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


  4. John Sexton ·


    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!



    • 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.


  5. Peter Fitzsimons ·

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


  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.


    • 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) ·


    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,

    • 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 ·

    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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