ADVENTURES IN COLOUR PRINTING

highgate01

Highgate Cemetery.

In 1976, after being awarded my BA in Graphic Design at Central School of Art & Design in London, I failed to get into the Royal College of Art. This was the first really big failure in my life and, at the time, I found it devastating, since several of my closest friends had been accepted. I spent the next few years hanging out in the RCA student common-room as much as possible, which was quite sad of me, but since these were the glory days of punk, and the college had an on-the-ball entertainment committee, I did at least get to see The Clash, The Vibrators, Jayne Country, The Jam and so on.

highgate02

Highgate Cemetery.

But I wasn’t yet ready to go out into the world, and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do there anyway. Like a lot of ex-students, I was feeling at a loose end, without clear aims, prospects or money. I cobbled together a living by working part-time in bookshops, and for want of anything else to do, signed up for a postgraduate course in animation at Central. But I didn’t like my tutors, and despised the course’s aims, which were to produce something worthy that would be of benefit to disadvantaged members of society. As far as I was concerned, I was a disadvantaged member of society.

So mostly I slunk off and did my own thing, taking photographs and printing them up in the college darkroom. And at some point during 1976 or 1977, I had a go at colour printing. You can see some of the results on this post.

highgate03

Highgate Cemetery.

I already printed from my black and white negatives, but colour was another kettle of fish entirely. Most of the pictures on this page were taken from transparencies – probably Kodachrome, but possibly Ektachrome. Either way, the process was very complicated.

In old-fashioned black and white photographic printing, the enlarger shines a beam of light first through your selected negative, then through a lens which enlarges the image, projecting it down on to a sheet of photographic paper held flat by an easel. You have knobs to fiddle with, to focus the image, and to make the enlarger head go up and down, according to how big you want the image to be. As in a manual camera, you have two main methods of controlling the exposure – adjusting the amount of time the paper is exposed to the beam of light, and adjusting the amount of light passing through the aperture of the lens by changing the F-stop.

You can also mess around with the exposure by “dodging” and “burning”. I always enjoyed this process because it felt so lo-tech, and entailed making magician-like passes with your hands over the paper during the exposure – “burning in” underexposed areas so they became darker, or “dodging” to prevent more light from reaching areas of the image that were already dark enough. Hence, you could keep someone’s face light while making their surroundings darker. But you had always to keep fluttering your hands, to avoid ending up with hard shadows on the finished image.

All the photographers I knew had cobbled together their own “dodging” instruments from wire, bits of cardboard and masking tape, or whatever else was at hand, so you ended up with a range of miniature spatula-type tools to interpose between the lens and the paper. Once, when I wanted to simulate the effect of smoke in a portrait I’d taken of Ray Bradbury holding a copy of Fahrenheit 451, I played around with a tuft of cotton wool – and yes, it really did end up looking like smoke.

redboots01 copy redboots02 copy

pinktights copy blackstockings copy

While printing black and white photographs,  you could use a red safelight to see what you were doing. But colour printing required TOTAL DARKNESS. After you’d exposed your image, and before you could switch the light back on, you had to seal the paper in a drum. You then had to keep rotating this while adding and subtracting a great many different chemicals for very precise amounts of time. And you couldn’t look at the prints while they were developing, so it was all quite hit-and-miss – or at least it was for someone non-scientific like me. To this day, I’m astonished that I managed to get any results at all. I tip my hat to the younger me.

In many of the original transparencies or negatives of the pictures reproduced here, there was detail in the shadows or highlights that hasn’t shown up in the prints. Some of them are too contrasty, and in others I got the colour balance wrong. These days, of course, all it takes is a digital tweak via iPhoto or Acorn, and Bob’s your uncle; I tweaked a couple of pictures to show you. But the colour in prints made from Kodachrome (or Ektachrome) is very rich and saturated, much richer than that in prints made from colour negative film.

pinkcigarette copy[1]

Once I had quit college for good, I was left without regular access to a darkroom until 1980, when I came back to London after a year in Japan. I bought an enlarger and the rest of the equipment, and set up a darkroom in a spare bedroom in the friend’s flat in Kennington where I was living (supposedly as a temporary measure, but I ended up staying there for five years). I wasn’t just annexing territory for my own purposes; the owner of the flat (one of the friends who had been to the Royal College of Art) also took photographs, so she used it too.

I routinely developed my own black and white negatives and printed my own prints, and would never have dreamt of sending them out to get them done professionally. This was around the time of my life that I tried very hard to find work as a photographer – I did the rounds of newspapers and magazine art departments with my portfolio, over and over again. Nice things were said, but not a lot of work was put my way, so I never earned enough to make a living wage out of it. But I did have pictures published in Illustrated London News, Time Out, Event and various Japanese magazines before the writing took over.

bloodymary01

bloodymary02

bloodymary03

bloodymary04

In 1985 I bought my first flat, two rooms in Powis Gardens, Notting Hill. I put together a darkroom on a large landing that was legally part of the flat, though not directly adjacent to it and half a storey down; I had the space partitioned off by a builder friend. My blackout curtains were useless, so I could only use it at night. But in any case the arrangement was less than ideal as there was no water supply, so I had to trudge upstairs with trays full of soggy prints to wash them in the bath, and my downstairs neighbour used to complain about the noise of running water. Unlike her, though, I didn’t keep throwing impromptu parties midweek, without warning. And I had somehow acquired the skill of moving from one end of my flat to the other without slamming doors – which was apparently beyond her capabilities.

It was this – and my upstairs neighbour’s habit of vacuuming and rearranging the furniture at 3am – that made me decide to move to Cambridge. That and the increasing gentrification of Notting Hill, which was fast losing its allure and turning into one big West London extension of the Groucho club.

Blue Sue, before digital colour adjustment.

Blue Sue, before digital colour adjustment and retouching.

Blue Sue, after digital colour adjustment and retouching.

Blue Sue, after digital colour adjustment and retouching.

From 1989 to 1996 I lived in a three-bedroom house off Mill Road in Cambridge. I made the smallest bedroom light-tight and set the darkroom up in there. It was right next to the bathroom, so washing prints wasn’t too much of a chore, though it wasn’t always easy keeping my cat Tiger at bay. When I was in the darkroom, she would mew and scratch at the door, wanting to come in too. Once I’d let her in, of course, she would want to go out again. That was when she wasn’t jumping all over the printing area, shedding hairs and sniffing the chemicals. You know what cats are like.

That was the last darkroom I ever had. My next flat, off Red Lion Square in Holborn, was too small, so I sold all the equipment before moving there. And then digital cameras took over from single lens reflexes, and the whole ritual of developing negatives and printing your own photographs with an enlarger went the way of the dinosaurs.

I still miss my darkroom, though. I used to stay up all night, developing negatives and printing photographs and chain-smoking and listening to music. Sometimes I would break off from the printing to dance around. It was all quite rock ‘n’ roll.

Jill Eating a Tart, before digital colour adjustment.

Jill Eating a Tart, before digital colour adjustment. Colour print from a Kodacolor negative.

Jill Eating a Tart, after digital colour adjustment.

Jill Eating a Tart, after digital colour adjustment. The green cast was intentional – Jill was wearing green lipstick and face-powder, and I’d replaced the jam in the tart with green pickle.

One night, in the darkroom, I was listening to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – which in itself now strikes me as odd, since I preferred Station to Station-era David Bowie to his earlier albums. For some reason, a lyric I’d heard hundreds of times before, without really thinking about it, leapt out at me. “When the kids had killed the man I had to break up the band” triggered an extended darkroom reverie about the idea of pop stars being killed by their fans.

Sooner or later, this was going to happen, I thought. But I knew it would never happen to Bowie himself, because he placed such a distance between his stage act and real life.

This was December the 8th, 1980. The next morning, I heard on the radio that, during the night, John Lennon had been shot and killed by a fan outside the Dakota building in New York.

Colour print from a  Kodacolor negative.

Sindy and Lobster. Colour print from a Kodacolor negative.

marilyncleavage copy[1]

 

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15 thoughts on “ADVENTURES IN COLOUR PRINTING

  1. thanks Anne, that was a nice read (and photos). Guess we’re lucky you didn’t get into RCA after all.

    • Thanks, William! I suspect if I HAD got into the RCA I would still be there, because it was such fun being an art student! So probably just as well I didn’t. Also, I think it was good for me to fail at something.

      Now, of course, I fail all the time, and am brilliant at it.

  2. Fascinating blog post – thank you. The colour photos are amazing: really wonderful and the colours so saturated like transparency film of old was.

    • Yes, they’re so rich. The Kodachrome prints are richer than the ones from Kodacolor negative film.

      I can’t get anything like that effect if I print photos out on my current printer. I guess there must be printers that do it – probably really expensive ones. Only alternative is to get them hand printed somewhere – which would cost even more of a fortune.

      • Getting a decent print from a basic inkjet is difficult if not impossible, the designers trade speed for quality because that is what most buyers favour. But all is not lost; using proper ‘photo paper’ will improve things a bit. It is more ‘sized’ so can take denser applications of ink without spreading or cockling.

        Current tech leads to printers with 6 or 10 colour cartridges (rather than the standard 4: eg.CYMK). They are fairly expensive but do pop up second hand at about 25% of original price, however they drink ink like a rugby team at a free bar.

        But given that they need special paper and lots of ridiculously expensive ink cartridges, it might be more economic when you factor in all the costs to get them printed on a professional machine.

        (There was one in installed a local-ish supermarket that customers could use by inserting a SD card, flash drive etc. view the images on a screen, select page size etc. and print.)

        (Checking prices, which vary quite a bit, but 11p for a 6×4 and 99p for a 10×8 is not too bad, upload the images to their website and the prints come back by post, (little bit modern, little bit old school.))

        {love those red boots}

          • You and me both, if not for the risk to passers-by the whole lot would have gone out of the window on several occasions.

            Fnac hadn’t occurred to me, but the prices are not bad at all and it does give access to formats larger than A4.

            (If anybody prints more than 50 ordinary pages a month at home it might be worth checking if there is a CISS kit available for the printer.)

      • I’m going to bend your ear, just a tiny bit about printers. And I promise I will spare you the boring details unless you really want a step by step.

        Printing text in Black

        (Since I don’t know exactly which printer you have this is going to be a bit general and Canon printers are a little idiosyncratic in this area.)

        Have a poke about in the settings/preferences until you find the Greyscale option and select BOTH that AND Plain paper. This makes it print using only Black ink.

        If changing the setting to B&W each time you want to print out a invoice/bill/ticket is a bit of a faff, you could create a second B&W printer on your Mac. It’s not really a second printer, it’s a profile that links to the same printer but has Greyscale as the default. So that when you want to print a document you can select it from the list of printers.

        Ink

        I refilled 2 Canon CLI-8 cartridges yesterday, took 3 minutes and cost £0.20. It’s easier than making a cup of coffee. (But if you don’t fancy filling them your self, there are lots of refilled multi-packs about; 2 complete sets of inks for under a tenner.)

        • Thanks Yownsey! I finally found a way of printing in just black & white, so doomsday has been averted. For now… Also been looking for the reset button on the empty cartridges, but unfortunately doesn’t seem to be the same place as any of the ones in the ink-hack videos…

          • You will only find a reset button on some third party refillable cartridges, not on OEM refills. You can reflash the chip on the OEM ones but you need a specific ‘re-setter’.

            It is possible to switch off the Ink Monitor that says ‘Low Ink’, either temp/perm but it is very model specific.

            (If you turn off the Monitor you need to check the ink levels manually to avoid runing the printer dry which could damage the print head if done long enough.)

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  5. The answer to the cat question posed earlier, (which didn’t seem to get resolved), is a bit dull really.

    The ‘mantlepiece cats’ are a tinpot little TV award, called Telegatto. It was given out by one of the Italian networks, given that the networks are entangled with politics in a way so alien to what we would normally understand, their true value is questionable.

    How on earth did I find this? Search Getty Images for chummy + “award”. About three pages down there he is.

    (The fact that there is five increases the odds of a photo existing.)

    • Thanks! An Italian chum came up with the answer. (Why is your comment buried in an old post?) But I love (or rather my mind boggles) that he got a tacky TV award for “Best Politician”.

      In any case, a nice background detail for the forthcoming Cats on Film book.

      • (It was the first one that popped up when I typed ‘multiglom’ into the address bar, it’s as good as any other since all comments appear in the admin console anyway.)

        (Strictly speaking I should get onto Twitter. But that would mean I would not get anything else done….. ever! {I have all the will-power of a wet dish-rag.} 🙄 sigh )

        CoF in (e)book form? Excellent!

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