Photographic Memory: An Interview with Atisha Paulson (NSFW)

Atisha Paulson chases light and makes wonderful use of it. His subjects are at ease, knowing that they’re in the hands of an image maker - a skilled and talented one at that. In this quick interview, Paulson lets us get closer as we talk to him about photography, his musings, and everything in between.

Large-Format Photograms: An Introduction

A guide to making photographic prints from anything other than a negative.

By Milosz Siebert

It’s time to experiment.

Most of you probably already know about photograms, rayographs, and cyanotypes. For those who don’t – they’re images made by placing objects directly onto light-sensitive material (i.e. photographic paper) and exposing it to light. The resulting image is most often a silhouette of the object, a sort of imprint made by light.

They are the essence of photography itself, as far as its definition is concerned. Drawings with light, made directly on light-sensitive material. They are what most teachers use to show students how photographic paper works and how to make photographic prints.

Countless articles and how-to guides have already been written about them in books, as well as on the web so we won’t be dealing with those here. We’ll go a step further.

One of the main restrictions of a photogram is its size. As the prints are made by placing the objects directly on the paper, the resulting print is in 1:1 scale. In order to make large-scale photograms, large sheets of paper and equally large objects have to be used. Usually.

I’d been working in the darkroom for quite a few years and one evening I was struck with an idea – what if anything other than the negative was placed in the enlarger? What would the projection look like?

As it turns out, it could look like this:

This is a print I made by placing grains of sand onto the negative holder of my enlarger. The image is roughly 100x100 cm, or about 39 x 39 inches.

But let’s back up a little.

For those not yet familiar with darkroom and print-making techniques - the usual way to make prints is by placing a photographic negative inside a darkroom enlarger and projecting the enlarged image onto photographic paper.
The tonal values of the print can then be manipulated by extending or reducing exposure times, either overall or over smaller parts of the image, thus making it possible to create darker or lighter areas in the final print. This way, a print can be achieved which represents closely what the photographer had in mind while making the photograph.

These techniques, pioneered by great photographers such as Paul Strand, Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, have also been extensively written about and documented (for the ultimate printing guide, see Ansel Adams’ “The Print”). Those people have done a much better job than I ever could at explaining everything there is about those techniques so I will not attempt writing about them again.

What I can do, however, is share my experience and what I learned while making the print you see above (as well as other ones).

When I started the project, I wasn’t interested in creating simple imprints and silhouettes of objects on paper and being limited by the object’s size. I wanted to see how the values of a simple imprint could be manipulated as they would be using dodging and burning during regular printing. Could they be manipulated for it to be anything other than a pure representation of itself? As it turned out, they can, and it all leads to some pretty interesting results.

While making large-scale photograms, the usual aspects of large-format printing need to be taken into consideration (more information on this below) but bear in mind that there are also some issues related specifically to this type of work. Let’s have a closer look at all of them.

Subject matter

The subject can basically be anything, as long as it has some degree of transparency to it and is not too thick (those two are not mutually exclusive). Those two factors are probably the most limiting for the whole project. Here’s why.

The transparency is necessary to create a print showing anything more than a silhouette. Light has to be able to travel through the object, just as it does through a photographic negative, since the idea here is to create a “fine print”, which requires the possibility to adjust the values. The object has to allow to burn-in the image to at least some extent.

Objects with a visible internal structure, such as plants, feathers or small semi-transparent rocks (or sand) work quite well. Other, more opaque subjects - such as bugs – may prove much more difficult to print through, given that they often have an exoskeleton which not as transparent as we’d like. They also present other difficulties, related to the fact that they are not flat (more on this later, see “Depth of field” chapter below).

The Scale

This is where things start getting interesting and where you start seeing things differently. Try putting a leaf in the negative carrier – the projected image is not far from what you’d see in a microscope. Except now you can project it onto photographic paper (or any other photo-sensitive surface, for that matter).
Apart from the fact that you can make visible structures which are usually not discernible by the naked eye, some results may lead to very interesting interpretations. The perception of the image can change with the distance - I’ve had people who saw the image of grains of sand for the first time thinking it was a picture of stars, for example.

Another thing to consider is the enlarger lens at your disposal. Their coverage might prove insufficient for some larger objects and you might find yourself wanting to make a print of the whole thing and ending up with only a partial view. The best solution is to think of the objects in terms of negative size – if your subject does not take up more space than a 35mm negative, a 50mm enlarging lens should be fine. However, anything larger than that would require a longer lens (just like a 6x6 negative would, for example).

The feather used for this image was basically the size of a 35mm negative but since I wanted a square format with lots of black background, I used my 80mm lens. It provided greater coverage than the 50mm and allowed me to have the empty space around the feather.
Resolution and sharpness

Given that the process does not go through the traditional photography chain (camera lens to film to enlarger to paper), it is not limited by the performance of the camera lens nor that of the film. The only limiting factor quality wise is the enlarger lens.

Some lenses are not suited for large-scale enlargements and this can quickly become visible, even if stopped down. But if you have a good-quality lens, the resolution and sharpness are outstanding, even with very large prints (keep in mind that the enlargement is done directly from the object itself and not from film). With careful darkroom work and a good lens, there is no loss of resolution or sharpness by going from 8x10 to 40x60 inch prints. So far I have been using an 80mm Rodenstock Rodagon f4 for most of my work, including the large prints (100x100cm) with very satisfying results. You can see from the details below that structures become clearly visible: grains of sand are easily discernible with notable differences between one and the other, microstructures of a feather and fibres in flower petals are clearly visible (the individual petals are about 3-4 millimetres in length in real life).

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