John Brill Makes a Photograph

Kent Fine Art
Apr 5, 2017 5:12PM

In the recent SPRING/BREAK Art Show at Times Square, New York,  John Brill was invited to install a room which he titled, Splendid Isolation: Pathological Self_Absorption Before the Age of Social Media.  During the six-day event, there were many conversations, in particular with reference to Brill's analog layering of darkroom processes.  It was informative to me, and I wanted to share one of these conversations with you.

John Brill
Self-portrait, Teaneck, NJ 1983 [1983-6], 1983-1985
Kent Fine Art

Doug Walla: So Brill, I'm looking at this photograph, Self Portrait, Teaneck, NJ 1973...

John Brill: ...1983

DW: 1983, but isn't there an earlier version of this same image? Can we first talk about how the basic concept develops before talking about the steps that you take to render an image in the darkroom?

JB: There was a version of this same basic image that I made in 1973, just after I graduated from college, in the house that I grew up in in Bloomfield, NJ. Although I hadn't started working as an artist at that point-and the series of self-portraits was almost a decade off-I had just started making images that were set up, that is, in contradistinction to the obsessive, itinerant documentation of my everyday life that I had done since getting my first camera at the age of eight. The basement in that old three-family house was dark and spooky, and I loved the stairs out to the yard, especially with the light playing off of the old concrete when the outside doors were opened. The set up images were usually images that haunted me, and came from who knows where-dreams, reverie, etc. That particular image-with my back to the moon-is probably something that I dreamed, and that I carried around in my head for a while before actually making a picture. I did sleep research in college; dreams were very important to me, both my own and others'. Whenever people characterize my images as "dreamy," it makes me very happy.

DW: And the steps required to make such an image...?

JB: As with the later Teaneck image, I used a three-generation paper negative process, projection printing the first-generation paper positive from the original (in-camera) film negative, then contacting printing a paper negative from which the final edition would be contact printed. The reason for utilizing this labor- and time-intensive methodology for such an image is that it allows me to make a lot of absolutely transformative manipulations that would be clumsy on a single-generation projection print, but which are easy to hide going from one generation to the next in the paper negative process, and ultimately don't show in the final print. In this case, since the image was shot during the daytime, most of what I had to do involved creating a dark sky and cutting and pasting in the moon-not in the figurative sense of cutting and pasting in Photoshop, but literally cutting a space in the original print with a razor blade and taping in a separate image of the moon, creating the dark sky and hiding all of the rough edges by painting with liquid red opaque. I could also change and otherwise control the quality of light by hand-bleaching the highlights and mid-tones with potassium ferricyanide bleach. Since the tonal values are reversed on the second-generation paper negative, I could use bleach on the paper negative to create or enhance what would be darkness in the final print. So with these few but powerful interventions I have a prodigious ability to create an image that is paradoxically powerful for the apparentsubtlety of the interventions, even though they were, in practice, anything but subtle.

DW: But in this particular case, the Bloomfield image was printed with inks from a digital file relatively recently.

JB: That's because even though I liked the 1973 silver print as a personal document, I didn't think it was strong enough to grandfather into what would become my self-portrait series from the 1980s. So I let it sit, in deference to the Teaneck silver print edition that I made ten years later. It was only after forty years that I made a scan of not the final 1973 Bloomfield silver print, but the first-generation paper positive, and did everything else digitally. Since I already had the Teaneck silver print edition at this point, I left the moon out of the Bloomfield image, and made it slightly different in other respects, although it did serve as both the conceptual and methodological template for the Teaneck image. I liked both, so each was printed as a separate edition.

Very few people notice this, but the Teaneck image containing the moon couldn't have been shot from life and projection printed from a single negative. The overall shot was made with a wide angle lens, which would have rendered even the largest full moon as a tiny white dot. The moon was shot separately with a telephoto lens. It's a curious perceptual trick that the composited image looks so natural that many people don't even suspect that it's a composite. So all of the complicated image construction isn't merely gratuitous darkroom play for me; it's the only way to make such an image. It couldn't simply be shot from life.

DW: So this was your thinking as early as 1973, but then you kind of circled back to this same idea in 1983.

JB: Yeah, the 1983 Teaneck silver print edition was made by the same paper negative process, and for the same reasons, as described above. I was driving a beer truck at the time, and there was a set of basement stairs that we used for a delivery to a bar in Teaneck that I had my eye on for a long time. They were beautiful-arguably more beautiful than the stairs in my old house-going down from the parking lot, with an ever-present glistening puddle of god-knows-what at the bottom. When I was on the road delivering beer, I always had all of my camera equipment with me, including a tripod, so I could shoot by myself or with a helper if there was another guy assigned to my truck route on any given day. To do this particular shot, I wanted to work with a helper, so I waited until I had a helper on my route for this delivery. Fortunately, the helper on my truck that day was one of my best photographic assistants, and a very improbable art collaborator-a fellow truck driver from Paterson named Nicky DeNova who moonlighted as a bouncer and dabbler in assorted nocturnal activities, and who had developed an inexplicably deep fascination with what I was doing. He was also the subject of some of the strongest portraits I made during that same period.  Whether as a photographic assistant or portrait subject, he would do anything I asked him to do, and his patience was unlimited. It was also helpful that he was huge and I was a little crazy, so no matter what we were doing whenever we worked together-usually out on the street, not in somebody's basement-people mostly didn't mess with us, even in some really rough neighborhoods. He also knew a lot of the cops and local people in and around Paterson, where I did a lot of photographing. Aesthetics aside, those kinds of utterly pragmatic considerations were critically important for somebody like me whose "studio" was almost always some public space.

When we were done delivering beer and we had a few drinks, I told the guy behind the bar that we were just going to hang around and photograph in his basement for awhile. He simply said, "Go ahead," which I thought was kind of weird, since we didn't know these people especially well. I have no idea what he imagined, but I didn't ask any questions. We were there photographing for about two hours. Nobody even checked in on us, which was fortuitous since I was completely naked. I probably shot two rolls of film. Using a tripod allowed me to control the overall composition on all of my self-portraits with absolute precision. If I had somebody working with me-especially somebody like Nicky, who was roughly my size and followed my directions meticulously-I could also have that person move around within the frame while I looked through the viewfinder, picking out landmarks against which to orient when I was posing, so that even shooting on film, without the real-time feedback of a digital camera, I usually had a very good idea of what I was getting even though I might not develop the film for another week or two. I was almost never unpleasantly surprised. I shot an enormous amount of film during that period with a confidence that bordered on naivety.

DW: And it was shot in the daytime, right?

JB: Yeah, it was in the late afternoon on an overcast day, so the sky is completely light and featureless. I took care of that with red opaque on the first generation paper positive as described above, cutting and pasting in a moon from a separate projection print, also as described above.

DW: So was it pasted in, or are you saying that you somehow printed it in?

JB: No, not printed in, although I also did that with some other images whenever I had to. But here I physically cut and taped it in, surrounded the edges with red opaque, and further bleached out what would be the dark area uniformly white on the second-generation paper negative. You hear me talking about painting with red opaque-don't forget that red is the same as black to orthochromatic paper. But since it's not perfect-the red opaque inevitably lets a little light through-I take care of any imperfections by bleaching on the next-generation paper negative. Since tones are reversed generation to generation, whatever is perfectly white on the paper negative will print as perfectly black on the final-generation paper positive, obviously.

Bleaching is powerful, since it's not only used remedially-to remove imperfections-but is also used creatively, for example, to delicately modify or even create "lighting" that wasn't in the original scene and therefore doesn't exist in the negative. For example, on the first-generation paper positive, I was able to go into very small areas with fine brushes, Q-tips, and pieces of cotton saturated with varying strength solutions of potassium ferricyanide bleach to do several unrelated things: separate my dark figure from the comparably dark background by bleaching those few small areas of skin and hair that suggest the definition of my figure; create a quality and directionality of light on the walls and steps that looks realistic, i.e., consistent with what one would implicitly expect moonlight to look like if the shot were really lit by a full moon; and bleach the moon, which was shot separately, to a lightness and contrast consistent with the tonal values of the print into which it was being inserted. I couldn't make this image-or lots of others-without the fine local tonal control afforded by potassium ferricyanide bleach. And beyond the purely quantitative removal of density, you can't digitally duplicate exactly the qualitative effects of bleach on a silver print. I know that must sound dubious to people who think there are no analog effects that can't be duplicated digitally, but as somebody who now works comfortably within both paradigms, I can tell you that's true. Even though I presently do a lot of work digitally, I still buy potassium ferricyanide by the pound. I can't imagine working without it.

The biggest difference between working with bleach on wet prints and working in Photoshop is that in the wet darkroom there's no option to "go back one step." One wrong move while bleaching and you throw the print out and move on to the next. So pictorial effects aside, working with bleach was important for me early on in that it forced me to become a very good craftsman, even though "craft" was pretty much a non sequitur, if not pejorative, among the post-modernists who held sway when I walked into the art world in the early 1980s. I was a curiosity to a lot of people for my obsession with print quality. But way before I started working and showing as an artist, I was the archetypal darkroom geek, so, purely practical considerations aside, you can imagine how intrinsically rewarding it was for me to create prints in this manner. Sending negatives out to a lab for printing was never an option. These were always prints that I could only make myself. That was important. That's what made them uniquely my own images.

DW: So you ultimately made what, three or four final prints, but every one was hand bleached separately?

JB: That's right, every one was hand-bleached, so every one is a little bit different, but because the bleaching process in this case was kind of basic, and I'm really focused when I'm doing bleaching, they're pretty close. Some other images that require a more transformative job of bleaching can vary considerably among the prints in the edition. Because highlights tend to muddy up from one generation to the next, even after all the bleaching I did on the first-generation paper positive, I still had to hand-bleach the final prints to maintain the separation of figure from background, and to make the highlights on the walls, skin, hair, and water sparkle, which is what makes the image come alive. I also had to make sure that all of the tonal values looked realistic, as if it were actually the scene you'd see lit by a full moon. That's all done with bleach, by selectively going into these different areas, separately, with different size brushes and different strength bleach solutions.

The edition sizes on many of the early, extensively hand-bleached prints were determined simply by how many prints I could make in a single darkroom session, in turn determined by how long I could stay awake, and more importantly, by how long prints can stay wet before the emulsion separates from the paper base (a phenomenon called "frilling").  The longest darkroom sessions were about twenty-four straight hours; rarely thirty-six hours, if the temperatures were low enough to keep the emulsion from swelling and separating, and I needed to print a diptych or triptych. Because getting everything right in the darkroom takes so long before the first keeper print is obtained, I never would go back into the darkroom to continue making prints for an edition. Only one darkroom session per image, no matter how small the resulting edition. The Teaneck image turned out to be an edition of four, which means I probably have one artist's proof that will never be for sale, and I always made separate prints for the people who assisted me on the self-portraits, or who posed for portraits. In this case I had to make a very rare exception and go back into the darkroom some years after the fact to make a replacement print for Nicky DeNova after his kid spilled grape juice on the first print I gave him. He was such a good friend that I felt obligated to do that, although I told him that if the kid kept spilling grape juice on original pieces of artwork, he should consider putting the kid up for adoption, which I don't think he ever did. At least he never called and asked for another replacement print.

I should also point out that I was lucky to have completed printing the self-portrait silver print editions just before Agfa reformulated and ultimately discontinued its legendary Portriga Rapid chlorobromide paper around 1990 (ostensibly, Agfa told me, to comply with emerging environmental regulations in Germany). I can probably count on one hand the number of editions from that period that weren't printed on this paper, which justifiably had a quasi-religious following among its users. It had one of the nicest (if somewhat idiosyncratic) responses to selenium toner of any paper ever, and it bleached easily and beautifully. While anybody can make an uninteresting image, in the right chemistry and with a fine attention to detail, it would have been hard for an experienced printer to make an ugly print on Portriga Rapid. It was just such an inherently beautiful material. There were things that happened in the shadows and mid-tones during selenium toning on these classic chlorobromide emulsions that can't be described; you just had to see them. Watching the prints tone was like my reward for the many hours of hard work that led up to it. It was both exciting and motivational. And like qualitative effects of bleaching, the indescribable, complex chromatic effects that occur within and between areas of different tonality during selenium toning on these papers are also something that can't be duplicated digitally. For a printer, it was a great time to be alive, and I remember that period with a real sense of loss.

John Brill, Self-portrait, Bloomfield, NJ 1973

Kent Fine Art