“There’s always been Photoshop, from the very beginning,” said France Scully Osterman at the National Gallery of Art on Saturday. “Photos were always retouched.”
France stood at the front of the East Building auditorium, where plastic sheeting had been spread out and taped in place atop the beige carpet. This suggested protection against a splatter-filled vivisection, as if we were about to witness a re-creation of Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.”
But there would be no autopsy. The morning lecture was about keeping things alive, not studying them once they’re dead.
France and her husband, Mark Osterman, run Scully & Osterman Studio in Rochester, N.Y. While every one of us may carry a powerful camera in our hip pocket, the couple embrace old-fashioned photography — really old-fashioned photography: glass-plate negatives they make by hand; boxy cameras behind which they crouch, enshrouded; exposure times that run into minutes, if not hours; powerful chemicals to coax images from paper that they’ve brushed with light-sensitive silver nitrate.
It all makes today’s snapshots seem rather boring.
In the 19th century, France said, new photographic methods emerged nearly every year: from daguerreotype to collotype, from paper negatives to glass negatives, from sheet film to roll film. Some inventions proved evolutionary dead ends. Others became the foundations for principles that photographers still use.
France’s lecture was in conjunction with the National Gallery exhibit “East of the Mississippi: Nineteenth-Century American Landscape Photography.” She’d covered a table with old negatives along with new ones made in the old ways. Another table held trays of developing chemicals and other tools: sponges, cotton balls, eyedroppers (thus the plastic sheeting). Illuminated on the big screen behind her were engravings of 19th-century photographers at work.
Purists may decry Photoshop, but France explained how 19th-century photographers had their own version. To create more pleasing skin tones, pencils were carefully shaded across faces on negatives. Distracting background details were painted out completely.
If a clear sky in a landscape looked boring, a photographer’s assistant — often a woman (thought to possess a surer hand) — could create a separate negative with billowing cumulonimbuses. The same cloud formations might show up in multiple prints of multiple places.
There is a definite beauty in the process of 19th-century-style photography. When France developed a salt print, it cast off swirling azure eddies in the tray of liquid in which it floated as it reacted to chlorine in the tap water.
There’s mystery, too. France said she is never certain what a picture will look like till she is done with it.
The final process was waxing the print. France picked up a bowl that held a solid disk of beeswax and began dribbling oil of lavender into it from an eyedropper. As she mixed the oil in with a cloth, the auditorium filled with the scent of lavender.
Once the wax was the right consistency, France pushed the cloth against a photograph of a storefront she’d just printed. She leaned into the task, rubbing the wax into the paper, deepening the dark tones on the print.
“There’s something sensual about it,” she said.
And, frankly, laborious. To make 100 sheets of albumen paper — paper coated with a solution of egg white and silver nitrate — required cracking 100 dozen eggs and separating the yolks. (“It was an all-day thing,” she said.)
France had a negative made by a photographer named Samuel Fox. It was fairly simple — just a house, some trees — but the light it captured fell across the lens more than 150 years ago, when Fox was active in the Philadelphia photo scene. And because of that negative — an 8-by-10-inch glass plate — the scene could be re-created today.
Will we be able to show people in the 23rd century our iPhone photos?
When France finished her lecture, she invited the audience to look at the prints. We’d seen them enlarged on the screen behind her, but they looked different in person: richer, deeper, not reduced to mere pixels.
“You have to see the object,” she said.
In the end, France’s lecture was about the pleasures of seeing, not just of looking.
After writing recently about my own dabblings in black-and-white film photography, I heard from readers who have old developing equipment taking up space in the basement or attic. Wouldn’t it be great if it could be put into the hands of people who could use it?
Adrienne Moumin to the rescue. Adrienne, who splits her time between Silver Spring, Md., and New York City, creates handmade black-and-white photographs and collages. And she has built an online spreadsheet where people can post gear they don’t need anymore. Go to bit.ly/2o735A5.
Wrote Adrienne: “I love the process of making something by hand, the concentration and focus required to make a worthwhile object, and physically seeing something take shape where there was nothing before.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.