2 Mar 2008

Learning how to print black and white

When I visited the Focus on Imaging show at the NEC in Birmingham last week, I happened to be attracted to the Ilford stand. Now I can say with pride that I have won many awards in what used to be the Ilford Print of The Years Competitions in the past, so naturally, I took a close look at some of the winning prints.

I saw one print that was definitely out of focus in the enlarger and the quality of the print left a bit to be desired. Perhaps it’s because so few photographers are competent with film printing these days. Standards must have fallen.

Now when I was a lad…

I don’t suppose many professional photographers have started their careers on their hands and knees, but that is what happened to me. My first job after leaving school clutching my solitary ‘O’ Level in art – the only examination I ever took - was to print the photo-sales for a local weekly newspaper. For this mammoth task (there were hundreds of black and white prints to do every day) I was given a suitably elephantine piece of equipment – a gigantic, old-fashioned horizontal enlarger.

If you have never seen a horizontal enlarger, and in this day of digital, there is no reason why you should have, you’ll have to imagine a 19th Century lantern slide projector running on rails about 6 feet long. I blame this obstinate colossus - all mahogany, brass, and leather bellows, for my permanent stoop and stunted growth.

The inventive and sadistic chief photographer had mounted this enlarger against the wall, vertically, to save space. A large hole had been sawn in the ceiling above to accommodate the lamp house that housed a light bulb the size of a football. Even so, the brute was still so long that in order to print anything bigger that a whole-plate, the baseboard had to be put on the floor. It needed to of us to heave the lamp house up the rails to print a 10 x 8. That bulb got so mad hot that smoke would filter though the ceiling into the typing pool upstairs.

Oh how I wished that dreadful thing would go up in flames.

Despite the size and power of the bulb, by the time its light had travelled down to the lens through the enormous condensers, it barely had strength to trickle onto the printing paper. Exposures of quite extraordinary duration were called for and these had to be timed by counting the seconds in my head. There was no darkroom clock, and I couldn’t afford a watch on £3 a week. I dreaded orders for multiple prints.

These long exposures and the monster’s instability in its unnaturally upright position, meant that if anybody in the building slammed a door while I was counting, the condensers would get the shakes, the print would blur and I would have to start again and make a fresh one. This terrible state of uncertainly shredded my youthful nerves and, to help me relax after work my older colleagues would sneak me into the local pub, where they taught me to drink pints of strong beer, several years before I was legally entitled.

I was only allowed out of the darkroom for tea breaks, and then I would come out blinking like a bat, to brew-up for an ill-assorted bunch of dissipated press photographers. The tea was so strong that if stripped the glaze off the mugs. During these tea breaks I destroyed my taste buds and learned a great deal about bad language and photography.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bad language and photography - theres a thought. go together like out of focus and bugger
keep it comin, thanks