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Matinee: Photographers' Laboratory Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

22 October 2016

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the 158th in our series of Saturday matinees today: Photographers' Laboratory.

Last week we chided the filmmakers for simplifying the print development process so this week we thought we'd revisit the subject for those who might not have had any idea what we were complaining about. Having your complaints appropriately appreciated is one of the perks of running your own publication, after all.

But we also thought it would be nice to tie today's show into our upcoming discussion of SFMOMA's postwar Japanese photography exhibit. Set the table, so to speak.

And through the magic of research we've been able to do just that with this peek at Photographers' Laboratory, a film processing and print operation in Akasaka, Tokyo. The 4:30-minute clip follows owner and master printer Toshio Saito as he works on a print in the darkroom.

Saito has been the printer for photographers like Daido Moriyama, Shomei Tomatsu, Masahisa Fukase and others that appear in the SFMOMA show. So we must have seen his work first hand as we toured the exhibit.

We don't know for sure, though, because printers are rarely credited. We've always thought that was a mistake. As you'll see in the clip, it's not a merely mechanical operation. There's a good deal of art to it. Half the battle, as it were.

Having slaved away in a darkroom ourselves, we have no illusions about the process. And we do appreciate the advances that let us escape its confines to work with more precision and greater control using digital media. We ain't going back and we wouldn't suggest anyone else bother either.

Saito has been the printer for photographers like Daido Moriyama, Shomei Tomatsu, Masahisa Fukase and others that appear in the SFMOMA show.

But this is the way photography has been done for many years. And though film does not require darkroom printing, it never hurts to appreciate how the work of those we admire was accomplished. Which is about as nice as we are going to be about it.

The clip begins with Saito using a grain focuser to check focus across the surface of the print. A grain focuser is a magnifier that interrupts the beam of light cast by the enlarger (you can see the lens near Saito's right wrist), bouncing it off a mirror and into an optic. It makes it possible to see the grain of the film and consequently whether or not it's in focus.

Because the head of the enlarger can be tilted to correct for perspective issues, it pays to check the corners of the film. It's the negative carrier's job to keep the film flat between its sheets of glass, though.

Saito is making a black-and-white print although the next scene seems staged. Typically this could be done under red light because black-and-white paper is not sensitive to red light. But we're seeing a full spectrum here so we suspect it's merely a demonstration.

What Saito is demonstrating as he waves a little wand around is how you dodge a print. Exposing the paper to the negative image takes a few seconds. During that time, you might want to hold back the light from certain dark areas to hold onto some detail there. You would do that during the main exposure by dodging those areas with some obstruction like Saito's wand. It casts a shadow over the areas you are holding back so they don't get the full exposure. It's a kind of an antique HDR.

You'll also note the black and yellow Saunders easel in a close-up following the dodging. The metal base of the easel is painted yellow. You line the paper up on the base and drop the black metal blades over the paper. The dials let you adjust the crop.

Saito uses a couple of sheets of black board to perform another dance on the paper, this time burning detail into the highlights. So in addition to the main exposure for the midtones, you can dodge back the light to hold detail in the shadows and burn more light into the highlights to bring out detail there, too.

You determine your approach usually by first making a test print without any manipulation. That test print is often marked up in consultation with the photographer to show what should be held back, what burned in and how much.

After exposure, the print print is processed first in a developer bath, then development is stopped in a stop bath and finally the unexposed silvers are removed in a fixer bath before the print is washed in running water.

We see Saito agitating the prints with tongs in a tray of fixer (which is when you can turn on the room lights again) in the long development sink at the short side of the same darkroom where the enlargers are. It's the same room but there is always a dry and dark side to the room to prevent contamination.

The colorful clamps are used to hang the prints to dry. Film itself is typically dried in a dust free cabinet. Small fiber prints are usually dried in a chrome and canvas a print drier. Saito has a large Colenta film dryer as well, which you see later.

The clip flashes through a montage of darkroom details before showing an assistant airbrushing a large print. It's not clear what the objective is but he's using a magenta paint on a mountain range perhaps to increase saturation.

The big blue tanks you then see contain film processing chemicals. Then there's a peek at the Colenta film dryer, which a couple of guys take apart and put back together.

We catch up to Saito washing prints methodically. Poorly washed prints will brown as the leftover silvers react to light over time. You can't really tell by looking at them when they are sufficiently washed so you have to let them float in circulating water for a specific amount of time.

There's some outdoor shots of the neighborhood to finish off this 2010 movie. And it's not just filler. When you work in a lab, you are always grateful to get outside and breathe fresh air again.

It's the part of the job we liked best.

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