Ansel Adams Print - Analog Epiphany

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Nathan King

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I'm embarrassed to say that until recently I had never seen a real silver gelatin print, mainly because I haven't been into photography very long. Several months ago I went to the art museum and saw an Ansel Adams print they had (Still Life with Egg Slicer, San Francisco). I had seen it online a million times, but it was breathtaking to see in person. It looked like the print had a third dimension to it (almost holographic). It was almost as if each element in the still life appeared to be "inside" the paper at a slightly different depth. There is obviously no dramatic depth of field in the still life, so how did he get the effect of relative depth in print? Was is a contact print from a large format camera? Is it the extremely sharp detail causing this? Is it something the average darkroom enthusiast can achieve with practice?
 

MaximusM3

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It's called darkroom skills, and the same concepts can also can transported into the digital world by the way. Depth in a print has mostly to do with contrast and every nuance, variation of it, between one or more subjects and backgrounds. There are those who simply stick a lens to 1.4 to create a depth of field play, and think that's what makes a great picture, and those who understand light, exposure, and again, more importantly contrast, to arrive at a beautiful print.
 

TheFlyingCamera

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I'm embarrassed to say that until recently I had never seen a real silver gelatin print, mainly because I haven't been into photography very long. Several months ago I went to the art museum and saw an Ansel Adams print they had (Still Life with Egg Slicer, San Francisco). I had seen it online a million times, but it was breathtaking to see in person. It looked like the print had a third dimension to it (almost holographic). It was almost as if each element in the still life appeared to be "inside" the paper at a slightly different depth. There is obviously no dramatic depth of field in the still life, so how did he get the effect of relative depth in print? Was is a contact print from a large format camera? Is it the extremely sharp detail causing this? Is it something the average darkroom enthusiast can achieve with practice?

That image specifically is a large format image - depending on the print size you saw, it may have been a contact print. Contact printing will get you the best sharpness and contrast that a negative can produce, but as Maximus noted, that's not the be-all end-all of photography. There are camera skills and darkroom skills required to know how your tools interact with your materials to produce the best possible result. And sometimes, the best possible result for the image in question is NOT something super sharp with 3-D-esque depth-of-field properties.
 

Truzi

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I've seen large prints at our local art museum - they are something to behold.

You can get similar, though less pronounced, depth in snapshots. I've shown people 4x6 prints from film and digital (just sharing snapshots) - both wet-printed at the same drug store - and have heard comments that some of the pictures have depth ("almost 3D"). Those pictures turn out to be from film, and the drug-store machine scans the negatives in order to print. As important as silver-gelatin paper is, there is still something to be said of the "capture medium."
 

momus

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That's the beauty of a darkroom print. The image actually is inside the paper, vs sitting on top of it like with an inkjet print. Plus, the image isn't made w/ ink. Of course, Ansel was a genius, and a master at all aspects of photography, especially printing. There's a lot of his books at your library I'm sure. You can learn a lot from them. His working methods were extremely top notch, and it shows in the prints. Keep in mind that silver gelatin is a $100 phrase for any B&W print made on real photographic paper.

Years ago I was using a hybrid technique. I would shoot B&W film, send it out to be developed, scan it, then print it on an inkjet printer. Doggone it, I thought it looked pretty good, at least as good as what I was seeing locally. Then one day I visited a neighbor who shot 4x5 and darkroom printed the negs. My first thought was, I've wasted 3 years of my life. THIS is what it's supposed to look like. I never got on w/ LF, but I did finally start developing my own negs and printing in a bathroom (still do). It's a magical process, vs the scanning and inkjet printing, which was total frustration and stress. I learned so much from doing it myself. I still learn something new about photography every day. If there's a college that teaches a course, take it. Better yet, if there's someone locally that is good and will teach you the basics, even better. You can do it on your own. A lot of people did, including me. But it takes a lot longer.
 
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Mainecoonmaniac

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Is it something the average darkroom enthusiast can achieve with practice?

Yes of course! It's like anything else. But always go to museums and galleries to stay inspired. Inspiration will keep you motivated to get you in the darkroom.
 

cliveh

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I would suggest inkjet prints today (not what was possible 3 years ago) are as good if not better than darkroom prints.
 

MDR

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I would suggest inkjet prints today (not what was possible 3 years ago) are as good if not better than darkroom prints.

I would say they can look as good and sometimes better than some darkroom prints. The true mastering of digital printing is an artform that few take the time to learn and a lot of people fail at just like the analogue darkroom. A good contact print still beats 99% of all digital and analogue prints imo.
 

cliveh

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I would say they can look as good and sometimes better than some darkroom prints. The true mastering of digital printing is an artform that few take the time to learn and a lot of people fail at just like the analogue darkroom. A good contact print still beats 99% of all digital and analogue prints imo.

Is this worth even considering? I look at the picture not the print.
 

DREW WILEY

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How do you look at a "picture" without looking at a print? A magazine reproduction, a smudge on a computer screen? A fine print conveys the
image in a way something more casual or less skilled simply cannot. It's integral to its communication. One equals the other. I'd rather witness
one real mountain lion in the wild than five in a zoo, or four hundred of em in a magazine spread, or a million of em on the web. Nuances count.
 

cliveh

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How do you look at a "picture" without looking at a print? A magazine reproduction, a smudge on a computer screen? A fine print conveys the
image in a way something more casual or less skilled simply cannot. It's integral to its communication. One equals the other. I'd rather witness
one real mountain lion in the wild than five in a zoo, or four hundred of em in a magazine spread, or a million of em on the web. Nuances count.

A photographic print is not an oil painting.
 

DREW WILEY

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But back to the original post ... different kinds of papers, developers, and printing technique yield different results under skilled hands. A sense of depth can be achieved composition-wise, as any student of art history or practice knows, but in terms of a flat two-dimensional surface, the feel of depth in the emulsion itself is determined by certain other variables of tonality, post-development toning, silver richness... on and on. Mastering these skills is one of the joys of working with high-quality true darkroom papers, especially with large-format negatives. I have yet to see anything ever done by typical inkjet printing which has an analogous visual feel, though I have seen certain reproductions using very expensive press techniques that simulate it. Inkjet has a different range of potential appeal, obviously off-topic here. What is "best" really depends on the skill of a particular printer relative to his chosen medium, which is just an inert tool kit otherwise.
But yeah, get out and look at classic real prints. It becomes an epiphany for those who are accustomed to accumulating lard in front of a
screen.
 

DREW WILEY

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Rebuttal, Cliveh - a fine photographic print can be just as moving. Wish my aunt was still alive. She was the first twentieth-century American painter to have an oil painting purchased by a major European art museum, and would probably have regarded your kind of comment as
extremely uninformed. ... and she had four phD's, including in art history, and still have dozens of murals on the Natl Historic Register. I believe
this kind of argument was settled well over a century ago by people like Emerson, Stieglitz, and Strand. Ansel came a bit later. If it's just the
"picture" that counts, and not the print, why not just download an image of his off your screen and see how much you can sell it for! I'll start
the bidding with zero. Do I hear another zero? Going, going, gone! Sold for zero to the fine gentleman behind the laptop!
 

cliveh

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What is "best" really depends on the skill of a particular printer relative to his chosen medium, which is just an inert tool kit otherwise.

Nothing to do with the original capture then?
 

btaylor

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A photographic print is not an oil painting.

Yes. But other than surface qualities that may be in an oil painting and to a lesser degree in a photographic print, I think they are similar. Seeing an original print hung in a gallery or museum as the object intended by the artist will often be a very different experience than getting the picture any other way (poster, book, internet) IMHO.
 

DREW WILEY

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Monet might have pulled off a plein air painting in twenty minutes, Dali might slave over a canvas in the studio for months. "Different capture".
I'm a format schizophrenic, and regard the "best" camera and film as the one I happen to be toting on any given day. But for exercise value as well as darkroom performance, I prefer 8x10. But I print 35mm film with just as much respect when that is part of my session. I take equal interest in color as well as black and white printing too, though never in the same session. Yes, I am strictly analog, but that doesn't mean I
look down on digital prints if they are undertaken with an equivalent degree of dedication. Just different tools. But it's no secret that I like to
make fun of the whole consumer electronics mentality, with it's fast/junk-food mentality to visual output, and all the "let it all hang out"
Fauxtoshop abuses, typical of any adolescent self-conscious artistic media.
 

Loren Sattler

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Nathan, I believe the quality you are describing in the Adams print may be Luminance. It is that glow, that shine in a high quality silver gelatin print that is very elusive. It is that quality that makes a print "sing". I have been aware of it for many years and chase it constantly. It it a quality that is not easy to produce. It is like that perfect golf swing that yields a great shot (maybe once a round) that brings you back to the golf course for another go at it. What is in that swing that makes it happen? Certainly the vision to "see" the picture, proper exposure and appropriate development, favorable lighting, the right contrast…….then lots of luck even after you have gotten adequate at the mechans.

Cliveh, I believe you are way off base. The print is everything! The shot or picture itself is only one aspect of a great print.
 

Jim Noel

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I would suggest inkjet prints today (not what was possible 3 years ago) are as good if not better than darkroom prints.

You may suggest it, but obviously you have never seen a top quality silver gelatin print alongside a really good digital print. I have friends who are literally in the forefront of digital photography who have stated at joint workshops that they could not produce prints to match mine, and I don't consider myself one of the best printers working today.
 

Roger Cole

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That's the beauty of a darkroom print. The image actually is inside the paper, vs sitting on top of it like with an inkjet print. Plus, the image isn't made w/ ink. Of course, Ansel was a genius, and a master at all aspects of photography, especially printing. There's a lot of his books at your library I'm sure. You can learn a lot from them. His working methods were extremely top notch, and it shows in the prints. Keep in mind that silver gelatin is a $100 phrase for any B&W print made on real photographic paper.

Years ago I was using a hybrid technique. I would shoot B&W film, send it out to be developed, scan it, then print it on an inkjet printer. Doggone it, I thought it looked pretty good, at least as good as what I was seeing locally. Then one day I visited a neighbor who shot 4x5 and darkroom printed the negs. My first thought was, I've wasted 3 years of my life. THIS is what it's supposed to look like. I never got on w/ LF, but I did finally start developing my own negs and printing in a bathroom (still do). It's a magical process, vs the scanning and inkjet printing, which was total frustration and stress. I learned so much from doing it myself. I still learn something new about photography every day. If there's a college that teaches a course, take it. Better yet, if there's someone locally that is good and will teach you the basics, even better. You can do it on your own. A lot of people did, including me. But it takes a lot longer.

A little bit of an aside but if you "never got on with LF" do you shoot and print from medium format? A good 6x7 or 6x9 negative can yield prints from modern films that are very, very close to what you'd get from 4x5. I'd say with a fine grained film like TMX, Acros, Delta 100 or even TMY-2 that I'd be hard pressed to tell a 16x20 from my 4x5 negatives from one made from a good 6x7 negative. I'm not saying others can't or that there is NO difference - go larger, or crop more severely in printing and it starts to show up. But medium format today is very, very good and the jump from 35mm to MF, especially 6x7 or 6x9, is huge, a much bigger step up than from 6x7 to 4x5.

Nothing else really competes with a contact print, so those who shoot 8x10 or larger and contact print will always get results unmatched by even slight enlargement. 4x5 contacts can look gorgeous, but they're just too small for my purposes most of the time.

I agree about the rest. I work with computers all the time for my work. The last thing I want is to have them "invading" my personal art as well, though I recognize not everyone will feel that way. Darkroom printing feels like a magical act of craft to me, even when it's going badly.
 
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Nathan King

Nathan King

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Nathan, I believe the quality you are describing in the Adams print may be Luminance. It is that glow, that shine in a high quality silver gelatin print that is very elusive. It is that quality that makes a print "sing". I have been aware of it for many years and chase it constantly. It it a quality that is not easy to produce. It is like that perfect golf swing that yields a great shot (maybe once a round) that brings you back to the golf course for another go at it. What is in that swing that makes it happen? Certainly the vision to "see" the picture, proper exposure and appropriate development, favorable lighting, the right contrast…….then lots of luck even after you have gotten adequate at the mechans.

Cliveh, I believe you are way off base. The print is everything! The shot or picture itself is only one aspect of a great print.

I think you may be on to something with this post as there was a bit of a "glowing" effect to the print. I'm not sure about the luck part though. A lot of very good photographers seem to get lucky time and time again. :tongue:

One thing I certainly gleaned after reading The Camera, The Negative, and The Print is that Adams was extremely detail oriented. He documented everything assuring he was able to ascertain repeatable results of a known quality.
 
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kintatsu

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...he was able to ascertain repeatable results of a known quality.

He was very meticulous in his printing. In a video I saw, he seemed pretty good at documenting things, especially printing. His prints were works of wonder. They have the magic, but allow for insight into the process. He had a great memory and was able to write things down later and recall so much.

Reading his Examples impressed me with his recall. It also re-impresses the need for visualizing. By knowing what you CAN do, and your materials are capable of, you can make something great.
 

Dinesh

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I saw an AA exhibition in Toronto a few years ago and while the content wasn't my particular cup of tea, the printing was top notch. Someone at the time mentioned that while not the only reason, the the cadmium in the papers helped the image pop.

If you ever get a chance to see Bob Carnies printing skills, you too will be amazed at what he can do with some very difficult negatives.

Just be sure not to catch his reflection in the glass as it can be off putting.
 

Jim Jones

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Ansel Adams claimed that the best reproductions of his photographs ". . .came extremely close to my own photographic values." This also seems true of the books and calendars published by the New York Graphic Society, but less so for many books produced without the approval of the Ansel Adams Family Trust. I compared 28 of the images in Ansel Adams: Classic Images with the corresponding photographs in the large Adams exhibit curated by Ansel's daughter-in-law in Peoria, Illinois, last summer. Of course there were slight differences, but the feeling of the reproductions came close to the images in the exhibit. Anyone attempting to print the finest possible photographs should study originals by Adams and other masters. The rest of us can benefit from quality reproductions.
 
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