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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

The Happy Marriage Of Old and New Technologies

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Grace Taylor probably would have preferred it if the first thing I noticed in her recent photography show was her beautiful Van Dyke brown prints of the Last Chance Stampede and Fair in Helena, Montana.

She probably wouldn't have minded, either, if I had looked at her work second, after checking out the equally striking pictures of Link Nicoll, a colleague of Taylor's in the Factory Photoworks Gallery at the Torpedo Factory arts center in Old Town Alexandria. (The work of both photographers is on display there through March 31.)

But in fact, the first thing I noticed when I walked into the gallery opening was Grace's belt buckle.

To a native New Yorker like myself, my first thought on seeing the thing was "manhole cover." My second thought was: How does she bend over?

The buckle, it turns out, is the genuine article: a sterling silver championship piece – more a work of art or a sculpture than an article of clothing – that was presented to Grace, not for busting a bronco, but for being the photographic Boswell of this treasured piece of Americana: the western rodeo.

According to Taylor, the cowboy who gave it to her said, "You want this? I've got so many of them."

And so Grace Taylor got her rodeo buckle.

It is a long ride from Helena, Montana to Grace's darkroom. And along the way one encounters a wonderful blending of old and new technologies, something I am becoming much more aware of as digital photography establishes more and more of a foothold in this craft of ours.

What should not be surprising is how the old and new complement one another. Even a wet darkroom throwback and film camera fanatic like me has been delighted with the results I can get from my Canon PowerShot G1, both personally and professionally. [With the G1, once Canon's top-of-the-line P&S digicam, recently replaced by the G2, it's little things: like the convenience of making a shot like the accompanying snap of Grace and transmitting it without having to go to the bother of having a print made at a conventional lab. But it's bigger things as well: like the way I can satisfy high-end clients needing immediate turnaround by making sharp as a tack images which can be downloaded asap to their websites, or transmitted to designers.]

Still, the really satisfying thing to see is how photographers – from veterans like Grace to newbies like the talented young shooters I recently interviewed at Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art – are making the most out of the old and the new by combining elements of each.

In Grace's case, digital technology has enabled her to exercise a satisfying degree of control over her images in what can be a fairly involved and temperamental technique.

The Van Dyke brown process goes back more than a century and a half. It renders prints of a pleasing sepia tone and gorgeous tonal range and is similar to platinum/palladium printing in that it is a contact printing process involving hand-coated paper and intense ultraviolet light. In the past, photographers had two choices if they wanted to make large images. They either could work large to begin with (ie: in 4x5, 8x10, or even larger view camera format to render large negatives) or they could projection enlarge small or medium format negatives onto ortho film or other media to begin the process of making larger working negatives.

Both processes had drawbacks. First, working in large format can be daunting, not to mention expensive. And the projection enlargement route meant an inevitable loss of detail since the initial projection onto ortho film only produced a positive image that then had to be contacted printed itself onto another piece of film to produce a negative.

But here is where digital rears its high-tech head. In Grace's case she effectively "clones" her bxw negatives digitally, then uses her equipment to output them directly as enlarged negatives onto a special transparency film.

But let her tell it:

"For the rodeo pictures, I use T-Max 100, 400 and 3200 (for night shots), and scan the negs on a Polaroid SprintScan 4000. I use 35mm film, shooting with a Leica M6 mostly....The transparency film the negatives are printed on is Pictorico Premium OHP Transparency film made by AGA chemicals Inc. It's available on the internet www.pictorico.com and the 8.5 x 11 size costs $17.95 for 15 sheets."

Of course, this does not cover all the time and skill Grace employs to make her final images. Just coating 100% rag paper (most often watercolor paper) is an art in itself. And getting the final negative right to produce a gorgeous print involves computer fine-tuning that is too involved to go into here.

"My enlarged negatives are digitally produced, with the density of the negatives adjusted to be compatible with the Van Dyke chemicals. I apply the chemicals with a hake brush onto Stonehenge paper, which is acid-free, 100% rag....The [sandwich of] negative and hand-coated paper [is] exposed to a UV light source, then the paper is developed in water, fixed and washed."

Grace's Van Dyke 8x10s are gorgeous, and show beautiful detail. It should be noted, however, that digital enlargement of negatives has its limits – as of today, anyway.

Master platinum/palladium printer Dick Arentz, profiled here two weeks ago, notes that he still prefers projection enlargement of his negatives to make the much larger exhibition prints that he is famous for. As someone who has seen Arentz's masterly work close up, who am I to argue.

At the same time, having seen what Grace Taylor can accomplish with her scanner to produce 8x10s, I suspect it is only a matter of time before technology will allow her to go even larger and bring the 160-year-old Van Dyke brown process even more spectacularly into the 21st century.

"A Western Tradition" Van Dyke prints by Grace Taylor; "Inside the Black Box" gelatin silver prints by Link Nicoll. Factory Photoworks Gallery. Torpedo Factory Art Center, 105 N. Union St., Alexandria, Va. Through March 31. (703-683-2205).

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
Grace Taylor, her rodeo pictures – and, of course, her rodeo buckle – at the Factory Photoworks Gallery at the Torpedo Factory in Old Town Alexandria. Computer generated enlarged negatives enabled her to make her Van Dyke Brown prints in the size she desired – a happy marriage of old and new technologies.

© Grace Taylor
On The Fence (Van Dyke brown print)


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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