Earlier this week I headed into Chicago, for a little bit of urban R&R. For this trip we decided to stay at the Congress Hotel, a venerable old institution just south of the Art Institute and near Grant Park.
I always look to trips to the city as a means of revitalizing my photography. The stimulation is twofold – first there’s the opportunity for some urban street photography, a real change of pace from the nature and landscape work I usually do. And then there’s the exposure to galleries and museums – a chance to see different approaches not only to photography but also to other visual arts as well.
For this trip, I added a third element and brought along Eddie Ephraums’s book, Darkroom to Digital. I’ve been picking at this an his Creative Elements book for some time, and decided it was time to sit down and actually read it.
It’s been almost a year since my last visit to the city. This trip was much shorter, and much less focused on just photography. Of the flip side, with the exception of the scorpion sting on my right foot, I was not hobbled and felt comfortable walking for hours on end.
So how did the three influences come together?
The verdict is still out on the actual photos I shot during the trip. For me, urban street photography is still solidly in the realm of film – fast traditional silver film, like Tri-X or NeoPan 400. For this trip I shot out the last of my store of Tri-X (the ‘new’ emulsion) and started working on my sizeable horde of NeoPan 400.
Before I left home, I mixed up a gallon of Microdol-X. I really like the look of grainy, 35mm film, developed in Microdol-X 1:3. Although the Microdol is a fine grain developer, at the 1:3 dilution the grain reduction is not as pronounced. What you do get is an even, consistent, and to my eye pleasing graininess that become more pronounced as the miniature 35mm negatives are enlarged.
Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate for much street shooting, as we moved in and out of one rain storm to another, sometimes just misting, sometimes pouring down.
Ephraums’s book made for a very interesting read. Its refreshing to read a book that discusses the whys of photography, and not just the processes and outputs. Unlike his Creative Elements, the photos in this book moved away from landscapes and towards found object still lifes – which inspired more than a few shots around the hotel room, which had enough historic ambiance to provide some interesting subjects.
While Ephraums’s book was not a technical guide to monochrome digital processing, it did get into some of the techniques that he uses. I’ve been using duotones and tritones to tone my monochrome prints for a few years now, and it was interesting to read about his techniques in this light.
I also found his used of extreme crops in film frames to achieve a certain effect. The photo of the abandoned light station – visible from the carnival setting of Navy Pier – is really inspired by some of his images and techniques.
In regards to inspiration from exhibits and museums, the Art Institute of Chicago had a large scale retrospective on Harry Callahan. Up till now, my exposure to his work was limited to a 1967 Hallmark Calendar of his photos, which I found among my father’s books. The calendar alone was a notable influence when I first looked through it. The photograph of leaves on the ground, simply entitled Chicago, 1950, (it accompanied the month of October in the calendar) was particularly notable, and as I looked it a few years ago my notions about simplicity of composition and a strong center of interest popped like soap bubbles.
One of the most instructive aspects of the exhibit was the inclusion of a couple of negatives on display, along with the final prints. I was amazed at how Callahan achieved his results through high contrast printing. Until now, I’ve been focused on preserving shadow detail, and that has driven my techniques for developing, scanning, and printing. That can result in a wonderful, luminous print. But it can also result in flat images that lack snap. So, in the post-exposure, post-scanning processing for the images from this current trip, I’ve put more attention on punching up the contrast, and to some extent printing down, perhaps sacrificing some luminousity in favor of more punch and snap.
Here are a few more outtakes from this trip: