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In the Narrative Portraiture series, photographer and teacher Chris Orwig explores the use of elements such as location and natural light to create images that tell stories about their subjects and produce a strong emotional connection. In this installment, Chris visits Rodney Smith, a photographer whose work is known for its graceful serenity and its wit. Rodney's career spans more than four decades and includes editorial, fashion, and advertising work, as well as several books.
The course begins with a wide-ranging conversation between Chris and Rodney, during which they discuss Rodney's work, his approach to photography and models, his love of film and of black and white, and the importance of creating photographs that both ask questions and tell stories. Next, Chris tours Rodney Smith's studio, including the darkroom, to get more familiar with Rodney before photographing him.
Chris then takes a series of portraits of Rodney. Along the way, he reviews his gear choices and the compositional decisions he makes, and discusses the importance of committing photographs to paper, particularly in today's digital age. Finally, Chris reviews the images and shares some insights from his conversation with Rodney.
Chris Orwig: What a privilege! Here we are, in Rodney Smith's darkroom, with Trisha. She has been Rodney's printer for close to a decade. Chris: And Trisha, thanks for having us here. Really fun! Trisha: Yeah. Of course! Chris: And I thought it'd be fun to have you show us around the darkroom a little bit and just give us a sense of your process, as how you work here and how it goes. Trisha: Yeah. This is Rodney's darkroom, where I spend a lot of my time. We still print all the black-and-white prints, fiber-based paper, silver process.
We still hand-process all the black-and-white film as well. All of that gets done here. Chris: Yeah. And then how do you walk through this side of it over here? Tell us about what you have.... Trisha: This is the big sink. Basically after we expose the paper, it goes through the developer for a minute and a half, stop bath, fixer. We usually only fix it for about thirty seconds until you can--it's safe to turn the lights on. These are prints that I'm keeping.
These are sort of prints that I'm rejecting this morning. Chris: Okay. And why are you rejecting that one, just out of curiosity? Trisha: This one--his face is a little bit dark. I would dodge his face a little bit. The sky, you don't really see the edge of the sky, so I'm going to burn in the sky a little bit on this one. This one is a little too light for me. As you can see, I would probably burn in her dress and her shoes a little bit to just bring a little bit more detail into that.
Rodney really loves a lot of contrast in his prints, and the way he describes it sometimes is, he likes to see the figure sort of pop through in the background. When you do add a lot of contrast to a print, the highlights usually get blown out, which means you end up having to burn those in. But it does make for rich blacks and a really interesting print. Chris: Yeah. And what have you learned about--through working with Rodney--what have you learned about-- maybe photographing, about what makes a good photograph in general, through having spent so much time with so many images? Trisha: I really like the surprise in Rodney's images.
A lot of his images just really hold your interest. He is really good at composing and keeping you within that square. He is very good at the way he uses space. And, I don't know. Chris: Yeah, that was a good answer. How has it affected how you create your own images, or how you see the world, even? Trisha: I do shoot stuff on my own on the side, and I am a lot more conscious about where I place things. And not that I'm trying to imitate him or anything like that, but I definitely am more aware of how I compose, just because it's something that I see every day.
Chris: But it would be super interesting to see you create a print. Can we ever see that? Trisha: Yeah, definitely. Chris: Okay. Chris: Well, let's turn out the lights, and let's see if we can check it out. Trisha: So this is a negative of Rodney's that we're going to print. The first thing I'm going to do, it's already set to the size that I want, but I'm going to focus. Make sure that we get a sharp print. One of my favorite things that I discovered since printing for Rodney is the foot switch, because it's very handy when you need to do dodging and burning, which we're going to do a little bit on this print.
I like to work with seven hits for the initial exposure, because it gives me enough time to break it up. And I can get, I guess, repeatable results. Chris: Tell us a little bit about the tools that you're using as you're doing this. Trisha: I have some dodging tools, like, I've put glow-in-the-dark tape on so I can easily find them when I need to grab them.
They are varying sizes, and they're detachable, so I can make them any shape that I want. One of the best things that I have found for a dodging tool is a kneaded eraser. You can make it any size and shape that you want, and it's easily pliable. You don't have to worry about cutting out something every time. And we're just going to burn in the sky a little bit. And I usually write on the back the contrast and the exposure; in case I ever need to reprint, I know exactly where to start.
So a minute and a half in the developer, and we use Polymax T Developer. We're not going to see, like, the actual pop of contrast until it goes into the fixer. But we usually have a good idea. I actually will gauge the dry-down with the lights out in the fixer. Somehow it's a good gauge for me to tell what the dry-down is going to be.
And we'll just fix this for thirty seconds. And if it's a good print, we'll keep it in the water bath. And then at the end of the day, we re-fix all of the prints that we're going to keep a second time for the full amount of time, so they get fully fixed. But it saves us a lot of time during the day. So let's take a look at this. Turn on the light.
So we dodged his face. You can see from, compared to the initial print that we made, his face is a little more open. You can see more details. And we burned in the sky, so you see a little edge of the sky and a little bit of the clouds that were happening that day. So this is the keeper.
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