Controlling Negative Emotions

My previous post over-celebrated the untapped shadow detail of old negatives. I feared that this could be understood to reference merely enumerative information that may dwell there – figures, forms, and fixtures, ie: “Note the method by which wooden beams are lashed in the scaffolding used in the construction of the Empire State Building…” That’s great stuff, but the recovery of imagery from old negatives may reveal less effable content as well. 198501530021-Empire.jpg

Having spent much of my career with the interpretation of photographs, I am accustomed to the intense connoisseurship that supports appreciation of fine art photography. My colleagues are familiar with the gallery-speak so often caricatured as merchandizing intended to swell expectations for flat rectangles that neither move nor speak. It is easy to mock language that reaches for the ineffable. Yet it is not unreasonable to expect a photographic print to be a venue for pure lyricism. If an image has aroused emotion it has likely offered references that are gross or subtle or both. Today the subtle stuff is easier than it ever was in the days of darkroom chemistry.

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The photographic print is an interpretation of its negative. As Ansel Adams noted, the print is the performance; the negative is the score. And for works aspiring to musical sensation there are technical attributes of negative and print that we may control. Subtle image content of surface, texture, or atmosphere may provide less inventory – but more experience. In a digital scan – throughout the range of a negative’s luminosity, in the finest particulars of any shade, there are millions of wee ratios that give us the apparent surface of things or the atmosphere that surrounds them. These “data” in aggregate, act upon us in that moment of emotional response. When a negative is digitally scanned at high resolution, all of this is rendered as millions of microscopic relationships expressed as numbers that may now be very very easily made to reveal conditions of the subject not apparent in the one-light print of the old darkroom.

Photoshop need not be a sledgehammer; to give but one of thousands of examples: its computational power may be used to delicately nudge pixels of a certain value so that they cause their neighboring picture elements to be more apparent. If you are a photographer who practiced in decades past, you likely remember the procedure for rendering subtle qualities of tonality and texture: it involved floating a sheet of photosensitive paper in a tray of warm chemical fluid, and from time to time, poking it with a stick. We had control, but not that much control.



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In the early 1970s I heard the most succinct philosophy of this medium I would encounter in my career. A grad student at RIT, I was employed by George Eastman House and after work, had crossed the street to hear Nathan Lyons address a... Continue →