Today, being Christmas, I had a lovely day with my better half, experimenting with something we had never done before (shooting HARMAN (Ilford) Direct Positive Paper in the 4×5 camera) and then having fun doing something I hadn’t done, personally, in over a decade (processing the images in my own bathroom).
Direct Positive Paper is a rather strange beast!
First of all it’s paper, so there is no negative and you don’t need an enlarger. You put the sheet of paper inside your camera and you take a picture. Whatever is in you frame on the right will be on the left, letters and numbers will be inverted, like in a mirror.
I load it onto regular film holders that fit in my 4×5 field camera, using a changing bag, but it can also be handled under a deep red orthochromatic safelight, which has its advantages if you haven’t yet mastered working in full darkness, making it an ideal start-up medium for photography students.
It is rated at 3 ASA, which means you’ll need plenty of light and rather long exposures. The paper has an incredibly strong contrast, which you can somewhat reduce by “pre-flashing” it for a couple of seconds (e.g. opening the camera lens onto the unexposed paper while covering the lens with a white, semi transparent cloth such a t-shirt) prior to the actual exposure. I didn’t bother with this. I might try it later, but for now I wanted to go for the full mega-contrast.
Shooting in the sun is certainly the best way to achieve usable images but, after a couple of hours in the freezing NYC weather, I decided the time had come to go testing it with strobes in the warmth of my studio.
So, I just set up a couple of lights: an Elinchrom Quadra and an Arri 150 watts tungsten light. With the Quadra at full power through a gridded reflector, I was able to get an exposure at f5.6/ f8. To see the Arri light, which I used for the background, I kept the shutter open for 1 second but it didn’t even register on the image.
Naturally, I decided to greatly subvert some of the instructions, under and over developing , under- fixing, under- washing, and performing other unspeakable abuses to my test shots, as I went along, in my usual quest for interesting “mistakes”.
Result: I like working with this Direct Positive Paper and I will definitely experiment more with it in the future
I like the grungy, organic quality some of the prints acquired (possibly due to my unorthodox processing extravaganza, too). Love the blacks, the spots, the bastardly contrast, the “real” imperfections, the uniqueness of the finished image.
For example, I would recommend wasting some money on this Direct Positive Paper before embarking in the more challenging and expensive task of tintype photography, just to get the gist of the photographic alchemy thing ….at least … a little bit of it.
At a time when the most popular way to add grunge, spots, textures and imperfections to “perfect” digital files is via specialized software or Instagram filters, I would recommend experimenting with this Positive Paper to anyone who started creating images after the analog era ended and never got their hands “dirty”!
The process of working with this paper is not as complex and challenging as making tintypes but it certainly gets you used to extremely low ASA and it gets you in touch with a tactile, physical side of photography, which, especially today, can be an exciting, inspiring diversion from the world of digital image making.
Obviously I began my photographic life in a darkroom, many years ago, but there was a nostalgic feeling in my heart and in my nostrils today, as I filled my bathroom with the stinky chemical fumes of my youth, after a hiatus of at least a decade !!
One thing I am not crazy about this paper, is that, as it dries, it will curl up like fried bacon. Apparently there is nothing much that can be done to avoid that. Right now I put all my prints beneath a pile of heavy books, later I might try to iron them…
So, this was my Positive Christmas.
A day without negatives, only positives is always a blessing.
If it happens to be Christmas day, it’s probably celestial bliss.