The Photograph Explained: Five Minutes at Mungana by Gordon Undy

five minutes at Mungana

It was a bright day in Far North Queensland but down at the entrance to the caves at Mungana the sun rarely shares its light. The caves form a honeycomb. Many years ago in this silent, spiritual place – it must be on a song-line – a bird dropped the seed to this tree.

The tree has grown but very little else has happened. A thin layer of dust covered the limestone and the leaves – it doesn’t rain much there in winter. Hot.

Three leaves stood brightly against the black cave entrance complemented by the symbiotic ‘S’ rhythms the tree made with the rock. These are the moments when one senses the grand design in things. Everything – but nothing – is random.

Tri-x rated at an exposure index of 250 with my 8 x 10 Deardorff and 300 mm G-Claron would take around 40 seconds plus reciprocity allowance so I thought to allow about three minutes at f/45. A mild back tilt rearwards with the lens dropped all the way and the camera pointed down allowed me to keep the back almost vertical so to avoid excessive divergence at the top. Bellows extension was not far beyond normal so I settled on a four minute exposure. The trouble was that a slight breeze would occasionally shake the leaves too much so I knew I would have to resort to a device learned from reading Paul
Strand (or words written about him). This was that after a breeze dies down the leaves return to where they were before. So one allows the lens to remain open for the exposure and, when the breeze comes, one’s hat covers the lens for the duration of the breeze.

Exposure is thereby suspended and re-commenced. This happened twice during the exposure time so the total became five minutes to get four on the film. Hence Five Minutes at Mungana came into being – at least it had excited the silver on the film. I exposed just one piece of film and wrote my notes in a state of great excitement and hope.

I wouldn’t use PMK developer today, preferring WD2D+ or even Rollo Pyro, but at that time the negative was encouraged to release its silver in PMK – just one potential negative in a tray emulsion side up. The film was kept totally immersed the whole time (to avoid aerial oxidation), rotated periodically through 90 degrees, and the tray tipped from each side in turn every two seconds until the bell rang for time. A water bath with two minutes agitation then preceded normal fixing and washing etc. No allowance was made for reciprocity in development because the subject brightness was only three stops and the contrast increase in this case was a bonus. In any event Pyro development is rarely reduced because it is so gentle in the highlights.

I have only ever printed this negative by contact on silver gelatin paper. That way it has more ‘juice’ and feels just right. I love contact photographs and, while I sometimes print in platinum/palladium or AZO or (in those days when it was still available) on Printing Out Paper, none of these (with the possible exception of AZO – Lodima Fine Art Paper these days) would have the ‘bite’ necessary for this photograph.

The negative is slightly more dense at the top (light comes from above and in long exposures has much more effect than normal because exposure is based on the low values so, even though the expansion of tones is a positive in this case from the point of view of contrast, there is still an overall density increase in the better lit areas). Thus printing it straight – as I would normally prefer and expect to do – does not work. It responds on multi-grade paper to an overall exposure with no filter until the highlights are sufficiently exposed followed by a graduated burn all the way from top to bottom through a grade five filter. Thus the whole is exposed all over for x seconds with no filter then the top gets around 5x and the bottom about x with the grade 5 with an even gradation in between. (For those not familiar with Pyro negatives printed on multi-grade paper, no filter (with respect to the highlights) is like a grade 0 or 00 with a normal negative so the results can sometimes be quite flat. The addition of grade 5 when appropriate brings in the darker tones and the blacks. It is not always necessary and depends on the negative.)

In this case the paper I used was Ilford Multigrade Warm-Tone fibre with Ilford Multigrade developer diluted 1+9.

Five Minutes at Mungana is part of a series called Intimations and is reproduced in my second book which is also called Intimations and published by point light in 2004.

Copies of the book and photographs made in contact with the original 8 x 10 negative are available at Point Light Gallery.

Gordon Undy with 5x7 Linhof Technica

Gordon Undy