1491, The Feather Series, The Creative Process & Platinum Printing

"1491" from "The Feather Series" of five prints; platinum print, 1992.

The here and now with this classic series: For the past four months, I’ve been working on new digital negatives (off and on, due to a car accident) to make “The Feather Series” into new platinum prints. The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian will be exhibiting the series (and others), at a future date, and they are in the process of being made into platinum prints. The platinum prints are a bit on the etherial side compared to regular silver darkroom prints, or even inkjet versions.

Making platinum prints a very intricate process; one that stretches all of your photographic skills to the limit. You need serious photo technique, a healthy measure of shadowy and mysterious alchemy, a hearty splash of  mojo, and regular sacrifices to the Photo Gods in order for the magic to unfold. It also seems surreal to be making digital negatives here in 2013 where the photo world is dominated by digital stuff. Digital Negatives? Wait a minute, we got digital cameras so we don’t have to mess with pesky negatives, didn’t we?

Anyway, as with any creative process, it’s the idea that drives everything else, including ones having to do with process, and how process often becomes a layer of meaning too, but more on that later .

The first step was doing creative problem-solving, then figuring out which film and cameras to use (1992 was the pre-digital camera era), and then more subtle things like composition, lighting and fine coffee. Lots of fine coffee.

Flashback to 1992: Back in 1992, the 500 year anniversary date of when Columbus arrived on the shores of the Americas, a group of indigenous artists were asked by Theresa Harlan to participate in the “Message Carriers” exhibition that was graciously hosted by the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University from October 7 through November 8th, 1992. We were asked to make photographs that had to do with this notourious date in history when so many people of the world were forever impacted in various ways. I’ll confess to being repelled by this idea at first, but warmed up to the idea the more I thought about it.

Theresa Harlan remains one of the most thoughtful curators I’ve met, and she was a former Director of Exhibitions and installations for the “American Indian Contemporary Arts Gallery” in San Francisco, and a curator at the C.N. Gorman Museum at UC Davis for many years. She also wrote a very intelligent and insightful essay on Indigenous Photography titled “Creating a Visual History: A Question of Ownership,” for the Aperture series of Photographic Journals; Issue #139 “Strong Hearts” in the spring of 1995, in which this and other series were published.

The Aperture website masthead. Minor White started the photographic journal with a number of other photographers, including Dorothea Lange, Barbara Morgan, Ansel Adams and the History of Photography scholars, Beaumont & Nancy Newhall. Minor had a writing style all his own, which sometimes seemed quite poetic, and sometimes had the surreal effect that he was from another planet, which made for entertaining reading, if nothing else. In my opinion, Minor's great legacy was his endless struggle for maximizing the visual integrity of the photographs he published. For decades, Aperture nearly always had the best photo reproductions of any photography journal. At some point, I'll have to share my short correspondence from Beaumont Newhall from the late 1970's when he was encouraging me to apply to the University of New Mexico MFA in Photography program.

The Creative Process: The proverbial moment of clarity struck in early 1992 with this work, and I set about photographing a very beautiful, yet simple feather with different skies, found sites, and constructed studio scenes with distinct lighting setups. I liked the idea of reducing the visual aesthetic to something akin to a “common denominator” or a very simple set of photographs that carried various ideas.

“1491,” the first photograph in the series, served as a visual metaphor for a future that never was- what would have happened had we indigenous people of the Americas evolved without outside interference?  I found myself simply wondering how humanity would have evolved had the humans indigenous to the Americas been allowed to continue to evolve without European interference. It’s about decolonized minds. Can you imagine a world not in the midst of a human- induced ecological melt-down?

As it turned out, this set of creative ideas wasn’t so simple after all, because in reality it was very challenging to make the photographs that I’d imagined. For an example, regular black & white film wasn’t working; it lacked the drama I’d envisioned, so I tried black & white infrared film and it worked.

Process and how it informs meaning: A few things were starting to gel, including the idea that “1491″ and the rest of the Feather Series needed to be made via the photographic process. Not only that, a layer of meaning had to do with a kind of visual simplicity that only photography could really perform. This is because even today in the digital age, there is a clarity and veracity attached to how photography is perceived as a medium of creative expression. I was on a poetic search for truth, camera in hand, eagle eye silently contemplating the horizon.

It's easy to forget that film ruled the world in 1992, and for lots of us pros it generally meant using a larger negative for better quality photographs. I bought my first Hasselblad in 1977 at the age of 22. Like many other photographers, we shot with three basic film formats: 35mm, 120 medium format, and 4x5 large format film. I chose the Hassy for this series because I was going to be shooting both on location and in the studio with tricky lighting setups. I needed a Polaroid film back for preview prints for all of the sessions so I could see precisely what the compositions looked like, because a couple of them were going to be composite photographs where various images were double exposed and I needed precise placement for the feathers. It was a pre-Photoshop layering task where the images were layered on each other. I used acetate taped onto the ground glass and used a sharpie pen to draw in where the various parts were in the composition.

If you go to the Hasselblad website, my portfolio is still up, including the bottom center photograph which is from "The Feather Series."

McNeil Hasselblad Coolness here.

Transforming film into platinum prints: As if making the original negatives all those years ago wasn’t complex enough. There are a number of steps to complete and any one of them can make the entire process collapse, which is what is so maddening about the process for making platinum photographic prints. I’m thinking that it would be way easier to just shoot with an 8×10 film camera if you want to make platinum/palladium prints.

  1. Make the film negatives & process the film.
  2. Scan the negatives. LOTS of precision & highly advanced work here.
  3. Interpret the file information/make a digital curve/Print the Digital Negative/ LOTS of testing here.
  4. Make a custom platinum emulsion that matches the digital negative/ LOTS of testing here.
  5. Make a series of exposures via an Ultra-violet exposure unit/LOTS of testing here.
  6. The easiest step of all is to make the final print based on 1-5 above.
  7. Print finishing/ get rid of spots. Celebrate!

Scanning Film Negatives: The next step was scanning the original black & white medium format negatives into the computer. In this age of cool digital cameras, this seems a bit weird, and even quite retro to be even thinking of film negatives. This series was shot with a Hasselblad 500 CM about a decade before digital cameras were any good. The digital cameras from 1992 were 1/3 of a megapixel, costed nearly $2,000.00 and made photos that were essentially low quality junk. Most people were still shooting with film for their high-end photography in 1992.

Drum scans are way better than the consumer scanners, but if you can believe this, the ones commissioned for this project were way too large, and also scanned in an incredible amount of dust. It was taking forever to work on these huge files, so I tried scanning with a consumer scanner, and this worked beautifully for my purposes, because I was going to keep my high resolution output size to below 20 inches.

Someone on eBay sells these little tabs that holds the film flatter in the scanner negative carrier, which makes for sharper scans.

I have a preference for SilverFast scanning software, because it’s a fairly easy interface to learn and it allows users to input a very beautiful dynamic range of midtones, highlights and shadows from the negative. It gave me the 36 bit .Tif files that input all the subtle information I needed to make the digital negatives for the platinum prints.

To be continued… In the following entries I’ll include information about making the digital negatives, hand-coating the platinum emulsions, exposing the paper and processing the prints. Please come back and see how things are progressing.

Story and Photographs Copyright Larry McNeil 2013, All Rights Reserved.

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