I want to print like Lillian Bassman. How?

Discussion in 'B&W: Film, Paper, Chemistry' started by applesanity, Feb 3, 2010.

  1. applesanity

    applesanity Member

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    Ridiculous but not overdone contrast, sharp yet dreamy at the same time. I don't even know where to begin... which film and developer, color filters, paper and printing. The only real clue I have is that she did this work in the 50s, so obviously she was using 50s technology.

    This question seems very open-ended, I know. But doesn't her stuff look absolutely amazing?

    [​IMG]

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    [​IMG]

    I also realize that there's a good chance the stuff she used (or hired some master printer to use) probably isn't sold anymore, but hopefully there are equivalents or approximations still around.
     
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  2. cbphoto

    cbphoto Member

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    I couldn't begin to accurately reverse engineer these at my level of printing experience, but I can say that one would need to start with the camera lens. I shoot a few Leica lenses from the 50s, and they give you that sharp yet dreamy look to start with. I find modern optics are geared toward a colder, more realistic approach.
     
  3. patrickjames

    patrickjames Member

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    I have read about her printing before and it is possible she used mordançage. If you don't want to go this route than get used to your new best friend, Potassium Ferricyanide.

    A lot of her work relies on some type of motion which means longer exposures than you would normally use. My guess too is that she shot a Rollei which was customary back then. It would explain the tonality and the sharpness/unsharpness that you describe. Unsharpness from the motion blur and sharpness from the size of the negative.

    This is all off the top of my head so take it as such.

    By the way, I have always loved her work.
     
  4. Bob Carnie

    Bob Carnie Subscriber

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    She is one of the greats, I saw her work here over 15 years ago and believe me when I say this( they are some of the most beautiful prints I have seen in a show)

    She was a fantastic retoucher , with her skill , and larger negs using red, coccine she would retouch the negatives to produce the blank white spaces.
    Countless photographers used this method in the 40's 50's and 60's for their negative work.None to the degree that you show but Karsh for example worked on his negatives with the red goop as well.

    There may be some ferri bleaching on the print but I think most of the work was done on the negative.

    by the 70's smaller format 35mm cameras became the rage and retouching of the smaller negatives became much harder and very obvious on the print.

    Her work is fantastic and she should have more credit as one of the great photographers of our time, I absolutely love her work.
     
  5. Nicholas Lindan

    Nicholas Lindan Advertiser Advertiser

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    On the techy side: Underexpose and overdevelop to get the contrast. Fast film to get the grain, or use an intrinsically grainy film like APX100 or one of the Efke/Adox films. You can wash out skin detail with a red filter, which would also cut down film speed (if you were using TMZ or Delta 3200) allowing wider apertures so you can throw the background out of focus - you may need to add a polarizer or ND filter to further drop film speed. IR film in MF will give some of the same effects.

    But that's all the irrelevant stuff that the photographer didn't really care about.

    Ignoring the talent of the photographer who made the pictures, you also need some very expensive and talented models, the services of a major haute couture house and a good set designer/location scout. And hair dressers, makeup, dressers, grips, electricians, drivers, tantrum soothers ...

    If the same darkroom technique had been applied to a snapshot of Aunt Harriet at her 80th birthday you wouldn't give it a second glance except to wonder at what fool had done such a balls-up job in the darkroom.

    It's the juxtaposition of purposefully horrid image quality and beautiful subject matter that gives the images their appeal.
     
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  6. keithwms

    keithwms Member

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    Some of those remind me of paper neg results. Either that and/or retouched film dupes. Some kind of two-generation process like that.
     
  7. palec

    palec Member

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  8. JBrunner

    JBrunner Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    The contrast isn't just in the prints or negs, it's in the scene. Far above technical considerations, her eye for light was obviously integral to her work. As far as paper negs, etc., I have a feeling that these are not the best of reproductions.
     
  9. Sim2

    Sim2 Member

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    A rather uneducated guess at this - Nicholas Linden was right in his post that it is not *just* the printing that makes these photos, it is the couture, styling posing etc that creates the backbone that the lighting and then printing is added to.

    I see very harsh directional lighting in these shots - no or v.little fill - best guess could be a focused spot or tungsten with a fresnel lens annd plenty of black flags. The deliniation between light/dark in this example is from the scene not the printing. Sophisticated set-up as there are areas of fine lighting detail that show the clothes bang up against the almost graphic white/black areas.

    Wouldn't even try to emulate this with umbrellas or softboxes, even studio flash might be too diffuse a light source without grids etc. A technical tour-de-force.

    Red filters may have helped with the skin tone but I would also agree that a large neg (10x8 perhaps) was used and retouched on the neg. They were masters of that back in the fifites - think of all the Hollywood film stills, retouched beyond belief!

    Not much help I geuss but maybe a pointer or two you could eliminate.

    Sim2.
     
  10. pgomena

    pgomena Member

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    Very interesting work. I'd never heard of this photographer or seen her work. Yes to all of the approaches mentioned above to produce these images. There's a whole lot of tonal manipulation going on. If there is artificial light added, it's been done so well that it's invisible. The swan-like pose in the third image is amazing, a tribute to the talent on both sides of the camera. Thanks for enlarging my photographic vocabulary with this post.

    Peter Gomena
     
  11. applesanity

    applesanity Member

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    Photographic vocabulary... The lighting techniques I can grasp, the use of contrast filters too. The lighting is definitely much more awesome that ringflash-against-backdrop fad in all the magazines these days. Large format I can do. But I read up on mordançage, Potassium Ferricyanide, red coccine retouching, and well, unfortunately I am getting the impression that while one may talk of the techniques she used, there is nobody around who will be able to teach me. Masters holding on to their trade secrets or retiring altogether, art schools closing their wet darkrooms.... This knowledge is fast becoming the Damascus steel of swordsmithing.

    The second picture I posted - is that lith printing? Also, one thing I have noticed in her work is that it's such a distinctively female perspective on the female figure, a subtle yet obviously different one than one gets from male photographers.

    Old photo class habits die hard. I still am using Ilford MGIV Fiber matte with Dektol. Not for any reason other than that it's the stuff with which I'm comfortable and also because it's getting too expensive to experiment... unless there are others to point me in a general direction. Should I be using some other paper + developer combo?
     
  12. greybeard

    greybeard Member

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    These look like very, very good examples of what would have been referred to as "available light photography" in the mid-to-late 1960s. A film like Tri-X might have been exposed at an equivalent ASA of 3200 or so, and developed in something like Acufine or FG7/sulfite to keep the grain sharp. The exposure meters of the day were almost all cadmium sulfide, incident-light devices which were pretty awful in dim light, so the photographer usually just shot wide open at whatever shutter speed seemed tolerable. To get anything like skin tones, the shadows and highlights were sacrificed when the negatives were printed on #3 or #4 paper. It is almost a signature look for the hippie era.

    I have quite a few old negatives with just this appearance, only without the superb composition and gorgeous subjects in the examples you presented. Magazine articles and possibly books from the period which tell you how to photograph theatrical productions, night club acts, and the like should have examples of the genre and references to the film and chemistry.

    For what it is worth, Ilford FP4+ exposed at ISO 800 (not the same as 80.0!) and developed for about 25 minutes in PMK will give you about this look, but please don't ask me how I know this...
     
  13. Bob Carnie

    Bob Carnie Subscriber

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    Lillian Bassin was a master retoucher before she was known as a photographer, Her work with the brush is amazing. If you want to emulate this look all the lighting in the world will only get you 80% of the way there.
    Large negative , red dye practice and practice with the lighting suggestions here and you are on the way.
    Her prints were very cool and screaming blacks from my memory.

    My first boss, would work the red dye with amazing ability and I too would have learned the methods if we shot large negatives but by the time I worked with him he only used hasselblads.

    Those large format photographers here have a big heads up on getting to this look.
     
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  15. Bob Carnie

    Bob Carnie Subscriber

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    David Ketchel may chime in here, he uses the red goop if I am not mistaken to dodge out highlights and has written articles about it.
     
  16. cbphoto

    cbphoto Member

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    Where do you get the red goop, and does it wash off?
     
  17. Bob Carnie

    Bob Carnie Subscriber

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    Red coccine, not sure where you would get it today , and yes it washes off.

     
  18. frotog

    frotog Member

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    Crocein Scarlet was discontinued by Kodak in the late 80's. I remember well as I had to buy the minimum amount (three little bottles of powder) direct from kodak at that time. Spotone used to sell a three bottle kit of black and red dyene that included a conditioner to thin it out. Also, "Lootens on Photographic Enlarging" has an excellent write-up on the how-to. I would not be surprised if Crocein Scarlet ( aka new corcine and corcine red) is the same dye pathologists use in autopsies. "Goop" is a bit of a misnomer as Crocein is very smooth flowing. Just like any retouching it takes some doing to learn how to control it. Getting the right dilution, learning how to layer the dye and smoothing out the edge can be challenging. Crocein Scarlet is applied to the non-emulsion side of the film. The neat thing is that you can wash it off after you've botched it up. When mastered it is an awesome technique - use it to add sparkle to highlights, open up shadows, add local contrast, or (like Bassman) alter significant portions of the negative. While you're at it check out photo mask-it, often used in conjunction with Crocein Scarlet for total immersion dying of the negative.
     
  19. cbphoto

    cbphoto Member

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    So it's like reversible intensification? Sounds really useful!

    Couldn't find anything on Mask-It. Too generic to Google.
     
  20. frotog

    frotog Member

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    Andrew Jeri company still sells photo maskoid frisket.
     
  21. Marek Warunkiewicz

    Marek Warunkiewicz Member

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  22. benjiboy

    benjiboy Subscriber

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    Even if the O.P has all the details of Lillian Bassman's techniques equipment and materials ( she is still alive, and lives in New York in the same apartment she has lived in for more than fifty years ) he's wasting his time because the best he can hope to achieve is plagiarism, what he lacks and can't emulate is her vision and talent.
     
  23. frotog

    frotog Member

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    Ya think?
     
  24. Bob Carnie

    Bob Carnie Subscriber

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    But he certainly can be inspired by her work and try to bring his own effort and style to his own work.
     
  25. keithwms

    keithwms Member

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    That's too strong (as others have intoned).

    It's not unusual for a newcomer to ask how something was done, and then to experiment with that technique or film or developer or whatever. That's the kind of thing all of us go through before finding our own way. All of us began by mimicking what we liked. It's not plagiarism, it's the learning process. If the entire output is limited to mimicry and never grows beyond that, well then I'd agree with you :wink:
     
  26. Shangheye

    Shangheye Member

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    ???!!!? So I guess that makes Fox Talbot the only true visionary, and we are all plagiarsts then :D