Topic: 8 x 10 (5 posts)

Big Change

This is a blog post about the big change that has taken place in photography. After now a long career as a photographer and a photography educator I can now say that craft matters very little and that the age of making beautiful photographic prints is over.

Let's go back a few years, to students studying film-based photography at the university level. Craft was king then, as it was hard to learn to shoot film, to know how to adjust various settings on the camera, to make pictures that conveyed things beautifully. Hell, even after learning to load film in the tank and develop, it took weeks to learn how to make a good black and white print, often a whole semester. Good craft was the foundation of making pictures that looked good, conveyed intent, communicated a certain emphasis or point of view that was expressive and intelligent. All gone now, of course. The advancement of technology has eliminated all that. A good analogy is learning to drive a car. This is a skill, learned over time with the necessary training and discipline to become good at it. Same with photography, or used to be. Autonomous cars are coming and you'll no longer need skill behind the wheel to get someplace.  With photography to some extent we are already in an age of autonomous photography, for the devices are really doing just fine on their own, making well-exposed files of pictures that practically print themselves at very high quality. Look at the sheer quality of smartphone photos today. Great skills at the helm of the computer, the conduit to the inkjet printer, are no longer required. The process has become so highly automated that a great intellect combined with years of experience is no longer needed. The people who are truly great printers have been obsolesced by great advances in automatic everything. Of course, there are lapses in all this. People still do make terrible prints. Through some brain fart or no knowledge whatsoever really terrible photographs are made every day. But with a modicum of knowledge, great prints are easy and can be practically assumed. 

It's tough to be obsolesced.

This makes looking back to a Stieglitz, or a Weston or even an early color street photograph from the early 70s by Joel Meyerwitz look like they were making a bloody miracle. And they were. Spend some time with some original Adams or Weston prints and they will blow you away, as for them to be making prints of that high a quality in the time they were making them was unbelievable.

Now, shoot RAW, let the camera make the focus and exposure settings, load the file into Lightroom, adjust it with sliders to your liking, export it as a TIFF, send it off to be printed or print it yourself and what have you got?  A well exposed and excellent print.

Did I at times rely upon my technical skills in analog days to outweigh anything else? 


 Many of us did that. Point an 8 x 10 camera at something inane and inconsequential, develop the film and make the print with consummate skill, frame it beautifully and show it with the presumption that it is hugely important. Great significance and weight based on the device that made the picture, often nothing else. Paul Krot, a teacher of mine at RISD and the inventor of Sprint Chemistry, once said to me that anything was fantastic if shot with an 8 x 10 camera and its true. The format seduced me for 25years.

Now, I am shooting with a 61 MP mirrorless camera that handheld can do very well when compared to the 8 x 10, maybe even better. Making a big print 40 or 50 inches across is easy these days, you just need a big printer.

All of those technical concerns, the skill of printing and handling the materials knowledgeably, being practiced and respectful of what could be done are now, for the most part, over. 

When working with analog materials my objective was always to make the perfect print; the widest tonal range, the best sharpness, the deepest blacks and the most luminous highlights that I could. Remember Ansel Adam's adage that the "negative was the composition but the print was the performance"? This took great skill, years of experience and yes, often some luck to succeed. It was very difficult to do. Now, these things are easy, almost assumed. Those very values and high standards are often lost on those younger, brought up in a digital era. This is partly progress but also makes me a little sad too. The idea, now, of spending a whole day in the darkroom going through many sheets of paper to make one consummate print seems laughable. 

To quote Kurt Vonnegut once again, 

"and so it goes."

(All images reproduced here are ©Neal Rantoul and are from 8 x 10 negatives and transparencies and may not be reproduced without specific permission by the photographer.)

Topics: Commentary,8 x 10,black and white and color

Permalink | Posted October 20, 2019

The 8 x 10 Work 2

Where we left off with The 8 x 10 Work last time was that I knew I had a problem and was questioning how I was going to solve it. Hundreds if not thousands of 8 x 10 negatives, processed, but not printed, not scanned and, unless I did something, never to see the light of day. Okay, this is not solving the world's major issues, but is important to me. Think about it this way: lug around that super big beast of a camera, sometimes hiking for several miles with it over my shoulder to make one picture. Process the film, four sheets at a time, in trays, in total darkness and then not see it as a print?

Let's back up a little bit. Lest you assume I was totally clueless back then, I was constantly making prints from what I shot. I was a darkroom printer for most of those years and had my own darkroom at Northeastern (part of the perk of being a professor there), and was regularly processing film and printing with an 8 x 10 enlarger. I had shows of that work; a big one at Panopticon Gallery in about 1990 (thank you, Tony!), another on the Vineyard in 1994, another in Camden, Maine one summer, another at the RISD Museum, another at the Canterbury Shaker Village in NH and so on. I would often present work to local museums like the DeCordova, the Fogg, the MFA, even MOMA and the National Gallery,  and so on of portfolios made from 8 x 10 negatives. But a good print from an 8 x 10 negative usually took hours to make and it wasn't unusual for me to need a whole day just for one photograph. So being prolific got me in trouble as I was increasingly printing highly selectively from what I shot. And falling behind. I remember one summer teaching in Italy, coming back with 700 sheets of film shot. It took me six months just to process the film.

So let's move up to the present, and perhaps there's a lesson in here for some of you as well as for myself. Now I am shooting solely digitally. OK. But I have this huge backlog of analog negatives in 8 x 10 and yes, also in 2 1/4 (a story for another time). Some of this work is good and deserves at least some exposure. Do I allocate serious time to making the scans? Honestly it isn't really the scan making that is so time consuming. It is the cleaning that takes sometimes hours per image. Assuming I can bear this (I cannot, by the way) I would be taking time away from what I clearly love and that is shooting. My solution? Drum roll, please: hire an assistant.She is a senior at Lesley,  and her name is Hannah. Hannah had no previous scanning experience but has proved herself to be valuable beyond words in that she is meticulous, careful and precise in the handling of my negatives. And, a very big and, she is very good at cleaning and making the images RTP (Ready to Print). Will I get through all the negatives in just one summer? No, but I have begun the project and have paved a way for future work in its cause.  We have started and it is good to finally begin to see these pictures after all these years.

Finally, I am sure some of you are thinking why not just print the negatives normally, they way they were intended, in the darkroom? Two reasons: I don't have a darkroom anymore and don't ever want to print in one again, and two, we've already covered the need to scan the negatives anyway, why not do it right and then give myself the option of printing them any size on up to several feet by several feet? Don't think inkjet prints are as good? Don't get me started on that one as I know they are as good as gelatin silver prints and have proven it. That's why.

BTW: You've probably guessed but the photographs interspersed throughout these two posts are from scans of some of my 8 x 10 work. More to follow.

As always , thanks for reading and..... stay tuned.

Topics: 8 x 10,view camera

Permalink | Posted July 24, 2015

The 8 x 10 Work

Most of you know what that means. For those that don't this is photographs made with an 8 x 10 inch view camera. The format has almost mystical importance in the canon that is art photography. Think Ansel Adams, Walker Evans, Edward Weston, early Harry Callahan, Frederick Sommer, Wynne Bullock, Emmet Gowin, Nick Nixon, Jim Dow, and on and on. It also is universally regarded as the most difficult of conventional film-based systems to master, for good reason. Big, cumbersome, slow, heavy, tied to a tripod and surprisingly crude it is also the single most effective tool for incredible high quality: tonality, sharpness, fidelity, depth of field and the luxury of almost limitless print sizes. 

I worked, practically without exception, in 8  x 10 from 1983 until 2005: 22 years. I hauled it out west many times. I packed it on trips to Europe at least a dozen times, shot throughout the Southeast and Southwest, made numerous trips to shoot wheat fields in the Palouse in SE Washington with it and made so many exposures with it locally it's almost absurd. Called in to photograph my daughter Maru's school picture? 8 x 10. Family portraits over the years on the steps at the house in Martha's Vineyard? 8 x 10. Day field trip to the north shore with senior thesis students? 8 x 10. Quite simply, I didn't think much about whether to take it, it was my camera, the one I made my pictures with. It looked like this:

I haven't used it in years and gave it away to two young friends to share last year. Already they are making far better use of it than I was.

Mt Saint Helen,1993

But there is a problem. And it is this: the literally thousands of negatives made with this camera, for all intents and purposes, are not part of my oeuvre, my life's work.  Why? Because they are not all printed and not all scanned. One of the cold hard facts of modern image use in art photography is that, irregardless of whether you shot with film or not, and even if you make your prints in a darkroom, with light sensitive emulsion-based papers, you still must scan the work. Me too. Want to submit to a grant? Scan your image. Want to enter a call for artists? A residency? A competition? All require jpegs made from scans. Seems unfair doesn't it? If you believe in film and its inherent qualities, you still must succumb to a digital world. I can remember a similar frustration long before digital came along. In order to submit to any of the above I needed to make 35 mm slides of my pictures shot with the Toyo 8 x 10. Talk about shrinkage! It was offensive, distasteful and wholly not representative of the care and quality of my imagery-but I did it because I had to.

Narni, Italy, 1994

So, where does that leave me? With the daunting task, as I age, to get to work, to go through those thousands and edit down to a few, a representative sampling of 8 x 10 negatives to scan and to clean (not physically clean but to clean in Photoshop with the rubber stamp tool to remove dust and scratches, the most significant obstacle to making beautiful prints). There's also the requirement that the scans be good, really good. Does a conventional flatbed scanner like the ubiquitous Epson 750 scanner  cut it? It does not. Does an oil-based drum scan at some ridiculously high dpi make it? It sure does, at great cost, requiring great skill and care so as not to destroy the original. 

Kudzu, Georgia, 1990

So, what's my solution to the single largest dilemma of my creative life and work?

Stay tuned for Neal's nifty answer.

Topics: 8 x 10

Permalink | Posted July 21, 2015

Missing: 8 x 10 # 2

In 8 x 10 #1 I  showed a few photographs taken in 8 x 10, the first ten years or so of working in the format. In this post I will continue to show black and white work emphasizing the 90's.

Photographing in 8 X 10 is a disciplined way to work and limits the number of frames you can shoot. In this size sheet film you are restricted to carrying film holders, one for every two shots made. As these are big and bulky, somewhere around 10 or 11 holders or 20 to 22 shots per day is a practical limit for the field photographer. 

Mt. Saint Helen's was a revelation to me. I think the eruption was in 1980. This was made about 15 years later and still the devastation was extensive.

Upstate New York, late winter, 1992.

Upstate New York again, mid summer and 1993. When home, it wasn't unusual for me to shoot regionally in 8 x 10. I think of day shoots like spokes on a wheel, with the rim being as far as you can go in a day and still get home that night and with home being the center of the wheel. This is the approach I use when I rent a place somewhere else, such as Moab, or Austin or San Diego, or Bologna.

There were years of my shooting in 8 x 10 this way that weren't "series" based. My work is often defined as being made in series, but much of the 8 x10 work sits outside of that.These were what I called "incidental" pictures meaning I would just make a picture of something if it caught my attention, most often while driving. 

Tarquinnia, Italy

Man oh man, I was just thinking of the years I shot 8 x 10 in Italy. This was a production. I had a big Calumet fiberglass case that the camera, lenses, film holders, along with the film I brought (you can't just go down to the corner store and  buy 8 x 10 film) would all go in and I would send that through as checked luggage. Sometimes there would be an issue with this at Italian customs. Starting in 1991 I began teaching most summers in Italy. Three years outside of Trieste, three years in Viterbo north of Rome, later in the 2000's I started a program teaching in Venice for Notheastern and ran that for three years. Another summer I was a visiting artist at Lake Como in northern Italy. Many years teaching and shooting in Italy.

Because I was teaching photography we needed a rented car. After a critique on Friday afternoons, the students would very often take off to go to Florence or Rome or Prague for the weekend and I would be left behind with my rental car, the camera and loaded holders. Off I would go after looking at the map and picking the mountains or the shore or Sienna or Grado or any number of towns and areas I hadn't been before. Sometimes I would go with a teaching assistant but more often by myself. Sometimes I'd stay at a pensione so I could range out farther away but very often I'd make it a day trip, get back to my apartment late, fix something to eat and crash, only to do it again the next day. Funny, looking back on it is seems romantic and lovely, the artist toiling away at making his work. At the time it just was what I did and loved it, but it was  also hard  work.

Drive, pull over, get the tripod out, extend the legs, open it up. Get out the camera, unfold it and then mount the lens with cable release connected, hang the light meter around my neck, heft the film holder case over my shoulder, double check the camera is really mounted tight to the tripod head, fling it over my shoulder and walk/hike to where I want to make the picture. Unfold the tripod legs and position the whole thing so that the camera is as level. Open the shutter, focus the camera, set swings and tilts, take a light meter reading, set the aperture and shutter speed on the lens, close the shutter, cock the shutter, insert film holder, pull out slide, take the picture, insert slide, pack it up and schlepp it all back to the car, put all this stuff  back into car, drive off only to repeat 20 or 22 times a day. Making me exhausted just writing about it!

Kudzu in winter, maybe Georgia? About 1992. 

This one sat behind Jason Landry's desk at Panopticon Gallery in the "Twenty-Five Years" show a couple of years ago. It is about 5 feet by 4 feet and a really wonderful display of an over load of fine detail. I love that when an image can work at a distance but then holds up close in too.

Probably good that I stop here. What's next? I thought we'd take a look at my far more brief period of shooting color 8 x 10.

Topics: 8 x 10,missing

Permalink | Posted April 9, 2013

Missing: 8 x 10 # 1

Hang on. This is going to be big.

For too long I have mentioned and referenced my work made in the 8 x 10 inch format but not shown it.  How can a visual artist who is looking at his work retrospectively late in his career neglect a major part of it?

Easy. It is a difficult and time consuming task to scan and clean the 8 x 10 negatives that I have. Thousands need to be reviewed, hundreds scanned, scores upon scores need to be cleaned and finalized for printing. Ultimately a few hundred need to be printed.

You need to remember that the format was never designed to be put into a digital domain. To put it here, we have to do considerable work.

This need is large, yet with a clock ticking on my time on this earth I admit I am a little overwhelmed. I am busy on various shooting projects and hate to take the time away to sit in front of a scanner for days or weeks on end. This is too big a project for me to do alone and I do not have the time or the resources to train and hire someone to do the labor.

I am considering a Kiskstarter project to raise the funds to make the negatives  RTP (ready to print), which would allow me to hire and train someone to make the scans and clean the files. What does this mean, to "clean the files"? Since the 8 x 10 makes one image on one negative that is 8 x 10 inches, it is also a great surface for scratches and dust. This has to be removed digitally before a good print can be made.

Keep that in mind as I show you some of what I do have from scanned negatives.

I have just spent a couple of days going through backup hard drives and my Raid storage to pull together many of the files that I have of scanned 8  x10 negatives.

There are so many I realize this will make up several posts. Here goes.

Logically enough I begin here with early 8 x 10 work. Here's one from outside Tucson, AZ in about 1986:

This was on a day trip with my friend, now long gone, Todd Walker, who taught at the University of Arizona in Tucson. If you look closely you can see the motorhome we arrived in back in the trees on the right side of the frame. I had to carry  the camera in pieces up the cliff, assemble it to make this picture and then bring it back down again in several trips. In the distance near the edge of the cliff in the distant background is a gas burn off plant. This photograph was used as the poster image for a one man show at Northeastern in 1986. The poster looked like this:

Why would I separate out this work from my other photography? This format just uses a different camera, right? Well yes and no. Much of photography can be split up fairly easily into different formats and 8 x 10, being large, tends to make pictures that turn out a little differently. One of the main reasons I used this camera was that the negatives could be printed very large at very high quality. This meant that something way back there like the gas plant could be seen in the 5 x 4 ft. print I made of it. This was important enough to me that I was all right with lugging over 50 lbs of gear around with me to make pictures. 

This one above is from outside of Hartford, CT in 1988 about this time of year, late March or early April, taken from a bridge over the stream.

This one was made in Tennessee on a residency in Highlands, North Carolina in 1992. You can see the edge of the negative here, which was usually the way I scanned it. Most often I would not print the image with this edge around it.

Another early one:This was made in New Hampshire in the summer of 1986. For this one I swung the back of the camera to contain sharpness from the tree on the left through the boat and then to the right side of the frame in the background. This is another reason to use a view camera. The same effect can be done now using a Perspective Control (PC) lens with a DSLR. Thing's change.

Let's look at one more then I will close out this post:This one is a little later about 1997 or so. Taken in the parking lot of the Hoover Dam near Las Vegas. The parking lot at the Hoover Dam is about the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. It is a sort of Rolls Royce of parking lots and not to be missed. It's color is a red rust and it even has stainless sreel fittings and hardware. Oh, and the dam is pretty cool too.

I have several favorite stories about working in 8 x 10, of course. This one concerns Fred Sommer, a wonderful and hugely enigmatic photographer/artist who lived a rather reclusive lifestyle in the hills above Prescott, AZ. I would go to see him from time to time and this time I had been working with the  8 x 10 maybe a year or two, so it must have been about 1986. Fred was probably the best printer....ever. He was known to make 12 pictures a year, working on each one for a month with a live-in assistant. If you ever get a chance to see his picture of the amputated foot it will be a revelation. There are very few copies but Harvard's Fogg Museum has one.

There is a story within this story about how he got the foot, but perhaps another time.

This trip I had brought a few prints with me made with the 8 x 10 camera. I thought after this amount of time using the camera, I had it nailed. This was Fred's format. He looked over my prints and in his soft spoken and understated way told me that I had made a "good start" and to keep working. Clearly I had a ways to go and as I would learn later, he was right.

So, I'm going to stop here but regard this as 8 x 10 number 1 as there needs to be a few more. This format was my primary way of making pictures for twenty years, 1983-2003. 

Stay tuned for 8 x 10 number 2.

Topics: 8 x 10,Missed

Permalink | Posted April 5, 2013