February 22 – The Nebula

02-22 Nebula postExperimentation sometimes leads to the break-through. It certainly leads to some failure. Sometimes you hit an in-between result; this one lives somewhere in the middle. Today’s image wasn’t made with film, nor was it made with a camera. It was made with black-and-white photo paper, an incandescent light, some old print developer (Kodak Dektol multigrade), and a bottle of india ink.

An entire box of my photo paper was accidentally exposed to light; the material isn’t cheap, and I wasn’t amused by the loss. For those of you who don’t know what film and photo paper is, it’s a light-sensative material that’s coated in silver halide (a crystallized salt form of the metal). When light hits this material, the areas that were exposed to the greatest amount of light turn correspondingly dark. With the assistance of corrosive chemicals, you can accelerate the process of darkening the tones and then you can use another set of chemicals to fix the image permanently.

When a box of photo paper is accidentally exposed, it becomes useless for traditional printing – all prints will be slightly flat-toned or “fogged” when you go to draw a print in the darkroom. Rather than snap my fingers in defeat and pitch the useless pages into the trash, I decided to try and have some fun. The paper was already ruined, so what could I lose?

I started taking these pieces of partially-exposed paper out. I threw them into the developing bath and sprayed india ink over the prints before snapping on the overhead light. Since some of the paper was protected from the light by the dark, floating plumes of ink, strange patters begin to emerge on the paper. I’d then lift the prints before they turned completely black and put them in the fixing chemicals. The result is what you see above – atmospheric swirls and bubbles that, to my eye, are reminiscent of astral photography. I’d stumbled on a new, slightly messier form photogram, and I spent the entire afternoon experimenting, saving the best results to be toned, hand-colored, or scanned into digital files later.

Sometimes it pays just to goof off for a bit and forget that there are any rules.

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February 21 – Manhole Cover

02-21 Manhole Cover post“The longer you look at an object, the more abstract it becomes, and, ironically, the more real.”

~Lucian Freud

– – –

Film February continues with yet another recurring theme in the pantheon of old subject matter. Some people miss out on what’s going on around them because they stare at their shoes rather than look around. There’s nothing wrong with staring at the ground, if you ask me – there’s a lot going on there.

As I’ve mentioned in previous entries to this project, street photographer Aaron Siskind played a major role in inspiring a younger version of myself. Seeking out interesting compositions in mundane places became something of a game. While interning at The Center For Creative Photography in Tucson, I also became deeply fascinated by a photographer named Minor White, who also had a tendency to isolate seemingly normal, everyday objects and somehow manage to make them alien, interesting, unique.

There is definitely something magical about working in black-and-white film.

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February 20 – The Serpent (and semiotics)

02-20 The Serpent postToday’s photograph for the continuation of ‘Film February’ corresponds to a time when I was first exposed to a different, more literary side of photography. After reading “Subculture: The Meaning of Style” by Dick Hebdige, the door to semiotics was opened. It was nauseatingly confusing to me, this new philosophy of graphic language, but it was also intriguing. I fell down the rabbit hole and found myself thinking about my photographs in a completely different way. I’m reminded of one of photography’s seminal publications, “Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography,” and a particular passage by author Roland Barthes which summarizes my feelings perfectly:

“For me the noise of Time is not sad: I love bells, clocks, watches — and I recall that at first photographic implements were related to techniques of cabinetmaking and the machinery of precision: cameras, in short, were clocks for seeing, and perhaps in me someone very old still hears in the photographic mechanism the living sound of the wood.”

From the moment I began these new studies I started looking through the viewfinder differently. This is when I became interested in macro photography, and it’s when I became much more deliberate with my compositions. When I take the time to really investigate, I discover that there are interesting things all around, that there is always something interesting to investigate with my photographers’ tools. With camera in hand, I’m a kid looking under rocks and discovering whole worlds that I never knew were there before.

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February 19 – Liberty

02-19 Liberty postOne of the little tricks film photographers sometimes employ is known as “cross processing,” in which slide film is developed using chemicals designed to for regular color film. The results vary, but are characterized by a dramatic color shift, with punched-out contrast and deep tonal saturation. These effects can be applied to digital images with relative ease using editing software like Photoshop; the film photographer, however, is forced to accept the final result rather than having the opportunity to endlessly tweak the effect in post production.

Basically, cross processing is controlled chaos. It’s a method of embracing “happy accidents.”

This photograph was made in Jerome, Arizona, a small mining town outside of Prescott Valley in the Black Hills of Yavapai County. The copper mining operation saw a huge boom in the 1920s, pushing the population to around ten thousand. Today there are only about five hundred people, but it gets a lot of traffic from Phoenix – it’s a wonderful weekend getaway. I’ve always enjoyed walking around and looking at the old buildings, the narrow alleys, and the wrecks of brick rotting on the hillsides. It is a quiet place with a rich history. If you’re lucky, you might even bump into Tool and Puscifer front-man Maynard James Keenan, who moved to Jerome to start a winery in the early 2000s.

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February 18 – The High Plains (cyanotype)

cyanotreeRather than discuss a vintage camera, today’s Film February photograph highlights an antiquated printing process that, unlike the abnormally frail Daguerreotype or the albumen paper negative print, is still in somewhat frequent use today.

The “cyanotype” is a printing process that produces a blue-tinted print – cyan colored, even – so it’s an unironic name. Using basic ferric (iron) salts, this is one of the most affordable printing processes ever invented. This is why engineers used the process, with frequency, well into the 20th century; you would recognize them as “blueprints.”

The process uses two chemicals: ammonium iron(III) citrate and potassium ferricyanide.

During the latter half of the 19th century, photographers used horses and donkeys to carry their mobile darkrooms, consisting of photo chemicals, containers, camera equipment (view cameras were quite cumbersome) and a tent that served as dark room. Organic compounds commonly referred to as ‘ethers’ were used to dissolve collodion silver for wet-plate photography – never mind what wet-plate photography is, just know that it was the dominant method. The instances of field photographers being overcome by ether fumes and dying were not rare. In fact, the chemical nature of print photography has represented significant risk to all photographers prior to the digital revolution.

The pyrogallol (“pyro”) film developing process functions to tan and harden film images in a low sulfite environment. In the era prior to darkroom tongs, latex gloves, and ventilators, this chemical caused serious nerve damage to a generation of photographers. It’s most famously linked to Edward Weston, America’s founding father of photography. If you don’t know who Edward Weston is, don’t worry – you know his most famous pupil. Weston taught a young Ansel Adams. He had previously been though to have died of Parkinson’s disease. The symptoms of Parkinson’s are identical to prolonged exposure to pyrogallol, and he worked with this chemical for most of his life.

Selenium toners are used to make silver gelatin prints more archival. The selenium metal is less prone to aging, fading, or degrading than the silver halide crystals that it replaces. It also gives prints additional tonal density and a slight brown color tone that many photographers find appealing in their black-and-white work. Selenium toner poses cancer risks and respiratory damage if inhaled or absorbed through the skin.

Cyanotype printing is widely believed to be a harmless process, but potassium ferricyanide can be incredibly dangerous if improperly handled. Reactions can occur with other darkroom chemicals, producing a noxious gas that can be fatal.

Why do I say all of this? Well, I suppose because I find it all very interesting. Photography is both a science and an art, and I think that we forget that sometimes, especially with how easy photography has become with our smartphones. Prior to the digital revolution, photographers weren’t just ‘witnesses with cameras.’ They didn’t simply “Point. shoot. Viola! Here’s your print.”We were visual composers, yes, but we were also reasonably experienced chemists, often coming up with our own chemical mixtures – our own recipes – to produce desired film grain, image density, contrast, print aesthetic, and color tone. We don’t often think about the photographer in his darkroom (nor, contemporaneously, hunched over a computer screen). We prefer to think of the photographer in the field, riding in the back of a muddied Jeep, sitting on the 50-yard-line, credentialed and in the front row at the press conference. Photography is spent half out in the world, gathering images, and half in the dark, fine-tuning the images we’ve gathered.

Photographers have always had a history of risking health and personal injury in order to execute their craft, and I’m proud to consider myself among that cohort. I haven’t covered war, traveled to a third-world nation, been kidnapped. I’m no hero, but I like to think that I’ve had the opportunity to bear witness to extraordinary events, and I was there with my camera. I have participated, in my own small way, to that rich history.

The lessons I learned in the darkroom are lessons of patience, an appreciation for chemistry, and the rewards of diligence. Pulling prints from a negative is an involved process, and no amount of Photoshop can replace the sheer joy of walking into the light with fresh, wet print. To walk out of the red light in the darkroom and see what your print actually looks like, to have been working for hours and hours, and finally see that you’ve dialed it in, that you have the perfect print.

You stink. You’re tired. It’s three o’clock in the morning. And damn is it exhilarating. That’s why I still shoot film when I can.

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February 17 – Hotel Monte Vista

02-17 Monte Vista postAutomobile culture reached Arizona in the early 1900s and brought major roadway projects (see yesterday’s post about Miracle Mile Road) and an increase in tourism, which delivered new money to Flagstaff in the 1920s. Fundraising began in 1926 by local community leaders to establish first-class accommodation to replace some of the outmoded and run-down hotels.

Ground broke for the 73 room Community Hotel (named in honor of the prominent citizens who funded its construction) on June 8 of that year. It was finished in six months, opening its doors on New Years Day, 1927.

My first visit was back in 2005 or 2006, when I had the chance to tag along with a friend of mine. We worked together at a local Tucson photo lab and he happened to be a drummer in a band called “The Deludes.” I was able to hop aboard for a show they’d booked at the hotel’s “Cocktail Lounge.” It was a prohibition-era bootlegging operation, but the secret wasn’t kept long – local officers disrupted the illegal business in 1931. Ironically, the speakeasy reopened only two years later when prohibition was lifted.

It is one of the oldest operating hotels in Flagstaff and is a registered historic landmark, and its sign is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Flagstaff.

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February 16 – Sunland Motel

02-16 SunLand Motel postAs car culture began to take root in Arizona, the Old Spanish Trail Highway was established in 1916. This route represents a massive construction project intended to thread from Southern California to Florida. Motels and gas stations sprung up from the route, and some of the old remnants just so happen to survive today.

The Old Spanish Trail merged with other routes on the north side of Tucson, creating a network throughout the city. In the 1920s, the road became US Highway 80, which snaked down through Benson, Bisbee, and onto Douglas. Another vein sprung up, US Highway 89, stretching down through Tubac, Tumacacori, and on toward to the port of entry in Nogales along the Mexican border. Highway 84, known as the Casa Grande Highway, is now called Miracle Mile – it led north to Casa Grande and Phoenix.

Miracle Mile is today a somewhat notorious stretch of road, with low-rent rooms, weekly rates, a strip club, and a bowling alley. But that isn’t news. The area began to decline in the late 1960s, and Miracle Mile became synonymous with drugs, prostitution, and other illicit activity.

Only recently has the area has begun to shed it’s negative reputation, and it may be a while yet before the old stories fade away. Reinvestment has seen renovation, but many of the motels still seem relatively neglected, and the low rates still have the appearance of attracting a particular type of clientele. I guess time will tell what’s in store for old Miracle Mile road.

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