Gray, blotter paper sky, impossible to tell if it was day or night on this quiet, suburban cul-de-sac. Just a few frames left and the roll would be ready to develop. Throwaway, but from the available scene something about the sweeping branches mimicking the soft raindrops spoke. Camera raised to eye, snap, a few steps to other side, snap, then from below, snap.
Later, as the chemicals swashed their way across the film, I eagerly thought about the prints I could make from my trip to New York, recalling scenes on Manhattan streets and hoping the negatives would reveal my timing and composition to be as good as they seemed at the time. Some good images emerged, but I was also drawn to these rainy twilight images finishing the roll.
They immediately related to another project* - that was probably why I made them, but did not fit the technical parameters I had set up for that. Still, even on the contact sheet something about these inky scenes with moist, shimmery highlights spoke again. So I printed them, straight 5"x7" RC prints, and into a box they went.
Could the solarization technique called sabatier be accomplished in a freshly minted home darkroom? At the local, community darkroom class, where I'd learned it year earlier, we could use an extra enlarger for the flash of bright light required, and had plenty of room for extra trays of diluted developer to control development. Could I work it out in my tiny sanctuary? As they say, "Do or do not, there is no try."
A surprisingly successful, if perhaps chaotic, process, rushing to remove the negative carrier, squeegee the print and and flash the paper before the first development got too far. Combing through my negatives for possible candidates, I again stumbled across the dusky, dripping willow trees. I'd had the best luck solarizing images with lots of straight lines, particularly architecture, but something about the graphic quality told me to try. The results were quite effective, but that was it. A one-off experiment tossed into another box and shelved away.
Two years later a lightning flash. More precisely, a lightning storm, slow rolling thunder building layer upon layer in my mind with blast after blast. Having my own darkroom allowed forays into things like photograms and dripping the developer randomly across the paper instead of submerging the paper in a chemical bath got me thinking. Could a variety of darkroom techniques -- sabatier (solarization), burning, dodging and split filtering, etc. -- be combined to create images that were de-constructed, pointing the viewer toward the process itself? What does the distance in time and space between making the negative and translating that into a print say about photography? And can highlighting process be used to hone in on this space, complementing the content of the picture rendered from the world at the time of exposure with additional information? Are their emotional components to the resulting image elements that can be used to change meaning, or better yet, create narrative through changing states?
Chemical darkrooms and gelatin silver prints, once ubiquitous in photography, have become a niche. Difficult and time consuming by today's standards, darkroom prints are going the way of the daguerrotype, salt print, collodion, tintype, and albumen, descending a dark staircase into the stream of the antiquated, to be rediscovered, embraced, or fetishized perhaps, by artists specifically because of the particular aspects of this type of image making that cannot be created digitally. I have a hard time imagining a digital processing technique capable of harnessing/embracing the randomness involved in dripping, splashing, and painting liquid onto paper; the variance of fractions of a second in timing that limit the control over the resulting image so specifically to the manual dexterity of the individual printmaker; an iterative process where the results of one cycle of exposure-development-intermediary alterations-fixing of a print lead so directly to the specific sequence and timing of the next print.
Besides the challenges, the slow, physical process in an ever-accelerating digital world, this way of printing is chemical, leaving toxic byproducts, heavy metals that require proper disposal. There are good reasons to abandon such practices as they represent in some ways the terrible toll on the environment wrought by industrialization and 19th-20th century technological advances that helped make photography the ubiquitous medium it is today. What could better represent this collision than my beloved trees? A subject from nature, in many ways a representation in my mind of my connection to the physical world, not represented by photographs as copies from nature, but specifically and intentionally warped and deformed by them.
And so I began to play. A basic, straight print. A solarized version. Adjust contrast. Solarize again. Try different times. Randomize. Use a pipette to squirt, splash and drip developer on the paper. Dunk, solarize then drip. Drip, solarize, then dunk. How will these prints tone? What about using a textured art paper? What will happen if you apply the developer with a brush? What about partially exposing the print, then moving the paper and exposing again to create a double exposure? Flipping the negative? Printing from slides/positives?
Endless variations, working in the dark, spritzing and splashing away, watching the process instead of the clock, each print is entirely unique, un-reproducable in the dim confines of an upstairs bathroom.
*The related project I mentioned soon withered; a formal exercise intended to become a book that never quite grew legs. Photographs of trees, mostly details of various part of trees to be exact, all stringently recorded with the same camera setup and printed in the same way, but in the end refusing to lead me anywhere beyond the process. It was a good learning exercise, thinking through a formal process, serially and with intention. You can read elsewhere of my love of trees, but in this instance the images with meaning ceased to emerge from the chemical baths and another box found a home nestled on a shelf.