Week 8: No Friends, All Strangers

Basic Black and White Photography with Matthew Swarts

Helen Levitt.

August Sander.

Helen Levitt.

August Sander.

Helen Levitt.

August Sander.

Helen Levitt.

August Sander.

Helen Levitt.

August Sander.

“THE MIND and the spirit are constantly formed by, and as constantly form, the senses; and misuse or neglect the senses only at grave peril to every possibility of wisdom and well-being. The busiest and most abundant of the senses is that of sight. The sense of sight has been served and illuminated by the visual arts for as long, almost, as we have been human. For a little over a hundred years, it has also been served by the camera. Well used, the camera is unique in its power to develop and to delight our ability to see. Ill or indifferently used, it is unique in its power to defile and to destroy that ability. It is clear enough by now to most people, that “the camera never lies” is a foolish saying. Yet it is doubtful whether most people realize how extraordinarily slippery a liar the camera is. The camera Is just a machine, which records with impressive and as a rule very cruel faithfulness, precisely what is in the eye, mind, spirit, and skill of its operator to make it record. Since relatively few of its operators are notably well endowed in any of these respects, save perhaps in technical skill, the results are, generally, disheartening. It is probably well on the conservative side to estimate that during the past ten to fifteen years the camera has destroyed a thousand pairs of eyes, corrupted ten thousand, and seriously deceived a hundred thousand, for every one pair that it has opened, and taught.” —James Agee, from the Introduction to Helen Levitt’s A Way of Seeing.

For Next Week:

Download and review the slides from this weeks’ lecture: arts1810 slides no friends all strangers

Explore the contemporary online photography exhibition Making Pictures of People by Andy Adams at Flakphoto.com.

Read James Agee’s Introduction to Helen Levitt’s A Way of Seeing.

Read “Twentieth Century Man: The Photographs of August Sander.”

Read “Photographers: Know Your Rights,” by the American Civil Liberties Union

Photograph people you don’t know. (You must leave the perimeter of campus!) Make an entire roll of film where all exposures are of strangers, using both Helen Levitt and August Sander as models for your work.

Edit and Print your images and bring 4-6 of your best images to class with contact sheets.

Things to consider:

1. August Sander carefully set up each photograph he made, while Helen Levitt passed seemingly unnoticed by her subjects as something of a secret observer.  Which method of working feels most comfortable to you?  For this assignment, try both methods of investigating the worlds of strangers.  Ask permission to make some images and, for others, act like a shrewd voyeur.

2. Both photographers were highly skilled at using objects to propel the narrative of their frames.  How can you similarly use things in the picture to tell or at least complicate your story?  Include as much information as possible in every frame.  Can you photograph people and their things with equal weight?

3. This assignment is meant to bring you face to face with some of the “problems” of photography, in particular with issues related to representing others.  What does it feel like to lurk unnoticed, making images like a spy?  How is this different from negotiating a picture?  Is one method “wrong” in comparison to the other?  Do you (or should you) have an unobstructed right, in other words, to your sight?

4. Photography ideally spans gaps in both language and understanding.  Like it or not, your pictures are very loaded facts about both you and your subjects.  How can you use them to investigate your own (visual) preferences or prejudices?

5. Often the simple act of photographing something or someone can transform that object or person into something other than first recognized.  The way we make a picture also articulates our intentions.  With this in mind, how can you use your camera as a device for both understanding and transformation?

6. Move your body when you photograph!  Even if working from a tripod, consider things from several different vantage points while making pictures.  Think of how athletic Helen Levitt’s frames are, with elements stretching your eye to each corner.  How can you “stack up” information like this to complicate your images?

Flashing a print to reduce contrast

Flashing  is a way to reduce print contrast by deliberately fogging the printing paper. When you flash a print, you are essentially laying down a base layer of grayness upon which all subsequent values from your negative can be built upon. Subjects that have very little or extremely delicate substance in the highest (or whitest) print values—such as clouds, white water, objects in extremely bright light, or white-painted objects—are usually vastly improved when the paper is “flashed” or pre-exposed to a baseline level of light.  When executed correctly, the flashing exposure affects primarily the print highlights, barely altering the shadows.  The overall print contrast is reduced, but in a subtle and very useful way.

There are two ways to flash a print:

In the first method, the negative must be removed from the enlarger,  or two enlargers and two easels must be used:

  1. Set up the negative, align easel, determine print size to expose normally
  2. Remove the negative from the enlarger, but replace empty carrier
  3. Stop down the lens all the way (f16 or f22 in most cases)
  4. Put 1 second on the timer
  5. Make a test strip with at least 12 seconds on it
  6. Develop the test strip
  7. Evaluate under white light,  locating band that has the first visible gray tone
  8. To minimize the effect flashing will have on overall print contrast, chose an exposure that is 1 second below the first visible gray exposure. This is the flashing exposure for that particular enlarger height, print size, and lens illumination. It will be the same for different negatives printed the same size, so you can simply remember it (or write it down) and return for later applications.
  9. Replace negative. Re-open aperture.  Refocus if necessary.
  10. Expose whole sheet of paper normally.
  11. Remove negative as before,  stop lens to previous aperture.  Make flash exposure.
  12. Process and evaluate.  If you are still not satisfied with highlight details,  add increments of time to the flashing exposure until detail begins to “fall in” across the highlights.

In the second method,  the negative remains in the enlarger,  and a diffusing material (such as a plain white coffee filter or a piece of white plastic) is placed below the enlarging lens to break up the image cast by the negative.

  1. Set up the negative, align easel, determine print size, and time to expose normally
  2. Place coffee filter or diffusing material under lens.  This will cause a haze of light to be projected, not the image.
  3. Without stopping down the lens or removing the negative, make a test strip as described above.
  4. Determine flash exposure as described above. Unfortunately, with this method, the flash exposure will vary considerably from negative to negative and print to print.  You must therefore re-test for different images.
  5. Expose whole sheet of paper normally for correct print density.
  6. Replace diffusing material below lens.  Make flash exposure.
  7. Process and evaluate.  If you are still not satisfied with highlight details,  add increments of time to the flashing exposure until detail begins to “fall in” across the highlights.

Split Printing

Split Printing is a very versatile way to gain more precise control over the contrast possibilities offered by variable contrast enlarging papers. Essentially, split printing divides concern for the shadows and highlights into two separate exposures, each of which can be altered independently of the other. Usually only two filters are used: the maximum density high contrast (usually magenta or #5) filter, and the maximum density low-contrast (usually yellow or #00) filter. Instead of changing filters, print contrast is adjusted by varying the time that paper is exposed to light of each color. By using this method, contrast in the highlights and the density of the blacks can be controlled with much greater precision on a sliding, rather than stepped, scale.  It also allows for burning and dodging to be accomplished with either, or both, filters.

The main disadvantage of split printing is that two test prints must be made for each negative: one for the highlights (under the yellow or #00 filter) and one for the shadows (under the magenta or #5) filter.  It is thus a time and paper intensive procedure, but one that may offer you more flexibility and control than single graded filters allow.

The procedure for split printing is as follows: (Note: here the shadow areas are printed first, then the highlights.  You may chose to reverse this order by preference.)

  1. With the high contrast or shadow filter (magenta or #5) in place,  make a standard test strip for your negative.
  2. Process and examine under white light.  Choose the minimum exposure in which the deep shadow areas print as black, and note the time. You can either use that exposure or, as in flashing, reduce it slightly (since the highlight exposure will add light to the paper).  Experience will help you determine how much to reduce when necessary.
  3. Make another print with the shadow exposure you just determined, but leave the paper in the easel.
  4. Replace the high contrast or shadow filter with the low contrast or highlight filter (yellow or #00). Make a second test strip for the highlights on top of the shadow exposure.
  5. Process and examine under white light, select the best overall strip that combines both the shadow detail and the highlight density you prefer.  Note that time.
  6. Make the final print by exposing the highlights first for the time you just determined in the previous test strip.  Then remove the highlight filter, replace it with the shadow filter, and make the second exposure the time chosen for the test strip.

Process and evaluate.  Adjust highlight or shadow exposure accordingly by varying the appropriate exposure under the corresponding filter.

You can watch this video to review these steps before working in the darkroom!

Artist Spotlight: Rineke Dijkstra

Rineke Dijkstra.