April 28, 2002
Weekly Column By
Years ago I worked as the Lab Manager at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C. The Corcoran School has a fancier name now, but it's still the same good old place, tucked into the basements and attics and other out-of-the-way cubbies and warrens of the Corcoran Gallery of Art building a stone's throw from the White House. Frank Lloyd Wright thought the Beaux-Arts Corcoran building was the prettiest building in all of Washington.
Anyway, one curious phenomenon I noticed while administering the school's darkroom was that every now and then, breathless museum-goers would find their way down to the school with the same question.
"I've just been looking at the show upstairs, and I need to know — what exactly is a 'silver print' ?"
They were incredulous when I informed them that a silver print was just an ordinary black-and-white photograph made on ordinary photo paper. Disappointed, too — I think they thought they had stumbled on a Significant Secret, one they could emulate to make their own photography special. Really, what they'd been looking at were prints done right, made by master printers who knew what they were doing.
"I can hardly believe that," one crestfallen woman told me. "Those prints upstairs just glow. My prints don't glow."
Yeah. The Glow. I know what she meant. That rich, soft, pearly look that some master prints have. As if a soft light were coming from deep within the paper.
Of course, what those earnest would-be acolytes assumed was that if the method wasn't magical, then the artists' skills had to be arcane and non-duplicable. They were sort of right about that — skill counts for a lot.
But it's also just a look. I was a custom exhibition black-and-white printer for a number of years, and just like a jack-of-all-trades journalist has to learn to write in different styles, a custom printer has to learn to print in different styles. Different clients have different tastes, and there are varying ideas out there of what a "good print" looks like.
You should be able to get "The Glow" without too much trouble too if you really want to. Start with a good recipe, and then just apply a little more attentiveness than usual. Here's one recipe. Not the only one, but this should work for you. Anyone can do it — try it, you'll see.
A Recipe for 'The Glow
Use an older lens. An old, fast "long normal" lens — a 58mm f/1.4 or 1.2 — works wonderfully. Various makers made 'em and you can get 'em on eBay for a song. One nice new one is the Ricoh 55mm f/1.2 that costs very little money. A Noct or a Summarit will serve well enough if you only have Leica lenses. Don't use most current 50/1.4s, which are more "harsh-sharp." Stay away from Nikon lenses, too. If you want a cheap sample that will work wonders, pick up an old Pentax Spotmatic and an Pentax M42 screwmount (not Leica screwmount) 50/1.4 Takumar. And if you think that different lenses don't have different tonal ranges, shoot that lens side-by-side with a 50mm f/1.8 AF-Nikkor. That'll open your eyes!
Use a K2 filter — Wrattan #8, medium yellow, whatever you want to call it. This will require another stop or so of exposure. You meter will probably tell you you only need an extra 2/3rds stop, but use a whole one.
Shoot in good light away from the sun, and don't provoke flare. Shade the lens. Stay away from very high contrast situations.
Don't use a thin-emulsion film — stick with old-fashioned conventional emulsions. There are a couple of these left; one is Kodak Plus-X. There are some Efke and Foma films out there too that are antiquated emulsions and worth playing with if you're one of those rare individuals with plenty of time on their hands.
Expose enough. Say, Plus-X at E.I. 64 (that film's real speed), and maybe a bracket up for safety.
Use a conventional, traditional developer. Again, there are several, but Kodak D-76 is one. D-23 is a non-commercial developer that's easy to scratch-mix. If you really want a silvery look, try one of the pyro developer formulae. You'll lose film speed, but the full shadows and long gradation can be worth it.
Don't develop too much. Say, 10% or 20% less than the manufacturer recommends for outdoor scenes, no more than the manufacturer recommends for flat indoor scenes. Giving generous exposure and not developing too much is called "pulling," and it was common in the days before reliable light meters... and before the pernicious disease of "pushing" became an epidemic spread by hobby magazines and photojournalists. I'll give you a hint that will set you well on the way to being a better printer: never push.
Use a diffusion enlarger. Most enlargers are somewhere on the spectrum between purely collimated and purely diffuse light, with a point-source head at one extreme and an actinic (cold-light) head at the other. A Durst "condenser" enlarger is pretty diffuse, because the light source is a large frosted light bulb. A dichroic-style head like a colorhead is quite diffuse. Most photographers have no idea of the difference their light source makes in the way their film looks. The selfsame Tri-X negative printed on a Leitz Focomat IIc and a Saunders 4550 VC head makes the film look like it has different characteristics. Try it. You'll see. (Yup, I have. Sometimes, when I'm weary, I feel like I've tried everything there is to try in the darkroom.)
Use a rich fiber-base paper. Ilford's old Galerie (not the current paper of that name) was wonderful for "The Glow." Before that, Kodak Medalist yielded lovely results. There are many great photo papers available, but many more great ones are gone now.
Don't print with too much contrast. Most photographers print way too light and use too much contrast. Cartier-Bresson was always egging his printer to use less contrast — he sent the first batch of master repro prints for The Decisive Moment back to the lab to be printed with lower contrast. With many negatives, photographers unknowingly push past the natural scale of the negative and then think that lowering the printing contrast will make the print look "flat." Actually, if the negative has sufficient information, lowering the printing contrast brings out more gradation and makes the print look richer, until you get past the threshold where a complete range of tones is present — which most photographers seldom do. The point is not more contrast. The point is not less contrast. The point is the right contrast.
Voilá. The Glow. Try it, you might like it.
© Mike Johnston 2002
Mike Johnston writes and publishes an independent quarterly ink-on-paper magazine called The 37th Frame for people who are really "into" photography. His book, The Empirical Photographer, is scheduled to be published in 2003.