Last year I went to North Dakota USA, courtesy of Tillman Crane, to photograph abandoned farms …
I had seen some wonderful photographs on the internet in all styles: digital and colour film, photo-gravure, straight monochrome prints, and of course Tillman’s own beautiful platinum/palladium prints. I first heard about Tillman through chatting with André Goulancourt at the Inversnaid Photographic Centre in Scotland in about 1998, now sadly closed. So it was great to actually meet him after all this time.
When I arrived, I still had no idea how I was going to photograph this location and was only just getting the hang of it when it was time to leave. I arrived with a Hasselblad 503 and a Leica M-A (35mm film) and a large stock of Ilford FP4 120 and Ilford XP2 Super in 35mm. I thought this would help me cover the bases and still deal with the many airport scanners my films had to travel through.
It took me several months to figure out how to print the photographs in a way that represented the places I saw. The ambiance of the dilapidated farms with their pigeon filth, water-stained walls and peeling paint on the one hand, and the poignancy of discarded personal items on the other, called out for an expressive medium – one capable of communicating emotion – a feel of grunge. So, for the last 5 months I have been experimenting with Lith printing the photographs. Here is what I have learnt so far after many hours in the darkroom and countless numbers of failed prints ….
Lith Printing takes great patience. Consistency of appearance across a number of photographs is achievable but only with bags of practice and understanding.
The variables common to any form of printing need to be controlled, such as exposure duration, the temperature of the developer, the concentration of chemicals. But Lith has additional variables that make for some difficulties when looking for consistency between photographs.
Pictures are snatched from the developer when you judge the right moment has come. This point is reached at a different moment for each picture.
Also Lith developers oxidise quickly and need replenishment after a few prints, depending on the starting concentrations. Often the most interesting lith effects happen at the most dilute developer concentrations. These are situations where the balance between bromide and sulphide need only tip slightly to have a profound effect on the final appearance of the print. One photograph in a batch of prints can look very different to the very next one in the development sequence.
Lithable papers, particularly warmtone ones, can produce beautiful colours. However, controlling these colours can be difficult. Factors such as the ratio between negative exposure and print development time, temperature, developer concentration and the Lith A/B mix can all be managed to change colour. But the permutations are many and time-consuming to investigate fully. Another strategy is to experiment with toners. The difficulty here is that toning, particularly indirect toning after ferri bleach, can reduce the subtle highlights which Lith printing is well known for.
For example, although the following print has a beautiful pink/orange hue, it is not the colour that I wanted for this image, and perhaps any B&W image. I have not yet been able to produce a colder image without turning the sky into a white that is indistinguishable from the border or a sky that has snow-balls and pepper fog. So far I have investigated 5 paper types and also second pass Lith.
Changing the paper for a cooler tone can introduce different problems. Using Slavich Unibrom paper for a cooler tone, the main problem to avoid was the snow-balling in the empty sky. This I did through a 10 minute warm water pre-bath and by adding 5mls of Sulphide into the developer to reduce pepper-fogging. But the result is not to my taste, despite several hours at trying variations in the exposure/developer duration ratio. To my mind this particular image calls for cleaner lines.
The conclusion here is that neither Fomatone nor Slavich is the right paper for these pictures with a big featureless sky.
And toning does not necessarily solve the colour issue. In this following image, I elected to use a cold toner (Carbon), but the highlights are still too warm. Using thiocarbamide toner, say, on the highlights would introduce a different problem: the highlights would fade out.
Different papers produce different textures as well as colours. As I wanted a grungy look, I opted for a grainy lith paper, Slavich Unibrom. In this example, I like the grungy look and also the subdued colour. So here is a situation where the paper and process gave me both the texture and the colour that I was looking for.
Horses for Courses
The question arises as to whether Lith is a good option at all for some types of image.
In the following image, I think Lith works, although it needs more grade 00 exposure on the log of wood to bring out highlight detail. The textures, tones and colour work together in sympathy.
However in the following photograph, the jury is still out. The torn lace curtains need a more subtle approach, perhaps? Note also the mistake in lightening the clock face with ferri and the colour shift it produced, a fault that is easily corrected by a bleach and redevelopment in Lith.
So countless hours and I am still looking for 8 Lith printed images that satisfy me. But, I am getting closer… I think.
Perhaps, though, this quest for consistency is misplaced? Perhaps I should simply treat each photograph on its merits and work to the strengths of each one rather than trying to find a lith printing solution common to them all? Perhaps the objective of trying to create a consistent series is getting in the way of producing good photographs.
For anyone wanting to learn Lith printing, I recommend Tim Rudman‘s book, ‘The Master Photographer’s Lith Printing Course’. It is excellent. It is out of print but still available second hand. Also Wolfgang Moersch’s web-site and shop is invaluable.