Looking towards 2023, with some changes afoot …

One measure of wisdom is the recognition that starting again is a necessary step if progress is to be made. The Japanese Arts best understand a multi-layered notion of ‘ikkyo’ – a constant search for the beginning, or put differently, ‘beginners mind’. We return to the beginning but from the vantage of having been there before, but now differently. It’s the same with meditation – we return to the breath or to a sound or to mandala or to a scent or to a touch of a rosary. And then we return to it again. And then again ….

And in my photography, I feel this pull towards my starting point.

Looking to 2023

During 2022 I spent much time in my darkroom, almost every day – some days just an hour, some days 6 hours. At the beginning of the year, I set myself two objectives. The first was to find a way to Bromoil prints more consistently. The second was to set up my darkroom for large format to get the benefit from my Walker LF camera. I can look back and say that I have made progress on both fronts. My Bromoil work is more consistent, and my brush work has improved, but much improvement is still required. My darkroom now has a De Vere 504 Dichromat enlarger.

So, what’s the plan for 2023?

As well as substantially improving my Bromoil work, there are two new things I want to achieve:

  1. A substantial improvement in my 35 mm photography – this requires a return to the start.
  2. Being able to oil print or ‘mediobrome’ on art paper

Let me take each in turn:

35mm photography

In the 1980s I remember being very taken by the photography of Galen Rowell , he of the ‘ƒ/8 and be there’ philosophy, who combined 35mm photography with mountaineering and speed travelling. Just as he climbed and trekked and ran with a Nikon FM2, I climbed and trekked and ran with an Olympus OM1.

© Galen Rowell
© Tony Cearns, Mont Blanc approaching night. Olympus 0M1, Tri-X
© Tony Cearns Mont Blanc Massif Olympus OM1 Tri-x

Always having my OM1 with me was just part of my way of life. I took it to the pub, the shops, the gym, mountain tops, army manouvres (hidden), wilderness treks, family moments. But now that I am much older I don’t do this anymore. This realisation has got me into thinking why that’s the case. Perhaps my graduation into larger formats has spoilt my enjoyment of 35mm? Perhaps I underestimate what you can do with 35mm? Perhaps I have lost the spirit of enquiry and flexibility that a 35mm camera can afford? Perhaps I am getting set in my ways ? Haha! I surely am, but hopefully not in spirit.

The rot set in during 2003. My move towards medium format, and more recently large format, all began at a workshop that I attended at Inversnaid Photography Centre in Scotland, led by Andre Goulancourt. (Sadly, the centre is long closed – it was a magical place with Linda’s wonderful cooking and a great darkroom). I arrived with my 35mm gear to be met by the other participants who all sported medium or large format equipment. I felt overwhelmed and under-geared. I resolved to learn medium format photography, secure in the knowledge that this would make me a ‘real fine art photographer’. Or so I believed.

Since then, my best pictures have been taken with medium format gear. Yesterday I looked through my 35mm contact proofs and it dawned on me how few were ‘keepers’ when compared to my 120 and 5×7 contact proofs.

I have only recently started using large format (and only for alt-pro work) and when I have a ‘serious’ project, I tend to leave my 35mm kit back home and take my Hasselblad. And there’s the rub. Leaving the 35mm gear at home doesn’t give it much chance to shine. I think we are used to ‘fine art’ photographers pushing medium and large format. One thinks of Ansel Adams, or Stephen Shore with his 8×10 view camera, or Barry Thornton and his beloved Rollei SL 66, or John Blakemore and his MPP to name just a few.

Of course, there are technical reasons for preferring larger formats if one is intending to print large pictures or minimise the prevalence of grain. But we do not have to look far to find excellent ‘fine art’ work on 35mm: Galen Rowell (Nikon FM2 and FE) as already mentioned, Lee Friedlander’s (Leica) ‘Cherry Blossom Time in Japan’ photogravures, Robert Adams’s pre-Rolleiflex work, the early work of Lewis Balz (Leica), the pre-digital Eddie Ephraums (Nikon FM2 and F2) and even Barry Thornton (Konica, Contax, Canon EOS – see last chapter of his book ‘Elements’).

Looking dispassionately at my 35mm work, I see that the main problem is hurried composition. It’s not that I am seeing differently when I have my Hasselblad (although that is possible), it’s more that I am being far more deliberate and careful with it. My attitude is different. Same with the large format work, only more so.

Obviously, that doesn’t need to be the case. So the plan is to use my 35mm cameras in the same manner – tripod, metering, filters, quasi-zone work (i.e. using two camera bodies) and so on.

The plan is to use my Nikon SLR gear rather than my Leica gear, as I have two Nikon bodies (FM3A and FM2n) and three Nikon lenses all which take the same size screw-in filters.

Nikon FM3A
My Nikon FM3A with 28mm Nikkor AI lens

This is not a diatribe against medium or large format photography. It’s superficial to think of photography in terms of format. But I recognise the liberating spirit of 35mm photography that results from its form factor. In recent years my work hasn’t reflected this. I need to put this right.

Oil Printing/Mediobrome

I have started to get a grip on Bromoil.

© Tony Cearns – Liverpool Cathedral Cemetery – Bromoil.

This is partly as a result of finding a paper that behaves well bromoilically. In time I will run out of this paper, and then I will be in the lap of the Bromoiling gods again, that is, producing inconsistent results.

Therefore, I reckon that the way forward is either to make your own bromide paper from sensitised gelatin or from Foma, or move into the Rawlins way of oil printing. The latter is an easier path and one that does not depend on manufacturers that may be struggling financially. So my objective is to learn the Rawlins process with the aid of my Walker 5×7 camera and to work at the Mediobrome process.

Thank you

Finally, I would like to thank my readers and wish you all a peaceful Christmas and 2023. Many thanks for looking in and let’s work towards a much better 2023.

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