Category Archives: History

In a World that Knows Everything – We Know Very Little

Robert DemachyThis is a reflective and emotional time for me.  I recently went to visit my dad’s gravesite because it is his birthday.  It stirs a lot of emotion in me, some which is painful, and some that is joyful.  I also think of my brother and sister that I have lost as well.  These life experiences directly impact my work as a fine art photographer and also how I navigate throughout my remaining days.  I also believe my lost family members inspire me to enjoy the gift of today and also value the things in humanity that are truly valuable.

My work has always been rooted in nature.  I am more amazed today when I experience wildflowers or an old tree that seems to be timeless.  These are the things that bring me joy and peace – the simple treasures.  I can’t imagine life or fine art work without including nature.

On the drive home, I was thinking about how advanced the world is and how much we seem to know today.  I then thought “many of us are lost and don’t know as much as we should”.  When I grew up, there wasn’t the “world wide web”.  I read books and sought the knowledge of those that I admired and respected.  I still read real books and enjoy many of the classics that I have owned for decades.  My Mamiya RZ67 and Pentax 645N that I bought new in the 1990’s continue to produce the highest quality images anyone could ask for. My 8×10 Kodak large format camera that I bought from the original owner was made in 1929.  It works as good as the day it was made.  If fact, one of my most popular fine art prints was created with this setup.  Technically I could use it for the rest of my life and pass it on to the next person for a lifetime of work for them.

Fast forward 25 years and a grade school child has the knowledge of the world at their fingertips, and knows how to access the information.  But, is this really an improvement? When I go to my local mall and literally watch adults and children appear to be zombies while staring down at their smartphones while trying to walk to their cars in the parking lot or walk inside the mall, I realize how little we really know.  I think “why are they here?”. Surely someone has to realize this is ridiculous?  People rarely “talk” any more, is this improvement?.  Not to mention the invasive nature of having an electronic noose (mobile phone) is having on every aspect of our lives.  Is this really advancement?  It certainly isn’t in my mind.  Google, the NSA, and just about anyone that has the skills, track our every move now, be it for marketing data or for other reasons.  Is this improvement?

My thoughts continued and I started asking myself questions.  Are we really better off with all this knowledge?  What do I really value?  What will be most valuable to me if I am lucky enough to be old?  As I have thought many times before, the advances and materially-focused world that many of us navigate on a daily basis, won’t likely have much meaning to anyone when they come to the end of their life.  Things are just things.  People and relationships matter.

I think deeply about my fine art work and what I am trying to communicate and share with my viewers.  To view my fine art darkroom prints on a mobile phone screen is actually a pitiful experience.  The unique qualities that only film and printing by hand in the darkroom offers is lost in the digital translation.  It never was intended, nor does it need to be digitized.  I have no idea how art galleries are still surviving in this mass gluttony of the “tech area”, but I hope they fine their way because we need them.  My fine art prints are created to be viewed and experienced in person.  Anything less is worthless in my opinion.

I suspect my disposition to analog darkroom photography is deeply rooted in the way I see the world.  I often say “some things in life just don’t need to be further improved because perfect is good enough”.  For me, I see film and analog photography through this lens. Working with large format is an advantage in my opinion.  Even with medium format roll film, I still have to wait to get back to the darkroom and develop the films before making contact prints to see if I have a baseline on which to build a fine print.  I see this as a distinct advantage over the fast paced digital “shooting”.  Yes, I do exactly mean shooting. Ever hear a typical digital photographer describe their day of photography?  “I went to the nature reserve today and “shot” wildflowers”.  “I went to the botanical garden and “shot” people as they enjoyed nature”.  Do they have any idea how stupendously ridiculous this is? After being on this soapbox for years, I no longer offer the advice of suggesting they “create” vs. “shooting”, because I think they have it right – they are in fact “shooting” things.

The creation of fine art prints begins with my experience and ultimately I am telling a story.  I first visit the place that I want to enjoy and experience.  I find a subject that resonates with me and uplifts my spirits.  Then I select a format (medium format roll film, large format sheet film) and select a film that helps me create a fine print based on my experience.  I print in both color and black and white in the darkroom, so I first decide if the subject is suited for color or best in black and white.  Then I develop the film based off of years of experience and with creative intent.  I then create contact proofs and ultimately begin the process of printing.  All of my fine art prints are created on archival fiber paper and processed to the highest standards required my galleries and museums.  At some point, a day or two, or maybe a couple weeks, I end up with a fine art print that meets my expectation and I feel is worth of being shared.

The use of analog film and printing by hand in the darkroom keeps me deeply connected to my subject, thinking deeply about my experience, and the messages I am trying to communicate.  These seemingly negative side effects as thought of from a digital photographer are the very things that allow me to breath and create art.

Even though I leverage the advances of many modern advancements in photography, my heart always remains connected to the soulful and deeply meaningful process of creating images and art with my hands using film, chemicals, and paper.  Some things just don’t need further improvement.  Have you recently experienced a large darkroom gallery print in person? Race to your local museum and ask if they have a program to allow for private showings.

Every time I walk away from a private viewing of any of the greats (Ansel Adams, Irving Penn, Paul Strand, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Julia Margaret Cameron, Elliot Erwitt, Edward Steichen,  Wynn Bullock, Minor White, and many others) I am never the same.  Even when I view the same prints over and over, I leave the viewing inspired and in awe of their masterful talent and their ability to impact people.  They were able to communicate emotion and a connection to humanity with simple tools and by today’s standards, a flawed medium.  If you are not familiar with these people, then you should be.  Don’t google them, go view their work in person.  Edward Weston printed with a lightbulb hanging from a wire by making 8×10 contact prints of his large format negatives.  I think we know how his story and contribution to photography and the visual arts turned out.  We can learn from him.  The simplicity of his process allowed him to free himself from all the jargon and create some of the most impactful and meaningful art of the 20th century.

What do you know for sure?  What do you truly value?  How are your responses to these questions driving and impacting your work as a photographer?  Are you a creator or a “shooter”?

If you are local or travel to the St. Louis area, I regularly host free workshops that you can attend.

This article first appeared on my analog film photography blog at www.blackandwhitefineart.net – © Tim Layton – All Rights Reserved

Tim Layton

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What if?

LandscapesWhat if today was your last day on this earth and you had to decide what to photograph?  What would you photograph, what film would you use and why?  Humanity continues to evolve and change with or without our permission and in 2013 life requires a lot of money to survive.  Have we really made progress as people?  If you are showing up to your job every day, secretly wishing you could pursue your photography, then your destiny has probably already been decided.

What would it take for you to free yourself from the short-term responsibilities and the financial requirements to pursue your art and dreams?  Is it possible? Are you really wiling to sacrifice what it takes to have that chance? Would you be willing to sell your comfortable home and nice car that you drive to your job every day, so that you can work all day, and then drive to work again tomorrow?

Do you realize that you will never be famous and you won’t sell enough of your work to even reach poverty levels by US standards?  You probably will never sell any of your work most likely.  Have you ever verbalized your dreams of pursuing photography to your family, only to see a blank stare?  Then they hit you upside the head with their iPhone and ask what makes you think your work is so special.  I assume you had enough common sense not to waste your precious resources on a fine art degree.  You will most likely continue showing up at your job that you dread and trying to steal away a few precious hours, evenings, and weekends to pursue your dreams until you finally give up. After you have lived your life and your last day comes, your photos will end up in a shoebox at your estate sale where some guy digs through your negatives to sell them on e-Bay.  He quickly grabs them without your required white gloves and shoves them into a duffel bag.  Your family approves a bulk purchase of 50 cents for all your life’s work and they think it is a fair deal.

If you can accept your work has no material value to others and what you are doing is fundamentally unimportant, then there may be hope for you.  Never give up, but be honest with yourself and be clear on what you are willing to sacrifice in order to work in your darkroom without interruption.

If you have any questions or comments, I am always glad to help.

Tim Layton

 

The Magic of Polaroids

Polaroid TulipsI read an article today on the NPR website about a new book on the history of the beloved Polaroid camera and I wanted to share it with you.  Some of my best memories were captured on Polaroid cameras as a child and I still have several of them in my arsenal of camera gear today.  The image to the left was taken with my 4×5 field camera using a Polaroid instant back and Fuji FP 100-C instant film.  Unfortunately, we no longer have Polaroid film, but thankfully Fuji came to the rescue and started producing film for us. Fuji also produces a black and white version too.  A pack of 10 instant films run about $8, which is very reasonable to me.

In the digital social media world of Instagram as well as a multitude of iPhone apps, Polaroid instant film is reaching an entire new generation in a completely different way.

Christopher Bonanos, an editor at New York Magazine, has written a history of Polaroid, called Instant.  At the NPR link you can also listen to an interview with the author where the host Scott Simon talks to him about his new book, in which he calls Polaroid the Apple of its day.

Book Description: “Instant photography at the push of a button!” During the 1960s and ’70s, Polaroid was the coolest technology company on earth. Like Apple, it was an innovation machine that cranked out one must-have product after another. Led by its own visionary genius founder, Edwin Land, Polaroid grew from a 1937 garage start-up into a billion-dollar pop-culture phenomenon. Instant tells the remarkable tale of Land’s one-of-a-kind invention-from Polaroid’s first instant camera to hit the market in 1948, to its meteoric rise in popularity and adoption by artists such as Ansel Adams, Andy Warhol, and Chuck Close, to the company’s dramatic decline into bankruptcy in the late ’90s and its unlikely resurrection in the digital age. Instant is both an inspiring tale of American ingenuity and a cautionary business tale about the perils of companies that lose their creative edge.”

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Good Video – History of Photography

The history of photography is Beaumont Newhall. Throughout most of the 20th century he has seen a central figure in the movement to have photography recognized as an art form. It might also be said that he created the “history of photography” as a distinct and respected field of study. As a founder and father of the history of photography, photographer, curator, art historian, writer, scholar, teacher and administrator it seems as if there has been more than one Beaumont Newhall. Beginning in 1938 at the Museum of Modern Art, he created the first retrospective exhibition of the 100-year-old art of photography. This documentary highlights some of Beaumont’s experiences of being a lifelong friend, mentor and confident of many photographers now in the annals of history.

One of the best quotes I can pass along from Beaumont Newhall is “Why Photography?”.  He said…photography is an additional opportunity to see the world, an opportunity to hold the world for a moment….It is a puzzle and we struggle to explain it.

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What Difference is There Between a Good Photograph and an Artistic Photograph?

In Camera Notes Volume III, No. 2 (October 1899) Robert Demachy, a prominent French pictorial photographer, discusses his artistic approach to photography.  Robert Demachy says “The answer to what difference is there between a good photograph and an artistic photograph is at first sight simple, however this is a dangerous error.”  An artistic photograph is much more than a good print from a good negative that has a carefully selected subject, composition, and lighting.  Demach states the nearly universal error is owed to the thousands of so-called artistic photographs with which our average exhibitions are crowded–photographs so much alike in their faults that they seem to be the deformed children of one and the same father.

Robert Demachy (1859-1936) was France’s best-known photographer of the Pictorialist era, exhibiting internationally and published many articles on fine-art photography.  Demachy was known as an experimenter that pushed the envelope beyond the obvious.  He was said to have shamelessly manipulated the image and experimented with etching techniques and printing processes that included oil and gum.

Robert Demachy states “No progress will ever be made in pictorial photography whilst photographers continue to rely on the above definition and refuse to use, to some purpose, eyes that seem blind to nature’s delicate nuances.  Let them go to the art galleries, seek the engravings, lithographs, chalk and charcoal drawings, let them bring their pet photographs for comparison, and they will soon acknowledge that correct composition–that is, composition devoid of such errors in lines and general balance as would many any subject displeasing–is no doubt necessary; that correct lighting, i.e., an arrangement of light and shade calculated to bring out the center interest of the composition, is also necessary; but that correct, and even good composition and lighting, such as are often found in photographs, go for nothing if they are not joined with true values, true tone, true rendering of texture, and what we call in French studio language, “une belle matiere”, that is, a pigment of such nature that it will allow of rich, transparent shadows and of delicate and fluid half-tones.

So we must alter the definition of an artistic photograph, as it is understood by nine out of ten photographers, and say that a photograph is artistic when it is correct in composition and lighting, true in values, tone, and texture, and printed on such a medium that it will satisfy the eye of the artist.

Is this asking too much of the photographer, composition, lighting, values, tone, texture, and medium?

We must realize that, on undertaking pictorial photography, we have, unwittingly perhaps, bound ourselves to the strict observance of rules hundreds of years more ancient than the oldest formula of our chemical craft.  We have slipped into the Temple of Art by a back door, and found ourselves amongst the crowd of adepts–alone and uninitiated.  Let us frankly discard our primitive errors–and learn”.

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Tim Layton
Analog Film Photography Blog
www.blackandwhitefineart.net

All text and images copyright © Tim Layton Sr. 1983 – 2014

Chasing the Image

As modern day photographers many people may not really understand the rich history of photography and in the scope of humanity how new this medium and technology really is.  Modern day photography as we understand it today was fully realized back in 1839.  Every since then photography has captured the attention of generations.  As a photographer that struggles to master the medium I feel it is important to fully understand the history of the art and science and so I plan to write a variety of articles starting today discussing the history of this wonderful thing we call photography. Anyone who has tried to master the medium understands that it is impossible to separate the art from the science but in the end it is the art that we chase.  I love the technical nature of fine art black and white photography but I am always focused on making a fine print.  Rigor and stability in my processes only help me realize my vision in the end and while I place a great deal of importance on the technical side of things, I never let the balance shift away from the art.  I appreciate and also enjoy the many different processes and the precision that is required to ultimately produce that piece of art that makes us stop and pause for a moment from our busy lives.  I can’t imagine a better way to see the world and experience it.

Chasing the Image

Long before 1839 and the discovery of the silver salts light sensitivity principles were conceived in the Renaissance period (14th to 17th centuries).  The word “dark room” came from the term “camera obscura” which literally means dark room.  The people in this time period had already figured out that by allowing light to enter a small hole in the wall of a dark room that it would produce an inverted image of what was outside the room on the back wall.  Can you imagine how these people must have felt about this?  They must have thought this was some sort of magic.

In 1435 Leon Battista Alberti (1404 to 1472) and several colleagues documented the theory and rules of perspective which basically states that when light rays emanating from objects are received by the eye at the apex of a cone.  The plane of a picture is is considered to be a vertical section of this pyramid.

Later on it was discovered that Alberti’s theoretical window could be realized in our world by drawing on a pane of vertical glass when looking through a small hole on the opposite center of the pane.  In 1525 a device like this was created for portraiture. We can duplicate Alberti’s window today in our modern cameras when light rays passing through the lens are received on the vertical plane of our film.

In the mid 1500’s others continued the work and realized that a better image could be produced by replacing the pinhole with a lens.  They would darken the room by closing all the windows and shutters until the only light entering the room came via the lens.  Then they would have a piece of paper that would be moved forward or backward until the scene was the sharpest.  They would then trace and shade the image to make their modern day piece of art.

As you could image the camera obscura was very limited until the people of the 17th and 18th century figure out how to make it portable.