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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