Unblinking Eye


Half-tones and delicacy of gradation are the unique contribution of the photographic medium...                          --William Mortensen

Controlling Gradation with Contemporary Materials and Techniques

The fact that films and papers have improved considerably since Mortensen's day cannot be overlooked.  Glossy finishes and the use of optical brighteners have improved subtle detail in the low and high values of modern printing papers.

You may note the total lack of information regarding negative manipulation in Mortensen on the Negative, other than the development technique itself. Mortensen scorned what he called the “props and crutches...known as ‘intensifiers’ and ‘reducers.’ ...a good negative cannot be produced by intensification or reduction; the most that can be effected is an unimportant degree of improvement.” [Emphasis his. Page 206.] On the other hand, he spent a great deal of time manipulating his prints, as evidenced in his book Print Finishing (1938), where he describes in detail the use of powder, eraser, carbon pencil, razor blade, spotting brush, and his abrasion-tone process. He also used a very interesting wet paper negative process, which involved manipulation of both the paper positive and the paper negative with a charcoal pencil.

One of the factors Mortensen cites as necessitating his 7-D technique is "light scatter in projection," which he says makes it impossible to separate high values beyond the straight-line portion of the H&D curve. [Pp. 197-198]  The goal of his 7-D technique was to get the high values onto the straight-line of the curve.  But Mortensen did not have the benefit of modern cold-light sources, which allow us to print negatives with greater density ranges, nor of contemporary multi-grade papers, which allow us much better control over local contrast. We still have the problem of losing contrast on the shoulder, but we are better able to cope with it now than we were 60 years ago.  And, of course, we have the tonal possibilities inherent in the various alternative processes, which Mortensen also made considerable use of, but which lie outside the scope of this article.

Zone system terminology and testing procedures give us an improved understanding of how to translate real-world tonalities into black and white, but our procedures are too often focused on over-all contrast to the detriment of local contrast.  Mortensen's emphasis on the importance of local tone is a lesson we should take to heart.  One contemporary photographer who seems to understand this well is David Kachel.  He emphasizes what he calls the subject's "key contrast core" which he says "is usually the area of greatest visual interest." However, Kachel believes that contemporary films are not inherently suited to increasing local contrast. He recommends manipulating film development only to decrease local contrast and manipulating paper development to increase it.  (If Kachel is correct about modern films being unsuitable for increasing local contrast, then Mortensen’s 7-D technique is truly obsolete.)

Another technique that Kachel has pioneered is latent image bleaching.  His investigations of historic image manipulation techniques led him to (re)discover that images can be bleached prior to development and that such bleaching has the opposite effect to bleaching developed images.  The greatest reduction will be achieved in the area of film or paper that has received the greatest amount of exposure.  With film, it is the highlights that will be reduced by pre-bleaching, whereas with paper the shadows will be reduced. Latent image bleaching provides a new level of control for creative photographers.

The technique most closely related to Mortensen's 7-D method is known as "stand development."  It involves utilizing a dilute developer for slow to medium speed contemporary films, and giving only one minute of agitation at the beginning of a one to one-and-one-half hour development time. We are indebted to an article by Patrick Dignan for information on this technique.  Dignan recommends using the FX-2 metol/glycin formula diluted 1:1 or 1:2 after a presoak in Edwal LFN (low-foam wetting agent).  See also the article by Sandy King, An Introduction to Pyro Staining Developers, for more information on stand development with contemporary developers.

Gordon Hutchings created the PMK pyrogallol film developer formula, which has gained a well-deserved reputation among fine-art photographers for its superior gradation in negative high-values. Subsequently, Sandy King formulated his Pyrocat-HD developer, which has many similar qualities. Since much of the density in a pyrogallol or pyrocatechol  negative comes from stain, the high values remain transparent and therefore printable. Prints from pyro negatives show a remarkable brilliance and tonal range.

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