Thursday, April 12, 2007

Arsenic And Old Photos

Here is an Article that supplements yesterday's post. This article was forwarded to me by one of my photography professors, which originally appeared in the New York Times. Additionally, the irony to all of this, I ran out of chemistry today. In order to continue my marathon week of printing, figuring, it would be as simple as driving to the nearset photo supply store to purchase the necessary chemistry. As it turns out, a drive into the city, and three stores later, I was finally able to purchase the desperately needed items. It seems supplies are limited, and not ordered as often, even in a metropolis, such as mine.

I also stopped in at one of my favorite bookstores, Moe's. They have an incredible selection of books, especially photography. Josef Koudelka has a new book out, but it ia combination from all his other books, Gypsies, Exiles, and Choas. Another book worth looking into is a book by Sze Tsung Leong: History Images. It is a photographic exploration of China, a documentation and commentary on the urban landscape, and how China is destroying a lot of its own history to, architecture, neighborhoods, all for high-rises, sky scrapers, and their search for modernity. One other book to look for is Henry Wessl's new book of his early work from the 1970s of Southern California to his most recent work in Las Vegas; a synopsis from

"Wessel's wit and insight illuminate a world rich in nuance, humor, and irony. For the past 30 years, Henry Wessel has observed and recorded the unusual and the iconic, framed and formed by the light and landscape of the West. Photographing the endless vanishing points of a desert road in black-and-white or an opulent, gilded hotel corridor in Las Vegas, Wessel finds in each a metaphor for the region where people go to vanish, to assume new identities. Anonymous houses, sculptural cacti, and beachgoers in Waikiki are captured in all their sphinx-like inscrutability. Slipcased, 10 x 9.5 in./154 pgs / 56 color."

A long post, but hopefully a worth while read!

April 1, 2007

Arsenic and Old Photos


IF you are even a casual visitor to the pawn shops and junk emporiums that make this city a scavenger’s paradise, you might have run into him: a burly, dark-bearded man with a thick Czech accent and a certain glow in his eye as he riffles through the boxes of castoff photographs.

His name is Dusan Stulik, and his appetite for old pictures is not sated by secondhand bins. He wants them from you too, from your old family albums and rubber-banded shoeboxes, from your Aunt Mildred the pack rat and your Uncle Milt who turned the shower into a darkroom. He wants essentially everything you no longer want: snapshots, portraits,
photo-booth strips, art-school experiments, even passport pictures.

“Whenever I meet someone,” Mr. Stulik said, grinning, “I say, ‘Do you have something that I need?’ ”

Such questions tend to make people inch away, but Mr. Stulik doesn’t pay much attention. He is on a mission, one that has nothing to do with what the pictures he collects depict. He is interested only in what they are made of: the papers, chemicals and metals that constituted the richly varied physical world of photography for about 170 years, until the rise of digital cameras and printing a decade ago began to render it obsolete.

For the last few years, in an underground lab at the Getty Conservation Institute here, Mr. Stulik and a group of assistants have been working on what might be described as the genome project of predigital photography: a precise chemical fingerprint of all the 150 or so ways pictures have been developed since an amateur scientist named Joseph Nicéphore Niépce made what is believed to be the first one on a piece of pewter near Chalon-sur-Saône, France, in 1826.

Since that time photographs have been printed using a mind-boggling array of materials, some of them highly fragile: bitumen (mineral tar), albumen (egg whites), potato starch, collodion, salt, mercury, silver, gold, platinum and even uranium. (Mr. Stulik, trying recently to unsettle a visitor to his lab, pulled out a hand-held Geiger counter to prove that one print in his collection did indeed contain uranium. The device chattered like a chipmunk.)

Mr. Stulik, a senior scientist at the Getty, has long been a detective in the chemistry of the art world, mostly in the realm of painting. But in 2000 he and several other conservation scientists gathered in upstate New York to talk about what they saw as an impending disaster in photographic conservation and scholarship: the abandonment and loss of many decades’ worth of information about traditional photos as the switch was made to digital.

Some of that information has long been lost in the weeds of history, left there by innovators who experimented with exotic chemicals and papers and left little record of what they were up to. Many traditional film and paper companies have also gone out of business over the years, taking their trade secrets with them. But now, as every major photographic company rapidly shifts into digital imaging, they have little incentive to keep track of detailed data about products that no longer turn a profit, many of which haven’t even been sold in years.

Last year alone Nikon and Canon announced plans to slow or stop development of film cameras. Konica Minolta recently ended film and paper production altogether. The real alarm bell rang for Mr. Stulik when Kodak announced in 2005 that it would stop making its beloved black-and-white photo paper.

Employing maybe only a little of his characteristic hyperbole, he compares this shift to the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, which quickly consigned hand-copied and illuminated manuscripts, and many of the techniques used to create them, to irrelevance and historical oblivion.

Mr. Stulik has appointed himself to make sure that does not happen this time, and it would be difficult to cast a more charismatic scientist-savior. Reared in Prague, where he began dabbling with chemistry as a teenager, he still bears the tattoolike scars from a test-tube experiment that went bad and blew up in his right hand, leaving glass shards embedded there to this day.

“I was young scientist trying to do something,” he said in his clipped English, and shrugged. “I survived.”

When he began the photo project, working with the Image Permanence Institute in Rochester, chemists from California State University and a group of French conservation scientists, Mr. Stulik realized that in addition to trolling the world’s great museum collections, he needed examples of long-discontinued consumer papers and films that were probably collecting dust in the millions of ordinary photo collections in people’s homes across the country.

And so the Getty put out a clarion call on its Web site ( and elsewhere, deputizing citizens as part of
the scientific front line. “Surprisingly, the large photography companies — Kodak, Ilford, Fuji, Polaroid and Agfa — did not save samples of the hundreds of different films and papers they developed over the last century,” the appeal stated. “We’re hoping that you did.”

Since the request went out last year, the Getty lab has received hundreds of examples of films and photos, including some very old ones, like an albumen print probably from the 1850s. But there are many more things Mr. Stulik continues to hope for, like old stereo photos, cibachrome materials, Velox paper and pre-1940s Kodachrome slides. (It turns out, he said, that the colors of Kodachrome, as celebrated by Paul Simon — “They give us those nice, bright colors/They give us the greens of summers” — have held up extraordinarily well over the decades.)

Mr. Stulik tends to supplement the supply of donated material with his own, which he finds while obsessively combing eBay and rummaging in antiques shops wherever he travels. He recently paid $15 at a shop on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks for a rare example of a tintype photograph, probably from the middle to late 19th century printed not on metal but on a wallet-size piece of leather.

“You know, I’m obsessed,” he said. “You find stuff in the most ungodly places.”

The goal of Mr. Stulik and his fellow scientists is to produce, sometime in the next few years, a door-stopping Atlas of Analytical Signatures of Photographic Processes, a chemical characterization of every known (and, until now, some previously unknown) means of making pictures. The other day on the floor in his lab he and an assistant, Art Kaplan, unfurled a partial compendium of their research to date, a Santa’s-list-like paper chart more than a dozen feet long enumerating in small type the materials they had already identified in different types of photos.

The research could have an impact not only in the world of photo conservation — a relatively young practice that got under way seriously only in the 1970s — but also in the practice of authentication. With auction prices for masterwork photographs skyrocketing, definitive evidence that, say, a vintage Lewis W. Hine really is vintage and not a later print can mean a difference of tens of thousands of dollars in its price. (Several years ago Hine collectors were shaken when a number of prints made after he died were passed off as being vintage.)

Ultimately the research could also substantially revise and refine the timelines of photo history. It has already begun to shake things up. Mr. Stulik frequently packs up a suitcase-size portable lab he and his assistants have designed — the most important component is an infrared spectrometer resembling a kind of space-age pistol, attached to a powerful laptop — and lugs it to museums around the world.

Last summer his team went to the National Media Museum in Bradford, England, which has one of the world’s largest and most significant photo collections. One of the purposes was to test a picture on display there that had been identified for decades as the first print ever made with vanadium, a silver-gray metal once briefly used along with silver, platinum and other metals to make images on paper more permanent.

But within only a couple of minutes, the Getty’s spectrometers determined that there was no trace of vanadium in the photograph, suggesting that it is not a rare historical artifact but simply a much more common silver-based salt print. The research also found that an experimental print labeled as made in 1854 by William Henry Fox Talbot, one of photography’s pioneers, contained collodion and baryta, two materials not believed to have been used so early — a huge development
in the world of photo scholarship, if confirmed.

“In essence this can start to rewrite the history of photography,” said Grant Romer, director of the advanced residency program in photograph conservation at the George Eastman House in Rochester. “It’s already provoked a sort of crisis in the understanding of what we think we know about some photographs.”

Mr. Romer, a dean in the field of photography conservation, said that while the science will certainly benefit from Mr. Stulik’s research, he believes such work is being driven now not only by the switch to digital but also by the art market’s final, lucrative embrace of photography. (Last year a rare print by Edward Steichen sold at auction for almost $3 million, setting a record.)

“Up until maybe 10 years ago,” Mr. Romer said, “many photographs really didn’t have a value that made all of this matter. Now it does.”

Mr. Stulik professes not to care much about how the market will use his work, although it is probably waiting eagerly for his findings. “This is not my mission,” he said dismissively. Instead he tends to spend his days obsessing over things like egg yolks — “Albumen used only egg whites,” he said. “What did they do with all the yolks?” — and arsenic, traces of which he found recently, to his great surprise, in examining an old cyanotype photograph.

“I wake up during the night, and I am thinking: ‘What is that arsenic doing there? There should not be arsenic there. What were they doing?’ ” he said, running his hand over his forehead. “I lose sleep over this. Really, it is crazy.”

Maybe, but in Mr. Stulik’s world, as he frequently makes clear, few things are more important than pictures.

“What do you save in a fire?” he asked, leaning in close. “First, children. Second, maybe a spouse? Third, your photographs — because there is no way to replace them.”

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Black and White Musings

Finally, having a week off to do nothing, absolutely nothing! However, busier than ever, to whom ever may be reading this, or who has the interest. This past summer a friend of mine, who is much handier than myself, helped me build a place to create my black and white musings.

My SO complained about building the darkroom, saying it was obsolete, darkrooms are relics of the past, no one is photographing with film, processing film, let alone printing black and white images onto silver gelatin. She spent months trying to convince me that I should switch to digital, all digital, state of the art equipment, instead of building a darkroom, an inuaguration to the 21st century, if you will. Ahhhhhhh, but being stubborn, stuck in the past, a digital darkroom? What for? What would one do with a digital darkroom? Besides, the cost to build a real darkroom is significantly less than a digital darkroom, especially if it is state of the art, unlike a digital one, which would only be that way for a month or so.

A real darkroom will always be state of the art. Every photography company has already made what ever enlargers they made; companies are no longer inventing new light sources, or chasis' for the pleasure of printing--condensor, cold light or diffusion, what else could they build? They already exist, they probably cannot be made for much better, and besides, if it breaks, it can be fixed, unlike a computer, a scanner, or a printer, not having to worry about updating software, purchasing ink, or callibrating the monitoring. However, there is a true fear to how long paper or chemistry will be available.

Preferring the darkroom, the same way Eugene Smith did, left to his own devices, while printing, listening to jazz, drinking, and the ambience of the orange-tinged light. Also preferring to be left to my own devices, the intimacy that develops between you and your images, often times a point of departure, printing into the wee hours of the night, as if nothing else exists, you and your negatives, the affixation of chemistry, the sultry air, and the inhalation of fumes. After a days work smelling like chemistry, is like a right of passage, uncertain of what right of passage we are speaking of? Perhaps once when photographers embraced the alchemy of the photographic processes?

In the dark, cut off from the rest of the world, as when you are travelling, no internet, phones, or news of any kind, lost in a world of darkness, and the halo of light emitted by the enlarger. It is a beautiful moment to see your image being projected, loosely, onto a flat, two-dimmensional surface, suspended in air, bringing to life, from your experience, your memory, from what you have read in books, learned from other alchemists, their knowledge of chemistry, mixing everything just so, combining the materials, so what lays on the flat surface will be developed and brought into daylight.

The magic of chemistry, when combined to the silver, embedded in the photorgaphic paper. Real silver, not immitation, not like ink, from ink jet cartridges, translating the tonal values by logarithms that software engineers created, but real formulas manufactured and developed over time, so the photographer can translate their vision, by hand, with silver and the chemical. Why would anyone want to sit in front of a computer to manipulate their image in photoshop, and print it out on nonphotographic materials? An immitation if you will. Maybe for color this is an accpetable thing to do, or is it? But why for black and white?

It seems our society is lazy. Wanting everything immediately, immediate results, immediate gratification, not the unexpected immediacy either, but perfected immediacy, automated perfection, no room for error, no room for the human quality, no room for the human experience due to the possibility of imperfections, images that once took several days or weeks before we could view them, with anticipation, but now, the automation, the need for the instant, snap, click, a few seconds later, your image, viewed on the back of the screen--this is what poloroid is for--and if we don't like we see, we delete it; so much for saving the images we don't like! And the click one is accustumed to hearing, is also automated for the average snapshot hobbyist, to give them another dimmension of the sensation that a shutter is being released, letting you know, you just exposed your frame. It serves no purpose, except sensation, of what use to be with that of film cameras and for a pupose.

This is what I love and miss about the true photographic process, viewing 36 images exposed, having limited opportunities to capture what you are experiencing. This is a process, a thinking process, you are expected to think--another problem with society--people don't want to think, they want everything to be done for them. The nature of the photographic, embraces thought, thought of vision, thought of seeing, thoughtfulness, thought of tonal value, thought of color,and te psychology of color, thinking in the moment, sometimes at an 1/8 of a second, panning the camera so your subject will be in focus while your background, blurred, and the action sustained on film. Thinking how to translate onto film what is being seen? Where is the artistry that use to exist? Where is the imagination in the photogprahic process that was exhibited by a myriad of photographers; Nadar, Brady, O'sullivan, Curtis, the debate between Robinson and Emerson, the conceptual vs. the found object?

We think of nothing except for the immediacy. Part of the excitment with photography was waiting to see your results, the anticipation, walking up to the counter, waiting for the clerk to find your name on the package, delivering it to yur hand, having to pay first, your excitement, the feelings of intensity build, hearing the crinkling of the paper, at last, the glorious moment has arrived, your first print, then the second, you flip quickly and quietly, then view it again, one reviews it once you get home, happy with some, disappointed with others, but the feeling was always the same, the same anxious feeling time and time again, or for the photographer who processed their film, waiting in anticiapation for the film to be fixed, and waiting once again for them to be dry, to the making of the contact sheets, then maybe a 5x7 or an 8x10 enlargement, and the discovery of that one image that comes to life. Out of 36 exposures, discovering that one magical image, where timing meant everything, the angels and gods shined brightly down upon you, transcending a moment, photogaphed in 1/60 of second or less, to be adorned and encapsulated forever.

The contact sheet, glorious moments of 36 exposures, perfectly laid out images, displayed, waiting to be viewed, all begging for your attention, this is where a real photographic education begins, not in a classroom, not when photographing, but viewing, in plain sight, the contact sheet. The secrets revealed, to learn from, to embrace the moments, studying your visual odyessies, your recordings, your Black and White musings!

This is why my dear, I would never invest in a state of the art digital darkroom! I can't create in light, it needs to be done in darkness, like dreaming, in solitude, listening to music, under the safety of the safe light. Where one can think, where one can take their time to develop their thoughts, where one can dream and envision how his musings should look. All the tones are there, waiting for you to discover their secrets, discovering them as they are revelead, yours to discover, along with the moments of frustration. It is a time when I can leave this world, not be bothered by trivial pursuits, such as laundry, grocery shopping, washing the car, cleaning the house, or sex. Transcending, to another plane, solitude is mine, thinking is mine, the moment to create is mine, all in black and white, all in the spectrum, of grays, blacks, and whites.

A darkroom is for all of this, for all of these moments, to relive what one experiences when photographing. A digital darkroom is no place to discover all these things, in pieces, or as a whole, as the whole world is at your fingertips, your SO, asking you to do this or that, your children asking you to do this or that, your pets wanting you to do this or that, phone calls, being bombarded by one question after another, and in between, moments of looking online perhaps your next digital musing, perhaps your fantasy, a brief moment of escape, more brief than my exposure onto film, and in the darkroom, left alone, no questions, unbothered by fantasy, lost in my own moments, my own thoughts, away from the internet, discovering piece by piece each tone I want to exaggerate.

My black and white musings . . .

To experience this feeling rent three DVDs: CONTACTS 1, 2, AND 3!