Not sure if this is the right forum, but a few thoughts have turned into a sort of rambling essay. I think scanning paper negatives fits into "Non-conventional" on F295.

I'm preparing to share at F295 about a process I call “over/under” and while getting it together I realized that I impose some “authenticity” constraints on myself that are artificial. For me it would feel like “cheating” somehow if I veered away from these, yet some of them don't make much rational sense. I wonder how we come to make these boundaries within ourselves? I'll give some examples of what I mean. The recent forum post about dwindling activity here also made me think a little about why I appreciate F295, so that's mixed in as well.

One of the reasons I like F295 is that there isn't a zealous definition of pure authentic and valid art. We see and appreciate everything from digital pinholes and hybrid processes all the way to salt prints or anthotypes and everything in between. The creativity is wide open, with an underlying theme of alternative, lensless, unconventional or historic that ties everything together nicely. Somehow F295 seems to avoid the digital vs. film kind of tensions. This post is about how “authenticity” and hybrid processes get mixed up and muddled. I don't think many here would bat an eye at using a digital negative to get the the right scale for an antique printing process.

I gave my daughter a digital camera when she was around 7 years old and some of her results blew me away. It made me understand that preconceived notions and inculcated ideas are deeply stifling. I know part of it was the “child's viewpoint of the world” but a lot of it must have come from not having a set idea of what a photograph should be. Talk about “real” and “authentic”.

Again it happened when she was older and we played with lumen prints and the scanned images in The Gimp. I had a preconceived idea of trying to make the digital image as close to the physical image as possible. She was under no such restraints and thought nothing of changing the colors and playing with all the possibilities. Some of the digital images she made starting from our scans were magical.

There is one photographer whose work I follow and admire. He always posts his photos as “unaltered negative scans”. To me they look a little flat and I often think a straight contact print ( by which I mean no dodging or burning, another litmus test! ) on a higher grade paper would look nice. I'm sure he must think by not touching the result of his scanner he is being authentic or honest. But the scanner itself is choosing the white and black points and the gamma, and I have a hard time understanding how the default settings of some scanner are more “authentic” than settings which would give a deeper black or a little more overall contrast. I guess it is like choosing “minimum time to maximum black” for a proof sheet, but there's nothing that says you can't use grade 3 paper! Nevertheless I am sympathetic to his mindset, and if he wants to have that self-imposed discipline, it's not my concern and I even admire him for sticking to it. There is also something subtle here: by looking at the “flat” negative scan, it forces me to think about how I'd print it and what that print might look like.

I've seen photographs of the Moonrise Hernandez negative. Whatever you think of it, it is certainly a famous photograph. The negative is very low contrast. All would be lost if we restricted our notion of it to an accurate representation of the negative. Yet I've heard that some calotype exhibits only show the mounted original negative, since a contact print somehow takes us too far from the “original”. And I've seen pictures of some gorgeous calotype negatives, so I can understand how this might be true! In the end there is no single purpose, no single goal, but only what we desire to create. I think f295 encompasses all our possibilities this way.

Where is this all leading? I do a lot with paper negatives and a scanner. Contact prints are wonderful and in some way more satisfying at a gut level, but there are plenty of times that I make scans of paper negatives. I have some self-imposed rules: for a photographic paper negative, I'll invert the colors and adjust the levels, and flip the image horizontally so it is oriented like a real print. But I never do much more than that. I never alter the colors after inverting.

For solargraphs, I make two layers with the colors “authentically” inverted and then I “equalize” the colors on one of them. The final result is made by varying the opacity and combining these two layers in whatever way I find most pleasing. The colors remain the truly inverted colors, but the range and scale of hues has been altered a lot. I find this level of adjustment to still be acceptable and honest, but I guarantee that my daughter would have no qualms about changing the colors and everything else much more dramatically!

With a scanned silver gelatin print, I try to make the digital version look as much like the one in hand as I can, and that almost always means that I have to adjust the colors slightly! So to match a print I'm willing to do something that seems “inauthentic” in the other contexts.

For pinhole images, things get really strange. If it is a big negative, then it often ends up looking much sharper when it is reduced for sharing on the net. I usually like the softer “in hand” version much better. That's true for negatives and contact prints of them. I think it loses charm by becoming too sharp. But then when I scan a smaller instant film pinhole image, the image on the screen is bigger than the original, and shows more detail, and often I like it better. No rhyme or reason! Maybe for pinhole images, it's easier because the “authenticity” is so difficult to achieve that I can just “let go” and not think about it.

I have no conclusions. I just surprise myself when I realize how many constraints I put on my own pictures. When you see my “over/under” processed pictures soon, they follow exactly the constraints I use for normal in-camera paper negatives. I inverted the colors and adjusted levels only. Strictly nothing else. My amazement at some of the resulting tones is almost comical, because I'm being amazed that these colors can come from my own self-restrained process! Someone adept at photoshop would laugh because they could make them “better”, but mine are “found” or “discovered” and not artificial and that has a kind of importance to me. I don't know if that distinction matters to anyone else. And there is no reconciling that with the admiration I have for a beautiful gum bichromate print or a beautiful painting. Not dissonant either, just different things.

My surprise at the tones also comes from a nice serendipity, and I think that is why it appeals to me so much. When you make solargraphs or a “retina print”, there is a neat coincidence ( ?? ) that when you invert the colors, the results are somewhat lifelike. Blues become blue and greens become green. Light greens become a light tan straw color, like using a light green filter with black and white film. It doesn't work at all with oranges or browns or reds, but enough colors end up lifelike to give almost the feel of a hand colored print. Here is a pinhole paper retina print of a Macbeth color chart. You can see how the colors map. They are not exaggerated here, but you can get the idea.


Here is a solargraph of a lake in a forest ( on the day of an eclipse ), and it has bluish sky and water and dark greenish trees. Maybe you can see what I mean by a sense of “hand colored”. To me there is something special that these colors come directly from inverting the color on the paper, similar to inverting the colors on color negative film.


These same patterns play out in how the warm colors on an underdeveloped paper negative invert. ( By “underdeveloped” I only mean a paper negative that is pulled before it is developed to “completion” ) The warm colors on an underdeveloped negative are remarkably similar to the colors on an undeveloped piece of photo paper left exposed until an image forms, as in a retina print or a solargraph.

So in my personal version of “authenticity”, I include staying true to these color inversions from paper retina prints, solargraphs or paper negatives. How important or “real” that is doesn't matter so much, but I am going to try to stay aware of my self-imposed limitations and try to keep an open mind.

I don't sit around worrying if my process is “real” or “authentic”, and I don't think about it at all when I'm busy making a picture. It's just a feeling about what keeps things connected for me. What self-imposed constraints do you have?