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Discovering possibilities in the darkroom

From: Jerry Uelsmann & Maggie Taylor: This is not photography

Video: Discovering possibilities in the darkroom

Jerry Uelsmann: I could easily take--this is with the figure against the black background, which is clear film. And where is this other? Here's the one with these. So that you know, you could print that in one enlarger as a single straight negative, but would have a multiple-exposure effect. And I knew enough about film and all that that these things were sort of a logical way of thinking about it, of dealing with black. And from that I moved to-- I used to have an old Bronica. A nd I had.

Discovering possibilities in the darkroom

Jerry Uelsmann: I could easily take--this is with the figure against the black background, which is clear film. And where is this other? Here's the one with these. So that you know, you could print that in one enlarger as a single straight negative, but would have a multiple-exposure effect. And I knew enough about film and all that that these things were sort of a logical way of thinking about it, of dealing with black. And from that I moved to-- I used to have an old Bronica. A nd I had.

I can turn this off now. This is just simply black felt paper, which I could mask at my camera lens. And when you block-- we used to put this in a lens shade. We'll make this closer. But if this were a lens shade, this here would be right against the camera lens, and because it's against the camera lens, it would produce a soft edge. If I shot a background and then rotated this 180 degrees, I could shoot a foreground and get it to blend on the same piece of film.

But that became challenging, because you'd suddenly find an interesting background, old building, but then where is the foreground? Then soon I just left it blank and then later would sandwich the negatives. And this is a contact sheet, which doesn't show up very well. But this particular tree here, you can see how it fades. It's two identical pictures of that same tree now. And now this is the way they were taken, but then if I flip this one and put it on top of that one and line it up, you could then have a symmetrical image that you could print in one enlarger.

(music playing) When I first began multiple printing in the darkroom, I was raised in darkrooms in Rochester Institute of Technology, a high-tech institution where there was one enlarger in the darkroom. So what I would do, I'd take my piece of photo paper and make a little drawing where the head was going to fall off this thing. Take a piece of paper, print the head and dodge, like, by hand. Then I'd put that--and I had to mark it so I knew which side went in.

Change negatives, refocus, dah-dah-dah-dah, what might be the foreground. Get my drawing out. Try to line it up, and then the developer, I'm watching this, and nine times out of ten, it's a little bit this way, it's a little bit that way. I worked that way for about, it had to be, maybe, I don't know, six months. And I've got--and I was in the university darkroom here, which had eight enlargers in it. So I had the prints washing in a little-- they used to have these spinner-type washes there-- one day after wasting twenty sheets of paper to get two good prints, and I'm looking at these other enlargers.

And suddenly I go, oh my God. Once I had the enlargers, negatives in different enlargers, if the one was a half inch off, I would move the easel. I could mark it easier. Once I had the exposures, I didn't have to keep changing negatives and the exposures. I mean, the speed with which I could explore increased a hundred fold. It was a major breakthrough at the time. Peter Burnell: He becomes such an incredible craftsman in technique, and many of them were very simple negative sandwiches.

I mean and so it's no big deal to do that. It's a big deal to decide to do it and then secondarily, to do it so well that it doesn't become obvious, but it becomes part of the entire visual experience. Jerry: This is the print that we're going to create today in the darkroom. It involves five different negatives. The sky is one negative of this clouds. This rocky foreground with the mountain is the second negative.

The silhouetted figure, transparent figure, is a third negative. The face here on the rock, embedded in the rock, is a fourth negative. This chair is actually treated like it's a negative, but it's just two torn pieces of black paper put in an enlarger to create that stripe. We'll take a piece of paper, and this is now printing the foreground. And I've got it set. I can control the contrast.

So I'm making this a little more contrasty. And what I'm going to do-- those of you who don't know about photography, a little hard to understand-- if I go to the raw white light, I can darken that foreground. So that foreground I want to be darkened. And then I go to, this is the sky negative. It doesn't require any dodging, so once I get that in this easel, it's just a matter of letting it print. And I also have it at a higher contrast. And this is a little longer exposure.

Normally, exposures are shorter. This has that transparent figure, and this will be a very short exposure where you can see that figure. All right. And then this is the figure being embedded on the rock, and this is also a very short exposure. Sometimes I lighten this area a little bit. And then this is the chair in the sky. And I know like to keep it light on one end, so this does involve dodging.

So I want to keep it darker up here. This is just giving more light to the top and less to the bottom, so it sort of fades in and out. But I want it blank it down. Now, the most magical part of the process is when you put this into the developer and-- it helps if you talk to it. It should go two minutes. This is what keeps you going. Once--sometimes the first time you see this, you're hooked for life.

I still think it's magic, after all these years. Watching this thing come up in the developer is just amazing to me. And I've been doing it for over sixty years so... And at this point, truly, you're focused on, do I like this image? What else can I do? I actually did a bunch of variations, but this is the version that I'm happiest with. And after working on this image for almost a week, I came up with a title, which I call, The Forgotten Promise.

You do have a lot of controls, a lot more then people realize, in terms of increasing the contrast of an image or decreasing the contrast or just with light, making things a lot darker. I didn't want the eye to be pulled off in the foreground. I wanted to keep it dark here, go through the rocks, and get the sense of distance in the background. There's this dialog, an ongoing dialog with those materials, that causes those images to occur.

You don't have to complete the image instantaneously. I mean, you can. There is nothing wrong with that. But there is this ongoing process that is the dominant way of working in all the other arts. No one else gets that instant picture or that instant sculpture, or, you know, like that. There is that time frame there where there is this reinvestigation of the means. I mean, if you think about it, instead of if every time we said photography, we said light- sensitive materials, that's a whole different concept.

Now wait a minute. It's like you've got this thing and if you--if I put my hand there and flash the lens it's going to leave the-- I mean, it's, this is what I'm using to create these images. (music playing)

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