Techniques

In pursuing monochrome photography one is inevitably engaging in the thrills and spills of technique. Many of us mark the moment of becoming “serious” about our photography by the time we first set up a darkroom, and follow the call of perfecting the chain of production. But as Bill Brandt famously observed, “there are no rules”. In his pursuit of what he called “atmosphere” he was, I believe, closer to the essential nature of the medium than those who pursue notions of literal “fidelity”. The monochrome photograph is, after all, inherently symbolic and suggestive. So when John Blakemore taught me on a workshop that “Drama is easy – truth much more difficult” , it was clear he meant not some notional correspondence of tonal values to a pre-photographic “subject”, but an accuracy and subtlety of emotional rendering. We shoot at a target that only pops up if we hit it….

My own tools have been the simplest available. I used a range of mainly manual cameras in 35mm, especially Leica M-series, and all with fast prime lenses, none more than 105mm in length.

In medium format I used mainly Rolleiflex TLR’s, and especially liked their capacity to charm a portrait sitter. But I also occasionally worked with a Hasselblad and a Mamiya 7. In 4×5” I used a Toyo clamshell field camera with Schneider lenses.

I printed mostly using a DeVere 504 enlarger with Ilford head, almost invariably churning out merely adequate prints on Ilford resin-coated paper, which I strongly dislike but which is functional. Apart from occasional self-indulgent excursions into lith printing, (15 minutes to sit in the dark and dream!), and preparing for exhibitions, I probably spent far too little time perfecting prints on the papers I do like and of which I still have a diminishing stock – Agfa 118, Forte Polywarmtone “natural” and Forte Polygrade. I developed mostly in Agfa Neutol WA but occasionally (with cold-tone papers such as Forte Polygrade) in Dokumol.

I used 400ASA films more or less exclusively, and feel that at the sizes I print (20 x16 is the maximum I can handle in my archival washer) the versatility and flatter curves of 400ASA films outweigh the more obvious pictorialist appeal of slower ones. I have experimented, more or less systematically, with most commonly available films and developers, going through that long learning process at the end of which one knows not what is “best” but what one likes.

My emulsion of preference has been HP5, alternating with Tri-x, whose apparent softness of grain (it undoubtedly resolves less than HP5) is, I believe, outweighed by its capacity to render a “3d” look – an effect which became less implausible when I read Gombrich’s Art and Illusion. This is not merely a matter of adjacency but an effect of tonal conjuncture, which also consistently returned me to Rodinal as a developer.