I learned black and white printing in the space of one hour. That was how long it took our second-semester photo instructor to show us Minor White’s “Jupiter Portfolio”. He was frustrated with our unfounded belief that we knew something about black and white photography, and by showing these prints, he hoped to shake up this arrogant group of freshman.
While my memory is hazy on the other people’s reactions, my own reaction remains crystal clear. I had never seen prints of such beauty and complexity. They were luminous and rich, seeming to transcend the medium used to create them. Everyday objects became iconic, imbued with a deep sense of mystery.
While I didn’t actually learn to print in that intense hour-long class, the experience became my base and guideline for fine printing, and remains my touchstone to this day. It also brought the realization of just how poor my own prints were.
The one technical aspect of White’s prints that stood out was their luminosity. Rather than just reflecting the light falling on them, they seemed to be illuminated from behind, a characteristic I have since noticed in other great photographers’ work. This was the quality that I wanted to capture in my own prints.
Thus began many frustrating years of darkroom experimentation. As my personal work began to focus on small sections of the natural landscape, and edged more towards abstraction, my final prints continued to disappoint. Despite often seeing the potential for luminosity while shooting, it was rarely appearing in the final prints.
As my technique slowly became more refined, I gradually came to realize that luminosity was happening because of the middle and upper tonalities. In my experience, most b&w prints tended towards the extreme, with overpowering shadows and highlights, but generally making very limited use of the mid-range grays.
Hiking down a small desert canyon one day, I was struck by a small epiphany: luminosity was occurring because of the juxtaposition and blending of these multiple middle and light gray tones. By stretching out the gray scale of any given negative, and by making full use of the tonal range inherent in a good silver paper, this quality began to appear in my photos.
Drawing the longest tonal range possible-stretching the middle and lighter grays-requires several steps. The combination of film and developer is of paramount importance, and my constant standby for thirty years has been Ilford FP-4 plus, developed in Kodak HC-110. This film has a long tonal range, an aspect that is assisted by this developer. After using this combination for many years, I can usually figure how the film will react to any given scene, and can confidently predict how the final negative will look. Due to the nature of my subject matter, I almost always cut development to compress the negative’s range, controlling the highlight densities, creating a printable contrast.
By cutting development from the normal time, the highlights are compressed, and this technique must be used when shooting a contrasty scene. On the flip side of that situation, when a scene is flat, lacking contrast, film development must be pushed past the recommended normal time. This will extend the highlight range, making the negative range longer, and much easier to print.
Figuring these times is relatively simple, and the starting point will be the recommended development time. Taking this as a given, add or subtract time in small increments, experimenting until your negatives are printing well. If a normal time, as an example, is six minutes, a reasonable cut would be down to four and one half minutes. A reasonable push would be up to eight minutes. Film development time is a trail-and-error process, but correct times will quickly become obvious during printing.
To achieve luminosity, a negative needs to be slightly denser than the accepted norm. While the recommended ISO for FP-4 is 125, I shoot it at 50, effectively overexposing it by one stop, and giving the negative added density. This extra thickness will aid in achieving luminosity, giving the shadows a strong, detailed base, and allowing the middle tonal range to be stretched, increasing those subtle separations between the grays.
While the shadow range will give a strong base to an image, and while the separation between shadow tones is important(these subtle density shifts are the hallmark of a good photograph), the small, sliding scale of grays are what will make a black and white photograph glow. After creating a decent negative, I moved into the printing phase of this quest.
An early discovery was that only silver-rich papers could make decent prints, and that resin-coated papers lacked the depth required. My mainstay paper is Ilford’s multi-grade silver paper. For several years, I have been using a two-bath developer system, first running the exposed paper through a brief immersion in Liquidol developer diluted 1:3, usually for thirty seconds to a minute. This enhances the shadows, giving a strong base for the rest of the tonalities. This step also increases the density of those small shadow lines that often occur between the higher tonal separations, delineating these levels. The second developer will be TD-31 diluted 1:5. This next step will last anywhere from two up to five minutes. The second developer dunk will finish the range, filling in the middle tones and the highlights. This developer mix recreates the old Selectol/Dektol combination. By altering dilutions and times, these grays can be spread out over an amazing range, giving small and subtle steps between the tones. Holding detail up into the highlight tones will enhance these middle tones, creating a rich and luminous print.
When I gave workshops, there was always at least one person whose technical photographic knowledge far outstripped my own. Without exception, their prints would be poor, both visually and technically. I was mystified by this for several years, but finally understood that they had immersed themselves so deeply in the scientific process that the knowledge became an end in itself. They had forgotten that the reason for the knowledge was to make good photography.
Tonal range will vary with every negative you print, sometimes requiring a full and total contrast-having a long range from shadows up to detailed highlights-but often needing some variation on this standard. Understanding how each negative needs to be printed is a key aspect to b&w, and one that can only be learned through long experience. Occasionally a scene will need to be printed down, to give a certain moodiness to the final image. Other photos will need to be high-key, containing mostly highlights, with very small shadows, to give a light and delicate sensibility to the image.
It is axiomatic to say how important light is to b&w photography, but this can’t be emphasized enough, especially as it applies to luminosity. Reflected light can be rich, greatly expanding the possibility of a luminous final print. Low angle light also offers many opportunities towards a luminous image, particularly when shot over water. An overcast day, when combined with the right subject matter, also offers many possibilities, especially when film development is pushed. Flat light can work very well with b&w when applied properly, especially when combined with reflective surfaces.
Luminosity is a difficult aspect of the process, and relies on both technical ability and intuition, requiring that a balance be kept between these two aspects of the creative process, an equilibrium that will enhance and improve your photography. Creating a final print that absolutely glows is the last step in the black and white process, and may also be the most important aspect of the journey.
Published in Camera&Darkroom magazine.