When photographers who learned their skills in the film age get together, the conversation often centers on how they dealt with the transition from film to digital. As time passes and film is not completely extinct, as many people feared, it is not uncommon for professionals and amateurs to engage in a form of hybrid photography — utilizing aspects of both film and digital.
Fine art photographers from the film era often have large archives of color negatives from which they want to make prints. Chromogenic prints, also known as Type C prints, were formerly a popular choice for exhibition prints. We now know that chromogenic prints do not have the longevity of archival pigment prints. High resolution digital scans from color negatives record greater highlight and shadow detail than can be attained by exposing a negative with an enlarger. Also, high resolution digital scans make much larger prints possible. In spite of these advantages, many photographers prefer the look of an image captured on film to an image captured on a digital camera. These photographers are making exhibition prints by converting digital scans of film negatives into archival pigment prints.
California Dwelling: 1978-1981, a series by Tim Bradley, falls into the category of a project photographed with color negative film that has now been digitally scanned and printed as 30×40 inch archival pigment prints. Bradley began the series in 1978 while an undergraduate at Art Center in Los Angeles. When graduation was approaching, he decided to enroll in the MFA program so he would still have access to a color darkroom to finish the project.
Bradley shot California Dwelling with three different cameras: a twin-lens reflex Rollei with 120 Kodacolor film, a 4×5 inch Cambio view camera and a very old Conley 8×10 view camera. The film used in the view cameras was VPL tungsten negative sheet film. Bradley describes the reason for his choice:
VPL was intended for tungsten lighting and long exposures, so the film’s reciprocity (change in negative density proportional to change in exposure, and color consistency throughout a range of exposures) remains predictable even when you have exposures that are a quarter, a half, or several seconds long. But more important is the tonal scale of the film itself, which was very flat when shot unfiltered in daylight, allowing for detail in sunlit concrete or white painted areas and shadows at the same time. I don’t know what material would provide this now.
The title of the series, California Dwelling, was found on an old postcard. Bradley shot 100 images over a three-year period and made Type C prints of all the negatives. In December 2012, Craig Krull Gallery in Santa Monica exhibited a dozen 30×40 inch archival pigment prints from this series. The exhibition prints were made by Chip Leavitt of Lumiere Editions in Glendale, who specializes in scanning and printing for exhibitions and book projects. His clients include Uta Barth, John Baldessari, William Eggleston, Barbara Kruger, Richard Misrach, Alex Prager and many other photographers.
Bradley wrote to me about the process of working with Chip Leavitt:
I brought a selection of the vintage, Type C prints to my first meeting with Chip. The prints had turned varying degrees of yellow and red, sometimes adding an appealing warmth. We talked about how to best capture the feeling of the original prints, and then he started drum scanning the large format negatives and running print tests with different amounts of correction for the color shift. We aimed for a palette between the turned vintage prints and neutral, always making sure to retain the depth of color that was initially recorded on the film. It was amazing to see the first large print; it was superior to the C print, and it took me right back to the moment I shot the image.
California Dwelling was shot mostly in Glendale, with a few images from nearby Eagle Rock. Bradley’s intention wasn’t to make an historical record. He was looking for images that were timeless and were about the color. He felt like he was stepping into an alternative time as he responded to the layering of old and new. In the process, he realized, “I was documenting a fragile corner of Southern California that would soon be overwritten.” Today, Bradley cannot find some of the locations, and many of them have been replaced with condominiums.
Ten years after shooting this body of work, Bradley considered tossing all the negatives. He feels fortunate that he kept them and warns, “Today, a graduate student who shoots a body of work digitally and leaves it unattended for 30 years is probably not going to be able to open those files again.”
More of this article can be read in the Winter 2013 issue.