This 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