Vision and Technique

A detailed account of a workshop with Michael A. Smith and Paula Chamlee.

By Sean Yates for the Large Format Page

1. Michael and Paula's approach

The new millennium brought me a unique opportunity to attend a workshop led by Michael A. Smith and Paula Chamlee, leaders in contemporary large format photography. Paula's and Michael's straightforward approach has a strong appeal- they shoot 8 X 10 and larger, make only contact prints on Azo, and develop their film by inspection in A.B.C. Pyro. I had read Michaelís articles on Azo (View Camera 7-8/96 http://www.viewcamera.com), printing technique (V.C. 5-6/98), development by inspection (V.C. 5-6/99), and an interview with Douglas Busch (whom Michael had taught to develop by inspection, V.C. 7-8/90) and knew that I could gain a lot from this workshop.

Michael and Paula have proven it is possible to produce exquisite prints with a minimum of expensive technical paraphernalia. There are so many variables in the photographic process that some would have you believe the only way to achieve satisfying images is to purchase the newest and most technologically advanced equipment and spend the requisite time and money on testing and system calibration. I required an alternative and Michael's and Paula's direct, traditional approach was just what I needed.

Eight participants from varied backgrounds attended- two scientists, a doctor, an E.M.T. from Germany, a semi-retired professional photographer, a college professor, a recently retired railroad manager and a reference librarian. Among us, one had started shooting seriously when Michael had reached the ripe age of 10 and on the other extreme, one of us had been shooting seriously for about 2 years. Two of us brought 35mm gear, one brought 4 X 5, one 4 X 10, and the rest 8 X 10.

Friday evening we met at 7 p.m., socialized a bit, showed our work and looked at Michaelís and Paulaís prints, adjourning after midnight. While showing their prints, they talked about their visual concerns and began answering some of our questions. It is an oft-repeated axiom, almost a clichť, that thereís nothing like a contact print for quality-gorgeous detail and exquisite tones like nothing youíve ever seen. Well, Iím here to tell you itís true! Even though Michael and Paula go to great labor and expense to assure the best quality reproduction of their images in their books, there is no substitute for seeing the genuine article. Although I own three of their self-published books and have had the privilege of seeing prints by Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Alfred Steiglitz, I have never seen anything better than their work.

Paula's and Michael's approach is about seeing things in a purely visual way, the elements of a composition working together, while maintaining their individual qualities. Like a symphony, the individual notes are important, but they must combine to form a unified whole, bound with dynamic tension. An image is not a success for them if the eye is not compelled to wander, examining the details and feeling the pull of the composition, from the center, to the edges, to the corners and back. Their photographs arenít on their web site yet, but you can check out their work at the library (or order a book from them direct at http://www.michaelandpaula.com).

2. Printing

Saturday morning after breakfast we gave our most difficult negatives to Michael to demonstrate his printing technique with Azo and Amidol. We studied a sample negative of Michael's to get an idea of what a good negative looked like, adequate exposure to assure detail in the shadows and sufficient but not excessive density in the highlights for adequate contrast and separation without blocking up.

At first I was skeptical about Michael's technique of estimating an initial exposure time based on experience. He makes an initial exposure time estimate and then deliberately makes a second print too light or too dark, to establish the boundaries for the correct exposure. He calls this technique "out-flanking". While it establishes a window for the correct base exposure, at the same time, it gives an indication of how much dodging or burning will be required. I gave Michael a negative to print that I had never been satisfied with. I felt grade two was entirely too soft and muddy and grade 3 seemed entirely too contrasty. Using out-flanking, Michael produced a print very much like my own final print in three sheets of paper, and had an idea how much the highlight areas would have to be burned in. With my former approach, it took me seven sheets of paper to establish the correct grade and base exposure, with no attempt made to determine burning in times.

Amidol

Michael and Paula develop their Azo prints in Amidol which Michael bought a large amount of in the late sixties. The jars are stamped with the date, 1908! As far as Paula was aware, Amidol only came in one color, black. So, donít worry about your Amidol getting old and turning a little darker-just keep the moisture out of it!

They mix one tray of Amidol-volume depends on print size-but Paula makes a maximum of 40 finished exhibition prints in a day. If you allow for three work prints per fine print, youíre looking at something like 160 pieces of 8 X 10 Azo run through less than a gallon of solution over something like 10 hours. Simply put, Amidol has great keeping properties in solution or unmixed, and is economical over the long run.

Both another participant and I had printed Azo with Dektol and been unhappy with the results. While I had tried diluting it 1:6 and using a water bath, the other participant had switched to Amidol and noticed an enormous difference. His Dektol-Azo prints, like mine, had a strong bluish cast, while his Amidol prints were considerably more neutral, almost slightly warm. He brought identical prints from the same negative to demonstrate the enormous difference the developer had made.

3. Under the dark cloth

In the afternoon while the rest of us photographed and Michael offered technical assistance, Paula took each participant in turn under the dark cloth to examine compositional possibilities. She had allowed Michael to select her lens and initial camera position, forcing her to work with what she was given at random. By panning, and tilting, slowly examining and exploring as many compositional possibilities as she could, she opened our eyes to what was possible, what was there but what we wouldnít have seen if we had merely gone with our initial reaction.

When you see something that grabs you, you get the camera out and make an image-but the image reflects what you already know, where you have already been. Instead of stopping with your first or even second perceptions, Paula showed us that you should really explore a position and location for all itís got to show you. We were almost all working within 100 feet of each other but time and again that point was proven as Paula worked with us, helping us see what we had missed.

Occasionally in their own work, Paula and Michael told us, they discovered something on the ground glass, refined the composition and focus, and in preparation for exposure come out from under the dark cloth, only to be baffled-unable to determine what the camera was pointed at. Some of their images are not the kind of thing you would see driving along at 65 m.p.h. and nearly ditch the car over in excitement. Paula is publishing a portfolio of some of her work from Tuscany, and eight of the strongest images she found literally at her feet. Just by taking the time to look, to let the camera show her things, she was able to make stunning pictures that the majority of us would never have seen or even bothered to look for.

4. Development by inspection

After a brief respite, we followed Paula into the darkroom where she demonstrated development by inspection. While we had been out shooting, she shot six test Tri-X negatives that included some large bright areas. She explained the process of unloading and developing in trays and then turned the lights out. Paula and Michael use their own variation of the A.B.C. Pyro formula, but for the most part, their negatives do not exhibit the obvious staining one associates with Pyro. After eight minutes in the developer she turned on the inspection light with a foot switch. I donít know what I had expected, but the green safelight was shockingly bright after eight minutes in total darkness. Sure enough, even though the base side of the film was a murky opaque olive drab, the highlights were clearly visible as dark gray splotches.

I am sure it will take some practice to learn how to judge the degree of development, but I am absolutely sure that the rest of my negatives will be developed this way. It now strikes me as odd that more people donít develop by inspection. Folks get so worked up about exercising control over the entire process, and yet they develop their film with a machine by time and temperature, denying themselves that last, most important opportunity to have direct control over the end result. Using development by inspection and judging each negative individually, the technical pitfalls of Zone (N-1, N+1, etc.) are virtually eliminated.

It had been a very eye-opening day! We spent some time discussing what we had seen and done while Michael and Paula prepared a wonderful 6-course meal with a salmon entrťe. One of the intangibles of workshops is the connection you make with other photographers. It may be easy to find people as serious about the medium as yourself if you live in a large metropolitan area, and certainly the Internet has a way of bringing people together. However, there is no substitute for spending an entire day with one another, listening to questions and answers, discussing problems and concerns, seeing others work, shooting together, admiring others accomplishments, gaining new perspectives, and helping each other.

Super XX & Pyro

Several years ago, Paula and Michael purchased Kodakís last run of Super XX, which is now no longer made. It has a reputation for having a very straight H&D curve. Meanwhile, Azo is currently a sort of photographic endangered species. While their results may seem materials dependent, it is possible to at least approach Paula and Michael's quality with the appropriate technique and similar materials. Paula said that Ilford HP5 was the closest thing she had found to Super XX, although she has not had the opportunity to test Bergger BPF 200, available in the U.S. at http://www.freestylecamera.com and http://www.bostick-sullivan.com. Gordon Hutchings has published a test of BPF 200 (V.C. 9-10/98).

Ron Wisner has been trying to assemble a list of interested photographers so that Super XX might be re-introduced. Contact him at sales@wisner.com, or visit the Wisner website at http://www.wisner.com. Azo is still available from Freestyle, Calumet Photographic and B&H. Michael has allowed that he started using A.B.C. Pyro because that was what Edward Weston used, and has stuck with it because he finds it gives the results he wants. However, he didnít seem to think that D-76 was devil spawn, and that the only major difference might be that the Pyro was a tad sharper.

5. Critique and dialogue

We spent Sunday morning and afternoon in a print critique. One at a time we displayed our work and got Paula's and Michael's feedback. They had spent the weekend learning as much about us as we had about their technique and vision. While I had been rather apprehensive about the process, I discovered it was a very positive growth experience. Here we had two accomplished published photographers with work in private collections and museums throughout the United States and Europe devoting a good portion of time to looking at our work, helping us articulate our vision and giving pointers on our technique.

There was quite a variety of work - 8 X 10 and 4 X 10 chromes, 11 X 14ís from 35mm, 11 X 14ís from 4 X 5, portraits, landscapes, urban landscapes, contact prints and enlargements. Paula and Michael looked at each piece in turn, discussed what the image was "about" or appeared to be about, how it worked and how it could have worked even better. Michael used cropping squares to show how compositions could have been improved, showing just how important the edges and corners of a composition are. With her background as a painter, Paula's perspective was new and quite enlightening. Technical points were covered, but the most enlightening things we learned were about exploring visual possibilities and new ways of using the camera.

Throughout the entire weekend, one oft repeated phrase was, "Does anyone have any questions". Michael and Paula made themselves completely accessible to us. We discussed matting and dry-mounting, archival materials, print trimming, floating matts, and whether or not to include the film holder edges in the finished print. It was very rewarding. Prior to this, I had only been able to get feedback from photographers I had met on-line and mailed prints to. While that is a beneficial practice, itís not the same thing as having a free-flowing discussion with immediate feedback from experienced sources and the variety of perspectives available at a workshop. One participant pointed out that my close-ups of utility poles were reminiscent of West African Nail Fetishes. I would never have gotten that response in Northwest Indiana!

6. With a new eye

We talked for quite awhile on Sunday about everything. I mean everything! The workshop was scheduled to end at 4 p.m. but some of us had to catch flights. Others however stayed behind awhile, and talked and listened and learned. While we covered a lot of ground in a short time, the pace was not hectic or grueling, my energy was never sapped.

I had been given the tools, now I must practice using them. There is no short cut, but at least I now know I am on the right path, having had excellent guides share their knowledge and experience with me. Driving home, I saw a lot of possible images, things that caught my eye and asked me to stop. Instead, I kept driving, knowing that I would see more like them, and as I looked, more and more and more. Michael and Paula opened my eyes to possibilities, through instruction and simply viewing their prints. The next time I go out shooting, or into the darkroom to print, I will look over one of their books, reflect on what I learned and use this powerful workshop experience.

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