The Photograph Explained: Snow Gums and Stone, Porcupine Track by Maris Rusis
Silver gelatin photograph
Much of the great outdoors is a tapestry of small scale chaos, fine for what it is, but not conducive to intensive landscape work. But there are special places, deserts, seashores, and alpine heights where the elements impose a refining force that simplifies shapes that lend themselves to deliberate pictorial composition. Every year I invest a month or two in the high country seeking the effects of ice and fire: trees and rocks cast into forms of grace and drama. I travel there with enough camera gear and 100 sheets of 8 x 10 film to cover all possibilities. In truth I’ve never exposed even half the film. Large format photography certainly prompts picture editing before exposure rather than after it.
It was a cold day in late April above and beyond Perisher Valley where the white skeletons of snow gums prompted me to pause and set up the 8 x 10 camera. The strong shapes were easy to focus and only a slight tilt of the camera back was enough to pull the focus plane into the foreground. The even glow from a pale overcast sky imposed no light-metering challenges and the decided exposure, ½ second at f32, promised a fully detailed negative.
The 8 x 10 contact photograph, and Snow Gums and Stone, Porcupine Track is a modern example, constitutes a canonical form with a deep history in photography. This format offers rigorous conceptual integrity. The 8 x 10 image is seen, exposed, processed, finished, mounted, and displayed without changing its original size or its original vision.
The rewards of the 8 x 10 format do not come without challenge. The camera, film holders, tripod, and essential accessories accumulate to heavy baggage and the task of carrying it all uphill at altitude could leave one a bit puffed. To save weight the lens used for this photograph was a tiny, long discontinued, and uncoated 159mm f9.5 wide-angle lens dating from the 1930s. It’s very sharp stopped down to f32 and flare-free if nicely shaded.
Large format camera work promises tonally rich, highly detailed, and grain-free negatives whatever the film. I chose an ISO 100 speed panchromatic film on the basis of convenience and economical price. Because the camera is tripod mounted fast shutter speeds are not needed to combat camera-shake and a slower film also facilitates hand-timed lens-cap exposures for lenses without shutters. All my black and white negatives are developed in replenished Xtol according to a time and temperature chart established by experiment. The negative for Snow Gums and Stone, Porcupine Track was tray processed for 4 minutes at 30 Celcius. High temperature processing certainly saves time when I have a large batch of negatives to do.
Of all the light-sensitive media available for photograph-making fibre-based gelatine-silver paper offers a near-neutral smooth surface where much of the information carried in the negative can be readily presented in positive form. Because the paper does not have its own intrusive technical “signature” the attractive qualities of subject matter that prompted the photograph in the first place can be well displayed.
In the darkroom the photographic paper is exposed under glass in contact with the negative, emulsion to emulsion. This is done inside a divided-back frame that exerts spring pressure to force the two surfaces tightly together. For convenience and control I use a 4 x 5 enlarger as a light source. The enlarger is controlled by an electronic timer with a foot-switch and the enlarger lens accepts filters for contrast control. The paper in contact with the negative of Snow Gums and Stone, Porcupine Track needed a darkroom exposure of only 3 seconds with the enlarger lens set at f8 and filtered to a grade 1 contrast value. I added a very slight burn on the sky area using a -1 contrast filter to evoke a hint of tone reminiscent of the original overcast day.
I built my darkroom compact enough so I can take the exposed paper from the enlarger to the first developing tray without having to walk any distance. Wet-processing gelatine-silver paper in the darkroom is routine and quick and all the technical difficulties have been well solved for more than a century. The variable contrast paper I use gives me local contrast options in ways that were not available to the old masters of photography. I use an archival washer conveniently controlled by a clockwork tap-timer. It works unattended and shuts off automatically. Photographs are dried face-up on screens, flattened in a dry-mount press, and spotted when (rarely) needed.
The final important stage, if the photograph merits it, is to acknowledge authorship. This I do by applying my stamp in grey archival ink to the back of the photograph. The photograph is also titled, signed, and annotated to give it a traceable identity. Framing under glass using an acid-free over-mat and backing board completes the job.
Photographs of Maris by Zigi Georges