Work the problem, not the panic.
My life as an athlete has been pretty sedate and no one today, or when I was a kid, would have ever confused me with a jock. However, I have participated in paragliding and scuba diving, both of which involve an element of danger. The training mantra for both sports was work the problem, not the panic. It was explained that more pilots and divers died because they panicked than because of system failure. You still needed to train for a system failure but you also trained for control of your mind.
So how does this relate to photography?
I have been invited to have a major exhibit at the National Art Museum in Beijing this coming November. The exhibit will consist of approximately 100 large platinum prints, representing the best of my work to this point in my career. It will be my second major exhibition in China, and my first at a National Art Museum. I am thrilled and terrified at the same time. It’s a great honor and a huge task and responsibility.
I started by spending the last three months editing 30+ years of negatives. Images from my four books will be about 40% of the exhibition. The rest of the work will come from other projects I’ve been working on over time. After editing and scanning the negatives, I decided to “warm up” by printing some of my earliest and thus best known (to me) images.
I made the enlarged negatives in the same way I have made them for years: same settings, printer and negative material. I went into the darkroom, started printing and nothing worked right. I did not recognize the prints coming out of the developer. They were too flat or had too much contrast. I was tearing paper that I usually handle with ease. Sensitizer was flowing through to the back of the paper. The paper was not clearing or it was bleaching when I tried to clear it.
I couldn’t figure out what was happening. I went back to the computer and rechecked my settings. I rechecked the printer. I rechecked my curves and then made new ones. I worked on the files in Lightroom. I worked on the files in Photoshop. I made new chemistry. Every time I changed something, the print changed but not in a predictable way. The platinum process process I had worked with exclusively for nearly 30 years and had come to hang my aesthetic hat on was no longer working. I was spiraling into panic. I had used two straight weeks of time, way too much chemistry and paper and things were getting worse and more unpredictable.
Finally, I started working the problems and not the panic. First I solved the surfactant problem. Then I solved the clearing bath bleaching issue. I went back and started all over with my darkroom working sequence and discovered I had been just a little too causal, so I tightened up my working process. But the prints still sucked.
Next I went to the computer, and started reworking the files, adjusting this or tweaking that. Slowly things were getting better but nothing was matching what my notes said the settings should be. I had now been at this for three weeks. I hated going into the darkroom. I was disappointed with the prints and self-doubt was creeping in.
Then back to the darkroom. Again, images I have known for years were still not working. I was filling up trashcan after trashcan. I was getting desperate. I knew these images, I knew how they should look and feel and these were not even coming close. I had solved the darkroom issues but not the aesthetic issues.
Finally I called a friend who knew the platinum process well and talked with him. During the conversation he asked a great question that lead me to figuring out the problem. Something in my computer settings had changed, either by a software upgrade or by me. I simply had failed to go all the way back to the beginning of the digital process. When I did the problem was solved with a (relatively) simple setting reset and prints began to work.
I am back on task, excited to go into the darkroom and enjoying seeing old friends emerge from the developer.
What did I re-learn? Work the problem, not the panic. Solve the problems one at a time. Keep your standard high by demanding the best from yourself and your work.
Don’t be afraid to examine and reexamine what you are doing and why you are doing it both aesthetically and technically. Talk to others who share your love of the medium. They may not have the answers but they may be able to ask the right questions.
I hope that when your photography begins to fall apart for one reason or another (and if you stay at it for long enough it will) you will keep this lesson in mind.
All the best,