series of platinium portraits based of the book ”Thousand Words”
[@Lielahti Mansion, Kartano-Kahvila Mielihyvin premisses]
Technical notes on this portrait series / Curt Richter
Nobody cares what kind of pen Shakespeare used.
Nevertheless, artists depend on the tools of their craft. However boundless the ideas, they’re
limited to the perimeters of their instruments and materials. When this series began I still used
an 8×10” view camera. A large and slow instrument to see with. It had infinite permutations but
is a static device. Everything was adjusted by hand, the only mechanical part being the shutter.
The camera sat on a tripod and held a presence between the subject and myself. Most of the
time I was underneath a black cloth so the sitter had only the lens to look at. The size and
weight of the film holders and cost per sheet limited the number of pictures taken but
boundaries are useful. A portrait session was linear, a finite process with a clear beginning,
middle and end. Each exposure was labored and considered. Once the image was focused, the
subject was asked not to move and a procedure began. Close the lens, cock the shutter, set the
aperture then slide a film holder into back of the camera, remove the dark slide while checking it
indicated unexposed, grab the cable release, try to gauge if the subject had indeed moved,
finally say; ”Hold it.” in the hope they wouldn’t blink. Large format portraiture was a useful place
to apply the Zen master, Awa Kenzô’s axiom; ”One arrow, one life.”
Eventually Kodak and Homeland Security made it too difficult to continue with film and I went
digital. The camera is a fattened SLR that seems to know more than I do and always wants to
do something I don’t. As much as I object to its manner and lack of bearing, it has advantages.
Primarily it’s an electronic device which doesn’t have the theatrical stature of the old camera. It
can’t fill that space between a sitter and myself, the inert apparatus that divided us is gone. The
image is still focused manually using a loupe magnifier as I did with the 8×10 but it’s not rays of
light projected onto the ground glass I see, it’s a live feed video with zoom capacity. The little
camera is as unobtrusive as great design; you don’t notice it’s there. That leaves the subject
more vulnerable and often more guarded. Although I still limit the amount of exposures, I don’t
have to. Time to be spent in the darkroom won’t be increased every time the shutter is pressed.
What I miss as much as anything is the moment when the light’s turned on after the half hour of
development’s black void and the negatives could be viewed for the first time. Anticipation
becoming affirmation or disappointment. The imprinting of ideas and their reality could be
separated by weeks or months. An image is no longer immutable, a fixed moment of light and
time. Digital is immediate, malleable and plastic. A section from one image can be easily
transferred onto another without detection. Taking a photograph was a conclusion, now it’s as
likely to be a beginning. Digital is a new way of thinking.
The late 1950s was the peak of machine made silver photographic papers. Formulas were
refined and the gold standard left manufacturers only quality to compete with for the new
consumer demand. By the early 80’s there was so little silver content in commercial papers that
photographers needed to make their own emulsions to get a respectable black and white print.
Many 19 th Century processes were rediscovered but digital has brought the second demise to
alterative printing, particularly the platinum process. I still make them but now the
platinum/palladium salts are exposed to UV light through digital negatives. Finally I can work in
color as digital prints aren’t confined to plastic papers. The computer’s ability to selectively
adjust contrast, density and color could never be matched as finely in the darkroom. Digital
prints reflect that accuracy but their archival quality is uncertain. It’s hard to weigh the
discoveries that evolved from Niépce’s window to digital imagery but I think more has been
gained than lost.
Little has changed over the years when I set up for a portrait session except the camera. A
couple of lights, an umbrella, reflectors and whatever I can find to create shadows. I can do
something that was all but impossible before, focus and shoot in an instant. Now I can
photograph a laugh.
“P.S. Shakespeare had it easy; he had a language, a new language, busting out all around him,
and he didn’t even have to make up stories; the stories were around him too.” Walker Percy
concluded in a letter to Shelby Foote; ”We have to do it all, including the impossible or all but
impossible task; make up a language as we go along. All you have to do to be a good novelist
now is to be like God on the first day.