A famous quote by a famous photographer:

“I have often said that the negative is similar to a musician’s score, and the print to the performance of that score. The negative comes to life only when “performed” as a print.” *

This oft repeated and paraphrased saying by Ansel Adams resonates with me, as it were, since I was trained as a musician. I paid my way through music school in part as a professional photographer – no irony there.

A lot of work goes into making a truly good print, whether in the darkroom or by digital means.

Too often, film photographers denigrate digital photography by saying that digital printing is easy. Well, yes, pushing a button is “easier” than rocking trays and washing prints. However, the work, the performance, of a print comes well before pushing the button or dipping the exposed paper into the development tray.

Yes, it’s fairly easy to print a digital file just as it comes out of the camera. But that may (and often should not) be what the photographer wants. It’s not that hard to make a straight print from a negative, either. Get the print exposure right and you’re done.

However, anyone who thinks making an exhibition quality print from a digital file is easier than making the same in a darkroom has never made an exhibition quality print from a digital file. But, I digress … (another blog post someday, perhaps)

Some examples. I am currently printing negatives and digital files made in Iceland in 2013. The light was often flat due to rain and clouds, but the clouds could be spectacular. Here is a “straight”, un-manipulated proof print and the final image after I worked on the performance a bit.

new kirk before new kirk after

This one is not even that complicated. Make the clouds darker and the church building lighter. A little crop. But, it makes a difference.

Here’s another, straight, then final

Djupavik before Djupavik after

Those were not even that extreme. This photograph, from the Texas Church Project, is one of the more complicated I’ve ever printed. I do not have a straight print to show you, you’ll just have to take my word for it. Looking up into the tower of this church, the light is stronger through the windows on the sunny side. Each of the four walls had to be evened out a bit. The most difficult part was the four portrait medallions. Each one required a difference print exposure via dodging or burning. They’re still not exactly the same in the print, but then that would have had an artificial look anyway. But a straight print was only going to show one of the four. Pick one!


* Ansel Adams, The Negative, (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1983), 2.


Magic light

Sometimes you just get lucky. Although, it is also said that luck favors the prepared.


In continuing the discussion of light, let us turn to one of the recurring themes of photographic lore, the “magic light”. Magic light is that period just after sunrise and just before sunset, when the low angle of the sun creates shadows that are, um, magic …

It was the end of the day, and we had been shooting at one of the churches featured in the Texas Church Project. This is Holy Trinity Church in New Corn Hill. (Yes, there is an Old Corn Hill.) It was late in the day, and getting near sunset.

I had been at this church before, and had found this location west of the church across a cornfield. (Yes, corn!)  However, the previous visits had not presented me with perfect “magic” light and near perfect clouds.

Vespers is the sunset evening prayer service in the Orthodox, Western Catholic, Eastern Catholic, Anglican (Episcopal), and Lutheran liturgies of the canonical hours. The word comes from the Greek ἑσπέρα (hespera) and the Latin vesper, meaning “evening.” Some of the prayers during these services refer to the “vesper light”, i.e., the evening light.

Traditionally, churches in the West were oriented so that the altar was in the East end and the front (actually the rear) of the building faced west. Even in buildings not so oriented to the compass, the altar is still referred to as being in the “liturgical East”. In Gothic buildings, one often sees a large Rose window in the West end, which is particularly effective on a clear evening. The National Cathedral in Washington DC is a glorious example of this effect.

On the outside, some churches were built with light colors or even gold leaf so that the setting sun would make the West façade glow under the right conditions. The 14th Century Cathedral at Orvieto, in Italy, is probably the most elaborate and well known example of this.

And in Texas, just northeast of Georgetown, sits a country parish built in 1913 where occasionally all of the elements come together and the vesper light causes this brick building to glow.

If only I had had the perfect lens. This vertical image is actually cropped from a horizontal 6×7 negative. Thank the photo gods for big negatives!

It’s a Savoy

See the April 15 post on my recently acquired Brownie Starflash.

I had two basic box cameras as a child and into high school.  One was a Kodak Brownie Starflash, just like my Dad, but the first was a Green Savoy, exactly like this one.

A box was in the mail today!  I found a Savoy at the right price point, and it’s in better condition than I expected from the photos in the ad.  Good to go.  It takes 620 film, which can be re-rolled from readily available 120 film.  It’s like a Holga without the light leaks.

my Savoy

A twin of this camera was the first camera I remember owning.  As I said in the Starflash post, I don’t think I used the camera much.  Most likely, it was the typical scenario where a roll of film (12 shots) would stay in the camera for months, before finally being finished and taken off to the drugstore.  It’s entirely possible that my original never had more than a handful of rolls run through it.

There is this picture I took when I was 11, which is of my childhood dog.


It may have been taken with a Starflash, but it was at this house that I have a visual memory of the Savoy.  Don’t remember where I got it (probably a birthday or Christmas gift) or what happened to it. But there is no mistaking a lime green camera!

Photographing light …

Time for more photographs and less talk in this blog.

I’ve been doing some printing lately, and have a lot to do in the near future.  So, why not feature some images.  Not without some talk, however.  It will be mostly about the picture, with not much other stuff. Three reasons for that:

  1. I don’t find “tech” (i.e., which camera, lens, film, developer, paper, etc.) relevant in most cases,
  2. non-photographers (and many photographers) don’t care, and
  3. I honestly don’t remember a lot of the time.

This first photograph is the most recent printed in the darkroom (accountants call that LIFO), but it’s actually an older negative – on the high side of 40 years ago.  I don’t know exactly, since I kept very poor records back then, but I’m going to say early 1970s.


There is no source of light in this photograph other than the flame.  It is entirely lit by the flame.  The background was probably not flat black, it was just far enough away that it did not register on the film with only the illumination of the flame.  The glow of the candle wax itself is from the flame.

The candle is about 1½ inches across.  It’s more or less 1:1 “life-size” on the negative.  This is a square medium format negative, obviously cropped a bit.  The camera was my Mamiya twin lens.  This bit of tech is relevant only to say that I made use of the built in bellows for the close-up; but of course, had to adjust for the parallax difference of the viewing lens. (Don’t know what that means? Just ignore …)

Why I like this picture, besides the graphic nature of it, is the light.  Much is made about photography being all about light.  It’s true that photographs cannot be made without light, but it’s often worded as if the light itself is the subject . “Photograph the light …” is a common saying.

One of these days, I may do a whole studio series where I photograph “lights”: bulbs, lamps, ceiling fixtures, etc.  It may be a joke on one level, but also an exercise in seeing – and capturing light – on another. The light source as the subject, just as in this candle flame.

I think this image is really a good example of the essence of a black and white photograph. Especially of “the light”.



PS: I am not making fun of Master printer Les McLean.  He is a friend and a formidable darkroom printer.  I am proud to both know him and to own an autographed copy of his book.