©Roger Aguirre Smith

We continue our conversation with Roger Aguirre Smith.. 

When I listened to your presentation at the Weston’s, you seemed to truly enjoy darkroom work, can you share some information about how that developed?

[This question seemed to morph into “why do I work in the darkroom”…I got a bit off track]

As I mentioned in an earlier answer, from the moment I walked into the student darkroom at College of the Siskiyous I was transformed.  A cave-like environment, subtle sounds of the ventilation, the dripping of the print washer and the muffled voices of creativity.  Add to that the pure magic of the emerging image on film or paper.

And did I mention the smells?…to further beat an iconic movie line to death, “I love the smell of fixer in the morning!”

I also mentioned earlier that making a print in the darkroom was the first of few things I had every done in my life that felt natural to me.  From the first time I dodged this and burned that, I felt as though I had done it before.

I had never been in an environment like that…the creative environment.  I pretty much towed-the-line for the first 38 years of my life and then woke up to the idea that I could do something different…perhaps something that even provided some sense of accomplishment, pride and peace of mind.  What I was producing out of the darkroom was/is the vehicle to which I am.  The darkroom, and by extension the entire photographic process and out further…the process of creativity…gave me something to hold on to as I connected with the outside world and the world inside, a point of connection, a point of conversation…an anchor.

I am now a young journeyman on this path and somehow I ended up in the mecca of west coast fine art photography, surrounded by true craftsmen (and women).  Indeed, there is much to be learned from this community, much to observe, much to breathe in.

So why continue in the darkroom?  Why continue that process when options continue to expand and time continues to recede?  It is the tactile and sensual experience that leads to a luscious and rich pearl that you can hold in your hands.  A story that communicates and cleanses through its deep rich tones, resolution and luminescence.  It is the process.  From start to finish, it is the process. That is why I returned to the darkroom after my first day’s experience and why I will go back in again, that is what I continue to hone and yet expand with each session…the process.

You talk about different places being certain zones.  Is the zone system something you use in your photography?

Absolutely. Having a point of reference is critical and the Zone System provides that.  I wish I could sound like a real pro here but the truth is I would be lost without my meter, the Zone System and my fingers (to count).

I was having coffee with Ron James once and he was looking at the light illuminating from a lamp.  He said, “That has an EV value of….”. Ron pulled out his light meter (which he had brought with him to the coffee shop), metered the lamp and verified his correct assessment. I envy that to no end.  Knowing where tones fall within a scene is important not only so you know how your film and paper will respond but also if you want or need to manipulate the scene…perhaps start telling a different story…perhaps exaggerate the story.  This is where it becomes critical to me…manipulating the tones.  On a number of occasions I have come across a scene that might have had a 2-stop difference in its tones.  Maybe this was zones 4 and 5 only…which would be a pretty lifeless negative and final print.  If the subject matter or composition warranted, or perhaps there were micro zones undetectable by the meter, I could bring that scene to life.  By using the zone system or some point of reference, I can determine what my options might be to bring the scene to life…or to tell a different story.

So what are the options? Pick a baseline zone—zone 3 is common, I tend use zone 7 as my baseline.  If the scene does not have a zone 7 then how do I get my highest actual tone up to zone 7?  And how does that affect the remaining zones and their relationship to one another?  Maybe the simple act of placing a red filter on the lens to push the deeper tones back a bit. That would allow you to place your zone 5 up to zone 6 or 7 and your zone 4 would push down to zone 3 or deeper.  I could expand my negative in development…plus 2 stops.  If I need more, selenium tone the negative…plus 1 stop.  A hard filter during print exposure certainly gives me a boost.  Localized bleaching is certainly a go-to for that extra punch. So we have gone from a scene metering only 2 zones to a final print with a full range of tones complete with detail where we want it.

Understanding the relationship between zones and how those relationships change when subject to certain techniques at the point of exposure, development, printing and toning…I don’t know how I would do that without a meter and the Zone System.

© Roger Aguirre Smith

 How do you challenge yourself creatively?

James Gilmore was teaching the Intro to Black and White Photography class I took some years back.  I remember very little of the lecture part of the class (sorry Jim) but what I do remember was his statement, “Don’t be a flat-footed photographer!”  That continues to resonate and expand within me.

I have had people make the comment that I do not have a cohesive body of work in that I do not have a “series”…I do not have a “style”…you cannot walk into a room of photographs and know which print is mine because of its particular “style”.  That really bothered me for a while.  And sometimes still does.  If true, will this effect the ability to promote my work…perhaps pitch it to a gallery?  I do not know and, does that matter?   If I did have a “style”, would it hinder creative expansion?

There are many photographers, Jane Olin and Martha Casanave come to mind, that excel at working in series.  Jane’s “Greta” series knocked my socks off…and still does.  The presentation is the same but each image in the series was a unique story, uniquely expressed.  Each image held up on its own yet together, gave way to the whole.  Martha’s “Coastal Pinhole” series is the same.  Maybe I just do not have the kind of mind that sees out that far?  Maybe my creativity has not matured to that level of sophistication.  Grist for the mill.  For now, my creativity expresses itself in a single image…and then it moves on.

As a web designer by trade, the process of developing a new site is similar to my photographic process.  Though not a preferable or profitable business technique, I treat each web development project uniquely.  Each design is unique.  Each client relationship is unique.  Though my code base carries over from project to project, I have to get my hands in there and write some of it…just because it is important to me to create something for each project.  The designs are also all from scratch.  I struggle with the whole “template”-based way of doing things.  Again, from a business perspective anything you can “template” will save you time and money.  I could crank out twice as many web projects as I do currently but I just cannot get myself to follow that mindset.  I need to feel like I am creating something new…each time.  I treat my trade just as I do my passion.  Photographically, the truth is I do not like doing the same thing over and over again…and in the same way.  I like to visit new places and challenge myself to photograph things I have never photographed before and photograph them in a different ways.  The truth for me is that each negative is a unique experience and should be presented as such.

Placing all my shadows on zone 3, all my highlights to zone 7, developing the same way every time, always printing with a 25M filter with the rare and exciting exception of 35M then selenium tone and wash day in and day out does not work for me.  It works brilliantly for many photographers I know, but for me it does not.

What can I do differently this time?  Can I position my camera differently?  Can I place something different over the lens?  Can I develop the negative differently.  Can I play with the zones?  What can I do during the printing process that might add a different emotion?  And toning…what are my options there?  I go through this process with each scene.

© Roger Aguirre Smith
Thank you Roger.

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