Interview: Chris Reid of Blanco Negro

#1-Gravure

You describe yourself as a printmaker. Can you tell us a little about yourself and your history of how you got involved in photography and printmaking?
Born in N. Ireland, my B&W experience began in The Netherlands in 1989 at the ripe old age of 17. I was part of an exchange programme and was working with animals, but was snapping pics with my Dad’s Canon AE-1. I then would pop into the local community darkroom after work and process my films and the next day knock out a few prints for my work mates. I think I had about 2 hours tuition in total and the rest was self taught by trial and error.

Can you tell us a little history of Blanco Negro? How did that come about?
I walked into Blanco Negro at the end of 1999 looking for work where I was informed the owner was actually selling the business and was I interested! Being still fairly young and broke they offered me a 3 year payment plan, so instead of an employee I became self employed. I was already working professionally for 8 or 9 years and believed I could make it work.

What influences you and where/how do you find inspiration?
From the beginning I was constantly developing my techniques and skills by reading books by Ansel Adams, Dr Tim Rudman and a favourite called “Creative Elements” by Eddie Ephraums. Being self taught I needed all the help I could find.

With Ansel’s “The Print” and “The Negative” I read and re-read almost every day until I started to understand the technical terms and the actual cause and effects of what he was explaining.

With Dr Rudman’s books, I was like WOW, how did he do this…? And with Eddie’s it was pretty much the same. I still find inspiration in books by many photographers working in silver gelatin, Albert Watson is one thats jumps to mind, but I also have an intense appreciation of the fine print. The latest Tim Rudman exhibition at Gold St Studios was a personal favourite. I can instantly visualise a few images I consider iconic!

I think getting out to see exhibitions of hand crafted prints is the best inspiration you can get, and it generally costs nothing. I’m also very lucky to have met and work with Ellie Young from Gold Street Studios who has inspired me to learn about the various historical printing processes and through Ellie’s studio some of the world’s finest print makers.

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Do you have a particular favourite photographic or print process?
Well, today my favourite would be salt prints purely because I’ve been making some! Last month was Bromoils as I was learning this process. But probably my favourite favourite would be Chrystotype. It’s a bit of a challenge, but oh so rewarding. Obviously silver gelatin, I just find this process so awesome as one can print an image over and over and but using toners, paper and developer combos every single print is a one off.

What kind of challenges do you face in making prints for other photographers to create a print that they perhaps visualised when making the photograph? Or do your clients essentially let you have a free reign?
Their negatives! I generally have the photographer come into the darkroom with me while I’m making their fine prints. This is especially important for exhibition work. Usually we have a chat, look at the negs and I’ll view any samples they may have.

Next step is to produce a few test prints. I find it’s best to do this on my own, as I can be inspired just by getting to know the negatives. I will then have a show and tell to hear what the client thinks. I try and give them nice and safe prints and then my spin. This can be anything from a Lith to Liquid Emulsion, or just a simple paper, developer and toner combo. I feel it’s really important that the client knows what I’m doing, hence I get them in the dark and if possible get their hands wet!

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Can you describe the darkroom equipment you have and work with?
Second hand. Most of my enlargers are fairly old, I currently work with 4/5″ and 10/8″ De Vere colour diffusion and a lovely old 4/5″ Besler condenser.

My personal favourite is a Durst 5/7″ condenser 138 enlarger, simply because I’ve had it since 1994 and it’s built like a tank. Ironically my only new enlarger is the De Vere 504 DS, an enlarger that prints from digital files onto traditional silver gel papers. The most important darkroom items I use are my lens. I use Rodenstock APOs, nice and sharp, but not too contrasty.

One of my sayings is your print will only be as goods as the lens your printing through. Mind you some snappers love old lens for the opposite reason, they can give beautiful soft tones and a unique look and feel. Other essentials are a music system, good lighting and the best exhaust system you can afford. And obviously space to move and grow.

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Has the popularity of digital photography changed your business in any way?
It sure has. I would have lost at least 50% of my client base from 2000 to 2005. I mean I should have been out of business, only I didn’t pay my taxes for 3 years! Things have settled down now and evened out. Digital has changed my client base.

I used to print for magazines such as Vogue and Marie Claire and work with commercial photographers shooting weddings and advertising. Now I mainly work with “fine art” and non professionals. I much prefer my new client base. All my photographers really appreciate what I create for them, don’t give me ridiculous deadlines and actually credit me for my work.

Another aspect is that gelatin silver printing is considered an “alternative process” now, which I feel we need to make a big effort to keep it alive. I tell all my clients to PRINT their negs, not just scan and forget. The chemistry and ingredients required for the film they love is also used for print making, but if we don’t print, then I can’t see how only film sales can keep the silver gelatin industry alive….

Can you name some photographers or printmakers – Australian or otherwise – that you admire?
In no particular order: Dr Mike Ware, he had the first website I’d seen where all the information was correct and free. Dr Mike also shares his wealth of knowledge through education & publication. He has re-invented many historical processes including Chrystotype.

Ellie Young who first taught me the Salt process about a decade ago and who also shares her knowledge so freely and helps keep the light shining with Gold Street Studios. Dr Tim Rudman, who must surely be one of worlds finest silver gelatin printmakers. Dr Karl Koenig (who passed away a few years back) for inventing the Gumoil process and again shared this process with us who wanted to learn.

And to be honest, I really respect ALL photographers/printmakers who hand craft their work, especially the crazies who run around with their 10/8″ and larger cameras! This would include The Gathering mob who turn up every year to Gold St and get blasted by their film processor, ME.

Can you tell us something about the notable – or less notable – photographers you’ve worked with and perhaps some of your favourite projects?
Well growing up in Belfast, I was somehow drawn to war photography and photojournalism. I suppose it was around me, but I seen a glamour and excitement in far away places like the Vietnam conflict and then the cruelty and madness of the genocides from eastern Europe and Africa. I started then to look farther back to the First & Second World Wars and the photographers who documented them.

I am lucky enough to have fulfilled a dream by working with a living legend (in my mind) Tim Page who is the author of the only colour book I have bought back in 1989, NAM. He signed my weather damaged booked back in 2003 and I still remember the happiness of that meeting. We have become close friends and recently I printed a folio selection of his Vietnam photos of Australian soldiers from 1965 to 68. We are donating an edition for auction later this week (20/10/13) for ‘Solider On’, an organisation which helps injured vets returning from the Middle East conflict. The money raised will go towards a rehabilitation machine for soldiers injured by IEDs and who have lost limbs.

Other guys like Stephen Dupont with his use of Polaroid film in the field, Andrea Francolini who started a charity to build schools in Afghanistan and uses Holga in the field. Ellie Young, a printer of so many processes I couldn’t name them all! Mr Ron Milne, a retiree who runs about with a 6/8″ camera all over Australia recording it’s history though architecture. Tobi Wilkinson, a client who has supported me for 13 years and continues to shoot something new every year. I mean the list goes on.

I think one of my finest achievements was the making of twenty 40 / 50″ mural prints for Steve Dupont, the Axe Me Biggie series. These were shot on poly type 665 and were just lovely images, but very challenging and rewarding. Another is Joyce Evans, a photographer and friend who kicked off my collection and obsession of fine prints. And lastly was my experience at the Australian War Memorial where I taught for 2 days and was lucky enough to print some Franks Hurley’s glass plates from WW1.

tone & mask

What kind of future do you see for traditional photography?
I really believe the future is bright. We need the Gen Y to get their hands wet and cameras such as Holga and Lomos are a great introduction. The kids seem to love the fact it’s unpredictable and it’s so “Old School”.

I have also noticed more high school students coming into the lab for education and are very open to all the processes and techniques. Also the fact one can shoot digital and then make an enlarged inkjet neg. for historical processes is also another way to keep the dark arts alive and current. The digital enlarger has also helped keep my business relevant and again gives digital photographers the options of handcrafted prints

Where can we see your work?
I have prints in collections all over the world. In the UK a bunch went to the Victoria and Albert Museum, these were re-print from the 60s and celebrated the independence of Mali. In the USA, the New York Public Library also has a stack by Steve Dupont and also the US Marine Corps Museum has a lot of his as well. Mostly type 665 polaroids as a Duo print. An image on one side and text on the other on a single page.

In Australia, I think I have prints in almost all the state libraries and galleries. To be honest I don’t really keep track of where they go, just that all my prints are the best I can produce. Over the last 2 weeks I have created prints for the National Library in Canberra and another folio for the University of Western Australia.

Platino-adjusted

While you describe yourself as a printmaker, can you tell us something about your own personal photographic work? What interests you?
I’ve starting shooting again after more than a few years using my 10/8″ for a project where I intend to start making Chrystotypes. The subject is a local micro brewery. I like the idea of creating modern images of a very old hand crafted process (beer making) and printing with a historical process is attractive to me. My wife and I recently bought a 5 acre bush block and I’ve been trying some 10/8’s there. It has given me a new respect for Australian landscape photographers such as David Tatnall who make it look so easy! I also continue to document my life around me, family and friends etc, but the drawback is finding the time to print my personal work

Anything else you’d like to add?
My biggest concern is keeping photography to the high standards that were once standard practise. Photoshop seems to be a fix all aspect to photography, whereas film users have no such option.

As long as the teachers are teaching the traditional principals and folk continue to learn from what history has given us (the prints already in existence), then traditional photography/printmaking will continue to shine and have a place in this modern world. Lastly, I say to EVERY snapper is to support the hand made print maker. If you want to know what a fine print is, then BUY one. Personally nothing is as special as a print made by the photographer.

Blanco Negro

Chris Reid in his darkroom.