments.)
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Sergio Bartelsman: "I bought some 8x10 Lodima paper and some amidol to prepare Michael's developer formula, and it is for sure one of the nicest papers with the deepest blacks I have seen. Provided your pictures are good and your negatives are reasonably well processed you're in for a treat. Contact prints have a very special and delicate character that is unmatched, making them one of the most beautiful photographic objects there are."
QT Luong: "I know this is a naïve question because choice of process is part of one's artistic vision, but I am wondering how much of Michael and Paula's success and recognition is due to the uniqueness of their process. There is certainly a difference which can be appreciated by connoisseurs, but if they made enlarged prints using a 4x5 camera, at those sizes the prints would still be exquisite, everything else remaining the same."
Mike replies: Exactly so. I would say almost none of their success and recognition is due to the uniqueness of their process—or very, very little. In fact, when presenting their work to collectors or curators, they don't even mention the techniques or the processes. They just show the prints.
As with all technique, it's really only of interest to them and to other photographers. Of course, this is a website for photographers....
Thingo: "Just read the article about the process of 'develop their negatives by inspection.' Not only why, but also how. Michael A. Smith is not only knowledgable, but generous in his sharing of that understanding. Indeed, this is a website for photographers."
M>B>: "I formerly owned that 8x20 Deardorff view camera. I sold it to Michael in the mid '70s along with lots of film holders. He had it restored at the factory. It was one of three of the original 8x20 cameras that was used to shoot the Grand Central Station backlit displays in the Kodak Pavillion."
Mike Rosiak: "I now have in my possession print #2 of Paula's 'Crawford Notch,' and I have to say, I have never seen a photographic print quite like this one. It shows me what is possible. Michael and Paula are quite gracious people. Even though they were in full production mode, they were kind enough to allow my wife and I to visit their studio, ostensibly to pick up the print, but more importantly, to meet the artists. The visit also provided the opportunity to see first hand some of their other work."