One of the reasons I got into photography—here I usually add "this is true," because it's so intensely ironic today—is because I had a talent for mechanical things and a marked lack of aptitude for computers and computing. Funny, huh?
I've never been very comfortable with the abstract. I don't like the way theory so quickly becomes insular and self-referential and loses its connections to reality. One of the things I dislike about digital imaging is the free, almost glib readiness with which it detaches from reality. Remove a bird? No problem. Add a moon? Easy. It's become popular now to say that digital is no different from photography in any other era because photographs departed from reality in every era. That's technically true, but it's vastly different in degree. Optical/chemical photography had to be wrestled effortfully away from its subversive and tenacious attachment to the direct report of the lens image; it could be done, but only within limits, and it was difficult, and often the final result left behind telltale signs of the manipulation that had been done. With digital imaging, of course, those formerly thick boundaries melt away like rock-hard ice turning to water. If you don't think this is true, please take a film negative of a woman with a telephone pole in the distance, and go into the darkroom to make a print for me. And in the print, please remove the telephone pole and make the woman thinner. Go ahead, make my day. You'll be at work for three days making enlarged copy negatives you can work on with a pencil, masks, all sorts of nonsense. And in the end, odds are the picture you end up with won't look quite natural. With digital imaging, of course, a facile operator can do that sort of thing with a few clicks of the mouse, and the final result can be utterly convincing. Photographers might have wanted to manipulate images from 1839 to ~2000, and they might have tried, but photography's ties to reality, though transliterated through the medium's specifics and its particular techniques and peculiar visual conventions, was robust, even obstinate.
With photography, it was the reality in front of the camera that had the upper hand, even though it got translated into photographic terms. With digital imaging, you have the upper hand.
I've often said that I lived at the absolutely perfect time to be a photographer. Periods of transition are rich. Model railroaders love to model the so-called "transition era" of the late '40s and early '50s, because they can include diesel and steam locomotives side-by-side on their layouts. When I was born, Edward Weston was still alive; Ansel Adams sent me a postcard. I got to learn photography as it had been practiced more or less since Talbot. I got to mix my own developers, and my first serious lens was one of the very earliest "zoom" lenses (it was actually a varifocal, meaning it had to be refocused after every change of focal length). And then, like many of you, I got to live through and hence witness the rise of digital imaging, which Ansel Adams foresaw but didn't live to see. I watched as a saturated and almost moribund industry turned volatile and dynamic, and the age of black and white transform to the age of color. Really, given my interests, the timing of my lifespan could not have been better.
One way my timing was not good, however, had to do with what Nick Hartmann called "the room-sized accessory"—the darkroom. That, I had back-asswards. Because when I was young and shooting Plus-X and Tri-X and of course doing my own printing, and needed a darkroom, I was poor and living in apartments and could barely afford the equipment and materials needed to be a photographer. Now that I'm a personage, i.e., a middle-aged fart, and able to convince the bank to buy a house for me to live in, I no longer need a darkroom. I was a darkroom nomad for years, using school darkrooms, other peoples' darkrooms, and cadging together borrowed equipment and cast-off equipment and gradually building up my stock of the stuff I needed. I finally built the darkroom I'd always wanted in a corner of the basement in my house in Wisconsin...and used it a dozen times. As a single parent and the writer of a blog, the computer won. I just didn't have time for darkroom work. In fact, since I'm on the subject, I will note in passing that I do have some regret for all the time I spent developing film over the years. It was necessary in those days; but those are hours of my life—thousands of them—that I'll never get back now to spend any other way. Maybe my timing wasn't quite perfect there, either.
But although I never got my own darkroom until it was too late, I did get my own enlarger. After a few false starts—one of them well documented in the pages of Darkroom Photography magazine—I bought a Saunders/LPL 4500 II with a VCCE variable contrast module. (LPL was the manufacturer, Saunders the U.S. importer at the time I bought mine. Omega now has them.) It was made in Tokyo. Trust the Japanese to finally engineer an enlarger right. It was a beautiful machine. The quality of its light was perfect—midway between the hard, collimated light of a condenser head and the soft, low-contrast light of a cold-light head; the VCCE sliders incorporated a neutral-density pane that compensated for exposure when changing grades, at least within a pretty close approximation; and the mechanics of the head and the massive column were so well engineered that the darn thing assembled in perfect alignment and stayed that way. I bought several alignment gizmos of various types over the years, but all they did was confirm that the LPL was still bang on. I'd been the darkroom tech at my art school for a summer (and, unofficially, thereafter), and believe me, I spent some time (and considerable inventiveness) aligning enlargers. My lens was a German Rodenstock Apo-Rodagon-N 80mm ƒ/4, hand-picked. A beautiful lens that I used for everything from 35mm to 6x7.
I used that enlarger in Paul Kennedy's commercial darkroom in Takoma Park, Maryland for a number of years, and then it came to the Midwest with me after my son was born. But when you're poor, or at least not continuously prosperous, it's very difficult to acquire and keep nice possessions. The reason is that even if you're flush when you buy them, lean times can mean losing them again. Alas—alas—the time came when I looked at my beautiful, trusty LPL enlarger that had made tens of thousands of prints for myself and others, and had been with me through thick and thin, and saw...the rent money. Off it went.
Another thing I got to witness in my lifetime was the huge increase in the reliability of cars. The first Honda Accord in my family was a revelation—the darn thing just worked and kept working. If you wanted it to start it started. Maintenance became a routine instead of a soap opera. Perhaps because it was also Japanese, I always thought of the Saunders/LPL enlarger as being the Honda Accord of enlargers—not fancy, not flashy, not classical or retro, purely practical—but it worked. It worked just like it was supposed to, and kept on working, dependably and reliably.
A beautiful machine.
I'll add a picture later, but now I have to skedaddle—off to watch a tintype demonstration by John Coffer! Should be fun.
[UPDATE: The enlarger is still available new but it's much more expensive than it used to be, thanks probably to the vestigial size of the market for enlargers. I was shocked as the price rose from under $1,000 (I think) to $1,800, years ago. It's now supposedly available from an outfit called Electron Microscopy Sciences for $3,622.
Oh, and about that picture—can't find an adequate one that I'm allowed to use. Sorry. —Mike the Ed.]
"Open Mike" is the Editorial page of TOP, which is sometimes off-topic. It appears only, but not always, on Sundays.
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Pi Manson: "I feel real sympathy for you, and for the sense of disconnection from the mechanical, physical manifestations of photography. My work is similarly sliding to the intangible. I am a bicycle mechanic by trade. I have always savoured the absolute mechanical operations of the bike: how moving this does that, essentially. But cycling is in an era of transition also: electronics, Wi-Fi, and motors are coming. I feel nothing but sadness about that, young as I am. It makes me feel old to be resisting the new, wishing back the ethereal digital tide from my adored solid mechanical bicycle."
Benjamin Marks (partial comment): "...Do not regret your sale Mike; rather pity those of us who have held on—white knuckled—to our technology past the point of depreciation, past the point of parts availability, past whatever final signpost of rationality there may have been on a straight-line, no-rumble-strip, pedal-to-the-metal Thelma-and-Louise...wait...where was I? Oh. The kicker? Several years ago, a local camera store had a Leica Focomat Ic for sale, and I said to myself, 'You know, I always wanted one of those....' So now the Zone VI has a little friend. You have to laugh."
Mike replies: I did. :-)
John Camp: "Photographers don't talk or think about the 'reality' thing often enough. A depiction of the reality in front of the lens is the fundamental strength of photography, just as measurement (say) is the fundamental strength of architectural drawing, and farm work is the fundamental strength of tractors, as opposed (say) to tractor-pulls. Sure, you can do other things with photography or architectural drawing or tractors, but the further you stray from the fundamental, the less valuable your work becomes. Software, of course, can be used to strengthen the realistic, as when it corrects for lens distortions, or corrects color, or adjusts exposure. And even some major manipulations can be justified, in lieu of (say) skill. In this regard, if you're making a portrait of somebody, and you get back home and realize a phone pole is growing out of her head, removing the pole takes out an extraneous element that in no way contributes to either the aesthetic or reality of a portrait; it simply shouldn't have been there in the first place. You're not changing reality by making the portrait-sitter's face thinner, you're simply compensating for your lack of skill.
"Essentially I think software is good for fixing things that you can't otherwise fix, and by 'fix,' I mean pushing a photograph closer to a perceived reality, or, in very limited cases, correcting mistakes.
"I also applaud your comment about differences in degree. There is no real absolute purity in photography—you're taking a picture, not recreating the world. Given that, differences in degree make up an essential pivot in photography."
Ed Buziak: "You may remember the review I did in Darkroom User magazine of the LPL7452, which I think is the same model as your Saunders 4500 Mark II...it's still up on my old Wordpress page. But for me the best enlarger of all was the totally automatic Durst L1200 Multigraph...it was so good it took much of the joy (or perhaps frustration) out of darkroom work and although very expensive, using one regularly saved a fortune on previously wasted paper. However, for absolute die-hards, I'm certain the Leitz Focomat IIC was the very best for everything monochrome from 35mm to 6x9. I did an overall review of the various Focomat models about 10 years ago which is also still up....
[Ed was the founder and editor of the British Darkroom User magazine. —Ed.]
Gary Nylander (partial comment): "I ran into a bit of a conundrum...as I was able to make a darkroom print or a print scanned from my negative printed via inkjet, which was better? Each had its own unique character. Eventually I ended up turning the darkroom into an office, made myself a nice desk for the scanner and a printer stand for the Epson 4000. Nowadays, and for the past 12 years, I have been scanning my large format negatives, which I then print out via an inkjet printer (Epson 4800). I love using my view camera."
Dale: "I printed on the exact same enlarger last night (LPL 4500II with VCCE head). Made some 11x14 prints from a 6x4.5 Delta 100 negative, a tight shot of Burney Falls in Northern California. I'm staring at the prints now, and marveling at the luscious tonality and details, as rendered on Ilford's Warmtone paper (selenium toned). Also reflecting on how enjoyable it was to be in the darkroom, handcrafting prints. I upgraded to the LPL 4500 a couple of years ago, and it's pure joy to use. The fine focusing action on that machine is silky smooth...luxurious! My Schneider and Nikon enlarger lenses are probably '80s vintage, but they give me all the sharpness and quality I could ever need.
"My career requires me to stare at a monitor intently for a large part of the day; the last thing I want to do when I get home is stare at a monitor for two or three more hours. Yes, darkroom printing is labor-intensive and takes a chunk of time, but it's so much more fulfilling, at least for some of us 'retro' types."
Crabby Umbo: "The absolutely perfect time to be a photographer"? I wish I could have been 10–15 years older (I'm 61 now)...there's virtually nothing I like about digital photography. There was certainly a lot of 'chaff' kept out of the industry with people who couldn't actually expose transparency film and get a decent result. I liked the film, I liked the processing and printing, I liked the equipment, I liked the art directors I worked with (who really don't exist today), and I liked the income from being good at what I did. Everything about computers wrecked the way I wanted to work. It would have been great to start my career in 1960 and pull the plug in 2000, which was about the last time I worked the way I wanted to anyway...."