Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Negative Creep

I enjoy many aspects of photography but looking for negatives is not one of them. In fact it's usually the biggest pain in the ass imaginable. My office walls are lined with negatives and print boxes. I try to keep them well labeled and organized. Still, finding any particular image is always something of a treasure hunt.

(Yeah, it's gonna be another "my process" post. I can feel you reaching for the next link already. Feel free to skip if you're looking for the latest hot photo trend.)

For the past few years my filing system has been pretty good. I make work prints of the photos I like (about 6 months after shooting). I write the date and roll number on the back of each one. So if I can find the work print it will lead me to the negative. But that's a big If. The thing is, my work prints are sort of scattered. I'm never exactly sure where I've filed something. Most photos have multiple characteristics. A photo like the one below for example could go in the dog box, or lineups, or family photos (it's my brother in law), or street photos, or who knows where. So I have to look in this box or that one until I find the right one.

If I worked on projects it would be easy. I'd look in the box marked Every Building on the Sunset Strip or Barfly Portraits or whatever. God how I envy those photographers who can just finish a project, put it in a big box and there it is. If they ever want to find it, it's waiting. I imagine that a book is sort of like that. Tidy. Contained. With clearly marked words on the spine. Look at William Klein in the video below casually leafing through one of his books. Look at how perfectly organized his contacts are (around 1:00 in). And his negatives in their nice wooden cabinet. Look how relaxed he seems with his hair down in his leisure suit.

Instead my photos run together in a big stream. More of a river actually. My archive may be only slightly larger than Klein's but the pain-in-the-ass factor beats his by several orders of magnitude. Definitely not leisure suit material.

I keep about 500 of my alltime favorite work prints in a box, so that's usually the first place I look. But sorting through them can take a while, and most of the time the photo won't be there. And the search is always a big stress. Like, will I find it here? Will this be the box? That one? I don't have all day. I've gotta go out and shoot later.

Then there are the photos from pre-2006 before I started numbering rolls. I used to shoot so much I didn't have time to keep track. I just dumped negatives chronologically into three inch binders, one per month. On the work print I'd write the date, 8/04 or something, but on the negative nothing. So the work print would lead me to the right binder if I could find it. But then I'd have to sort through all the contacts one by one. After I found the contact it was easy, because (unlike Klein) I keep my negs and contacts together side by side. But to get to that point could take a while.

Did I mention that I never mark my contacts to show which prints I've made or which frames I like? Every contact looks the same at first: blank. I can usually recognize a frame by what else is happening on the contact but sometimes it's just an isolated shot with no context. I know what you're thinking. I must be a friggin masochist. What the heck am I thinking? The idea is I like to approach the negatives fresh each time. It's like walking down a new street looking for photos. I want to keep every side avenue open, and previous marks may bias me toward a particular photo. Who knows. Maybe I'll choose a different frame the next time around.

Or at least that's what I used to tell myself. Actually my initial reasoning doesn't really make sense any more. When looking for negatives bias is a good thing. Bias helps you cut through the clutter. But I hate to change horses midstream. Or midriver as the case may be.

So it's a big fat pain in the ass when I have to look for negatives, and honestly I try to avoid it. The primary exceptions occur when someone forces my hand. This is what happened last month when I was invited by Stephen McLaren into a group show. Ten photos. Ten negs to find. Yikes! Time to put the waders on.

Fortunately Stephen told me exactly what he wanted, which saved me a lot of restless contemplation and sleepless nights, and that's before I even started searching for negatives. My only instructions to him were that they had to be photos I'd never exhibited before. He looked at my work online and came up with these:

According to the show title it's a Street Photography exhibition. I don't know if these all count as street photographs. I'm not even sure what a street photo is. But at least most of these show pavement, so that's a start.

They aren't necessarily the ones I would've picked. There's probably no such thing as that, not without insomnia. So it's a good thing he chose them and not me. I know I said ten and there are eleven shown here. Stephen and I are photographers, not mathematicians. Ten. Eleven. Fifty. To an artist they're all about the same. Let someone else worry about counting things. My job was to print these.

Stephen offered the option of printing them himself in New Orleans from a digital file. That would've simplified things. I think that's what the others did. It was tempting but in the end I decided to make my own prints in the darkroom. 16 x 20 on fiber. Pain in the ass.

I know they're not fashionable but darkroom prints look fine to me. I'm not the world's greatest printer but I can do a passable job. I print b/w. I don't have to fuss over gamuts and color casts. Instead I can concentrate on what's in the photo. If I can express the primary visual idea in the print I'm not going to worry a lot about dodging or burning unless an area really demands it. If it's a good neg I can usually pull a nice print in about an hour, and generally it will look like what's on the contact.

Maybe you can't finetune an image in the darkroom to the extent you can with a computer but that's ok with me. Sometimes a digital print can look too controlled. All the tones are perfect, every dust speck removed. They have all the charm of an auto-tuned voice. And they're ready for replication. Push the print button once and you've got a unique print. Push it 20 more times and you no longer have a unique print. Instead you've got a distribution model. Reminder, I'm not a mathematician. Twenty seems about the same as zero.

Look at this photo by Daido Moriyama. I saw it in person a few months ago at Hartman. Believe me, it's every bit as ugly in real life. Maybe creepy is a better word. There are no middle tones. The burning and dodging is incredibly conspicuous. It looks like a rough experiment. But you know what? It works.

Daido Moriyama, Boy, Miyagi, Japan, 1973
Fiber prints have character. The easel blades are never quite square. There is always a stray dust speck or five that require spotting after. Not to mention all the fingerprints. And creases and crimps. And maybe a tong mark or two. Sometimes I drip fixer in the corners as the stop bath is setting in or add a tiny photogram in a dark area where it won't be easily noticed. Some might call them flaws. I call them character. Stephen is having a cow as he reads this. He's pulled out my prints and is looking more closely. Don't worry, Stephen. Just yanking your chain.

But the main reason I decided to print this show in the darkroom is I'm a goddamn control freak. Sending my file to be printed offsite made me nervous. I've actually done this for a few shows and it's worked out fine. It seems to be the way of the future. But it feels a bit like a cook offering up a recipe instead of a meal. I think most cooks are control freaks. They want to see their food through to the end, ingredients to mouth. Maybe they don't even have a recipe. They go by feel. They add some fairy dust. Every time they make a certain meal it comes out slightly different.

I was nervous about the bush lady photo. The last time I'd searched for the negative it had nearly given me an ulcer. I took the shot in 2003 during the pre-labeling era. I'd shot about 80 rolls that February and I knew it was on one of them. But I couldn't find it! I knew I'd shot it somewhere downtown Portland, but the problem was it was a one-off. The surrounding frames offered no context. I thumbed carefully through the contacts for two hours, one by one, frame by frame. It wasn't there! And it was one of my favorites! FUCK!

That was about five years ago. I'd settled down by now. This time I found it within ten minutes, right where it was supposed to be. I know I don't usually do this but I put a large red box around the frame on the contact, just to make my my life easier if I ever printed it again. There are no side avenues on that particular contact. I will always pick that frame.

The rest of the negatives turned up fine as well. I put off looking for them until the day before I was due in the darkroom. I had some coffee, started digging, and in a few hours I'd found them all. It was like a visit to the dentist which you keep putting off. But in the end it wasn't so bad.

Printing all eleven images took two solid days in the darkroom. I made 5 one day, then 6 the following week. Printing was fun! It's a real pleasure to see a tiny one inch frame on a neg transformed into a living breathing thing. And I'd never printed these particular images at 16 x 20 before. Every piece of grain had shown up for the job.

I sent them all to Stephen and told him to edit down to ten. Or use all eleven or fifty or however many. I wound up substituting for one of Stephen's picks. You'll have to visit the show to see which one. Some things need seen in person I think. It opens Friday.


R Shapiro said...

I wish I could see that show. Are any of those 500 prized work prints for sale?

Blake Andrews said...

If I sold them how could I look up negatives?

But I can make prints for sale upon request. Email me directly for details.

Joseph Bayot said...

This is a wonderful post. So organic and full of character. I feel like I'm in your head as you go back and forth with yourself.

As an avid photographer who just bought his first real (flm) camera, I'm looking forward to that magic moment of looking through my negatives and contact sheets. Your dedication to and love of the overall experience of shooting, developing and printing film convinced me to buy my Canonet, some Tri-X and some Portra.

Thanks for always writing such thoughtful, informative, and hilarious posts.

Hernan Zenteno said...

So I am not alone in the mad mad system of file negatives. And the best of your post is that I found someone more crazy than me. I am going to scraps my old enlarger mostly because I have not a good washing device for fiber papers (the wash processing can be a pain in the ass) and I can't get anymore the fiber papers I like, Multicontrast Classic of Agfa and Museum Warm Tone from Forte. I read that in Germany the label Adox is making again this kind of papers but Is almost impossible to purchase them from Argentine. So, I gradually change my wet darkroom by the digital print system except for the use of black and white film, that I still found irreplaceable. I use my scanner like an enlarger and I print on inkjet fiber barite fiber paper. The perfection you said you can get from digitizing your negatives depends on how much perfectionist you want be. I did a tribute series of images to the 35 mm negative and I leave some little scratches and dust cause I like the analog look. For curious this is the link
About the archive system I think the main problem I share with you is that most of the times I don't really do projects that can be meticulous filed. I shoot when I found something and when I can. And sometimes I did it in family situations. A friend passed to me the Magnum archive method but I haven't contact sheets of all my negatives so will be very time consuming and costly do it now. They file the photo with a code that indicates the photographer, the project, date, contact sheet number (roll number) and include the edited frames. In my case I can get different things in the same roll and sometimes I develop the roll after several weeks or include months so I don't remember exactly the date. If anyone find a way to organize and find the negatives better I will appreciate his/her information about how to do it. Saludos

Blake Andrews said...

Tag, Joseph. You're it now.

Interesting thoughts, Hernan. I haven't seen too many photographers write about their archiving methods. That topic probably has a limited audience (other photographers) but I for one would be curious to read more by others.

John Maloof said...

I can honestly understand your pain. Not from my own work but with Maier's. I re-started scanning and archiving her work 3 different times before this last final time where a fancy system was figured out. That means that the scans done that were posted online for the first attempts were basically rescanned and have new file names. A nightmare. Old file names and new ones are not linked because it was virtually impossible to do. When I need to find an older image with the old file name, it's beyond a huge pain in the ass.

For my own photos, since I shoot digital lately, I make sure to organize my files. I keyword them too in the metadata so they can be easily found by keywords. I organize by dated folders. That way the metadata in any original file, whether posted online or whatever, can be traced by the date taken to the folder that matches that date.

Lightroom has great organizing tools that allow you to input custom fields into the metadata and also keyword collections. I use Phase One Media Pro which essentially does the same thing (for what I use it for). You can group by color rating, star rating, etc. And you can call files by the star rating or color, or even keywords. All of this info can be synchronized to the original files very simply with one command. Then you can search the folders themselves by keywords to find your files :)

Blake Andrews said...

I sympathize, John.

Vivian Maier archive = Royal pain in the ass

Ben said...

Great post. I feel your pain from my old B/W days but believe it or not, even finding files on a computer is a pain in the ass sometimes, but admittedly a lot easier and faster. Some time ago I read a good article about Friedlander's filing sytem. If I can find it I will send it to you.

Jin said...

No idea what I would do without Lightroom now. At least if I tag things, but still keep rolls together I can look quickly and not have to deal with that dam orange mask on color negs. Before I got all serious, I just organized by year and location. Then somehow organizing by camera and lens worked for a while because even though I can't remember when it was or where it was, I still roughtly knew how it looked and what I shot it with. Now it's just by trips - "Oh I made it on that trip, that year. Let's go look in this batch of 900 frames..."

I need a system before things get really bad... thank god I'm shooting in projects now. Though that doesn't always work because you shoot random one-offs too as you're doing the projects, and then they are stranded unless you want to be the meticulous anal-retentive who cuts up the strips and files everything by subject. If I were less lazy I'd create a document with the roll number I get from the lab and an index of every shot on it by frame. Then at least I can search the file. I can't quite bring myself to stare at a computer any more than I already do though. Lightroom, man, Lightroom.

Blake Andrews said...

You say the Lightroom,
I say the Darkroom,
You say use filenames,
I like the filed out,
The Lightroom, The Darkroom, use filenames, not filed out,
Let's call the whole thing off...

Krusty T.C. said...

Remember kiddies, this is what happens when you sniff too much fixer.

Ben said...

I found the article on Friedlander's filing system. After a fruitless search on the internet, I found it "hiding" in the 2005 MoMA Friedlander catalogue, page 432. Good read. Hope this helps.