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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography


By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

The phone call came from the owner of the lab – never a good sign. He was very concerned about my feelings [understandable since we give his lab, which is by far the best in town, more than $3,000 worth of processing work every month].

One of our rolls of film from Venice had been ruined, "John" said miserably. Somehow, one of the techs had opened the processor prematurely, and fried the film.

35mm or 120? I asked.

120, the owner replied.

My heart sank. I think I knew even then.

On this most recent trip the film I probably cared most about out of our whole fifty-roll take was one roll of medium format Delta 3200 on which I had made a series of late night bxw time exposures of Piazza San Marco with my specially modified Holga camera. The conditions had been perfect – the ancient stones of the Piazza shone wet from a previous rain. The night itself was clear and chilly – so cool, in fact, that there were few people about to get in the way during our close-to-midnight location shoot.

Judy, shooting in 35mm and using the quirky yet wonderful Polaroid PolaPan bxw slide film, got wonderful stuff. I couldn't wait to see mine.

[Ironically, I had thought we were home free once we hit the States. I already had had half of our 50 rolls souped by two labs in Venice with no hassle, both to see what we were getting and to eliminate at least half of my X-ray security worries. Having the remaining 25 rolls developed here would be a cinch. Or so I thought.]

When I got to the lab I asked to see the damaged film. I was handed a limp, nearly transparent, piece of acetate. There on the film, barely visible, was the outside of Caffe Florian, a shot or two of the Basilica and, of course, the gorgeous Piazza San Marco. Or, more correctly, a pale ruined imitation of it.

I'm not proud of what I did then, but I can understand why I went ballistic at the front counter, hurling contact sheets down in disgust and directing my anger at John.

"If I wanted someone to screw up my film [though I did not say screw up] I would have brought it to _________!!" I thundered to my friend, citing a mediocre local one-hour lab. John winced. The counter people averted their eyes and the other customers probably looked anxiously for the door, lest this crazed photographer decide to shoot something other than pictures.

[I said I wasn't proud of this verbal piling on, especially since my wife and partner Judy pointed out that John and his staff were the same people who have developed literally thousands of rolls of film for us over the past decade – all perfectly, promptly and professionally.]

After more fuming by me and more hand-wringing by John, I finally asked: "Is there any way we can intensify these negatives?"

The light went on in John's head and thus began the adventure that ended with the image you see here. An image which, if not an exact reflection of my original point of view, certainly is intriguing.

At the very least, it illustrates the old saw: If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

The magic that was done on my petulant behalf had nothing to do with the wet darkroom (i.e.: chemical intensification of a negative with chromium or selenium to bring up detail). It did have a lot to do with digital magic and computer imaging.

John sat me down with his in-house computer whiz – who commands a top hourly rate, but who now was working for me for nothing. We made a baseline scan of the negative and brought it up on the screen as a positive. Because my film had been solarized during its brief, but catastrophic, exposure to light, key parts of the correct "positive" image actually were reversed and looked more like a negative, and vice-versa. This made for a weird, schizophrenic, image on the monitor, which might have appealed to some, but not to a documentary photographer – and ex-reporter – like me.

At my suggestion, after he punched up the contrast the most that he could, the technician selected those parts of the image that looked most "normal" to me – be they positive or negative – and painstakingly stitched them together. Slowly, something was emerging that at least called to mind what had enchanted me on that crisp, moody night in Venice.

Though still a far cry from a "straight" print, the final result from the lab was a huge improvement. Among other things, we darkened the sky and the foreground for added drama. The sky effect let us leave a band of light at the top of the buildings, mimicking a late evening glow – even though the shot was made around midnight.

The lab tech put everything on a CD and I went on my way – to master Iris printer Chris Foley of Old Town Editions in Alexandria, Va. Chris already had made some of the most gorgeous reproductions of our photography I ever had seen: huge bxw Iris prints on watercolor paper that captured incredible detail while producing velvety, midnight blacks.

When I showed Chris the glossy work print that we had come up with at the lab he had just the right reaction.

"That looks cool," Chris said, "I'd like to play with it."

The Iris print that Chris produced was gorgeous. The matte surface of the watercolor paper gave a more painterly look to what already was a fairly non-photographic photograph. In addition, Chris cloned some of the foreground paving blocks and added them to the left side of the frame, ironically to add realism.

It was a remarkable job.

But is this image – the combined effort of Chris, the lab tech, myself and, let's not forget, one errant darkroom worker – an accurate or true rendition of reality?

I'm just not sure.

In its defense, this image was made only with the "information" contained in the negative. Nothing from outside was added. The only outright "creation" in the image is Chris' cloned paving blocks, but even they came from within the photograph itself. Nevertheless, I'd have to call this picture more of an illustration than a photograph.

In black and white especially, photographers for generations have "manipulated" their images in the darkroom, through the commonly accepted practices of dodging, burning-in and intensifying highlights by bleaching them with potassium ferrocyanide. A master of these techniques was the late W. Eugene Smith, the famed photojournalist who produced so many memorable stories in the old Life Magazine. A classic Smith photo, "Mad Eyes," made for a 1958 Life essay on Haiti, shows a mental patient staring at an out-of-the-frame light bulb with an eerie, unsettling intensity. In making the print, Smith simply darkened the background to black and intensified the whites of the woman's eyes with bleach.

Unethical? Misleading? Not in the least, to my mind. Smith merely accentuated detail that already was in the picture, to better reflect what he remembered when he made the photograph.

But Smith broke the rules of conventional photojournalism as well – and did it several times, unbeknownst to others, his biographer Jim Hughes has noted. Probably the most blatant example, which Hughes himself discovered when researching his landmark biography of the photographer, was Smith's addition of a silhouetted hand and saw handle to the lower right corner of his famous portrait of Dr. Albert Schweitzer in Africa. Smith added these details from another photograph during a tortuous five-day darkroom session because the film containing the Schweitzer portraits had been fogged in development (something to which I now certainly can relate.) The addition of the hand and saw merely obscured what Hughes said would have been "a gray void" in an undoctored print.

Today, such manipulation can be achieved in minutes on a computer – with no one any the wiser. Is it any wonder that photography, once the medium that never lied, now is suspect?

Or why the computer nearest the darkroom in one big-city newspaper bears the ominous warning: "If you can't do it in the darkroom, don't do it here."

Chris Foley, Old Town Editions, 205 S. Union St. Old Town, Alexandria. 703-684-0005 www.oldtowneditions.com

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

© Frank Van Riper
Though it looks like a negative, this picture of Piazza San Marco in Venice is, in fact, a positive image, the result of inadvertent solarization of the film during processing.It seemed like a lost cause, but computer manipulation and enhancement – equal to hours of darkroom work – produced a striking image as an Iris print.

© Frank Van Riper
Final version of what once was a disaster. Master printmaker Chris Foley cloned a few paving stones for added realism and came up with this striking Iris print on watercolor paper, made from a negative that had been headed for the trash.

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Archive:

'Photo Hero'

Holga's (Now-Unblinking) Plastic Eye

Telefonini and Carciofi for All!!

Bearing Witness to the Unthinkable

Friendlier Skies?

Death of the Digital Happy Snap?