Beginning simply with the sparse sound of a children’s choir, then adding Milton Nascimento’s almost falsetto voice, after that a repetitive guitar…. The sound builds behind behind suddenly wailing saxaphones and cascades into a wave as Milton begins a bossa nova song with guitar, joined by a new voice and suddenly there are electric guitars and drums. More voices and instruments, signal the beginning of Minas, first recorded in 1975, songs dedicated to and inspired by his home district in Brazil.
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I’m at least thirty years older than anyone within rows of my seat at the modernistic, acoustics miracle that is today’s Bronfman Auditorium at the Tel Aviv Culure Palace (known as the Mann Auditorium when I previously lived in Israel, the serviceable but plain home of the Israel Philharmonic both then and now). The young, primarily Brazilian-Israeli audience has been dancing even before the band took the stage and I find myseld on my feet, at first just an awkward shuffle appropriate to my age, but soon I’m dancing with the best of them.
Closing my eyes for just a blink, I now see myself transported, standing before a tray-loaded sink in the eery redish light of every darkroom I ever built. I watch image after image materialize in the yellowish developer tray. Before the evening is out, I have revisited and re-seen every photograph I ever printed over forty years (until the world supply of reasonable, silver-rich cold-tone enlarging paper ran out). We’re talking about at least fifteen-hundred large-format black-and-white, hand-pulled silver prints!
From the very beginning, bringing a boombox with me into the crowded student darkroom at UCLA in 1977, from there to my dry, very first darkroom with a borrowed Meopta, a Czech science-fiction looking enlarger, in a not-yet remodeled apartment on Fairfax Avenue in West Hollywood loaned to me by my landlord, to my huge, fully plumbed, complete with two guitars and a speed bag suspended from the ceiling, with speakers connected to my stereo upstairs in the main house in Silver Lake, to my basement darkroom in Jerusalem, another completely self-designed darkroom in Seattle, I began with about ten music cassettes, two of them by Milton Nascimento. Somehow, and this is the only music that did, they followed me all the way from the beginning. This evocative music became the soundtrack of my forty-plus year photography career, playing Minas at least once every serious printing session.
Although my music grew to include Mahler symphonies, Bach on solo guitar, the avant-garde jazz of Coleman and Sun Ra, Jimi Hendrix, recordings of humpback whales, Native American flute and chanting, Andy Statman klezmer, Ani DeFranco, Beatles, Nels Cline, Oregon, Miles Davis and, occasionally, free-form programming from the radio stations I worked at in LA and Seattle, I doubt if I ever printed without at least some Milton to accompany me as I hand-rotated the slick, heavy and delicate pieces of photographic paper through various chemical baths.
If you’ve never worked in a darkroom, let me give you an overview. Back in the old days, light coming through a camera would selectively strike light-sensitive film and once it has been chemically processed, it becomes a negative. A negative means exactly that, it’s the opposite of what you see through the camera with what is actually light on the subject is a range of dense black concentrations of silver, while the dark areas of your image are clear. When you shine light through this negative, projecting it onto a piece of sensitized paper, the processes reverses and the darks on the negative become lights, the clear spaces dark silver-approaching-blue-black, on the paper, just as in the “real” object you originally photographed.
The thing is, no negative is perfect. Lenses contain flaws, film only responds to a limited range of light, often a too-ambitious (in other words, anyone worthy of the title “artist”) photographer is trying to capture a light range which he knows from the beginning exceeds the technical specifications of the film. Double this, of course, when you reverse the project and shine light through the negative onto the paper, complicated by the different limitations of each paper, of the chemicals you use, of the light source in the enlarger (which gets progressively weaker over time, just like any light bulb). By the time you’re trying to make a print you can actually expect to be paid for, a lot of errors need to be reversed as best you can…..
So, the idea is that, selectively, you let more light hit the paper where you need the final image to be darker than the negative would dictate, and block light when you want it to be lighter. Of course, these corrections are generally very slight and subtle (unless the negative is “hopeless” but the image too beautiful to give up). Over the years, photographers have attached cut paper to small wires to block (dodge) or have cut tiny holes in paper to increase (burn) the light. After a few tries many years ago, I realized that if there was one skill I totally lacked it was precison paper cutting (in fact, the only class I ever failed, this in college, was,ironically, one of the few studio art classes I ever took, which was comprised of precisely cutting colored paper and then precisely gluing it on white paper to make “art” (if there was anything I was worse at than cutting it was gluing without smearing glue all over everything!)).
Thus it became necessary for me to learn how to make required shapes with my fingers to create the shadows that would block or focus light as needed, throught the negative onto the enlarging paper below (of course after determining the precise amount of time (and lens setting) for the “basic exposure”). In other words, I had discovered and created a secondary art necessary to my print technique which was to choreograph a finger/shadow dance, precisely timed and counted, unique for ever image (negative).
This transformed each and every print I ever made into a performance, each unique, each only approaching an ideal print. And even though in the course of a week the music would range widely, the theme somehow always remained Milton.
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Today I find almost nothing to engage me in digital photography. Although at first the idea of “free” unlimited film (I used to carry several pounds of film to every shoot, and when it was all used the day was over) and, even more exciting, working in color which could make permanent prints (take a look at any color photograph more than ten years ago and I guarantee it doesn’t look like your memory of it–these films and papers were vegetable-dye based which meant they oxidized (i.e. burnt up from the inside) and always did it in an ugly way). I’ll even admit I can make a “more perfect”, or at least more precise print digitally than I ever could by hand, but sitting in front of a computer monitor, exactly as I would when writing email or preparing taxes or ordering unneeded stuff on the internet, was not conducive, for me at least, to creating something to reflect my soul. So, telling myself that I’m now retired as a photographer, I haven’t held a camera in more than four years.
But, first thing I did when I got home after hearing Milton was to charge up my current camera, digital as it is…..
We will, indeed, see what we will see….