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The stuff of dreams

I have a page of links on my website entitled: Photographers You Should Know About.

It’s a list of friends, acquaintances, and people I’ve never met. All photographers, of course. The list could be longer, but at the moment, it is what it is.

I recently added the name of Raphael Shevelev. I came across him via a link on Facebook (by another photographer), and was particularly struck by his articles.  I’ve exchanged emails with him, and he is a gracious gentleman.  He gave me permission to reference his work.

Specifically, I recommend reading the article on creativity: The (Dis)Comfort of Creation.

In it, Shevelev begins by saying this:

“In the beginning we were given light and cameras and film, and we wandered around the Vale of Cameraclubville and made lovely images, and we saw that they were good. And on the seventh day we rested. On the morning of the eighth day we awoke, a little disturbed by our dreams, but, as they were only dreams, we dismissed them and went about our business of making more lovely images.

“The practice made us better and better; we became virtuosi, technically excellent. Yet our souls seemed somehow to get hungrier and hungrier, so we had fantasies, but we dismissed them for being only fantasies.

“We are the descendants of logicians and scientists, secure in the knowledge that advancement stems from the progression of associative thought, each step carefully constructed upon the foundation of all that has gone before, all that has been tested and proven and safe. The progress of the world, in science and in art, seems therefore to be a linear process drawing ever more expertise (virtuosity) from practitioners. It is, after all, only children and primitives who dream and fantasize, and weave those dreams and fantasies into the fabric of their daily lives.

“Not so!”

How not so? Read the whole article. It is enlightening.

I have made some lovely images. What I dream is different, however.

Just last week I went to my darkroom and printed a negative that is perfectly fine. It is exposed correctly, in focus, and technically correct in many objective ways. Subjectively, the composition is fine (if I may say so myself) and it makes a nice picture.

But it is intensely unsatisfying!


It required only skill and no creativity (except maybe for where to stand, as Ansel Adams once said). Even that could be argued to be skill based.

It’s hard to break away from what one has done all of their life, especially as an artist. I do not use that term lightly. Many photographers do not consider themselves artists. If so, then they likely are not artists. But I took a look at the body of work I have made over the last few decades and determined that I did not need to ever make those images again. Not that they were bad photographs, but I had been there, done that.

This was a while back, and since then, I’ve made many of those “same” images, including the negative I printed last week. While not needing to, I will still make them, because I will be in a place where that’s the photograph to make.

But the stuff of dreams (both sleeping and “day”) is much different. The problem is two-fold. Since I’ve come to the realization, I have been too busy with the same old types of images (making the book, for instance) to really be bold and creative. Also – and this is more important – I do not have the technical expertise to take the dream images and get them on film or onto a sensor. Well, not yet! That’s the scariest part.

I’ve done some experimenting, but nothing is ready for public consumption.

If one is going to be an artist, however, one has to make art. Even it it’s bad …

The best laid plans …

In my  post a few days ago, I went on and on about re-arranging the furniture in the darkroom. One of my points was that the enlargers now sat lower.

Well, that didn’t work out.

I spent part of yesterday making some proof prints. Nothing too strenuous, just some quick and dirty RC prints with negligible burning and dodging. I stopped not because I was finished, or tired of working (it happens); but my back started to feel the effects of bending over ever so slightly while making test strips or putting the paper in the easel.

The enlargers are back up to the height they were before, and I think the next printing session will be more comfortable.

There are conventions as to the height of certain things. If you’ve ever designed or remodeled, say, a kitchen, you’re probably familiar with the concept. Most tables and desks (in the US) are 28-30 inches high – 30 being the most common. This height is comfortable sitting in a standard chair (also made within a standard height range.) “Counter height” is 34-36 inches, leaning toward 36. This is the height of your kitchen counters.

I’m a big believer in having things at the correct height. I first came across this idea decades ago when a tall friend was having his house remodeled, and his bathroom sink was higher than “normal”. However, it was at the right height for him! Much more comfortable. Since I am of average height, standard dimensions work pretty well for me.

Darkroom sink stands are often manufactured so that the sink bottom is at table height. The front of the sinks is then at counter height and meshes up with any surrounding cabinets. This is similar to a kitchen sink. (No, really, go measure yours.) Having a sink bottom at 30 inches, or even a bit lower, makes it easier to do some things, such as filling up a large pot or jug with water, and then having to lift it out of the sink!

However, if a darkroom sink is used primarily for printing trays, then I want the height of the sink bottom, and therefore the trays, to be comfortable for me, which just happens to be counter height, or about 36 inches. So, when I bought a sink years ago, I made my own stand, so that the sink sits higher. It’s always been comfortable.

This is the first piece of advice I give when people ask about “secrets” in designing and constructing their darkroom. Be conscious of the height of your sinks. It will save your back in the long run.

The second sink (now that I have one after all these years) is at the standard height like a kitchen sink. It’s for mixing chemistry and cleaning, so it works fine. The print washer is also in this sink, so it’s easier to get paper in and out than it would be 6 inches higher.

Lowering the baseboard of the enlarger had the same effect on me as having to bend over to rock trays. It probably would not have been so obvious as quickly when I was younger, but I am not younger anymore. Anyway, it was a simple fix. I had the one stand (before all this moving around) jacked up with a set of those plastic bed risers, designed to add 5.5 inches (close enough) to anything with four legs. Another $5 set of those, and it’s all better.


It’s a New Year

This week, I spent some time working on the darkroom, not in the darkroom.

Technically, I was working in the darkroom – not on film or prints, but on the room itself. That’s where my distinction of “in” vs. “on” comes from.

A couple of years ago, I found the painter/spouse a large 20 drawer flatfile for her studio. (Gotta love Craigslist) There was already a smaller 5 drawer (also from CL) and it became redundant, so I moved it to the darkroom.

I had built the original cabinets for the darkroom, and so I built a matching support for the flatfile. The blog post in my old darkroom construction blog is here.


Original Configuration, 2010


Flatfile and support, 2013


However, the small flatfile’s functionality proved to be better suited elsewhere and so it came out of the darkroom.

This left a hole. Build another cabinet? Maybe?

As it turns out, after thinking about it for several days, I elected to simply re-arrange the furniture, and spent nothing on materials, or do any new fabrication.

I have a spare (read: unused and for sale) Beseler enlarger and the adjustable stand. The enlarger is likely spoken for, but the only folks interested in the stand were on the West Coast, and frankly, I didn’t want to bother dismantling and shipping the thing. Why not just use it?

So, both of the enlargers are now on their purpose-built adjustable stands. The reason I had not used both in the first place was that I don’t “use” them for making large prints. Maybe some day, but not so far. If I ever did, I had one stand for the procedure.

Well, now there are two, and I gained some other things besides facilitating larger prints.

1) I did not have to buy or build anything.

2) The enlargers sit lower on the stands than they do on the cabinets (I had the one stand elevated to match the counter height) and this allowed me to push cabinets and enlargers back a few inches closer to the angled ceiling.

3) Moving everything around allowed me to tack up some black cloth on the wall behind the enlargers. It would have been a much bigger project without the cabinets out of the way temporarily. Flare has never really been a problem, which is why I had not gone to the trouble before, but with the space open this took ten minutes (and I already had the cloth).

4) Sitting on one of cabinets between the two enlargers was my timer and the electrical controls. They ended up on the small table that had become surplus when I changed out the sink a few months ago. It was the stand that the print washer sat on, and now the washer is in the newer sink. The table was just in the way in my shop, and now it’s useful again.

I haven’t “flight-tested” the new setup yet, but that will come soon. Other than the afternoon of heavy lifting, I’m not out anything if I don’t like it and change it yet again. Oh, and the floor got mopped.

cabinets 2015

As it stands, 2015


I’ve never been one for resolutions. It seems that if one wants to resolve to do something, the timing of a date on the calendar is arbitrary. Want to change? Then change.

This darkroom fix-up would make for a good New Year’s resolution to do more film work and/or printing of existing negatives. Well, I do resolve to do that, but the timing is just coincidence. I have the film from the Big Bend trip to print (it is processed) and I really want to put together another portfolio or two. Busy, busy, busy.

Happy New Year, y’all!




Laura Wilson

Dallas photographer Laura Wilson currently has a show up at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth.

Wilson was the assistant to Richard Avedon on the project that resulted in a collection called In the American West, commissioned by the Amon Carter in the 1970s. Some credit the success of In the American West partly to Wilson, as she was the one who found and talked many of the subjects into sitting for Avedon. It is said that she was much more “charming” than Avedon.

But Wilson has always been a photographer in her own right, and is not just known as Avedon’s assistant. Much of her work follows Avedon’s, though, and this is very apparent in the current Carter exhibition: That Day: Laura Wilson .

The show is split between two galleries, the first being the large gallery between the original ACM building and the addition. The other half is upstairs in a large gallery usually devoted to photography.

The prints are big, as is the current fashion, but also reminiscent of Avedon’s prints. Most are black and white, clearly shot on film, and printed in silver gelatin. And, they are stunning! The darkroom prints were all made this year, although the images span decades. I did not find out who made the prints, whether it was Wilson herself, or another printer. Either way, it is incredible work.

The subject of the exhibition is also the “West”, and the people and activities found only in that peculiarly American sub-culture. Wilson makes no judgments of things such as cock-fighting or unusual local customs and rituals; she simply attempts to record them. But she does record them sympathetically for the most part. There are action shots, landscapes and portraits, etc. Really a comprehensive show.

Recommended! The exhibition is up at the Carter through February 14, 2016.


Sally Mann

Sally Mann has been one of my favorite photographers since I first encountered the photographs of her “immediate family” close to 20 years ago.

Mann was born eight days before me. We are of the same era, as well as the same Zodiac. Other than college, she has pretty much lived in the same area of Virginia where she was born.

Mann took up photography in high school to be, as she claims, alone in the darkroom with her boyfriend. Her education includes a Masters’ degree in creative writing, but she says that she has “never” read about photography.

We’re both self-taught. I like that. (Although I do admit reading everything about photography I could get my hands on in college.) I, too, took up photography in high school; not to be alone with anyone, but because my best friend was shooting for the school paper, and I reasoned that if he could do it (photography) so could I. Never discount peer pressure as a motivator (or young love).

Mann is perhaps best known for Immediate Family, her third collection, first exhibited in 1990 and published as a monograph in 1992. The New York Times said, “Probably no photographer in history has enjoyed such a burst of success in the art world.” The book consists of 65 black-and-white photographs of her 3 children, all under the age of 10.

The photographs are amazing. However, this book brought Mann not only acclaim but much notoriety, as the children are unclothed in some of the photographs. Only in America. In some Western cultures, bathing suits aren’t even bothered with for children until they approach puberty. We are such prudes, sometimes.

Mann’s appearance recently at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth was part of the book tour for her recently published memoir: Hold Still, A Memoir with Photographs. She read one chapter of the book – about her friendship with neighbor and fellow artist Cy Twombly.

The book sounds wonderful as well. Apparently the MA in writing is not going to waste. I was a little disappointed that there were not more photographs accompanying the presentation, but that was not the point of the evening.

The memoir is that of a life lived in the South. Mann is nothing if not a Southerner. But she is an interesting outlier as a Southerner. Certainly not the usual WASPish stereotype one expects. Anything but.

An excerpt from the book:

As ephemeral as our footprints were in the sand along the river, so also were those moments of childhood caught in the photographs. And so will be our family itself, our marriage, the children who enriched it, and the love that has carried us through so much. All this will be gone. What we hope will remain are these pictures telling our brief story, but what will last, beyond all of it, is the place.

Mann uses an 8×10 view camera. During the question and answer period that followed the reading, she was, of course, asked about still using film.

She gave the oft-repeated rationale that there is no substitute for the silver gelatin print; that inkjet black and white prints just can’t match them. (Without an explanation as to how or why.) This hollow argument was a little more amusing since she is now doing wet-plate.  She also lamented that papers weren’t as good as they used to be – another very cliched’ comment without further explanation.  For someone who professes to not read about photography, she sounded as if she would be right at home on an internet film forum.

Don’t get me wrong.  Although I was a little taken aback by her superficial answer as to “why film?”, I’m still a big fan.  All in all, an enjoyable evening listening to one of America’s most acclaimed photographers.

#SallyMann #Immediate Family

Women Photographers

Photographic forums on the internet are dominated by men. The general perception among the public is that photographers are male. However, if one pays attention, it is obvious that this not true, if it ever was beyond the natural gender divisions of society at any given time.

In studying the history of photography, one can go back to the 19th Century’s Julia Margaret Cameron. Then, on to the 20th Century, the “Golden Age” of photography to some; and you have Berenice Abbott, Margaret Bourke-White, Imogen Cunningham, Dorothea Lange, Ruth Bernhard, et al. In the 1930’s, four of the eleven original members of Group f/64 (arguably the most influential photography movement of the era) were women: Cunningham, Consuelo Kanaga, Alma Lavenson, and Sonya Noskowiak.

In the 21st Century, all one has to do when out in public is pay attention. Who is out there shooting all those senior pictures, weddings and baby photos? Often, it’s women. In fact, being a part-time “professional” photographer may be the new thing for stay at home moms, as real estate agent once was.

But, let’s not discuss the working commercial shooter, or the young housewife with a Canon Rebel who shoots a few pregnancy portraits. Let’s talk artists.

If you don’t believe photography is art, you can stop reading; I won’t waste your time.

I wrote earlier this year about meeting women photographers at Photostock 2015 (blog post), especially people like Lori Vrba or Christina Anderson, whose philosophy and approach to their photographic art inspires me greatly. Locally (North Texas), there is Amy Holmes George and Laura Wilson, just to name two.

What I see that all of these women (and others) have in common is the willingness to be more adventurous with photography than most of the male photographers I know. There’s very little of the same old rocks and trees with them. They also care more about images than gear or processes. This, too, is refreshing.

On December 8, Sally Mann appeared at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth to do a reading from her new memoir. It was not a photographic presentation, but did yield insight into her life as artist. Earlier in the afternoon, we walked the block west to the Amon Carter Museum to see the Laura Wilson show currently hanging. Breathtaking black and white silver gelatin prints!

I’ll write more about these two separately in the near future. For now, I would urge anyone to visit the Amon Carter to see Wilson’s show. And to look into Sally Mann and other contemporary women photographers to see what they can teach us about art – with or without a camera.