The Freeman Interview
Tim Rudman began his involvement with photography in the 1960s while studying medicine in London. He pursued a career in medicine but now devotes his time to photography. He developed a distinctive style of black and white, pioneering the process known as lith printing, on which he is widely regarded as the leading authority and practitioner. His work and publications in this field are held to be primarily responsible for its current popularity as a photographic art form around the world.
His work has been exhibited in over 50 countries, gaining many top international awards, while at the same time he writes (four books published so far), lectures and runs workshops (to date in in Britain, Ireland, Spain, Australia, Canada and the United States). In the excitable world of digital cameras and software, it’s easy to forget that photography transcends the latest fashions in technology. Tim has pursued a vision that is very much his own, researching and developing the craft necessary to realise it.
He is a member and past chairman of The London Salon of Photography, a founder member and subsequent chairman of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain’s Distinctions Panel for Photographic Printing, a 20 year member of its Distinctions Panel for Visual Arts, and a past selector for the Tyng permanent collection. He is a member of the Arena group of photographers in the UK and the Freestyle Advisory Board of Photographic Professionals in Hollywood, California. His work represented in a number of permanent and private collections around the world.
Michael Freeman (MF):
I know you’ve written extensively about this in your books, but for our benefit here, could you take us through the lith printing process?
Tim Rudman (TR):
Yes of course, how long have you got?! The term lith printing is often misconstrued as being concerned with lith film and high contrast graphics. It couldn’t be more different. It is a creative and very interpretative printing technique, using black and white negatives (or even colour negatives) onto black and white paper, but processed in diluted lith developer instead of conventional paper developer. This can be used to give tones of extraordinary delicacy and colour or quite graphic cold starkness—or an infinitely variable mixture of the two.
With conventional black and white print development the developer converts the invisible silver halide into black metallic silver suspended in gelatine and this normally goes fully to completion quickly in 1 or 2 minutes, at which point the fully developed black and white print is ‘stopped’ (although not really going anywhere) and fixed to make it light safe and relatively permanent.
Lith developer has a special property known as ‘infectious development’ and it is this that drives the lith printing process. In simple terms this means that an ‘infectious’ accelerator is released locally where a tone starts to develop faster. This causes faster development, releasing more accelerator causing even faster development and leading to chain reaction giving an exponentially explosive acceleration in the dark tones. The light tones meanwhile are lagging way behind in the early stages of development.
Lith printing makes use of this because the colour, texture and contrast in a print are strongly influenced by the grain size of the silver in the paper. These grains grow through development, starting tiny and finishing up full size. In lith developer though we get a mix of full sized and very tiny silver grains. By ‘snatching’ the print part way through development the printer can get a balance of fine grain lighter tones—which are warm in colour, smooth and creamy in texture and low in contrast – and large grain darker tones—which are grainy, cold, gritty and high in contrast. The balance of each and exactly where the ‘split’ occurs is determined by the printer’s choice of ‘snatch point’, where the print is swiftly ‘stopped’ in an acid stop bath.
As the print is only partly developed the paper is heavily over-exposed to give sufficient density to the image and the developer is heavily diluted to slow the process down for better control.
What drew you to it? And when?
It must be nearly thirty years ago I guess. I won an Ilford Printer of the Year award, around 1980 I think it was. The prize was a handsome £1,000, a substantial sum then, and I got to meet Gene Nocon, who judged it. We became friends and he showed me his beautiful prints in his London studio/darkroom. Among them were some lith prints, which he was quite excited about. They were relatively unknown at the time and had a different ‘look’. At that time though I was pursuing different ends in my printing trying to achieve maximum quality in cold black and white tone multiple exposure prints using several negatives—a sort of analogue Photoshop!
Although we stayed in touch I never really thought more of lith prints until a couple of years later. I forget what it was that made me want to explore it but something must have. However, I found there was very little published guidance on the process and much of what there was dwelt on the alleged unpredictability of the process. ‘You never knew what you would get and having got it you would never get the same result again’ was a common theme, largely I think because there were many more variables than with conventional printing. Anyway, this was certainly what my first attempts were like! This obviously couldn’t be true though as laws of chemistry and physics had to apply and so as I always liked to be in control (in the darkroom at least!) I set about trying to pin the process down by identifying all the variables and changing them one by one and logging what happened. The more I worked with it the more surprises I discovered and found that the process was so flexible it could actually be taken much further than I had seen before. The more I experimented with it the more I fell in love with it. It is a very addictive process.
So the development becomes a full part of the creative process?
Oh yes, very much so. I think this is why creative people love it; it allows them much more expressive range and freedom than conventional black and white. It is more fluid and the printer can push or ease it into so many different directions and gain such a range of interpretations. Simply changing the snatch point by pulling the print from development earlier or later can have a really major impact on the image, moving it from predominantly warm or super-warm toned, smooth and creamy to contrasty, cold, gritty and graphic, or anywhere in between. It is even possible to snatch before any blacks appear and get a soft high key ethereal interpretation even if there are ‘blacks’ on the negative. Just adding more water to the developer can have a considerable effect with some papers, shifting image tone to warmer colours, extending the highlight tonal range and cutting Dmax. Altering the ratio of the A & B parts of the developer also changes the result, as does raising temperature above a certain point. There are other ways of making the development stage influential too, like adding various additives.
Although the creative process doesn’t stop with development – post processing stages like toning and bleaching have a powerful effect on the image because the small grain size offers up such a large surface area to the toner or bleach – it is largely the development stage that determines this grain size so development management should be already in mind when considering how the print is to look after post processing treatments.
Possibly more than with conventional development (though we all remember Ansel Adams’ writings on that)?
Oh of course, much more. It’s a different process. Unless development is curtailed for warm tone development, conventional development is normally taken to completion. So the creative side is more served at the pre-development stage through dodging, burning and flashing or the post development stages through bleaching and toning – although these also apply to lith printing too. Creative control at the development stage of conventional black & white therefore is affected by the formulation used (as with lith too) and such techniques as ‘rubbing up’ areas to advance local progress. Personally I don’t like this practice and strongly discourage it on workshops. I used to do all these manual tricks of course when working with straight black and white, with maybe just selenium toning, but once you move further into the realms of toning and certainly bleach/development process you see just how quickly these techniques come back and bite you! Streaking, blotches, uneven development all suddenly show up from nowhere on what looked to be a perfect print. These prints might look OK now, but in 50-100 years? If an area needs rubbing up I maintain it needs reprinting with better care at the exposure stage, where the same result can be achieved without ‘digital’ interference (i.e. using fingers to force development!). Since my involvement with toning I have learned to be more disciplined as this really can unmask poor technical practice. Even finger prints appear in the image area – what are they doing there in the first place? With some of these processes there is no hiding place! Just ask my students, they have all seen it.
Some people might say that digital processing, particularly with the latest raw converters, is also part of the total creative process. But it looks like the timing, uncertainty and skill in your lith process makes it quite different.
Of course digital processing can be and often is part of the creative process. Any tool can be used creatively. (Although they aren’t always! Remember the earlier days of Cokin filters and Photoshop?)
Timing, uncertainty and skill? Timing possibly has a unique effect with lith printing – certainly quite different to either black and white or digital processing. Skill? Well most artistic processes require skill, just different skills. Uncertainty? No, I don’t think so. I maintain that lith printing is actually both predictable and duplicatable and with practice there shouldn’t be too much uncertainty. I think its reputation for uncertainty just came from insufficient understanding of the chemical processes. After all, most printers are not chemists and most chemists are not printers.
I was thinking that the rapid and complete conversion of mainstream photography to digital has actually stimulated interest in older processes, human nature being what it is. What sort of reactions do you get to your ‘revivalist’ stance?
Is that how I am seen? I wasn’t really aware that I had a stance. I certainly don’t hold it up as the one true way and I am deeply distrustful of any practitioner in the arts (and there are a few) who does hold a ‘one true way’ stance! The briefest of glances at art history should dispel that myth.
Yes, I take back ‘stance’, too strong a statement. Let me re-phrase that: at a time when digital camera technology is almost falling over itself to deliver new and unexpected tricks, such as still cameras that shoot video and others that become projectors, yours is a quieter, more craft-based approach. Do many people respond positively to this?
Toning is almost as old as photography itself of course but lith printing is rather more recent as far as I know, but I’m not a photo historian. There is certainly a lot of interest – as we speak I am getting reports on bookings for my new workshop in London which has over-filled within 36 hours of being announced online even before any adverts have appeared.
There is a thirst for the manual creative arts. It may be equally true in the digital world, I don’t know but I don’t think the interest in lith printing or in toning processes is because they are seen as revivalist. I think that the manual craft aspect of producing art with your hands satisfies something that a computer screen doesn’t. There is a personal involvement that comes from the tactile aspect coupled with the creative imagination and that is important to many artists, whatever medium they work in.
Also of course, computers are no longer novelty. Many folk sit in front of a monitor for much of their day and don’t necessarily look forward to doing the same to create images for their hobby or passion when they get home. A photographer said to me yesterday ‘All my work photography is digital. I enjoy what I do but I don’t have a pride in prints from those files. The prints I have pride in are the ones I make with my hands’. Today’s computer-savvy internet-surfing, social-networking population have a very different attitude to people of our generation who grew up with books and writing letters. Their attention span is shorter and they often move from site to site very quickly (how many are still reading this I wonder?). This is a very different experience to that of making art with your hands the old way and the thinking processes that go with each are very different too, as are the personal rewards.
Your series on the derelict Brighton pier seems to have some sense of exploration in it. At least, that’s the impression I get.
You are very perceptive, Michael. That was an exploration of my past and some of the feelings from there that were uncovered when I entered this sad pier in its derelict years.
I grew up in Brighton and Hove and my parents used to take me on that Victorian pier when I was young. It was an added adventure because my father knew someone behind the scenes there; I think he was the pier master. He used to take me into the back office where all the piles of pennies from the ‘What the butler saw’ slot machines were being counted and where machines were being mended. I felt very important I recall.
For about 25 years before its demise that pier was deemed structurally unsafe and closed down. The part connecting it to the land eventually collapsed and the pier stood like an island in the sea for many years, visited only by birds in their thousands. A restoration project eventually reconnected it to land for engineer access and to salvage the Victoriana. I was fortunate to be granted access to photograph it in its final decline and hopefully its subsequent resurrection. It was very unstable. I made a number of visits exploring every aspect of it and each time more bits had fallen into the sea, fortunately none when I was standing on them! My final visit was to discover that whilst I had been in America giving a workshop the pier had been burned down by boat-borne arsonists and all that remained was some of the steel skeleton standing in the sea.
There is a little story about this project if you have time? When Alfred Hitchcock’s film ‘The Birds’ was released back in the ’60s I saw it in a cinema at Brighton seafront opposite this pier. The film was a scary storey about birds en masse turning against the human race and killing them. After the film as we made our way to the main exit there was a sudden congestion as the people in front emerged to the street to see suddenly malevolent-looking sea gulls staring down at them in the semi-darkness from the lampposts and they involuntarily backed up back into the foyer. It was a strange moment. We all saw these birds every day of course but suddenly saw them now in a new and menacing light.
I forgot this incident but decades later, the first time I walked into this derelict pier alone, I had an instant and vivid flash back to that moment when I looked up and saw myself being silently observed from every nook and cranny. It actually felt threatening and quite scary for a moment and in this body of work I tried to capture some of my mixed feelings and invoked childhood memories, as much as the structure around me.
I have never finished this set but I printed it using different techniques as I wanted it to open with split sepia hues for the Victorian interiors with the birds. They could look a little sinister with this approach. The set ends with birds around sunset and the colour palette shifts to oranges and pinks derived from sulphide and gold toning. The central section was lith printed onto a cadmium containing paper that splits in selenium to give a range of soft pinks, browns and blues. This eases the eye through the set without an abrupt jump in the middle.
In the notes to your recent show, you seem to distance yourself from the West Coast school of anti-Pictorialist photography. But while your printing and toning processes derive from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, you still seem to pursue the optical clarity and full tonal range of people like Adams and the Westons.
Perhaps I am just a confused photographer who wants it all, Michael!
I used to work exclusively in cold tone black and white for many years and still enjoy working in that medium. I love the clean tones of a classical West Coast school print and I find some (not all) of Adams’ and Weston’s prints deeply satisfying and inspiring. I came to them much later though.
My first inspirational influences were very different. The first was Sam Haskins and it was seeing a book of his black and white work in the early ‘60s that jumped me from charcoal, pencil, and pen and ink to photography. I knew the instant I saw his work and within two weeks I had found a darkroom and was trying to teach myself to print instead of draw. Both his African Images and Cowboy Kate books showed his use of grain, blown-out white space and featureless blacks that I had never seen and I saw for the first time that photography could be a personal expression and not simply a way of recording things. If it wasn’t for him I might now be a second rate monochrome sketcher or cartoonist (which I was for a while). The next huge influence was Eugene Smith and his uncanny use of ‘dark’ in images to add something to the message beyond what was on the negative.
The anti-Pictorialist stance does bother me. I guess it goes back to my views of any ‘one true path’ approach as mentioned earlier. I think such attitudes are narrow minded. Sure there was some sickly pictorial work done but some beautiful work too. I have seen some pretty dreary West Coast work for that matter, but also some exquisite work. That’s how life is – I love Opera but I also collect Blues and enjoy Rock’n’Roll. In a well rounded person there is usually room for more than one approach to Art. After Gene Smith the next thing to provoke that visceral response in me was the first old bromoil I saw – a medium much loved by Pictorials of the time.
There’s a lot of overtly ‘pictorial’ work that I like and there is more than a hint of Pictorialism seen in the best work in other genres – Gene Smith’s work is a good example – or in the best natural history photography. This year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition in London was full of wonderful work, much of which had strong pictorial influences. I guess I just don’t like ‘either/or-ness’ Such partitioning is artificial, unhelpful and stifles personal expression and development in my opinion.
Addressing your question directly therefore, I do distance myself from prescriptive ‘anti-X’ movements which I see as intolerance, even in people I otherwise admire, because I can separate their work from their views and enjoy one without the other. At the same time I am very finicky and critical of my own work and I do often pursue optical clarity and full tonality where I want it in my work, but I don’t feel a need to couple that with a ‘West coast look’ if I feel the image needs toning for aesthetic reasons or say lith printing. One should find and follow one’s own path rather than one that is prescribed by others for their work for it may not apply to yours.
So would you like to say a little more about why you tone your prints? What exactly do you think it brings to them?
Toning is a huge subject. I often see the term used synonymously with selenium toning as if that was all it meant. It’s not of course.
I tone everything. Pure black & white work is toned with selenium for archival protection and Dmax enhancement, which improves its luminosity. It also helps to neutralise the olive tint in some papers. Other work is toned different reasons and using different toners accordingly.
The enduring place Black and White has always enjoyed in fine art photography is more than an historical accident as the first successful form of making images by ‘light writing’. Black and White reduces subject matter to the basic elements of form, light and texture without the potentially distracting influence of random colours. It simplifies – replacing millions of colour hues with hundreds of monochrome tones, focussing the viewer’s attention where intended. Being black & white, it also moves the subject a step away from reality.
I think though that over the years we have become so accustomed to black and white media images that we now easily accept them as ‘normal’ or real. The introduction of false colour, either as a monochrome colour or mixed colours, restores a distance from our perception of reality – it abstracts the image a step further from reality again. It can also add subtle or obvious atmospheric and emotional overtones to an image and this can be quite powerful. Some of this comes back to what we were talking about Pictorialism I guess and I am very comfortable about that. There is nothing inherently ‘right’ about black, grey and white tones after all if the medium is being used as a form of artistic expression.
There are other reasons for adding colour through toners though, either with a single colour or with more than one colour used together. Simply introducing a single subtle colour hue to just part of the tonal range in a print, as with split sepia toning for example, adds a colour contrast to the upper or mid tones, depending where the ‘split’ is placed. This appears to bring light into the mid tones gently and is quite different to the effect of just increasing tonal contrast in black and white in the mid tones, which is a popular technique with some West Coast printers but for my taste can sometimes make prints look uncomfortably bright and brittle.
Introducing a colour shift to the upper or lower end of the tonal range also allows manipulation of apparent aerial perspective and can add depth to an image, and spatial relationships of objects within an image can be controlled by the use of dominant and recessive hues together.
And of course the toning stages are further steps in the manual handling of the print through a creative process as we discussed earlier. There is something very satisfying about handling a sheet of virgin emulsion through all the creative stages gradually exploring and finding the visual statement exactly as you want it made.
The Freeman Interviews
In this series of interviews, Michael Freeman talks to leading photographers about their outlook and practices.
If you enjoyed his conversation with Tim Rudman, you can learn more about him here:Website