James Fee: Darkroom Odyssey
I’ve decided to take this blog in a little different direction with this post. A bit further back in the past, to be precise. I conducted this interview with the late James Fee in 1994 for Camera & Darkroom magazine, where I worked as Managing Editor. It was the first installment of “In the Darkroom,” a department I initiated in which noted photographers like Fee, George Krause and Thomas Barrow discussed their developing and printing methods in relation to their work’s thematic implications. At the time, Fee was beginning to earn widespread acclaim for his “Photographs of America” series, which chronicled a country in decline through haunting images of abandoned factories, hardscrabble towns and neglected cultural icons. Fee was also a darkroom virtuoso, one whose Gothic visual style inspired many imitators but no equals. While it may seem somewhat perverse in this digital age to post an interview focusing on silver-gelatin processes, I like the insights Fee provides on how the time and effort required by traditional materials enriches the finished work. This conversation is definitely for old school photographers, but even digital diehards should find food for thought.
What kind of negative do you aim for?
This may sound like a contradiction, but I try for a contrasty/soft negative. I filter in the camera to create a certain kind of contrast. Then, in the development, I knock that contrast down a bit. This achieves what a red filter does, but not so intensely. It doesn’t give me a bulletproof negative, as it’s a little on the thin side, but it still has contrast. I print almost exclusively on No. 4 paper, so my negatives need to be a little bit thin. If I had a heavier negative, I couldn’t use No. 4 paper, which accepts toner better than softer grades. Also, a heavier negative tends to block the whites. There are many times when I wish there were a No. 31/2 Agfa, because the 3 is too flat for me and the 4 is sometimes too contrasty. The photo of Ethiopian model Sahi Kadne from “The Bower Suite” series is a good example. It’s a very thin negative, one that’s right on the border of a 4 or 5 grade of paper. Grade 5 would actually be too much; it would have blown out the detail on the fingertips. I used a Grade 4 and then burned in the corners to create decent blacks.
What film do you typically use?
Tri-X 120 or 220. I like it because it’s a very versatile film. I like to have a slight grain structure in my prints, and you can get that to any degree you want with Tri-X. You can get a lot or a little, or you can get none. It’s probably the most versatile film in achieving a grain structure without changing the quality of the film, meaning the contrast. I give it a standard rating of 320, and tend to overexpose and underdevelop a little bit. I pre-rinse my film; I don’t really soak it for any length of time. I process in HC-110, which still gives you a little bit of grain. I use the straight Dilution B, with no additives. If I want more contrast, I’ll just agitate a bit more or bump the temperature up a little. My standard temperature is 70°, and I process for about five to seven minutes, depending on the lighting during the shoot. If there’s bright sun or mixed sunlight, I’ll develop for five to six minutes; it it’s overcast or I shot in the shade, then I’ll go the full seven minutes.
How much and what kind of agitation do you use?
This is going to sound a little abstract, but when I’m developing my film, I try to think back to what kind of contrast was available at the shoot. If I think I need to bump the contrast up more, I’ll agitate a lot more—pretty aggressive up-and-down agitation. If it’s a normal shoot, I’ll just agitate through inversion every 30 seconds.
Can you take me through the other film-processing stages?
After development, I use a water rinse (instead of stop bath), followed by Clayton rapid fixer, the same as used for prints. I use hardener in my film fixer but not my print fixer, because I tone afterwards. I use hypo-clear and then wash the film for about 20 minutes.
Do you ever intensify your negatives?
I’ve tried just about every means of intensifying negatives, including the standard method of using selenium toner on them, and none of them have worked for me. I believe that’s a photographic fallacy; I think that maybe somebody played a dirty trick on us. I’ve never known anyone who’s had any luck with selenium toner. Chromium intensifier does work, but it creates a strange sort of grime on the negatives that I find really bothersome. Maybe I just haven’t used it right. Anyway, I have just about given up on overly thin negatives. I just get No. 5 paper and try to save them that way.
Plastic or steel reels?
I use steel. I don’t think there’s any difference, except that room temperature affects metal more than the plastic. For instance, if your room is very cold and you load your film in a steel reel and tank, then put 70° developer in it, the room temperature will probably knock your developer down to 65° real quick. That doesn’t happen with plastic.
How do you store your negatives?
I cut my negatives individually and throw away all the reject frames. If out of three rolls of shooting I have just one negative that I like, that’s the only one I’ll keep. I’ll cut it out and put it in a 4x5 Mylar folding enclosure, then put the Mylar in a 4x5 envelope. All Light Impressions stuff.
Westside Highway, New York City, NY 1995
Let’s move on the printing stage. How often do you print?
At least once a week. For about two days in a row I’ll go in and print, and that’s all I’ll do. I’ll try and mark out time when I think I won’t be bothered, because I think darkroom work requires a lot of attention and a lot of quiet time by yourself when you won’t be interrupted. Otherwise, you’re not going to do it right. I don’t believe in doing a little darkroom work, then running out and doing something else, and then going back into the darkroom. You just lose all concentration on whatever it is that you’re doing. I even lock the phone in the closet. Darkroom work is like Zen: You need to have a clearness of mind to go in and concentrate on it and it alone. I think with the way the world is today, with television and phone calls and everything, we live a very fragmented life. We’re constantly used to being interrupted, and I think that has a lot to do with how we function in the darkroom. It’s very hard to block out that time and concentrate on only that.
What are your favorite and least favorite aspects of printing?
Certainly the developer is a very exciting step. I think everybody’s favorite time is printing a new negative that they are really excited about. It’s kind of a high when you see it come up in the developer and it’s something that you know is going to be a great print; you know it’s an image that you’re really excited about seeing. With those kinds of images, the entire process, all the way down to toning, is very exciting. Regarding my least favorite aspect of darkroom work, it gets to be harder and harder to go back and print negatives that you’ve printed before. You just stop wanting to see that image again, because you’ve printed it so many times.
What enlarger do you use?
A Beseler 23C. There’s no specific reason why I use that model. In fact, I’ve had a lot of problems keeping it in alignment. I guess I’m kind of stubborn; I like to keep the equipment that I have. I don’t like to make changes. These things become like old friends. You get so used to working with them, you don’t want to get rid of them. Plus, I simply like condenser enlargers. I like everything they do, even when they’re not working. I like imperfections in optics. The whole idea of cold light or diffusion enlarging...I just don’t like the prints I get from them. I like the contrast of condensers and the ability to control the contrast.
Crossed Wires, Staten Island, NY 1998
Which papers do you prefer?
Over the years I’ve used several different papers, because papers come and go. Whether or not the manufacturers like to admit it, papers go bad. I use Agfa Insignia for almost everything that I do. I like the Grade 4, double-weight glossy surface. I like the “photographic” look of glossy paper. I don’t jump around to a lot of films, even. I started out using Tri-X in high school in the 1960s, and I still do. I guess when I feel I’ve fully explored a paper or a film’s potential, then I’ll stop using it and go on to something else. I haven’t done that with Insignia. I develop my prints for about a minute and a half in Clayton P-20M, which is a concentrate and can be mixed in a lot of different dilutions. It’s a warm-tone developer for the most part. If I want a particular print a little warmer and softer, then I’ll mix in a little Selectol with the P-20. I’ll also overexpose in the enlarger and pull the print a little quick, and that will bring the contrast down a bit.
I use all Clayton chemistry for my printing. I like chemicals, papers and films that are open-ended enough so that I can adapt them to what I want them to do. Just as I’ve found that Tri-X is the most adaptable film in as many different situations as I want to use it for, so too is Clayton chemistry. On some of the portrait work I do, I’ve been using a new paper—Sterling—which I’ve found to be an exceptionally good variable-contrast paper that’s made in India. I was kind of amazed at how good it was. One of the reasons I like it so much is that it accepts toner incredibly well. I had been using Ilford Multigrade for commercial purposes, but for everything I liked about Ilford, it had some things that I didn’t like. Mainly, it didn’t selenium-tone very well. Not only does Sterling accept toner very well, but it also holds the whites really well, even if you’re using a brown toner, which normally cuts your whites down a bit. You can tell that their production isn’t as sophisticated as other paper manufacturers—sometimes you’ll get a few sheets that are bent, and the boxes are not particularly sturdy, but the paper itself is really high-grade, and it’s very reasonably priced.
Broken Span, New York City, NY 1992
How much Selectol do you add to the P-20?
It’s pretty intuitive, based on the picture I’m printing at the time. It’s usually a 2/3 to 1/3 ratio. I’ll use 2/3 P-20 working solution and 1/3 Selectol working solution. I’ve never been one for following charts or development times. I kind of bend everything to what I like to see. I’ve never wanted to be burdened by charts. Charts and rules just get in the way. For instance, if you use Tri-X all the time, you know what it does and you know when to put a filter on to increase the contrast, and you know what that filter is going to cost you in ASA. Photography is very technical, but if you know what type of photographer you are, you can learn what you need to know very quickly and then make it do what you want it to. And then all of a sudden a lot of those rules don’t apply to you anymore, because you’ve developed your own work habits.
Do you make many test strips?
Not really. I just put a strip of paper across the crucial areas that I want to expose for. Since I do a lot of commercial portrait photography, that’s generally the face. I know that the first print is not going to be the print that I’m going to use, so I use a test strip to get the first ballpark exposure on the face, and then I’ll make a straight print without any burning and dodging and let everything else do what it needs to do. After that I usually do quite a bit of manipulating. I shoot with the idea of that manipulation. I know that when I get in the darkroom, I’m going to change a lot through burning and dodging. I also keep in mind the fact that selenium toner changes the print quite a bit. You can do a lot with selenium toning as far as controlling contrast.
Harrisburgh Storage, Harrisburgh, PA 1992
Do you tone all your prints?
Pretty much everything, even my commercial magazine work. Very rarely do you get asked for a straight print. The only client I have that always asks for a straight print is Vanity Fair. They always say not to tone the prints, though I’m not sure why. But I tone most everything, which also increases the contrast and luster of the prints. I do a lot of experimenting with toning. I’ve used a lot of different toners and have combined them with concoctions of my own. What I’ve found works well with the Sterling paper is a combination of Kodak selenium and Kodak brown toner. This tends to exhaust the brown toner rather quickly for some reason. It works real well for the first bunch of prints, but I can’t reuse it and get the same results. The brown aspects seem to go away quickly.
Do you put any additives in the developer?
No. If I want stronger blacks, it’s usually in one area of the picture, so I’ll usually burn that in on the print. That way I can keep the tonal range the same. I burn and dodge a lot on most everything, because there’s always stuff in the picture I don’t want there. Sometimes there are whole areas I want to take out, so I burn them down to black. I did a lot of burning-in on the Edmund Teske portrait. I didn’t like the pattern on his jacket, which I thought distracted attention from his face and hand, so I burned the lower-right corner below his hand quite a bit. I also burned the upper-left corner.
Do you print with the dry-down effect in mind?
I print a little bit lighter because of the selenium toning, but I don’t really notice a big dry-down difference. It’s a pretty miniscule amount.
Any differences in how you print your commercial portraiture and fine art work?
No. I basically print the same. These days, almost all black-and-white is color separated in the magazines, so you can get away with a really gutsy print.
How many prints will you make during an average printing session?
I end up making about 40 prints in four hours to get 20 good prints. That’s not counting the ones I throw away in the darkroom. I’ll usually try to print a double amount, just because when it gets down to finishing everything, there will always be some problems. A lot of times you can have damaged prints in the washing or toning, for example. Also, I think I have a lot of failures in my prints because of what I try to do with them. I try to push the negatives a lot further.
W. Eugene Smith would sometimes print for hours to get one print he could live with.
It’s funny you should mention him, because his work was really instrumental in me spending so much time in the darkroom. You can see that he worked very hard on his prints. I like to see prints that have a lot of work put into them. I can tell when a print’s been made quickly and when it hasn’t. There’s a certain amount of love that goes into a print, and it takes a lot of failures to get the right one. I completely understand his dedication. I don’t understand people who don’t put that amount of energy into their prints.
White Mound, Gary, IN 1992
Do you ever bleach your prints?
I used to ferrocyanide my prints, and it almost cost me a friendship. I used to print the whites down dark and then ferrocyanide them back up, but I underestimated the wash time for that process. I traded a print with another photographer, and mine is disappearing on his wall now. So I think that’s a pretty dangerous practice. I really like the effect, but I don’t know how permanent it is.
Do you print certain negatives differently now than in the past?
I think you do whether you like it or not, especially when you do so much manipulating, like I do, on the negative—the images are not always consistent with the original image. It doesn’t bother me, but it bothers galleries. My dealer in Chicago, Catherine Edelman, is very fanatical with me on this point. I think my prints are consistent, but one of the things I like about printing is that it isn’t a totally consistent process. I also think that the first print has something special to it—something that later prints, after the negative has been printed a lot, don’t have. That may sound a little mystical, but I think something happens when you’re printing the image close to when it was shot. Maybe you get too good at printing that negative later; maybe that’s what I don’t like.
Do you experiment much with alternative techniques and processes?
I do photo-illustrations as well as portraits for magazines, and when it comes to that I experiment in a lot of different ways—anything goes. But not with my personal work so much. I like the idea of pushing the image as far as I can within the constraints of what photography is. I try to start out with a kind of traditional basis. Recently I’ve been putting a lot of stains on my negatives for a series called “Photographs of America.” This involves shooting abandoned factories, military installations and the like. I’m using stains for mood and also to accentuate the “used” quality of the subject matter. As well, I’m beginning to explore the concept that stains are a natural part of the photographic process, and that sometimes you can make them work for you.
Pt. Mugu, CA 1992
You can see the stains on the Point Mugu shot from the “America” series. I achieved that by processing the film on unwashed reels. The blacks spots are due to fixer that was left on the reels and got transferred to the film during development. The thing about using dirty reels is that you never know where you’re going to get the stains, so the element of chance comes into play. I will also put ferrocyanide on negatives, but for that you need to print out your edition right away—Lord knows how long they’re going to last. They’re probably good for a couple of years, but not for too long. With ferrocyanide, though, you can pretty much control where the stains are going to go. I apply it in different ways, though mainly with my fingers. I usually work with 21/4 negatives, so a little granule of ferrocyanide appears really big once you blow the image up. I’ve ruined a lot of negatives with these processes, so I always try to make sure I’m willing to have them disappear. There’s a certain kind of excitement in thinking you might ruin your negatives. It’s kind of fun to put photography—which is a reproducible medium—into an arena where you can ruin a perfectly good image.
Describe your fixing, washing and toning.
As mentioned, I used Clayton rapid fix. I tend to over-fix and over-wash everything. After the initial print wash—before I selenium tone—I’ll let the prints sit in a balanced alkali solution in distilled water for anywhere from ten to 30 minutes. This solution seems to allow them to tone better. I’m not a chemist, but alkali seems to be important to the paper accepting the toner. After toning, I wash the prints for an hour. One final note: I mix all my chemistry with distilled water instead of tap water. I moved darkrooms once, and the place I moved into had a lot of iron in the water. I was using Agfa paper and Kodak selenium toner. This combination would tone all the dark areas, but stop at the whites. That would have been great if I were split-toning, because I could have gone back with the brown toner. But I wasn’t split-toning. The only answer I could come up with is that there was too much iron in the water. In the process of trying to nail the culprit, I started using distilled water for all my chemicals, and that cured the problem.
The Sign Says, Red Rock Lake, IA 1995
(Please visit www.jamesfee.com to see more of this amazing photographer’s work. And stay tuned to this blog for an upcoming, extensive interview I conducted with Fee—the last one he gave—just a few months before his tragic death in 2006.)