Craft Matters

Concerning the PBS NewsHour Story on Ilfochrome

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I had the privilege to work with PBS NewsHour Weekend and my friend, Christopher Burkett, on a story airing Sunday, April 15th that features Christopher and the discontinued photographic medium Ilfochrome.

As one of the few remaining darkroom practitioners of Ilfochrome, this has been quite exciting. Celebrating the tradition of the handcrafted photographic print (in color nonetheless!) is a rare treat.

For the record, the Ilfochrome featured in the PBS NewHour story was discontinued in 2011. Ilfochrome was, and still is (for those very few of us who still have paper) the only process for producing photographic prints directly from color transparency film. It is a unique direct-positive, chromolytic process that can produce analog-based photographic prints of exceptional depth, luminosity, and color.

Ilfochrome was manufactured and sold by ILFORD Imaging Switzerland GmbH which went bankrupt and was dissolved between 2011 and 2013. Recently, surviving factions of Ilford, specifically, ILFORD Imaging Europe GmbH, announced a new digital based Ilfochrome product as part of their Photo Inkjet family of products.

These Ilfochrome branded “Photo Panels” require the use of a Dye Sublimation printer (from a digital file) to create a print that is then heat pressed onto the back of a wood or metal based panel to create the final product. This process, while unique, cannot be remotely compared to the original Ilfochrome product discussed as part of the PBS Newshour Weekend story.

Personally, I’m disappointed that Ilford would malign Ilfochrome by coopting the original brand name to introduce a new product not remotely related to the original. It only creates confusion and reeks of a certain desperation hoping to recapture the success of the original product, a product Ilford failed to market into photography’s digital revolution.

I hope those who see the PBS NewsHour story enjoy it and I welcome your comments and questions.

A Fuji Velvia Christmas

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Fuji Velvia 50 - Transparency Details

Christmas came early this week. AgX Imaging, one of the last (and best) of the E-6 film processors in the country, returned my film from the Zion National Park trip. I’m teasing, here, a cross-section of some promising transparencies which I plan to print in the darkroom once the holidays are over.

There is an elation, a love really, viewing these images on the light table. Their luminous beauty, and the eventual photographic prints they herald, affirms my commitment to the medium of film. That film, Fuji Velvia 50 (4×5), is now only available from Japan, extremely expensive, and will eventually be discontinued. Fortunately, I have enough frozen stock (about 500 sheets) to continue making images for 2-3 years. This purposely coincides with my 4-year inventory of Ilfochrome paper and chemistry.

While bittersweet, it’s comforting to know Velvia, my light table, and I will enjoy a few more Christmases together.

Expand your Color Space

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Darkroom Chemistry for Ilfochrome Masking

Dedicated photographers know color spaces well. The picture here represents a new color space for me. OYP. Orange, yellow, purple. It’s the chemical “color space” I now work in when creating black and white contrast masks to help control certain tonal densities when printing Ilfochrome.

I’d known about masking for years but consciously avoided it. I believed I could capably print without the added workflow burden. And actually, I could, to a degree. Then, last November during my annual Fall photographic trip to Zion National Park, I had an epiphany caused, ironically, by the marketing bullshit I experienced in the Michael Fatali Gallery.

I worked for Michael Fatali for a couple years back in the late 1990s. What few people understand is that Michael didn’t print his own work. Back then, it was printed by a master printer, Richard Jackson, the original owner of Hance Parters. In his galleries today, Michael expounds his master printmaking abilities, making statements that are, at best, dubious and, at worst, plainly deceitful. Over the years I’ve met many people who question, often passionately, the veracity of his claims.

Possessing this “inside knowledge” and having to endure the “hail the great master printer” message presented to me by the cluelessly naive gallery representative, sent me into a tizzy. Within hours, I was on the phone with Richard Jackson (we’d never spoken) and, two months later, we spent 3-days in my darkroom intensively engaged in Ilfochrome masking. I’m now empowered with a new tool in my quest to further master the art of print making.

The moral for me is an old and simple one. You’ll never know until you try. Or, in photographic parlance, always be willing to expand your color space.

The Beautiful Chaos

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Beautiful Chaos - Ilfochrome Print

Over the years I’ve familiarized myself photographically with the geography of Zion National Park, particularly its elevations. At higher elevation there is a general zone I like to call “The Beautiful Chaos”. Here the Navajo Sandstone is colored pink and white, its geographic inhabitants random and chaotic. Stones, striations, potholes, weathered tree trunks and springs “litter” the landscape in a visual feast I never tire of exploring.

The image here, a recent Ilfochrome print from my darkroom, captures 5 gently illuminated stones at dusk. I imagine these miniature boulders have a name but I’ve yet to discover it. They consist of harder, more stable sandstone deposited in layers of fragile sandstone, eventually uncovered by erosion. I suspect they inevitably succumb to gravity, rolling downhill, and, in ideal scenarios, splitting neatly apart. The split ones remind me of cinnamon rolls, one of my “culinary weaknesses”. Whatever the forces at work, I find them exceptional and an excellent example of the beautiful chaos present in Zion and throughout the Desert Southwest.

Ilford on verge of bankruptcy. Again.

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According to this Google Translated swissinfo.ch article, Ilford Switzerland has run into financial difficulties and could be on the verge of bankruptcy. Apparently they were unable to pay their employees during the month of June. I confirmed the news with a local source. And I should note that Ilford Photo, maker of traditional black and white photographic supplies, is not affected. Oh, the irony.

With an open Ilfochrome chemistry order that, if not fulfilled, leaves me high and dry with tens of thousands of dollars worth of Ilfochrome paper, this news is very disturbing. And, to twist the knife a little more, I use Ilford’s Galerie Prestige for digitally-based print making which is best-in-class ink jet paper.

I’ve been told a chemistry run was completed and that it should be shipping out so I’ll hold out hope. Beyond that, let’s hope Ilford can work something out to help secure its viability a little longer.

New Ilfochrome – Maples at Twilight

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Ilfochrome Print - Maples at Twilight

I’ve spent much of my free time the last week in the darkroom working on some new Ilfochrome prints. This iPhone photo shows a new print, Maples at Twilight, which I made during my recent trip to Zion National Park.

I was hiking out a side canyon on the Upper East Side near sunset and saw these maples at their peak of color, glowing in the soft light. With darkness coming it was something of a mad scramble to find the desired composition. The needed position was high of a slippery slope, my own feet and tripod legs dug deep into sand to prevent any camera movement. Once set up, the exposure with appropriate depth-of-field was ~15 seconds. But a gentle persistent wind was blowing and by the time it began to settle, my exposure had increased to 45 seconds. Frustrated, with my legs hurting from the awkward position I was in, I managed 3 exposures holding my breath each time hoping the wind would take a cue. The first exposure was abandoned after 20 seconds because of a sudden gust. The next two exposures suffered only minor whispers, and while there is some movement in the leaves in the print, it feels an acceptable tradeoff against the strong sharp lines of the tree trunks and branches. And, of course, the wonderful palette of color.

Very few people associate my fall color images with Zion and I’m just fine with that.

Ilfochrome – The Final Run

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Ilfochrome Paper - The Final Run

And there it is. My batch of the final run of Ilfochrome, direct from Switzerland. 41 boxes. 2,000 sheets. Delivered nearly a year later from original date of purchase. The expiration date is July, 2016. Frozen, the paper will last 10+ years with only moderate color shifts. Assuming, of course, you’ll still be able to get the chemistry. Prior to this run, I’d never purchased paper that wasn’t under a year from its expiration date. So this is a pleasant upside surprise.

A few people have questioned my sanity over the years sticking with a medium that is “outdated”, “restrictive”, “unmanageable”, all comments largely related to the developments in digital photography. I could rebut arguments point by point but the validation, for me, rests in the eyes of friends, colleagues, even strangers who experience the prints displayed in my studio. There’s an “ah-hah” moment. An understanding of the possibility of a medium crafted with respect for its inherent characteristics and limitations.

I hope over the coming months, I’m able to do this medium its final justice.

Jobo CPP3

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Jobo CPP3

One of the few positive developments for analog photography in recent months, Jobo International introduced a next generation Jobo CPP3 silver halide film and print processor.

For those not familiar with the Jobo system, it allows photographers to process either film (up to 8″ x 10″) or photographic prints (up to 24″ x 30″) through a light tight drum system allowing users to work outside the physical confinement of a darkroom. I’ve used the CPP2 now for about 7 years to create my handmade ilfochrome prints. I’ve also processed E-6 film using Tetenal Colortec kits though I prefer a lab to process my 4×5 color transparencies.

For analog photographers new and old, the CPP3 is a positive step in providing a viable alternative to professional film lab processing which is in a commercial tailspin. For many of us who value analog photography for its unique merits and aesthetics, let’s hope the CPP3 is just the beginning for a small but viable resurgence of general interest in traditional photography.