The Anatomy of a Print

 

 

This is where it began; it’s not much. There’s something in there. But hiding.

The background is two sheets of cold rolled steel, blued and oiled. Blueing involves cleaning the oil off the steel with phosphoric acid, applying blueing solution, washing with water, dry and steel wool the surface, repeat until the desired color and density appeal. Then oil with gun oil.

The marble came from Ink Spot, a store in Harvard Square in Cambridge that occasionally has interesting objects. I bought six on the “gotta be good for something” plan. The egg scale is one of two I bought in a dealers cooperative Waltham. One in green, and one in a deep orange. Put all in prop closet, apply time for the idea to germinate and sprout.

About a year later, in March 2009, in my studio in Cambridge, I made the image above. File and forget. Every while, when all other distractions fail, I browse through the terabytes of ideas sitting on the server. This one would crop up pretty regularly. Gotta be good for something.

Since then, a bit at a time, I removed most of the reflections, worked on the colors, removing saturation and adding green and black to the marble.

Still not much. Deepened the tone of the steel background and made it richer and less neutral. Still not much. Worked on the colors of the scale. Evened out the lighting. Removed all specular highlights. Removed unsightly blemishes. Added comely blemishes. Took some of the edge out, since most digital captures wind up uncomfortably sharp, razor cuts across your eyeballs. As of last week, there were a dozen layers in the PS file.

On Monday night, I didn’t feel like setting up and shooting anything new, was tired of reading (Naked Lunch again again and a bunch of Jim Harrison), and had watched about all the film noir I could stand for the moment. (Beat the Devil, The Third Man, and Port of Shadows). Nothing left for it, time to get to work.

In the clarity of working late into the night, accompanied by loud music and the consumption of creative lubricants, I decided to cut the crap out of the image. Radical surgery. Simplify. The irreducible minimum.

Two years, six months and six days after the original digital capture, it’s good, finally. I printed one 15 x 20” Artist Proof, and two 22 x 27” prints, one A/P and #1/7. A/P is first state. Print number one has some small changes, second state. It’s done. For now.

What I like, technically; there’s nothing in it that belies its origins. The technique has disappeared. Nothing says “digital” or “photoshop”. You buy it as existing in space and time. But it never did.

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Why The Palladio Company Went Away: The True History of its Demise

Some of you may remember The Palladio Company, which made machine coated platinum-palladium photographic paper. That was my baby. And in it’s youth I gave it up for adoption, wishing it well in all it’s future endeavors.

The idea of that company sprang from a moment of clarity, in which I had to abandon a tightly held dogma that hand coating was the only way.

When I first started hand making my sensitized stocks, it was for the simple reason that I couldn’t find anything I liked (or was good at using) on the commercial market. And I gravitated to the suavity of earlier materials, rather than the heavy contrasty style then current. Modern papers felt to me as if I were listening to an oompah band banging away at a polka, at great amplitude, in a small room.

Getting control of my technique was hard. Towards that end, I had written a data base that could calculate all the variables that went into the making of my iron-silver develop out albumen paper, and while I was at it, any other hand coated process. I used pt-pd as a proofing medium, mostly, especially after Afga stopped making printing out paper.

The data base could track dozens of variables, the source and age of the egg whites, the age of the iron sensitive solution, how the small doping ingredients interacted. What the various sizings did. What fun.

This was a great leap forward in controlling what was always a chancy process. But the failure rate was still high.

It occurred to me that for all the pride I took in hand making my own papers, the craft was in the way of the art. A heavy metal ankle weight. No high jumping allowed.

And it was clear that a machine would do a better job of coating than I could do by hand. So I spent a year building a coating machine in my basement. And had a making order of rag paper run, all 5,000 pounds of it, in order to get the stock on rolls.

I could run the machine for a day and have more paper than I could use in a year. Two years. More.  Along the way, I also figured out, in tuning the machine, a way of minimizing the amount of precious metal content in pt-pd coatings. And since the sizings kept the coatings from sinking into the fibre, Palladio had a great D max, could hold all of a 21 step wedge, and could be toned, and lastly but not least was variable contrast. Thus the Palladio Company.

So, that moment of clarity, realized, meant switching to a commercially available, machine coated, off the shelf product. I happened to be the manufacturer, as well as the consumer, but that was incidental. As well me as another.

Three things happened that told me my baby was ugly.

I often manned the help line, fielding the harder questions. The “what if I do …..” questions.  My stock answer was, “I don’t know. How about you try it and see?” Which I would repeat. A lot. Because that was the best and most honest answer.

I couldn’t understand why there was such reluctance to experiment.

It wasn’t that the paper was expensive, although it was. We included test strips, two for each sheet, so that one could make experiments at no cost.

It was a sadder state. Way, way too many of the curious were also unadventurous. Timid. More eager to talk about the realm of the possible, than dive into the much riskier maelstrom of failures, bad ideas, or wonder of wonders, something brand new. I had conceived Palladio with the hope that it would grow up and do great things. But, poor dear, it was retarded.

The other question that made me want to go buy a cat to kick: “How much platinum is in it. I hear it’s mostly palladium”. How could that possibly matter? Why the need to  imply value by the gram, rather than by the work? The answer was demoralizing.

We made the best paper we could, and used the appropriate formulae. It was mostly palladium indeed. Because it made a more beautiful print than formulae’s that had more platinum. Working backwards from beauty.

The great awaking part two, and the beginning of the end: I was teaching a work shop, and a student came up to me with a combination of triumphal pride and moral certainty. He held up a print he had made in class on Palladio paper, And a print of the same image on paper he had coated himself.

One was clearly sharper and had a cleaner more separated tonality and an obviously greater D Max. One was velvety, the other chalky, muddy, insipid. Which he pointed out; stabbing finger bouncing away. But he was pointing to his print as superior. Which it wasn’t. I took the print over to the densitometer. In all the virtues, Palladio was objectively superior. And it wasn’t that the student was after the grayer, uneven,muddier look, the low density, splotchy insipid boring look of bad craft.

He was just seduced by the joy of making it himself. No two year old who just decorated the walls with his feces could have been prouder. I though his print pathetic. But he was in love with the creative act, the drool covered cretin was his own, his son and heir, carrier of the creative DNA.

So, I came to understand the politics of hand coated paper vs. Palladio. The idea triumphing over any objective sense. John Stevenson even had a gallery which made a sneering point of not accepting work on Palladio.  Marketing from a former American Express executive. Go figure. Would that he had been so discriminating about the work itself.

There’s no reason that I should have been surprised. Nor hurt. Most photographers aren’t artists. It’s a hobby. So go in peace. But, then…

In 1991, I got an invitation to stay and play at Kodak’s Center for Creative Imaging. After two weeks there, with access to every toy $12 million could by, I knew two things. I was done with albumen, contact printing, platinum printing, Palladio, and the good old days. What I now cared about was getting digital technology to work at a level equal to where I had gotten the alchemical medium.

But that’s another story, and about 15 years of work.

Palladio survived for about another decade, with Sura Steinberg running it, David Kolody running the production, and a small staff.

Sura loved that company and what it meant to her customers. But the water at the mill we used changed, and we never found another source it’s equal. I didn’t have the time or interest to reinvent the formulae to adjust it to a new paper source. So, Palladio now had a finite lifespan. When the last 3 tons of paper were gone, it was over.

She kept Palladio alive for far longer than I expected, rationing the supply, and had a coterie of faithful customers. It was economically viable. She still gets queries. She still would like to revive it. But dead is dead.

Up until this summer, I still had one long roll of Palladio Paper. Every once in a while, David took a snip of it and made a print, just to see. It was the apex, it’s the best roll we ever made, and the last. And then it was over. It’s better paper now that when we made it more than a decade ago. I kept it around like an old dog you love too much to shoot. But it don’t fetch.

Then I got a call, an hysterical, weeping, gnashing of teeth rending of garments wimpering sort of call from Carl Hyatt. He was going through his roll, merrily printing away, working toward the end of this, the penultimate run, and much to his surprise, came upon the uncoated butt end of the roll which he had assumed was coated stock.

I knew that whatever my protestations to the contrary, I was never going to use my last roll, entombed in silica gel, sitting on a shelf.

Carl now has it, and I’ve seen the first print. It’s amazing; the paper got better with age, and he knows how to make it sing and dance. He’s working wonders with it. Lovely work.

So, it’s officially over. A good end. And good riddance.

Fuck art, let’s dance.

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Inexorable Change and Resisting the Nature of Things

I hung on to summer tightly, tightly. Mostly, I hunger for shorter days and the hermetic gravity of the weak sun, bone deep warmth of a fire, and the long quiet nights.

How odd of me to resist. It was almost freezing last night and very cold the night before. I had hoped for just one more cricket ridden night. I arrived here under the near full moon, and dead quiet, with only the waterfall to welcome me.

Lit a fire last night. Put on a sweater for morning coffee. Picked up fall koi food; easy to digest as the water cools. Pulled some weeds whose roots had weakened. Started reviewing work to put on NeueArts. There’s an enormous body of wonderful, glum, immensely quiet work. Winter work.

I go crazy in sunlight. It’s like being under a relentless sunshine barrage, where each photon feels like it’s hitting me with the mass of a ping pong ball. Very distracting.

I fall apart. I explode into pieces

Night falls, and I can go collect my scattered self from whatever multitudinous places it decided to hide, reassemble my parts, and become myself.

It’s starting to get dark. Every day is more different than the last. The hour of dusk accelerates toward soonest.

This seasons transition was hard. I’m better now.

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Curators, Museums, The Critical Eye, and the End of Innocence

So, I had arrived; a one man show, at The Marcuse Pfeifer Gallery, on Madison Avenue (way before Soho and Chelsea were hot). I’m leaning on the counter, chatting with Cusie, (wow, this is real!) when in walks Susan Kismaric, a curator at MoMa.

She takes a circuit of the walls, looking at my work. It was all in albumen, some of it 4’ x 5’ in cloth, some 30” x 40” on paper, and some direct contact prints from 8 x 10 negatives.

Ms. Kismaric, after that one lap stopped at the desk and asked Cusie, “Why are the prints so big? I don’t get it.” Cusie: “Well ask him, he made them”.

Oh goody! I get to pontificate some art babble to a key babbleist. Well, says I, I think it’s important for photography, if it’s going to be an important medium, to command architectural presence. To get over being the chihuahua of art, stop being a lap dog, and get some growl.

She shakes her head, runs another viewing lap. “I still don’t get it, why make them so large?” I resisted about ten pretty good answers, mostly dick jokes, like “A guy never wants to hear size doesn’t matter, cuz that means both it does, and he doesn’t”, or similar.

I says, “There’s something revelatory about scale, especially since folks viewing photographs are so used to putting their noses right up to the work. It become’s something besides the original idea; there’s an emotional forensics when you look deeply into something.” I don’t know exactly what that means, but it sounds good to me. Something to chew on.

She shakes her head, walks another lap. Same question; “Why so large? I don’t get it”. I need to come up with a better line of talk, apparently.

Next answer; “It’s a bravura display of craft. The challenge was to make a physically seductive object, at scale. Most photographs suffer when enlarged to any degree. These grew in beauty.”

Nope, not enough. She shakes her head, walks (at a greater speed), one more lap. Returns to starting point, same perplexed look, same fucking question.

“Well, at that scale, it’s no longer about what it is, it’s about what it becomes. It’s less about the thing in front of the camera, and more about what’s visceral, but invisible at first look. Less superficial, deeper; a disection. You can see things in a new way. Different pathways to perception.”

Nother lap. This is now tiresome. I’m also exhausted my supply of polite. “Just shut up and look at the work”, doesn’t seem an appropriately respectful retort.

But I’m done. I obviously have hit someone with too few receptor cells for what I’m flogging. Last chance; “Because I can get a LOT OF MONEY for them”. Which was true.

Exit Ms. K., stage right. At a goodly clip. Not quite on the run, but close. A trot.

Since then, I have even less of an idea how the deal works, what curators see, what they think, or what moves them. I know it’s the board of directors. I know it’s collectors that they court for donations. I know it’s sucking up to money. What I don’t know is what lies buried beneath those important motivational objects and commercial concerns.

If you’re looking for the answer, it isn’t here.

Some curators have bought in, many haven’t. At the end of the day, ignorance is bliss. It saves me from the temptation of crass, shameless pandering to Cerberus, snarling, savage, dumb mutt that he is.

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Where I went wrong, at an early age

Death is the Mother of Beauty: Wallace Stevens

When I was 8, or so, on the walk home from school, I found a flattened chipmunk corpse by the side of the road. I brought the tail home to Mother. Proudly, tenderly, I handed it too her, my whole treasure, along with an apology. I said I would have brought the rest, but it was too squished.

That summer, my sister, Sally, was the neighborhood mortician. We would gather at every terminal event, and Sally would deputize one of the lesser lights to collect a shoebox or matchbox as appropriate. Sally would then officiate, adopting the rites according to the professed religion of the discovering party.

We had last rites for squirrels, fish, butterflies, caterpillars, mice and worms, various birds fledgeling and adult, and japanese beetles, for whom we adopted the Hindu practice. We were worshipful, but pagan and polyamorous as far as the supreme being went.

And then, several days after the interment of a particularly intact squirrel, I decided to check up, first hand on this  “earth to earth” dogma we were so fond of promoting at graveside. We didn’t dig deep graves, being proportionate in our grief, mourning, and exertions on the decedents’ behalf.

6 inches was usually about right. Thusly, the interval between the idea of disinterment and the flipped coffin lid was merely moments. Moments vivid, indelible and eternal. The squirrel, supine in its cardboard home, had gone slack jawed. And it’s mouth was filled with a mass of intertwined, writhing, squirming, wet, grey maggots.

Maggots are surprisingly sprightly. So was I, in a leaping backwards sort of way. And so, in that moment, between my great leap backwards and my landing, I became an artist.


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