w. eugene smith and his technique

Discussion in 'Photographers' started by phritz phantom, Oct 29, 2009.

  1. phritz phantom

    phritz phantom Member

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    being a huge fan of the pictures and technique of w.eugene smith, i browsed through the archives of apug to find out a little more about his way of work. but surprisingly i didn't find much.

    since he's considered one of the top printers of photography, i'd really like to find out more about his technique. i've read his part in the "darkroom" series many times. are there any other books on him recommendable?
    i'd really like to read a good biography about him, especially with some info on his photographic work. i've been looking for " photography made difficult" for a long time now, but it seems to be unavailable around here.

    the one thing i'm wondering about the most is whether he really used "d76 with ten times the normal amount of borax of kodalk"?
    this would call for 20gr of borax as opposed to 2gr in the original formula (this source: here ) or maybe he meant the replenisher? but he was probably going for a more active developer for his high contrast images (maybe more shadow detail too).
    other sources say he used harvey's 777.

    what photopaper would one use today if one wanted to go after his look? cold tone graded paper (grade 3 or 4?)? most likely not even available anymore. in "darkroom" he says the paper is polycontrast-f.

    i'm also wondering about his his extensive use of pot.ferricyanide. for me it get the most use out of it with underdeveloped negatives, to push the highlights and upper midtones into position, or occasionally to enhance local contrast. but to really "open up the shadows" like he claims to, i could never really get that to work for me.

    also i think i remember that he used to mount his pictures on black cardboard.

    it would be very nice if someone could give me a few pointers for some good reading, and if people here used this thread to share some of their knowledge on this photographer - certainly useful to others too, since there seems to be no other thread focusing on his printing techniques - well, i wouldn't mind that too.
    this was a pretty good read, i discovered while searching around, but probably old news to most people:
    nyt times article
    were his asstants and co-workers (if he had any) ever interviewed about their work?
     
  2. David A. Goldfarb

    David A. Goldfarb Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    There is an article on W. Eugene Smith that discusses his use of local print bleaching in a special issue of _Photo Techniques_ called something like "Mastering the Art of Fine B&W Printing." I think it was special issue #10, but my copy is in storage at the moment, so I can't look it up to be positive.

    Ferricyanide bleaching will bleach highlights faster than shadows, so if you've got a shadow area that's generally too dark, but has some highlight detail, bleaching will bring up that highlight detail and make the shadows seem more open, but if there isn't some tonal separation in the shadows to begin with, then bleaching won't help as much.
     
  3. Michel Hardy-Vallée

    Michel Hardy-Vallée Membership Council Council

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    The only contribution I can make here: Kentmere makes a graded bromide paper available grade 2-4, so if that's what you wanted, you could get it pretty easily.
     
  4. marcmarc

    marcmarc Member

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    If you live live in a major city as I do (LA), your local libraries should have something on Smith. There are a number of excellent books out there about him. From what I can recall, he employed any means necessary to get the image he wanted including cropping, setting up lights in a particular area etc. I also recall he stated once that he over exposes a couple stops. "I may have to burn in parts of the print, but I have all the shadow detail I want" he stated or something to that effect. If I'm correct his archives are at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson. They may be of some help to you there.
     
  5. DannL

    DannL Member

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  6. Curt

    Curt Subscriber

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    He is not talked about much but I would spend hours studying his photograph in college and he is a great.

    On the printing side I read once that he smoked heavily and in the darkroom when he printed he would blow a heavy puff of smoke under the lens. I don't know what effect this has on the print but smoking causes cancer and I don't smoke. I don't have a favorite photo of his, they are all great.

    Curt
     
  7. Anscojohn

    Anscojohn Subscriber

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    Increasing the amount of borax is in most EK formulary. For the Minimata negs he used D76, 2:1 with water. I think this gets the chemistry he used to about Ansco 47, but don't hold me feet to that statement. Might be ansco 42?.
    And he always insisted on a dollop of old developer "to take the edge off the grain."
     
  8. David A. Goldfarb

    David A. Goldfarb Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    He was also known for having a small B&W television with a red safelight filter over the screen in his darkroom. Always good to stay on top of the news, I guess.
     
  9. BobNewYork

    BobNewYork Member

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    I may have told this story before, if so I apologize but at my age "repeatability" means more than consistent print values. :tongue:

    When I had my small photo store / studio a lady came in one day with a Rollieflex ff2.8 which needed attention - a really good CLA. She knew little about the camera but realized it was a valuable piece of equipment. When she picked it up she told me that she's been given this camera in New York back in the sixties by a professional photographer who used to travel all the time. Apparently this photographer did a lot of work for Life Magazine. She told me his name was Gene something-or-other. "Gene Smith? " I asked. "W. Eugene Smith?" "Yes that's him." she told me. "He told me he was famous but I didn't believe him." It was then that I realized that I held in my hands one of W. Eugene Smith's Rollies !! Kind of amazing for me !

    On her way out of the door the lady turned to me and said: "I won't tell you what he wanted for this camera - but I will tell you he didn't get it! t least not from me!!""

    Bob H
     
  10. Michel Hardy-Vallée

    Michel Hardy-Vallée Membership Council Council

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    If you don't like to smoke like Eugene, you can also take amphetamines by the bucket and work six days in a row with minimal sleep....
     
  11. phritz phantom

    phritz phantom Member

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    yes, that info is pretty much confirmed by the "darkroom" article.
    but what does the EK stand for?

    i've recently seen the bit on w.e.smith in the "the genius of photography" documentary. it sounds like he was an intense personality, to say the least...

    and what a nice story, bob. i don't think i would ever had let go of that camera.
     
  12. PVia

    PVia Member

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    EK = Eastman Kodak
     
  13. c6h6o3

    c6h6o3 Member

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    You might try contacting Fred De Van, who knew him. From Fred's Unblinkingeye article on Harvey's 777:

    "W. Eugene Smith and I would make sure our friendly competitors never discovered our secret sauce by giving them 16 oz out of a "ripened" 3 1/2 gal tank of 777."

    Fred has occasionally participated on this forum. I think he's PM'able if not emailable.
     
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  15. phritz phantom

    phritz phantom Member

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    i only found this on the "photo techniques" site:
    1995 Vol. 16, No. 6: Jim Hughes on W. Eugene Smith/Dignan NCF-41 / Medium Format

    my biggest problem with the ferricyanide is avoiding streaks and to decide whether to use it mixed with the fixer or pure. smith recommended using it with the fixer or mixing fixer and ferri on the print surface.
    also i lack consistency in using the bleach, it's either too strong or too dilute and having to throw out print after print because of overbleaching or visible borders depresses me too much over time.
    i once mixed up a 10% stock solution for consistency reasons, but it didn't keep for long.


    unfortunately not, i live in the middle of nowhere in europe. nothing available in libraries at all. according to amazon almost all of his books are not available too (except the pittsburgh one). i'll have to count on luck and ebay to find anything at all.

    thanks for your input. i'm not really planing to/ daring to go after his look. it was more of a hypothetical question. i just think his work is very inspiring and i got the impression that smith was rather open to sharing his knowledge, so some discussion about it could be interesting and fruitful.
     
  16. donbga

    donbga Member

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    phritz,

    I prefer to use ferri without fixer. Also the key to avoiding streaking using feri with or without fixer is to use a water hose that streams water onto the print underneath the area you want to work on. Also plan on using a very dilute mixture of ferri. Bruce Barnbaum is the master bleacher these days.

    Practice makes perfect but that also means some wasted paper.

    Before you whip out the ferri make the best print you can and start from there.

    Ferri can be applied locally or to an entire print. Don't rub the print, let the ferri bleach the print chemically. Work slowly and keep the water hose handy.
     
  17. phritz phantom

    phritz phantom Member

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    thanks, i have the darkroom manual from barnbaum. a very, very comprehensive book.
    do you add the bromide or not? maybe being able to re-develop after having gone too far with the bleach sounds very convenient to me.
     
  18. Cheryl Jacobs

    Cheryl Jacobs Member

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    Over the summer, I met my husband's distant cousin who, I found out in the course of conversation, lived in one of the flats of the apartment building in NYC where Gene Smith, Thelonious Monk, and the other greats used to hang out. Too much to type out here, but if you want to read the whole story, it's on my blog at http://photodino.wordpress.com.

    - CJ
     
  19. donbga

    donbga Member

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    phritz,

    No bromide. If you bleach too far trash the print and start over.
     
  20. Chazzy

    Chazzy Member

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    I'm completely unfamiliar with the man. What is he known for? Portraits? Nudes? Still lifes? Landscapes? Street photography? Commercial photography? Was he stylistically a modernist?
     
  21. David A. Goldfarb

    David A. Goldfarb Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    I think you'll recognize at least two of the photographs on this page--

    http://www.leegallery.com/smith.html
     
  22. phritz phantom

    phritz phantom Member

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    he is pretty often considered the best "photo journalist" of all time. his main focus was on documentary photographic essays, mostly with an humanistic aspect: sickness, working class, war... but as i just found out also jazz photography.
    his style in pictures could be described as dramatic, high contrast prints of stunning quality, gleaming whites in mostly dark surroundings, lots of chiaroscuro and an occasional slightly kitschy lighting (enhanced by local bleaching).
    always dramatic, always compassionate.

    google images
     
  23. David A. Goldfarb

    David A. Goldfarb Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    This wasn't a regular issue of the magazine--more like a compilation of articles, updated with new material. I looked it up and it was Special Issue #11 of Photo Techniques, "Mastering the Black and White Fine Print," and it also includes an excellent article on the technique of local bleaching by Bruce Barnbaum that provides a few suggestions on how to control it, avoid drips, and such.
     
  24. Chazzy

    Chazzy Member

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    Thanks very much, guys. My knowledge of documentary photography is spotty.
     
  25. gorbas

    gorbas Subscriber

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    There is fantastic biography book: W. Eugene Smith : Shadow & substance : the life and work of an American photographer / by Jim Hughes.
    There is no much technical details in it, but story of his life is unreal!
    Goran
     
  26. marcmarc

    marcmarc Member

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    The best book on Smith I've read is titled "Let the Truth be the Prejudice". This book goes deep into his personality and somewhat into his photographic technique. I'll check it out again this week since I have other materials to drop off. I didn't finish the book, but here off the top of my head are things that I recall about Smith in this book:

    He had a huge record collection and insisted on carting around as many records as he could as he traveled around. Listening to music was one of his greatest passions.


    He once spent a brief stay in a mental institution in the late '50's for going out in public stark naked.

    He would occasionally call up his son in the middle of the night and threaten suicide. His son would get out of bed, get dressed and go to Smiths place and stay with him until he cried himself to sleep.

    Smith was, without a doubt, a photographer of enormous skill and compassion for his subjects. He is infamous for his complete stubbornness in how his photographs were to be used. He probably was the first photographer to insist on complete control of the editing, and layouts of his work in the magazines. Judging by the letters he wrote to his family, he was also an exceptional and articulate writer as well. I'll post some more later this week after I check out the book again.