Interview with Steve Tester by David Tatnall
When, how and why did you become interested in photography?
I made my first contact print at the age of nine using negs from a Box Brownie. It has been the last 15 years that I became serious in an artistic sense. I still remember that first image emerging in the developer every time I print negatives.
What influences you and your photography?
It always seemed to me that natural places, the landscape, had other unseen things going on within it. e.g. A group of rocks can give a sense of peace and tranquility; a copse of trees a sense of foreboding and darkness. I try to capture that other unseen sense of place, its soul. I like being alone and connected to the place when I photograph.
What subjects do you enjoy photographing?
I am drawn to photographing natural landscape so trees and rocks feature strongly. But also the shadows, how they play there part in defining that elusive soul makes landscape photography very rewarding.
What have been your favourite projects and why?
Projects, or concentrating ones efforts on specific subjects is very satisfying as one gets to understand the “language” nuances of the subject so much better. Lanjanuc was a case in point. Three years and 24 photographs was a good result. These were taken on a huge granite extrusion know as Mt Alexander near my home in Central Victoria. Lanjanuc is an Aboriginal word that describes the area. I also spent some time in central Australia’s outback trying to capture that landscapes soul, a work in progress but some very satisfying results amid the inevitable disappointments.
What darkroom methods do you use for developing film?
I tray develop 4×5 in Ilford ID11 or Perceptol depending on the film; 8×10 and 7×11 are tray developed individually in Pyro developer WD2D+. 4X5 negs will be enlarged for photographic FB prints, or enlarged onto film to make film positives for photogravures. The larger negatives are usually contact printed onto hand coated cotton rag paper for Platinum/Palladium prints.
Your two most recent exhibitions have been very different. Lanjanuc in 2011 were platinum/palladium photographs from 8×10 negatives. Vignettes in 2013 were photogravures. Please explain these methods of print-making and why did you choose them?
Lanjanuc was a series of landscape photographs of a very peaceful and sometimes mysterious place. Platinum/palladium prints were chosen because they work very well in producing prints of subtle and extended contrast range in the highlights. The off white colour of the paper and the warm blacks helped to convey the evocative nature of the landscape. Briefly, prints are made by coating cotton rag paper with a mix of Platinum, Palladium salts, Ferric Oxalate plus a contrast agent, and dried. The coating is sensitive to UV light. A negative is placed in contact with the coated paper in a printing frame, exposed to UV light in a light box. The partially visible image is developed in Potassium Oxalate and cleared in Hypo Clear and washed and dried in the normal way.
Vignettes was a new direction. I have long admired the photogravures made by Alfred Stieglitz, Dorothea Lange and Edward E Curtiss. The rich blacks and graphic nature of the image printed on an etching press convey a sense of the image quite different from a photographic print. I live in an old Gold Mining Town with wonderful granite brick and stone buildings built in the 1860/70’s. They are of historic and architectural importance. I decided that the photogravure process would be ideal to present the strength and substance of these buildings in a way that the original architects would recognise. Also photogravure was a modern technology during that time. I use LF cameras to produce the negative. A film positive is made in the darkroom. UV light sensitive plates are exposed through the film and processed to produce an intaglio printing plate which is inked and printed on dampened art paper, dried and flattened.
Do you always contact print negatives or do you enlarge?
I contact print 8×10 and 7×11 negatives, usually as Platinum/Palladium prints. 4×5 are enlarged usually to 8×10 and printed on FB paper, usually Ilford warmtone.
How do you approach working in the landscape with a large format camera?
Minor White, the photographer, said “Be still with yourself until the object of your attention confirms your presence” This quote sums up my approach. I try to have a clear mind, without pre-conceptions, and walk amongst the place I am in. I used to take a viewing frame, but I don’t need it now. If the landscape speaks to me (confirms my presence) I then get out the tripod and camera.
Can you name some Australian photographers you admire?
Early photographers such as John B Eaton, Harold Cazneaux, Wolfgang Sievers produced wonderful work. Contemporary photographers who are making a substantial contribution to LF photography in Australia are David Roberts; David Tatnall; Gordon Undy and Bob Kersey.
Where has your work been shown? Where can we see your work?
I have shown at Gold Street Gallery & Studio 500 Trentham, Pointlight Gallery & Meyer Gallery Sydney, Clayfire Gallery Daylesford and Roseleigh & Falkner Gallery Castlemaine. First step to see my work is my web site http://www.stephentester.com.au.
What do you suggest for photographers starting out in large format photography?
Keep it simple and make haste slowly. A larger camera does not mean better photographs. Learning to compose in the camera, deciding on the exposure with appropriate aperture speed combinations is part of the craft that takes time to master. Attend workshops on the use of light meters. Find a mentor. Look at LF photographers work, ask them for help, they are usually flattered and will support you. Gold Street Studio in Victoria and Pointlight in NSW run very good workshops for the LF tyro.