A conversation between David Chalmers and photographer Tony Bartholomew.
TB: Where did you first come across carbon printing – how did you discover it?
DC: It was during my time in London whilst working in studios on advertising campaigns. As young photography assistants we often talked about different techniques and processes and the art of photography. A couple of us just got into platinum printing and cyanotype. Whilst browsing through books I discovered carbon printing – it really appealed because of its simplicity and its permanence and it’s basically possessed me ever since.
TB: When was that?
DC: 1986 to 1991.
TB: So really it’s taken you from then? It’s been stored away?
DC: I moved back to Scarborough in 1996 and in my darkroom at home I began to explore the process. I messed around doing preliminary experiments just to get a feel for how it worked.
TB: Is there a carbon-printing community out there – internationally as well?
DC: I’d say there are probably 200 people in the world doing it: a lot in the States. In California specialist photographic darkrooms will offer a carbon service, so it’s more common than you think, but I only know this with the advent of Google. Fifteen years ago it felt like I was the only person doing it, you could get very little information. There were very few books that actually published technique: they told you what it was, but not the technique. Now there is a carbon-printers’ forum, and last time I looked, there were probably 150 members.
TB: What attracted you to this particular process compared to platinum or cyanotype?
DC: Without a doubt, it was the fact that it’s the most permanent photographic process ever invented – that fascinated me, and still does! You’re making an image that will never fade, it’s made of carbon pigment, and I just like that concept.
TB: So even if you hang it in daylight, it won’t fade?
DC: The paper might go a bit parched, but it won’t fade. An analogy I like is that you never see a faded car tyre. They’re made of black rubber, which is oil-, carbon-, based, and you never ever see faded rubber.
TB: How old is the process?
DC: It was Joseph Swan who got to grips with the process and made it practical, and started making carbon pigment tissues commercially. I think he invented it in 1864, and it went commercial in 1866, and became the photographer’s choice for fine art printing because they knew it was permanent. No one really knew how permanent silver was, but they knew carbon was pretty permanent.
TB: I’ve been out with you on location, watching you work, which was great – just the opposite of how we all work today, really, in terms of the speed you work at! How many images are going to be in the exhibition?
DC: Eighteen maybe twenty. There will be a grid of twelve prints, then four or five running along the sides.
TB: For that final twenty – how many plates would you have made?
DC: I’ve made sixty-four 8 x 10 negatives, and I’ve chosen 18 key ones from that.
TB: Why so few from sixty-four? Is it because it’s a difficult process, it’s very unstable at the print stage, you don’t know what you’re going to get?
DC: I didn’t print every negative. It was quite difficult selecting a third out of sixty-four. That’s not to say that they’ll never be printed: they might be printed at another stage.
TB: If I can make reference to your day job, your commercial work and your previous landscape work: when I was with you, you were saying that with the carbon work, you were enjoying being free from the very tight constraints of lighting in the studio. In your earlier work, everything would be f64 almost – you were obsessed with it being sharp edge to edge and technically perfect. Carbon printing isn’t like that, is it?
DC: There’s a lot to answer there! It can be like that, you can make a carbon print look exactly like a silver print if you carefully mask it and print it on the right paper. It would be hard to tell, when framed, if it was a silver print or carbon print. The earlier point about going out into the field and enjoying working with large format cameras – well, shooting film is basically just a nice thing for any photographer to do. Digital is wonderful, a great way to produce images, you have full control over the whole working process, but looking at a monitor all day is just looking at a monitor all day. When you’ve got your sleeves rolled up and you’re developing and fixing negatives, it feels like you’re making something.
TB: Is there more craft to what you’re doing out in the field with a field camera than, say, lighting a piece of glass?
DC: Large format photography is an acquired taste and even more, it’s a learnt skill. I’d recommend any photographer shoot large format, whether it’s 4 x 5 or 8 x 10 for one project so you can just learn how to compose. I know press photographers shoot frame after frame because that’s the nature of the job, but I’ve just never been able to! Because of my background of shooting two or three negatives, I’m quite refined. In landscape you can be, of course, you don’t have to bracket – but the point is, shooting film is hands-on; large format takes a certain discipline, and it is a craft.
TB: The other things is, with the large format cameras, you have to look a lot more carefully and a lot more slowly because the image is reversed, or is it inverted and reversed?
DC: Basically there is no prism, so nothing corrects the image – it’s inverted and reversed. I like that, because for a start, everything looks alien.
TB: You’ve got to look harder – do you need to compose far more carefully because your brain’s working harder to convert it to the final image?
DC: To go back a step, I use simple cropping Ls to visualise the composition. When viewing the image through the back of the camera, I have to look at an upside down image, I suppose in the same way that the master artists used to look at their paintings in mirrors to reverse them so they could see the faults, any artist will often use a mirror to flip the image, to trick the brain for that moment to see how it is.
When you look at something, you get familiar with it and you don’t see that something’s perhaps not square, or something’s noisy in the corner, but when you look at it in reverse, suddenly it jumps out. I even would say that it appears more exaggerated when you’re looking at it upside down, because the brain’s having to work a bit harder to make sure: are those clouds right, have I got the right balance on the horizon, is that foreground too heavy? You tend to see it when it’s all upside down. So it’s a different way of visualising in a camera – if you’ve pre-visualised with cropping Ls you can fine tune with the ground glass screen and you’re recording that pre-visualisation.
I also think that using large format photography with portraiture for example works particularly well because you don’t hide behind a camera, you’re not pointing at anybody and you’re usually talking to your subject. Your camera is by your side, and the subject will invariably relax and you’ll get more from them. Everybody feels a bit threatened when you’re pointing a lens at them and firing off frames at them, they feel a bit vulnerable. So it’s got that advantage.
TB: Tell me about the camera itself; it’s interesting.
DC: It’s a Deardorff 8 x 10 flatbed field camera, designed by Deardorff & Sons in Chicago. They were family camera makers; they made very nice cameras in the early 1920s. And do you know what, I don’t think the design has evolved at all: it hasn’t changed. There have been a number of fine camera makers through the years, but Deardorff have a good reputation because it’s everything a photographer wants in one quite compact unit. Mine is probably 1950s, so it’s quite a new one – just about run in! It’s white brass and mahogany so it doesn’t warp in tropical environments, and you could take it to the Arctic and it won’t warp there either, it’s just really stable. It does everything a lens can, that’s the best way to describe it – what you want from a lens, that camera can achieve, whether it’s wide angle or telephoto.
TB: What range of lenses has this exhibition been shot on?
DC: I generally shoot standard, and a standard on 8 x 10 is 360mm, but I’ve been using my 620mm to compress and flatten the landscape slightly. My new images are quite abstract, and they lend themselves to the longer focal length. It sounds an awful lot, 620, but it actually equates to 100mm on 35mm format, so only a short telephoto. I use a Rodenstock as my basic, standard, main lens, and the long lens is a Schneider Repro-Claron – it’s a big lump of glass, and it’s pin sharp.
TB: When you’re working, are they particularly long exposures, or are you working fairly wide open to try and isolate the trees?
DC: For this project I’ve been shooting wide open, which is f9 or f8, and I’ve been shifting the back out of the focal plane, out of kilter, to just exaggerate soft focus. I’ve really got into the fact that the 8 x 10, although it’s high in resolution it can be beautifully soft as well, because there’s more magnification. There’s less depth of focus, so if you shoot anything wide open, there’s very little depth field. It’s been quite a journey for me – I’ve really loosened up and shot in a way I’ve never shot before on large format.
TB: What have your learned about the technique, both photographically, shooting it, and also what I find to be a really quite complex printing process?
DC: So many things. I pretty much went with my instincts creatively, there was no predestined creative strategy, and the soft focus thing just evolved. What I found with the printing is that it’s hard to print soft focus. Soft edges don’t seem to lend themselves to carbon because they’re very delicate. Crisp sharp edges are easier to stick to the paper, it’s just a feeling I got, and I know what the harder negatives were to print and the easier ones. But you also get a feel for what the contrast should be and what the exposure should be to get the best out of the tonal scales of the carbon paper against the negative. In my mind’s eye I was trying to get the prints to look like charcoal, or pencil drawings.
TB: What film stock?
DC: I shot HP5 for everything, which I rated at 400ASA.
TB: And you still find it easy to get hold of film stock?
DC: Yes – Silverprint are good in London, and you can get Tri-X in the States. I use basic chemistry HC110 for my film developer, and general stock and fix.
TB: We’re talking the day after Instagram was sold for a billion dollars plus! Instagram is something you have on your iPhone or iPad and you manipulate it to look like an old, square negative.
DC: And it’s depressingly good!
TB: You run it through a little filter, tell it what film you want it to look like and how aged you want it to look – and that’s just been sold for a billion, and yet Kodak look like they’re going out of business!
DC: It’s [my wife] Angela’s favourite App on her iPhone – she makes everything look good. You can get a carbon print at the push of a button. It amuses me – I like some of the terminology, some of the ridiculous film names.
TB: How long does it take you from start to finish to produce a final print?
DC: A few people have asked me that question, and it’s not an easy one to answer, because I make everything from scratch: I’ve got to size the paper – make the pigment – mix the gelatin to coat the paper, then sensitise it. I’ve worked out that it’s probably takes from start to finish 24 hours to make a carbon print. But, because I batch everything, and I process film together, make batches of pigment and coat it together, it’s all broken down into segments of quite intense manufacturing, which I’ve been doing for the last couple of years. I made a lot of carbon paper the winter before last, and found by the summer it had gone off – it just wouldn’t dissolve in water. For some reason, gelatin hardens naturally over time. I panicked: I’d spent a lot of time making this stuff, evening after evening, and when I was ready to use it, it wasn’t printing, it just wasn’t dissolving. I wasted a lot of materials and time. I found out from a carbon-printers’ forum to use within a few months, if not weeks.
TB: As someone who can remember printing B&W in a darkroom, it took me a long time to get my head round being in a darkroom with someone who was working in daylight. It seemed counter intuitive, it was hard for my brain to compute that I was in a darkroom that was light.
DC: Interesting observation. I spent a lot of time making silver prints, and I used to like the darkroom environment – the red light etc. It is a great bonus, but you can’t actually work in daylight – it has to be tungsten light, because it’s UV-sensitive. Once the carbon paper has been exposed and is in the developing dish it has lost most of its sensitivity. You can then develop in subdued daylight, which I often do for my demonstrations.
TB: The fact that you’re going to offer the negative with the print – I can’t think of many photographers who would do that. Is that because there’s been a shift in the way you think – like a painter producing a single image, a one-off for somebody to buy? Are you seeing it more as an art project than a photography project?
DC: Absolutely. I was funded by a grant from Chrysalis Arts, which kick-started the whole project – it was always seen as an art project. It was a bit of a revelation – I didn’t set out to give the negatives away, it’s instinct that photographers lock and file them away for further use. I can’t repeat my prints anyway. It would be a real pain if someone ordered a print – they’d want it to match. You can’t do that, it’s not that mechanical. So I thought why don’t I go the whole hog and keep it as one unit – if I release the print with the negative, the owner owns the whole package. Just like a painter may sell his canvas and never sees it again. I could go back and shoot the same trees again and print it, and it’s a fresh statement. It’s a new negative, I’ll print it a different way, and that’s a unique statement. It seemed to make sense for the carbon process because it’s incredibly difficult to repeat – for me anyway, because of the added aspect that I’ve been making my own pigment, adding charcoal dust, which has really complicated things.
TB: That’s charcoal from the area?
DC: I found a charcoal maker in the local forest, who gave me a bag of charcoal dust from the bottom of his kiln, a big sack of it. I started pulping it, and mixing it into the Indian ink, and I thought it was great, so organic, but I’ve had to really work hard to make it work because the impurity just caused chaos over the tonal scale. At first I thought I was going to have to give it up, but then I realised I’d got a formula that worked, and I’d got a nice unpredictable tonal scale, and I just had to decide to go with it. It’s process-led in so many ways. For someone who’s been able to control an image to a third of a stop to not really not know what the print’s going to be like when it comes out of the hot water, was a real leap of faith.
TB: So you’re seeing it as a fine art project? Are you confident about the future of photography in terms of it becoming accepted more as an art form? We’re absolutely bombarded with digital images left, right and centre – everyone with a phone can turn out a really good image now. Do you think there might be a shift towards projects like yours being seen as something worth investing in and exhibiting – it’s pure craftsmanship, it’s art, not something you can just pick your phone up and do?
DC: I think digital photography has done art photographers a lot of favours for that very reason. People want to hunt down old processes, or ‘proper’ photography if you like, because it’s more collectible. I think there is a revival in old processes: people are making wet plates again, taking it right back to its roots. There’s a sector of photographer/artists who are making traditional prints, and collectors, art collectors of photography, will always seek out those prints. I honestly believe there’s probably never been a better time to be a photographer – it’s still in its infancy, it’s only been around 180 years. Digital photography is instant but it isn’t easy, and although you can make a picture really easily, I don’t think it’s ever been as hard to make a really good picture. You can’t do a 8 x 10 ft print off Hipstamatic. Or, maybe you can!
TB: All the images are of trees – is that because you wanted to make a link between the carbon, the charcoal and the tree, or did you begin thinking I want to shoot trees, then made the link from there.
DC: That was pre-designed – I always had the idea, and once I’d found a way of making carbon prints, and even make my own carbon paper, it seemed obvious to photograph trees using the carbon process. Trees are one of my favourite subjects anyway, and what better way to shoot trees on 8 x 10 using a traditional old process that I’ve revised myself, it seemed to be the perfect subject for carbon.