Pushing Boundaries Problem - and Excitement

Discussion in 'Ethics and Philosophy' started by Thomas Bertilsson, Oct 9, 2012.

  1. Thomas Bertilsson

    Thomas Bertilsson Subscriber

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    For the last couple of years I have challenged myself to become a much better printer. I want my prints to have this 'organic' and very vivid tonality with lots of beautiful tonal shifts, elegance, highlights that are muted but have that inner glow, deep and strongly black blacks, and well defined mid-tones that carry the picture content forward.

    I have no real rules of what the final outcome should be, but essentially I want the pictures to leap off the surface of the paper, and engage me or whoever happens to be viewing the print.

    So, I have gone through hundreds, if not thousands of sheets of mostly Ilford MGIV fiber matte paper. I love it for its surface, for the way it tones, how easy it is to spot once the print is done, but also for its consistency from box to box. It's my staple paper, and with my negatives and Ethol LPD (replenished) paper developer, my prints almost always end up printing well at Grade 3 filtration. I use other papers too, and lay my hands on boxes of Forte Polygrade that I can manage to find, and I really love Ilford Warmtone semimatte for portraiture. Stunning paper. But mainly I stick with the MGIV matte fiber.

    Sometimes I use split grade printing with difficult negatives, other times I flash the paper when printing negatives with lots of highlight contrast. I dodge and burn my prints such that I try to make it 'invisible' in the final print, as if the tones were just like that in the negative. I don't use masks - it's too much work and I usually find it isn't worth my time. I outflank the prints, by making a test strip using the f-stop printing method first, and then I make two prints - one a bit too dark, and another too light. On purpose. Just to see where highlights and shadows take me and how much I should dodge and burn in the work print, and then go from there. It gives a very solid foundation for the print.
    I also tone the prints. Sometimes a lot, and other times not so much. It depends on the picture. I use four toners to get what I want.

    Setting the stage - I try very hard to become a better printer, looking with a very critical eye on the prints, working them over if I'm not happy the first time. Or the second time. But I do find that I usually nail it pretty good in the first round, and it's rare that I have to go back and re-do something. I'm proud of that. I've gotten better, and I hope to continue that way and improve basically with each printing session. Today I think I'm decent. I go to museums and galleries to find inspiration from masters of the past and today, and I look at the work of fellow photographers today, exchange views, exchange darkroom tips, etc. We look at each others prints and it's wonderful to share like this.
    So overall I'm extremely satisfied and excited with how things are coming along. I'm starting to feel ready to really have a go at some of my past material and do the pictures justice after a decade of improving.
    I do find it frustrating sometimes, though, that I see clear evidence of how I improve, and think a lot about what I might accomplish when I improve to a level that's better than what I am at today, and then I look at my old prints and compare, thinking that I will want to always reprint my work, which becomes impossible, because the amount of work I amass just keeps growing.

    Does anybody else find themselves in a situation similar to mine? The desire to aspire to becoming one of the upper echelons of printmaking. But at the same time finding it frustrating that printing something today will basically be a learning experience for getting better, basically rendering a print a little bit obsolete as soon as it's created. It's a thing of never being satisfied, I guess, a desire to push boundaries and limits, to find out what's beyond my current scope of knowledge and skill. It is a wonderful journey, don't get me wrong, I'm both happy and proud about what I'm able to do, and a prospect of becoming even better.
     
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  2. Bob Carnie

    Bob Carnie Subscriber

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    Grasshopper

    You have reached the 9th level, you must leave and find yourself happy with what you can do .. you are one with printmaking.
     
  3. LarryP

    LarryP Member

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    +1 Bob. Thomas it sounds like you're in a great place, I get where you're coming from on reprints I was in a similar position with writing. I do have an idea that may help with that allow yourself one or two reprints of an image or 2 every so often that you can give to someone who will truly appreciate the new print.As an example redo a portrait and give it to one of their relatives, or a landscape to someone who likes that place or photo..
     
  4. Ghostman

    Ghostman Subscriber

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    Is anything ever complete?
     
  5. David Brown

    David Brown Subscriber

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    Thomas:

    I am very close to what you are feeling. I may be a little more satisfied with my printing "at this point", than you express, but I also know it can and will get better. I am at the point of revisiting old negatives, too. Some as far back as 40 years. It's a bit exciting, isn't it?

    PS: also pretty much set on MGIV.
     
  6. coigach

    coigach Member

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    Thomas, I'm an admirer of your superb work, even through the muddy lens of scanned prints on a monitor screen. Bet your prints look amazing in the flesh.

    Constant critical reflection of your vision and the means you choose to achieve it are the raw materials for producing great art.

    But don't beat yourself up either. Pour yourself a skelper of a dram of malt whisky (I personally recommend Mortlach 16 year old!) and bask in the contented glow. You produce phenomenal work, and are an inspiration. Looking forward to seeing more in the years to come.

    Gavin

    PS- I am a thousand years away from your situation in my recent adventures with Polymer Photogravures. But I still enjoy the drams...
     
  7. Ambar

    Ambar Member

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    I've changed inerests and areas quite a few times in my life, professionally aswell as personally.. I've been seriosely into photography for the past 2 years and I'm about to start-up my first lab and initiate myself on a print making journey.
    As a trained professional musician (and in other inquiries of life) I came to the conslusion that progress at a skill is alot like the famouse mathematical conundrum of always travelling a fraction of the distance between you and your destination. (Your a mile away from your destination and then you walk until you're only half a mile away. You walk again but you're just a 1/4 of a mile away. You walk again but now you only get 1/8 of a mile away. etc..). You never truely get there, but then again, how much fun would that really be?
     
  8. HowardDvorin

    HowardDvorin Member

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    Thomas,

    We all must live in the present.
    Accept that your work skills ,today,take you up the ladder to better work tomorrow..
    Look forward not backwards.

    Howard Dvorin
     
  9. Thomas Bertilsson

    Thomas Bertilsson Subscriber

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    Bob - I have always wondered at what point I'd be happy with what I've got in terms of skills and final prints in order to be happy with what I've got. :smile: I'm writing this in fear of becoming too obsessed with print quality. While it's good to be critical, and to actually pay close attention to the final results, I don't want it to be a road block to finishing prints and portfolios either.

    Larry - thanks for those words. I think what I need to do is to finish portfolios of series of pictures, and then leave them be until there is a request or a desire to reprint something (as a gift like you suggest, or a purchase).

    Ghostman - never.

    David - It is exciting. :smile: 40 year old negs - that must feel great to do. I had an experience last autumn when my father and I together printed a negative he made in 1963 of my great-grandfather. It turned out really great, and there was a sense of coming full circle with a portion of our lives that has come to pass, strengthening the wonderful experiences both have had with him. Those pictures become valuable with age, it seems.

    Gavin - thanks a ton for the kind words. I think you like my work better than I. :smile: Usually when I ponder printing options I indulge in a not so wee dram of Highland Park single malt. Sometimes the 18yo, but usually the less expensive 12yo. Mortlach, I say, your taste is exquisite.
    Have you chatted to Max Marinucci? He's been going head first into photogravure lately; copper gravure but still very much the same outcome as your polymer works. I'd like to see some of your plates some day too. Preferably over a glass of something good...
     
  10. coigach

    coigach Member

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    Ha - life is too short for bad whisky. Malts are one of my passions (along with jazz, books and visual art) and I'm a bit of an anorak. Tasting notes for independent bottlings of Glen Garioch 19 year old anyone? :whistling:

    Have had a good few emails back and forth with Max - regarding ink mixes, paper choices, calibration curves, plate wiping techniques etc etc. He exposes digitally enlarged negs onto copper plates, me onto polymer plates, but pretty similar workflow. Except he's a lot better than me! His results are pretty special, see DPUG gallery. Am currently recovering from 2x recent bouts of shoulder surgery, having bones cut and metal inserted (see picture) , so no wiping ink off plates for me in the studio for some time unfortunately... gavin shoulder.jpg
     
  11. Thomas Bertilsson

    Thomas Bertilsson Subscriber

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    Closer, but not quite there, ever... That sounds very much like athleticism or any other type of practice that requires skill. I like your analogy, and yes - it is more fun to experience a light bulb moment here and there. Like, the dog may be old but is still barking... :D
     
  12. Thomas Bertilsson

    Thomas Bertilsson Subscriber

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    Thanks.
     
  13. Thomas Bertilsson

    Thomas Bertilsson Subscriber

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    Gavin, I agree. I hope that with your shoulder issues you can at least lift a whisky glass the appropriate distance... :smile:

    Max is awesome. Never gives up. He is making a couple of plates for me currently, which I am extremely psyched about. Have seen the DPUG gallery uploads too, and I hope you can continue to hone your own gravure skills too, Gavin. They are so beautiful, a result of real hard labor and determination, blood sweat and tears, with results that often disappoint in the beginning. But when you nail it it'll be worth every penny and second spent to get there. In the future it's something I wish to do too. But I can't afford the copper version.

    I hope your shoulders get better soon!

     
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  15. TheFlyingCamera

    TheFlyingCamera Membership Council Council

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    Thomas-

    bear in mind that even the grand master wet-darkroom printer St. Ansel evolved his technique over time, and the way he printed one negative changed observably from creation to the end of his career. This is normal and natural. Don't feel anxiety over your evolution - if anything, rejoice in it because it means you are still capable of learning. To cease to learn is to die, someone famous once said. And if you go back later and reprint some of your old negatives in a totally new way, it means not only that you can reinterpret your old ideas, but that your old ideas still have meaning to you. It's a good thing.
     
  16. Thomas Bertilsson

    Thomas Bertilsson Subscriber

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    I feel that way too, Scott, as if I would stagnate if I stopped improving... Good call. My heroes are often darkroom workers, Gene Nocon, Paul Inirio, Sid Kaplan, our very own Bob Carnie, etc. But also those who print their own work, obviously, like Weston. It's as though they always push(ed) the envelope of what's possible - to do the pictures justice. I have huge respect for that, and it's how I'd like to view myself as well.
    Where I need to relax a little bit is probably, as has been pointed out, in learning to accept where I'm currently at, and just enjoy making the prints.

    My whole quest has been about getting away from things surrounding equipment, which got me absolutely nowhere. Same thing about films and developers, and papers and developers. The only piece of equipment that I find truly important, besides just being reliable and functioning well, is the enlarger and its lens. After purchasing a great enlarger, and dropping all the equipment silver bullet strides, I have come to realize that technique is really the only thing that matters. How to engage with the subject matter while shooting (whether it be landscape or people), how to realize the importance of matching negatives to our paper of choice AND mastering how to actually do that, and finally becoming a better printer - now that has helped to carry my work forwards in a way that has been extremely satisfying, and it's real because it's my own brain and my own hands that are functioning better - with the same materials. To me that was utterly profound.

    The whole thought process came full circle when I realized why the amazing printers above are my heroes - it's because they do not possess the ability to change any of the materials that the images are photographed with. They receive(d) negatives from customers that are/were a certain way - and they just HAVE to deal with that. The magic in those prints is obviously not the camera, the film, or the film developer - it is the eye of the photographer and what they recorded, combined with their own skills as printers. The materials could be anything between heaven and earth, yet they were hired to do something special with it. Ding! Ding! Ding! Lightbulb moment. This proved to me that the road to improving my print does not lie in my choice of film or lens, but my knowledge of HOW to use them.

    (Edit: I will correct myself here, because I know that Carnie insists on processing the film he prints himself, for reasons of quality of output, which is probably making his life a lot easier).
     
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  17. cliveh

    cliveh Subscriber

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    You have answered your own question.
     
  18. coigach

    coigach Member

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    Am sure you'll have prints to treasure.

    I've been working like a dog for 1 full studio day minimum per week since Feb on my plates - steep learning curve, and a very physical, 'hands on' process. Very good fun though - and the different inks and papers is a whole new world...! Have a small series I'm printing, hopefully will see the light of day early next year when I can get back in studio.

    Anyway, apologies for hijacking thread a little - back to the matter in hand :smile:
     
  19. jnanian

    jnanian Advertiser Advertiser

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    thomas

    while it is hard work what you are doing, you have to realize you are in a forest full of trees.
    sometimes you need to step back to gain a little perspective, and enjoy the ride on the way...
     
  20. jordanstarr

    jordanstarr Member

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    ...In the same boat Thomas. Always enjoyed looking at your photographs and hope one day to see the prints in person. I'm always glad to see your icon pop up in discussion, even if I disagree, because you contribute to the forum in a positive and meaningful way. I've even taken a couple points of advice from you and applied it to my own printing to only find improvement, even if just slight.

    What really opened me up to the printing world was working under a Master Printer from NYC. Even he was learning new things as I was there, though very small things, it was humbling to know that you will never get bored of printing and there's always room for "improvement", which truly makes it an art form.

    This thread has actually sparked an interest I've had for about a year to throw some money into an advanced print making workshop of some sort. I found that what I learned under one of the greats was something that would have taken me years to work on myself with books, internet and experimentation.
     
  21. Thomas Bertilsson

    Thomas Bertilsson Subscriber

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    Hi John,

    You speak the truth, brother. I am an extremely detail oriented person, and sometimes artfully miss the big picture because of it. For me, this is a lot harder to do than for most. Thanks for the reminder!

    - Thomas
     
  22. eddie

    eddie Subscriber

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    Thomas- I wouldn't worry about this. I've been revisiting some very old negatives (some 30+ years old), over the last 2-3 years. While the ones I print now are far superior to the prints I made then, the thing I most notice is the improvement in my "vision". My compositional skills have improved, leaving many of the old negatives uninteresting, and not up to par with newer work. Still, I've been able to get satisfying prints from negatives I hadn't back then. I do think it's a worthwhile exercise, if for no other reason than to gauge improved skills. I think darkroom skills are a lot like watching a pet, or child, grow. You don't see changes on a daily basis but, every year, they seem to have grown larger. It just sneaks up on you, unnoticed...

    A print, diligently created, will never be obsolete. Time may lead you to interpret it differently, but it won't diminish earlier attempts.
    Your name, under a Gallery thumbnail, is an automatic "click" for me. I know I'll be treated to an interesting image, created by an image-maker who has the desire, the vision, and technical expertise, to convey his ideas. Don't let the frustration paralyze you. In your case, I think you're trying to eek out the last .00001 of print quality, which is far more difficult than getting the first 99.00009.
     
  23. polyglot

    polyglot Member

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    I feel your frustration in knowing that if I were to reprint my negs in the future the result would quite probably be better, but am consoled by the thought that in the future I will have much better (artistically) negs to print. So I make the best prints I can now, they get better over time and I generally don't revisit images because I've always got a backlog of newer and better images that deserve to be on paper more than a rehash of a neg from a few years ago.
     
  24. Thomas Bertilsson

    Thomas Bertilsson Subscriber

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    Thanks, Jordan. I think the same of you. It would be interesting to talk to you about your studies. I will PM you later this week, if that's all right. It's nice to see that those who are accomplished on a very high level seek continuous improvement, but at the same time one would have to wonder if they would be as accomplished had they not been so driven to improve... :smile:
     
  25. Thomas Bertilsson

    Thomas Bertilsson Subscriber

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    Good analogy to age, Eddie. While one can add lots of knowledge and read about skills in a short period of time, perhaps it's best to just practice over a long period of time, in order to really get into the higher ranks of printmaking. What good is all the knowledge unless you know, with your hands and spine, what to do with it all - to actually churn out prints that dazzle?
     
  26. Thomas Bertilsson

    Thomas Bertilsson Subscriber

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    Sounds easy... :smile: But you're right of course. Except that I feel like I owe some of my old negatives a fair shot at being better than I could muster at the time. Old series of images when my budget was extremely tight and I could not afford to buy fresh film, for example, so there was no continuity from frame to frame and roll to roll. To make matters worse I used lots of different cameras in different formats too. So I'm trying to 'consolidate' some of that work to create series of work that in spite of the large technical differences from picture to picture, can still look somewhat cohesive. It's testing to do, but I'm also convinced they are making me a better printer, so it's two big check marks in the 'benefits' column, with only one in the 'costs' column, being a mild sort of frustration (bordering on amusement) with my early ineptitude to make it easy on myself.
    But I really enjoy those naive and innocent early attempts, so I'll keep trying, but should probably just stop after I'm done printing them, and move on.

    Thanks for participating.
     
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