Fine Tuning the Expressive Print Workshop by John Sexton

John Sexton Introduces Advanced Negative Alteration Techniques

John Sexton intro­duces advanced neg­at­ive alter­a­tion techniques

I have already atten­ded John Sexton’s world-renowned The Expressive Black and White Print Workshop in 2011 (read about it here). That single work­shop has changed — for bet­ter! — my pho­to­graphy more than the thirty years of pri­or exper­i­ence put togeth­er. Most of the improve­ment took place in the months that fol­lowed that work­shop, as I was chan­ging my habits, sim­pli­fy­ing the way I print, remov­ing unne­ces­sary equip­ment, and put­ting in place a few new tech­niques. Eventually, I felt ready to have my skills re-assessed again, and to take them to the next level. I have signed up for Fine Tuning the Expressive Print Workshop, which I took in April 2013.

Edward Weston used an egg timer, similar to this one, when printing

Edward Weston used an egg timer, sim­il­ar to this one, when printing

John Sexton has been teach­ing pho­to­graphy for over 30 years, and it is clear that he not only knows how to edu­cate, but also how to attend to each of his stu­dents needs in a very effect­ive way. In a mat­ter of five long days, each start­ing at 8:20 AM, and often end­ing close to 10:30 PM, every one of the nine attendees, Denise, Gail, Jackie, Ken, Mike, Rex, Stephanie, Steve, and I, have received so much in terms of per­son­al pho­to­graph­ic edu­ca­tion that it almost felt like attend­ing intense one-on-one train­ings with two instruct­ors at the same time. Two, because John was being assisted by his wife, Anne Larsen, a per­fec­tion­ist in fin­ish and print present­a­tion, and accom­plished pho­to­graph­er whose work oozes sub­tlety, peace, and del­ic­ate human warmth.

Edward Weston's Print Storage Shelves

These shelves used to hold Edward Weston’s mas­ter­pieces — see the let­ter coding!

The work­shop opens with a review of prints made by each of the attendees from one of John’s neg­at­ives. Those prints are eval­u­ated anonym­ously, and a couple of addi­tion­al ones, from pri­or work­shops, are thrown into the set to add spice to this exer­cise. It was won­der­ful to see how dif­fer­ent the inter­pret­a­tions were, but it was also inter­est­ing to see how every­one has chosen a sim­il­ar, con­sist­ent set of struc­tures to breathe life into the ori­gin­al, rather flat and, in my opin­ion, some­what dif­fi­cult to print neg­at­ive. As you need to have atten­ded his pri­or work­shop before sign­ing up for Fine Tuning, this felt a bit like an exam. When John poin­ted to, and gently sug­ges­ted, that one of the prints expressed a more suc­cess­ful inter­pret­a­tion, before ask­ing whose it was, I was on top of the world! It was my work, and I have had the immense pleas­ure of admit­ting to being its author in front of the oth­er stu­dents, whose work was clearly excellent.

Rafal's Portfolio Review

Rafal’s port­fo­lio review

The cent­ral piece of the work­shop is a detailed port­fo­lio review. John and Anne pore over each of our own ten prints. It takes well over an hour to dis­cuss each attendee, and the entire group par­ti­cip­ates — two port­fo­li­os per day, or so. The feed­back you get, not just from the teach­ers, but also from oth­er, advanced print­ers, is very use­ful. I made plenty of notes, and I am still incor­por­at­ing the advice. For example, I have recently installed a rail for view­ing fin­ished prints, tem­por­ar­ily corner-moun­ted, and illu­min­ated with adjustable spots, to have a bet­ter abil­ity to judge how my prints could be seen in dif­fer­ent envir­on­ments. I am try­ing to open up those dark­er middle values…erhm, I think I like dark­er middle val­ues! I now also look at my prints at odd angles. I inspect them in strong point-light to check for sur­face issues. I flip them in a smooth­er way when pro­cessing in trays. I use a good few new print­ing tech­niques to deal with inev­it­able issues.

Preparing a Mask for Flashing

Preparing a mask for flashing

Anne Larsen Cuts a Masked Flashing Mask

Anne Larsen cuts a masked flash­ing mask

Indeed, I have learned many new tech­niques, some are incred­ible and rather impossible to learn without hav­ing someone show them to you. One of those is Masked Flashing, which John has developed over the years of his exper­i­ence. One of the most dif­fi­cult image adjust­ments is the dark­en­ing of small, light, and usu­ally very dis­tract­ing spots or objects, such as, for instance, an unwanted spec­u­lar reflec­tion, or per­haps an area that seems a bit out of bal­ance. The main­stay of tra­di­tion­al print­ing, burn­ing—the oppos­ite of dodging—does not cope well with small detail, espe­cially when sur­roun­ded by middle or high­er val­ues. It is of almost no use when try­ing to darken a very over­ex­posed spot, due to extens­ive addi­tion­al enlar­ger expos­ure needed. John’s masked flash­ing is an ingeni­ous com­bin­a­tion of a mask, cut from orange vinyl sheets (John makes a help­ful recom­mend­a­tion of a very spe­cif­ic one), and a simple dif­fus­ing con­trap­tion that sits over the paper on the easel, while clev­erly keep­ing it all in register. As usu­al, see­ing Anne and John demo it made it make sense — read­ing about it does no justice. Together with John’s oth­er tech­niques, and with Alan Ross’s Selective Masking, those are now an essen­tial part of my toolkit which I use sur­pris­ingly often.

Kim Weston Shows Edward Weston's Mounting Press

Kim Weston shows Edward Weston’s mount­ing press

If I were to describe every oth­er advanced tech­nique John showed us, like using dies for neg­at­ive manip­u­la­tion, or the more old-fash­ioned and involved — even if he makes it look easy—unsharp mask­ing, I’d have to copy-and-paste the entire handout he gave us! Needless to say, every­one seemed to focus on some tech­nique which was of more interest to them, mir­ror­ing our needs at the time and our per­son­al experiences.

Outside the long hours spent at the Sextons’ envi­ably amaz­ing stu­dio, we also went to pho­to­graph, and to be guided about it, at Point Lobos, the mecca of west coast pho­to­graph­ers. Later that day, we were treated to a vis­it to Wildcat Hill, home to the Weston clan, where Kim and Gina Weston live. Kim, a respec­ted pho­to­graph­er him­self, showed us his thought­ful obser­va­tions on human fig­ure, but he also spent time let­ting us see the entire Weston fam­ily treas­ure trove of extraordin­ary pho­to­graphy, which has greatly influ­enced our medi­um and art. I have always had a soft spot for Kim’s uncle, Brett Weston’s cre­ativ­ity, espe­cially his abstracts, and I could not believe my luck when I was giv­en one of his fam­ous neg­at­ives to hold and to ponder.

Star Struck Rafal Holding Brett Weston's Negative

Star-struck Rafal hold­ing Brett Weston’s negative

If you are a tra­di­tion­al pho­to­graph­er, by which I mean one who exposes neg­at­ives, you may know what I mean when I say that my entire mind and body felt a pro­found yet humble con­nec­tion to those great ones who came before us, when I held that neg­at­ive in my hands… The exper­i­ence was even more hum­bling when we had a chance to see Edward Weston’s tiny dark­room, simple, almost ascet­ic, where a little sand-filled egg-timer func­tioned as one of the most com­plex pieces of equip­ment — he exposed his prints by simply pulling a cord on a light­bulb sus­pen­ded over the table…

Lunch at the Running Iron

Group lunch at the Running Iron

If you are look­ing for an immense boost to your craft, and you are ded­ic­ated to tra­di­tion­al sil­ver-gelat­in print­ing, this work­shop is a must, take it while we are lucky that it is being offered (see the sched­ule). I am already think­ing of attend­ing it once again. It is priceless.

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