After many years of thinking about it, I have taken the courage to apply to attend John Sexton’s famous The Expressive Black and White Print workshop—click here for the Fine Tuning workshop—which he has run for 29 years, having started in the days when he was Ansel Adams assistant. I was delighted to have been accepted, and I arrived in Carmel Valley, California, on the evening of 15 November 2011, where I met seven other attendees, from all over the world: Alastair Firkin, Frank, Herb Swick, Linda Fitch, Mike Reeves, Stephanie Slaymaker, and Steve Hartsfield.
It was a very special learning experience, which I wish I had done a long time ago. As a result of it I am changing my working habits, removing a few older, and newer, crutches from my process, and so aiming to simplify it. I also have a desire to reprint some of the images from my (Be)Longing series. For that reason, I will replace those images with new interpretations later this year, at which point the ones shown on the web site will no longer be available. If you are thinking of getting one of these, please contact me soon, but on the other hand, you might prefer their newer versions.
John kept us incredibly busy, starting each day at about 8.30 AM and finishing after 10 PM. One can admire not only his beautiful prints and exquisite books, but also his sheer energy and drive. No question received anything less than a thorough answer, even if it meant John’s spending his own time running an experiment overnight, just to be sure of his answer, as happened when we discussed the matter of developer-incorporated photographic papers. I was surprised by the findings, which are contrary to some manufacturer’s statements found on the web, but that is a subject for another post.
We spent most of the time in his amazing photographic studio and darkroom, except for one pleasant outing at Point Lobos, where we practiced some camera craft, especially the darker secrets of using a spot-meter, guided by the man whose car number plate appropriately reads “Mr Zone”.
Darkroom was the place of many demonstrations of John’s technique, and the spiritual hub of the workshop. We did not practice ourselves (except at Point Lobos), which is a pity, but I realise that it would have made the workshop either impossibly long, or rather superficial, which this one certainly was neither.
Watching master at work is very educational, and as I expected, I have learned as much by watching his hands in action, as by listening to his words. His dodging and burning technique is superb, and I wish I could replicate some of the finest moves he demonstrated, while running through a graceful sequence of 10–20 of them, all from his memory. Everything he showed us bordered on an obsession with perfection, setting a very high standard to follow. Thankfully, such a serious atmosphere was broken often by John’s humour and wit, as everyone enjoyed his stories about the greatest in American photography, and about his own, sometimes, irreverent past. John explained, how as a young photo retoucher, he was tasked with removal of one of a duplicate set of catchlights, from the eyes of a sitter’s portrait, which would usually show when two light sources have been used—but, with a slightly unorthodox approach: to remove the non-matching reflections, giving the eyes a slightly less-than intelligent appearance…
I feel the most useful part of the workshop was an in-depth portfolio assessment. He spent nearly an hour on everyone’s ten prints, and then again, even more time on our pre-selected three negatives. I was terrified when my turn came, but John knows how to deliver his observations in a way that makes sense without hurting an artistic ego. I learned a lot by having my prints dissected by John, and also plenty by looking at other participants’ work, and hearing comments about it. I hope to have another chance to experience this, perhaps when I have new work to show and share.
To save John from nearing total exhaustion, Anne Larsen, his lovely wife who is also a photographer, demonstrated the almost-secret aspects of print finishing, including ways to dry-mount, overmat, and spot them to perfection. Because the craft of traditional, silver-gelatin printing is not as widely practiced as some 20 years ago, it is almost impossible to learn those techniques from anyone, and books do not cover the more obscure yet very important aspects. I have much to thank Anne for her patience in explaining how to avoid “edge-long dimples” when dry-mounting certain papers—a problem I was fighting, with the help of APUG, for more than a year, and hey-presto, she comes with a simple answer, which probably only took a dozen years of her experience to figure out. Anne was a delight to talk to, as she shared her quieter, reserved, and a pragmatic perspective onto our art. And to top it off, Anne showed off her Danish-origin cooking skills by preparing a few meals for us, taking a break only when we were dining, or lunching out on some of the days. Anne and John really made us feel like guests in their own home, not like students on a course, which in itself was humbling.
A whole week of being surrounded by John’s and Anne’s beautiful prints, and many gems by other greats, including Adams and Weston, had quite an impact on me. It awoke a few ideas to try things different, but it also commanded me to the need to execute my prints with little scope for doubt, and a need to deliver the maximum I can muster, and to never stop improving. How did they all stick to their mission so faithfully for so long?
In addition to going over the fundamentals that no one normally bothers with—like how do you thoroughly clean a large format film holder? Tap it hard, and get an engineers vacuum, or what is the best pen to use for writing notes on the edges of negatives—John covered a few rarer, but very useful techniques, of which I was impressed the most by selenium negative intensification, which even seemed to work selectively on portions of negatives. Needless to say, looking around his darkroom everyone must have picked up new ideas, as the entire place oozed with decades of thought and practice. I have already re-plumbed my tempered water taps, a new sink is on its way, and a paper light-safe drawer is in the plans.
Still, it is not about the toys and the gadgets, or a better lens (though a viewing frame helps). The one thing that got reinforced the most, is that it is all about hard work, not giving up, and doing it over, and over, and over again, until it is right. Even if it takes another 29 years.