Darkrooms are the fourth of seven technologies I’ve explored in Prior Art: analog media manipulation and vintage virtual reality.
“As a digital photographer, the world of film has always been cloaked with the mystery of alchemy and magic. Exploring a working film lab was fascinating, and Lynde was so generous in explaining different aspects of development – the process is much more rich and complex than I had imagined.”
Jillian Cocklin // epoxystudios.com
The darkroom is a workshop to allow photographers to develop film and make prints. Since film development relies on careful control of light, a safelight is the only lighting used for illumination. Many black-and-white papers are sensitive primarily to blue or blue-green light, so a red or amber- colored light will keep the paper from accidental exposure. A variety of chemicals are used to develop and set the film, usually in conjunction with a trough-style sink and plastic trays. An enlarger, which looks somewhat like a vertically-mounted camera, is used create prints by projecting light through a piece of film onto exposure-sensitive paper for a precise amount of time.
Correct exposure depends on the content of the photo as well as the sensitivity of the paper. To get the right tone, photographers will take a test strip of paper and progressively expose portions of it for set durations of time. That way, they can evaluate a range of results to identify the right exposure time to use for that particular photo and paper.
The amount of time a photo is exposed to light before it is “set” determines how light or dark it will be. Photographers can selectively expose or mask areas of photos to create particular effects.
“Dodging” involves using a cutout shape on the end of a thin stick to prevent portions of a photo from being exposed to light. Since exposure to light makes a photo darker, those protected portions remain lighter. “Burning” creates the opposite effect: using a mask or hole for light to pass through to create extra exposure to light (and therefore darker results). A quick way to do this is with one’s hand, but it can also be done with any object that can selectively expose light.
To create consistent results, film producers created a reference photo to represent an ideal range of colors and tones. In addition to showing basic colors and a grayscale range, these also included a person for reference. One early model was a Kodak employee named Shirley, so they became known as “Shirley cards”.
However, each reference only included one model that was always a caucasian female. This resulted in chemical calibrations that had very little nuance in brown tones, so all other skin tones turned out off-balance with distorted colors and often too dark to capture detail. Amazingly, film producers didn’t start including a wider range of brown tones until they received complaints from furniture and chocolate manufacturers that they couldn’t differentiate their range of products in photos. Later reference cards were updated to include multiple multiracial models.
Zoëtropes are the third of seven technologies I’ve explored in Prior Art: analog media manipulation and vintage virtual reality.
“As a storytelling device first and foremost, I was always drawn to how animation can capture energy, possibility and emotion all at once…and in the most fantastical way. To paraphrase Steven Spielberg, ‘…with animation, fantasy is your friend’.”
Marcela Cordon // Instagram: @cordon3
Though progressions of drawings to indicate movement have been around for a millennium, the technologies to animate them developed rapidly in the late 19th century leading up to the advent of film. One of the first was the phenakistoscope (or stroboscope disc, or phantasmascope) in 1833. This arranged drawings radially on a disc, though its inventor Simon Stampfer imagined they could also be on a cylinder or loop of paper/canvas. Later inventions improved on this with similarly colorful names: the dædaleum, the zoëtrope, the praxinoscope, and the zoopraxiscope.
Zoëtropes have been built small enough to be held in one’s hand, and large enough to hold hundreds of people within them. Typically a zoëtrope can be viewed by multiple people at once since the slits surround all sides of the cylinder. More recently, artists have created 3D zoëtrope animations (using sculptures instead of drawings) and subway zoëtropes (using the motion of passing trains).
William Horner, inventor of the dædaleum, described his invention “as imitating the practice which the celebrated artist of antiquity [Dædalus] was fabled to have invented, of creating figures of men and animals endued with motion.” It’s unclear whether the name (which also translates as “cunning one”) or the content (one popular animation had a devil in it) led to its nickname: the “Wheel of the Devil”.
A Milton Bradley employee, William E. Lincoln, improved upon the invention by shifting the viewing slits up so that new strips of animations could be easily swapped out. In a savvy marketing turn, he also called his invention the “zoëtrope” which translates to “Wheel of Life” – a much more family-friendly name.
Before film could capture motion, no one could prove for certain how particular motions occurred. Eadweard Muybridge, a photographer, was commissioned in 1872 by Leland Stanford to photograph horses to help settle a $25,000 bet as to whether a racehorse’s hooves all leave the ground at once when running.
After years of technological and personal setbacks, Muybridge succeeded in rigging a series of specially-designed equipment with tripwires to rapidly capture a series of images documenting one full gallop. Two of those sixteen images definitively revealed that all four hooves were off the ground. Muybridge spent the rest of his life improving on this technique for creating motion studies.
Stereoscopes are the second of seven technologies I’ve explored in Prior Art: analog media manipulation and vintage virtual reality.
“The painting and photographs we were looking at reminded me of a museum of photography we saw in Marrakech. Photography had just entered this exotic land and an unknown culture had been communicated to the world. The stereoscopes made me feel just like those Berber tribes experiencing some unknown technology.”
Omid Mirshafiei // Instagram: @sacafotos
“My aunt has always collected quirky antiques, and I remember gently playing with an old stereoscope when I thought nobody was watching. Looking through your beautiful wooden and metal stereoscopes that day with the Egyptian travel pictures made me feel like I was looking through somebody’s old record collection. You could tell from the edges which ones were the most loved.”
Ashlea Mittelstaedt // Instagram: @clarokaysee
“Stereo” viewing is the ability to converge two images from slightly different viewpoints into one image with a perceived depth. Some people are able to view stereo imagery without the aid of a device, though it may cause eye strain and fatigue. A stereoscope is a device that arranges these images in a way to easily create this optical illusion. There have been many variations on this kind of device for nearly two centuries.
The stereoscope gained wide adoption as personal entertainment with the invention of the Holmes stereoscope. Oliver Wendell Holmes created – and deliberately did not patent – his device in 1861. According to him: “There was not any wholly new principle involved in its construction, but, it proved so much more convenient than any hand-instrument in use, that it gradually drove them all out of the field, in great measure, at least so far as the Boston market was concerned.”
Early stereograph cards focused primarily on virtual tourism to show landscapes of far-off places, but this was not the only use of them. Dr. John Adamson, a medical doctor, was also a photographer who invented one of many early innovations for developing photos.
Adamson was commissioned to create stereoscope photographs by the University of St. Andrews as they explored these new technologies. He took what may be the first stereographic self-portrait in which he chose to strike an intellectual pose with a book.
The View-Master stereoscope, patented in 1939, uses rotating cardboard disks with the stereo images split across the opposite sides of the disk. With the invention of cheap color photography, its popularity exploded.
Like earlier stereoscopes, it was originally popular as a kind of virtual tourism. It later shifted to become more of a toy, and in 2008, the original company stopped producing tourism reels altogether in favor of the much more popular animated character reels.
Typesetting is the first of seven technologies I’ve explored in Prior Art: analog media manipulation and vintage virtual reality.
“No matter how intellectual a pursuit it becomes, Design is most rewarding when you’re simply making it: setting the type, framing the shot, writing the code.”
Emilio Passi // epassi.co
The earliest words were written by hand: stamped in clay, etched with charcoal, drawn with ink. As scrolls developed into books, stories were collected through the painstaking and time consuming process of transcription. But this was a luxury, and only the wealthy could afford it.
Typesetting enables these stories to be composed by arranging pieces of type: physical stamps of letters and symbols that make up written language. This not only enables faster and cheaper reproduction of text, but also a consistent appearance. Instead of bearing the mark of the scribe, these printed materials now bear the distinctive look of a font (the design of those letters themselves). Print shops keep large wooden shelves with hundreds (or thousands) of pieces of type for a range of fonts and sizes.
Letterpress machines create the means of adding ink to a set of letters and transferring it to a piece of paper. The letter stamps are arranged into a tight block to preserve the format. This block is called a “lock up” because it is tightened by hand with a key to keep the pieces from moving around. Ink is spread onto one of the forward cylinders, and a piece of paper is aligned with the rst cylinder to begin. With a turn of a crank, the cylinders roll out to spread ink on the lock up, and roll the paper across it to create an inked impression.
The first system of movable type was invented in the 11th century by Bi Sheng in China. He shaped clay into pieces representing hundreds of Chinese glyphs which he baked into a ceramic material. This material, a fine porcelain, was sturdy enough for the rigors of printing.
There are a few ideas about why this origin of type is less well known. As a commoner, Bi Sheng’s history was not recorded. We only know of his invention through a book printed at the time. The sheer number of glyphs for the Chinese language also made the process of creating a font onerous. Centuries later, when Johannes Gutenberg introduced mechanical movable type to the Western world, he had a much smaller glyph set to reproduce – a boon for mass production.
Johannes Gutenberg combined a number of innovations for movable type, oil-based ink, and adjustable molds to enable mass production of printed material. Since the printed result would contain a reverse image of what was laid out, a skilled typesetter would need to be able to read the text backwards (or use a mirror) to lay it out properly.
Gutenberg saw great potential in this mass production for the creation of Bibles, and is best known for his high-quality Gutenberg Bible. He spoke of these advancements here: “Let us break the seal which seals up holy things and give wings to Truth in order that she may win every soul that comes into the world by her word no longer written at great expense by hands easily palsied, but multiplied like the wind by an untiring machine.”
My first solo show, Prior Art, is now up at Kaleid Gallery in downtown San José from now ’til November 25th. The theme of the show is “analog media manipulation and vintage virtual reality.” I’ll be posting the stories about the art in the show every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for the next few weeks. I’ve been working on this project (the theme, the art, the book) for most of the year and it’s great to see it all together. Thanks to everyone who made it out to the reception, and if you haven’t seen it yet definitely check it out while it’s all up together!
Here’s more details about the art in the seven themes of the show: