The Expressive Black and White Print Workshop by John Sexton

Rafal Lukawiecki and John Sexton at John Sexton Workshop 2011

Rafal Lukawiecki and John Sexton at John Sexton Workshop 2011

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.

John Sexton at his Camera in Point Lobos, CA

John and his Camera at Point Lobos, CA

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”.

John Sexton's Darkroom - Present are John Sexton, Alastair Firkin, Rafal Lukawiecki

In the Master’s Darkroom. From left: John Sexton, Alastair Firkin, Rafal Lukawiecki

John Sexton Demonstrates Print Bleaching

Print Bleaching Demonstration

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.

Anne Larsen Prepares a Print for Dry Mounting

Anne Larsen Prepares a Print for Dry Mounting

Anne Larsen Discusses Print Spotting Techniques

Anne Discusses Print Spotting Techniques

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?

John Sexton Shows Selenium Negative Intensification

Selenium Negative Intensification

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.

John Sexton with a Viewing Frame

Importance of Carrying a Viewing Frame on Oneself

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.

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15 Responses to The Expressive Black and White Print Workshop by John Sexton

  1. Eddie ·

    Thanks for sharing sounds like a wonderful educational experience, I have one of his books the one on the trees, I have not been able to pick his first one Quiet Light yet.

    • Rafal Lukawiecki ·

      Hi Eddie, I saw those books at John’s. They are exquisitely done, and hard to get. Perhaps you could try emailing him, he might have an unused copy of the “Quiet Light”, or there are 2nd hand ones on Amazon, though rather expensive.

  2. Herb Swick ·

    Rafal — thanks for sharing your experiences. Your nice description captures well the nature of the workshop — an intensive blend of expertise, information, exhilaration and graciousness shared by both John and Anne. Their passion for photography and for teaching infused the entire week. I enjoyed getting to know you a little and seeing some of your beautiful images.

    • Rafal Lukawiecki ·

      Dear Herb, it was a pleasure to meet you at the workshop, and I hope to see you, and your images, again, soon. Thank you, very much, for your kind support during that intensive week, and for your kindest comments.

  3. Alastair ·

    G’day Rafal,
    very nice summary. Like you, I’d been wanting to do a Sexton darkroom workshop for years, and was not disappointed.

    Keep up the fine work

    Alastair

  4. John Sexton ·

    Rafal,

    What a pleasant surprise to read your kind and generous thoughts about the workshop we shared together. Your article brought back many fond memories of the workshop for Anne and me. We are pleased to know that the workshop was a meaningful and worthwhile experience for you. Your thoughtful essay has put big smiles on both of our faces!

    Cheers,

    John

    • Rafal Lukawiecki ·

      Dear John,

      It is an honour to see your comment on my blog — thank you, very much, for this, and for all the care and attention you have extended to us. I look forward to meeting you again, very much.

      Rafal

  5. Peter Fitzsimons ·

    Sounds like you had a great time Rafal. Your report makes very enjoyable reading.

    Peter

  6. Linda Fitch ·

    Hi Rafal:

    Thank you so much for the organized and thoughtful commentary on our workshop with John. I, too, am implementing some of John’s techniques. I intend on attending the advanced technical workshop next year. As I mentioned I will be going to Budapest in October followed by 3 weeks in Venice. Hope to show some of my new images in 2013.

    Keep up the good work and look forward to seeing you in 2013.

    Linda

    • Rafal Lukawiecki ·

      Dear Linda, thank you for your kind comments. The nostalgic pictures on your web site: evenings, wet cobblestone streets, subtle lighting…they have an atmosphere and a presence that brought me back to when I saw your amazing prints in person, at John’s. I hope you can visit Ireland one day, on your journeys to Europe — we have plenty of rain here, too. See you soon, or next year, I hope.

  7. George Sheils (aka Seoirse) ·

    Rafal,

    I really enjoyed your well written account of your masterclass workshop with John and the rest of the group.

    It is something which I can tell has had a profound effect on you and I’m sure will help you on your photographic journey.

    I’m looking forward to seeing more of your work maybe at the next meet-up?

    Best Regards,
    George.

    • Rafal Lukawiecki ·

      Thank you, George, for your very kind comments. I am hoping to reprint some of my negatives in time for our meeting in May. I am not sure if time will permit it, though, as I still have to visit 12 countries prior to that — this is my busiest time with regards to work travel, every year… If I get a chance, I will do a before-and-after comparison, focusing on some of the technique that John suggested. In any case, I will have more prints after summer, in time for the autumn Dublin APUG print showing. Fingers crossed in the meantime…

  8. Steve Hartsfield ·

    Rafal,
    I would like to comment, first, on your nice photos from the course. I want one of those nice glass plates to hand tone some of my negatives on! I am going to ask John about that next Spring ‘013. Yes, I am accepted for the next course in the series. Such motivation to do my best work. I am sure you feel the same.

    Everyone that attended the course has mentioned the graciousness that John and Anne exhibited; very true, and on a personal level, I felt welcomed in their home and from their cat!.

    John’s techniques have inspired me to update my darkroom. He showed what is possible from so many different techniques.…variable contrast printing, dodging, burning with variable contrast enlargers, and yes, the selenium toning.

    Thanks for this blog Rafal, it has brought back good memories and I must mention, that meeting other like-minded people was very encouraging.

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