The digital age has given birth to many different terms relative to photography, one is High Dynamic Range, i.e. HDR. The term HDR refers to the contrast range a digital sensor in conjunction with a computer software logarithm is capable of reproducing. Black and White film in the hands of skilled negative makers has had extreme contrast capabilities for centuries, far more than even the most sophisticated digital cameras. However, with Black and White film the increased vibrancy is not readily detected as it is with color digital photography because of the exaggerated and unrealistic colors that are becoming commonplace.
Such is the case with Manhattan Skyline, I have for years controlled and designed B&W negatives to be rich in texture and contain more scene contrast than is normally able to be reproduced with the final Silver Gelatin process many analog photographers use. I’ve been producing negatives with an abundance of scene contrast controlled during the exposure and film development stage, a major contributing reason why my images look different from most. Essentially a version of HDR but with the subtly only film can produce and in my Process all done “organically”. That’s especially important when viewing the final original Silver Gelatin print.
It’s important to understand how important the Quality of Light is when making any photograph. Any means of capture, Film or digital simply cannot record the amounts of contrast the human eye / brain relationship can process. Consider the final image of Manhattan Skyline seen above, the film was exposed for 20 minutes, 8:30 – 8:50 pm on April 10th 2014. The photograph immediately below was taken @ 7:30 pm and exposed for 2.5 minutes under considerably different lighting conditions. I doubt there is any debate on which photograph will draw the strongest response from most viewers.
The cell phone picture below of my field camera was taken at approximately 7:30 pm. The film camera would remain in that position until we left shortly after 9pm.
I had seen photographs of this location and very much wanted to create my own version with Black & White film. Long exposure, high contrast situations is something I have considerable experience with and knew an extraordinary photograph was possible. I first had to find the location, Google yielded plenty of images but no real idea of the Brooklyn side access. Finally Google Earth yielded an idea as to how to get to the location providing the angle I was hoping for. My oldest son lives in the area so a trip to see him allowed a first hand visit. As it happened I first saw the location near low tide and realized there would be more of the pilings showing then I wanted.
I began planning a trip with my closest shooting buddy, I explained to him that we needed to find a date before April 15th. I wanted clear weather and near high tide. All things pointed towards April 10th 2014. During the ride down to the city Tim Jones asked why does this have to happen before April 15th? I explained I wanted maximum building lights and felt many professionals would be working late due to the income tax deadline, Tim, being in the Electrical wholesale business countered with most likely buildings that large would be on automatic timers and had little to do with tax season ! Lesson learned.
We found a parking spot about a half-mile away and began the walk on a rather chilly night towards the spot I had in my mind. As we got to the general area we encountered quite a few digital photographers, many right down in the area of the pilings, I wanted as high a vantage point as possible and at an angle to the rows of pilings. I had heard a critique of similar photographs where the photographer composed the scene so that Manhattan seemed to sit right on top of the pilings. My preference of a higher vantage point would create a sense of depth between the pilings due to the strip of water before the landmass of Manhattan began, giving an impression of space and dimension. Creating depth in a two-dimensional photograph is a paramount concern for me when deciding on a composition.
I found a higher vantage point but the more I moved to the left of the pilings to create a more dramatic angle the closer to the edge of the scene the reflection in the water got. I knew the reflection would become a dominate part of the final image so that would dictate how far off-center to the pilings I could venture. The rule of “Thirds” actually puts the reflection close to the most powerful compositional point in the photograph.
As the sun went down the wind picked up considerably, I waited in the hopes the wind would die down but it never did. I began the exposure a little after 8pm, I always expose two sheets of film for each scene and the odd-numbered side of the film holder is always first in the event something goes wrong I can identify which exposure it was and develop the problem side first and save the other piece of film for small adjustments in development if necessary. I metered the scene and set the camera to F 16.5 and began a 20 Minute exposure. I carefully watched the camera with its sizable bellows extended 10″ to accommodate the 240mm lens, the camera while not completely broadside to the wind was shaking considerably, I remember thinking there was no way the negative would be sharp given the constant shaking of the camera due to a biting wind. I remember thinking why even expose the second piece of film, I checked with my buddy who said he was still a half hour from being done so I returned to my camera and decided to go ahead and expose the other sheet of film in the hopes the wind would die down. Again, I carefully watched the camera for the full 20-minute exposure and saw no discernible difference in the camera shaking in the wind during either exposure.
I think it is important to note from this point forward how unlikely it is that this story is even being told. The first piece of film I processed was hopelessly un sharp due to camera movement during the 20 minute exposure. The development scheme I use is long and tedious and given the unrelenting wind during both Manhattan Skyline exposures I have no conceivable reason why the next negative would somehow magically have a different outcome.
Continue to consider this, way back in the mid ’80’s I was interning for a local Portrait Studio who sought to venture into the commercial and illustration field of advertising photography. I was to be their Illustration photographer going forward and they brought in several mentors who trained me in large film cameras, lighting and what the expectations were when dealing with demanding Art Directors. Typically, assignments would come from an ad agency, as the photographer I would work with a designer or food stylist on the content and placement of products and then I would handle all things photography related. Most times 6 pieces of Transparency film would be exposed. Color balance many times had to be altered with colored gels based on a particular emulsion, Color saturation and White balance were all paramount to most Art Directors. A single sheet of film would be sent off to the lab for E-6 processing, that piece of film would be returned and analyzed by the Art Director who many times would ask for a slight change in contrast that could be altered with the next piece of film’s processing. The point is, once an acceptable piece of film was approved by the Art Director the remaining unprocessed film would be discarded so as to save time and money due to processing costs.
Nevertheless, and in spite of all logical reason I have a 20″ x 24″ print of Manhattan Skyline in my home and it shows no lack of sharpness whatsoever from that second sheet of film I developed. The resulting Silver image is printed using Ilford’s Warm Tone Multi Contrast paper, which is then Split Toned using Thioruea and Selenium toners. The image is perhaps my most striking example of negative compression in concert with Split Contrast Corrective printing with a glorious split tone that transitions within the bright reflection in the water. Personally, if not the most stunning photograph I’ve ever made it is in the top three !
Interestingly, when I was finally ready to make the exposures I did, the only photographers left were myself and Tim, both Film Photographers, that says a lot all by itself !!
Technical Information: 5″X7″ Deardorff camera, 240mm Kowa Graphic Process lens, f 16.5 @ 20 minute exposure Film processed via my Minimal Agitation technique @ N – 3, Split Contrast printed on Ilford Warmtone Gelatin Silver paper with a final Split Toned process using a Bleach / Thiourea combination followed by a dilute toning in Selenium. The Split Toning process transitions the Metallic Silver print to the much more stable compound, Silver Sulphide ensuring permanence.