The Photograph Explained: Ross and Palm, San Diego by Amanda Tomlin

Ross SD lith blog

Lith print

Sometimes I get lucky with a shot. I tell myself, yeah, I meant to do that, check out them skillz. But nah, it was luck. This picture is one of those lucky ones, that, despite all my clumsy mistakes, dimwitted errors, confused bumblings, and attempts to rectify mistakes I actually identified, still came out pretty nice.

Here’s how it went down:

I traveled to San Diego to see my two offspring, who, for better or worse, happen to be roommates (it started out on the better side and now it is squarely on the worse). I hadn’t seen the boy child for 3 months and the girl for 5. In exchange for the trips to the shops I knew we would be taking, on my dime, I told them they had to sit for me. I packed the 8×10 and enough film to get at least one decent shot (e.g. 12) and headed to the airport.

After a visit to a department store with my daughter “just to look”, I found myself at least $200 poorer. Returning to the apartment, quietly sobbing, I set up the camera in my daughter’s room. My usual film for portraits is aerographic duplicating film, to wit, Kodak 2421. It probably expired in the 1990s, but I have no idea of its vintage. I have about 1000 meters of the stuff in a couple of cans in my darkroom. This film, as the name implies, was used to duplicate aerial photographs. It’s orthochromatic, very thin, meant to be developed in print developer, and, after my own craven heart, CHEAP. It costs about 40 US cents for an 8 x 9.5″ sheet (it’s 9.5″ wide and I figure I can do without that extra half inch because I can’t be bothered to do more than one slice on the cutter. Even then, I don’t always get the sheets square and have to re-cut them). I spend this film like there’s no tomorrow. No doubt I will have regrets about my attitude when I get down to the last few meters.

I metered the room, set the young person up and made some shots. Now usually I shoot portraits outside in full shade to keep the light on the face even. A typical exposure in late afternoon is 1 sec @ f/5.6. Why was I not suspicious that I got the same reading indoors? Perhaps the lightness of my wallet had gone to my head. In any case, a film with an ISO of 5, and EV readings in the single digits, is not going to be 1 second, people! But I nevertheless exposed 4 sheets this way. Fool! None of those pictures are the ones I have chosen here, but I tell this part of the tale because it foreshadows the events surrounding the production of the shot that I have included.

The boy’s room was simply too ghastly to stage a shoot. He has lightproof shades thumbtacked around his windows, with one small triangle of light coming through. This doesn’t even qualify as a hobbit hole–it’s the space under a rock. But there is a balcony on the place so I decided to try that. Shockingly, he decided to dress up for the shot. This put me under some extra stress. Most of the portraits I do of the progeny are at my pleasure, not theirs. Why the interest? Best not ask questions, but doubtless a female is involved.

I posed Junior at one corner of the deck. It’s maybe 3 meters long and I squeezed the camera into the other end. As I was metering the area, I had a deja vu moment. Funny, I thought to myself, these readings are the same as the ones I just did inside. %$#! were my next words. I had underexposed those first ones by 4 stops! Already I was calculating what I could do in the darkroom to coax an image from the film after my bonehead mistake. Mind awhirl, I took one shot, but properly metered this time. Then I moved the camera a bit, looked at the ground glass. No, the gutter is growing out of his head. Move a bit. No, the wall with the gutter is ugly. How about this? Nope. His head is bisecting the gutter. My subject and I change places. Ah. Much better.

I should mention here that I use a brass 11″ Busch lens for most of my portraits. I shoot it wide open and use a film holder as the shutter. I put one holder in the camera and cover the lens with another, remove the dark slide, wait till the sitter has assumed the facial expression I demand through badgering, cajoling, or bribery, then uncover the lens, count off a second or two, then reverse the process. The lens is a rapid rectilinear affair and I have had it for some years. I have several other brass lenses but have always preferred this one for portraits for its swirl and center sharpness.

So. I pick up the holder I thought I just used for the first shot, but both slides are dark side out (I use them as dark–unexposed and light–exposed). Piss. I forgot to flip it. Rather than risk a double exposure–haha, little did I know then–I would just use another holder altogether. But I am out of my favored portrait film and use FP4+ instead. I shoot 2 more of the boy. I mark the suspect holder for later and pack all the equipment up. We make pasta, I spend more money, I go home a couple days later, I put off explaining to my husband the $300 worth of food I have put on the credit card.

Back home in the darkroom, I develop the suspect holder. Side 1 is blank. Side 2 is also blank. What? I dump the developer. Even though the film is designed to be used with Dektol or the like, and the contrast controlled by dilution, I favor D-76 diluted 1:1. Instead of the 1-2 minutes in Dektol, I go for 6-8 in D-76. The longer time with a more dilute developer tames the contrast and allows me to watch the image come up slowly, giving me more control, provided there is an actual image on the film. I mix up fresh D-76 and switch to the sheets of the girl. At least something actually appears, albeit very thin. I turn off the safelight and tray develop one sheet of the FP4+. Aha! There he is. I soup the other one.

At last several sheets are hanging to dry. I get out the loupe to see if I hit the focus. Wait. I don’t remember these shadows on the boy’s shoulder. Interesting. Later I scan the film to see what I have. Huh? A plant? And what’s wrong with his hands? Is that straw? What the hell is going on? It’s a freaking double exposure with…a palm tree and dirt…and…oh yeah. I took that first shot as one of a pair 8 months ago, developed one of them, it was crap, left the other one in the holder. I remember now that I put a new sheet into that holder, then thought I’d made a mistake with the dark slide and had gone back into the darkroom and flipped it.

I can’t even count the number of errors that lead up to this particular feat. But yeah, I meant to do it. It was calculated. Forget what I said up there about luck.


This negative was lith printed on long-expired Forte Polywarmtone paper in Moersch developer. I like the lith process because I can delude myself that it is easier to contact-print this way. I like the color you can get without toning—each paper has its own flavor. The Moersch chemicals make the process very easy and even reproducible.

Amanda Tomlin with 8x10 camera

Amanda Tomlin

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Amanda Tomlin is also Editor in Chief of Looking Glass Magazine