Rfotofolio has the pleasure of bringing you the work and words of master printer and photographer Keith Taylor.
Would you please tell us a little about yourself?
I was born in Bromley, a suburb of London, in the UK, but for the past seventeen years I’ve lived in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
I started my career as a black and white photo printer in London, printing advertising, fashion and editorial images for photographers. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s I concentrated on printing exhibitions, portfolios and books, and produced prints that won numerous awards from the Association of Photographers Awards, the British Picture Editors’ Awards and the Ilford Photographic Awards.
What first brought you to photography?
I grew up surrounded by photographers, both amateur and professional. My father was the main driving force, being a keen still photographer, as were many of his friends. Among them were a few professionals who worked for the national newspapers in Britain, either as photographers or picture editors. In 1966, one of the photographers was covering the World Cup final at Wembley, between England and Germany. A few days later he came by the house and gave me a stack of prints of the England squad. As a six-year-old boy, there was something magical about being given those original 8” x 10” and 16” x 20” glossy prints. But what I remember most was how sharp and detailed they were, because I only ever saw images like these in newspapers or magazines where the reproduction was usually poor. Yet seeing original prints, so large and crisp and tonally perfect was magic. I still have the prints somewhere.
Then twenty-five years ago I married a photographer whose father ran the photography and documentary film department at Honeywell Inc., so I’ve always been surrounded by photography in one form or another.
Would you share how you go about editing?
I’m currently working in the platinum-palladium, 3-colour gum dichromate, polymer photogravure and gelatin silver processes. The negatives and positives that are required for the first three processes have to be the same size as the final print, because they’re contact processes rather than enlargement.
This large format film is placed in contact with the sensitized paper or plate and exposed to ultraviolet light before processing. In the past I would have made these negatives and positives in the darkroom using an enlarger, large format film and chemistry, but today it’s quicker to make them digitally using a film substrate called Pictorico and an inkjet printer. The result is a film negative or positive on film rather than paper. Not only is it faster but it’s cheaper and, more importantly, I have complete control over the contrast and sharpening.
Having worked with film every day for over thirty years, I find it easier to judge negatives rather than contact sheets and unless there’s a specific reason why I have to, I don’t make contact sheets for myself. Obviously I do for clients, but not for my personal work.
The original film is scanned and the file edited in Photoshop before the film is output to size. I use Photoshop to work in the same way I would have done in the darkroom, burning and dodging, contrast control and spotting.
For my silver prints I still use fibre papers that are exposed, processed and toned in the darkroom the traditional way. I’ve been working in darkrooms for so long now I could never just let go and give it up completely.
I’ve always been keen to embrace those aspects of a process that makes my life either safer or easier. Digital technology has given me the ability to work with at least two processes that would have otherwise been out of my reach; three-colour gum dichromate and photogravure. The 3-colour gum dichromate prints each require three separations which would have been difficult for me to do years ago with film and filters, but today this is a simple process using Photoshop.
Copperplate photogravure, an incredibly labour-intensive etching process, uses copper, acids and dusting boxes. Instead, I work with the polymer photogravure method that uses plates coated with an ultra-violet light-sensitive polymer layer that’s bonded to a backing sheet of steel and easily (and safely) washed out in water. Once processed, these plates are inked, wiped and the prints pulled in the same way as the copperplate method.
Although I work with very traditional and historical processes, I certainly don’t feel the obligation anymore to limit myself to the original chemistry and workflow as they did in the 1800s and early 1900s. I used to, to some extent, but now I’m quite happy to use contemporary techniques to simplify things and substitute safer, more environmentally friendly chemicals for the more toxic originals.
Which photographers and other artist work do admire?
It was while I was working in London that I became increasingly interested in the historical processes. I have always tried to introduce an element of tactility to my prints, either through the choice of paper or process. I was especially interested in images and prints by Stieglitz, Strand, Coburn and Emerson, and the processes and chemistry they used. Naturally, this led me to become interested in working with photogravure and platinum.
I love the earlier work of Sarah Moon from the 1970s and then her later images – especially “Circus” and “Still”. Very different periods but all the images have that tactile quality I love.
My love of the photo-secessionists is what drew me into printing and the historical processes in the first place, and that love is still there, but I am trying to look at more contemporary work than I have done in the past. Fortunately, because of the internet, it’s a lot easier looking at new work today than it was years ago.
What makes a great photograph in your view?
In London, when I was trying to build my career as an exhibition printer, I would almost always look at photographs through the eyes of a printer. I’d look at the burning-in and the dodging, the choice of paper, the toning, the presentation. Over the years that’s changed and I know that I now look at work and see images, not prints. As a young photographer too, I was experimenting with films, papers and chemistry trying to find a style, but having settled on a combination that works for me, that need to look at things from a technical viewpoint has disappeared. Now I can revisit old favourites and see them from a different perspective. So twenty-something years ago, the answer to your question would have been “a perfect print”, but now, I’m not so sure.
What challenges do you face as a photographer?
That’s always been the same – finding the time to work on personal projects. Most days I’m usually working late, either editing or printing for clients, which limits the time I have available for my work.
In 2011, I was awarded a Minnesota Center for Book Arts/Jerome Foundation mentorship and my schedule changed completely. The purpose of the program is to teach six artists from other disciplines the book arts and to produce an edition of work. That year-long project period meant I was committed to learning new techniques, taking workshops, attending critiques, producing the work and putting it all together for a book and for an exhibition at the end of the year. So the priority was on my work rather than my clients’ and I loved every minute of it!
Would you share how it is you go about printing other photographers work?
The business is obviously very different from when I started over thirty years ago, but I still love it. In London there were three printers who had a big influence on me early on. Roy Snell taught me what it took to make a print that had soul, depth and feeling. Ron Bagley showed me the business side of the industry, besides being a great printer, and Bill Rowlinson instilled in me to do what I believe in, do it from the heart and not sell out. Bill, incidentally, printed much of Sarah Moon’s earlier work that I love.
I’ve always preferred to work with fewer photographers, build a lasting relationship over time and create high quality prints rather than try to work for everyone and produce sub-standard work. Over the past thirty years I’ve worked with some wonderful clients who have eventually become close friends and who I’m still working with.
The internet has certainly made it easier for me to work for photographers worldwide. Instead of having to send original and valuable negatives, file transfer means I can be making digital negatives and platinum prints almost immediately, if necessary.
I edit the image file in Photoshop to the client’s instructions or to a match print if one has been supplied. Once it looks correct on the monitor then I prepare it for film output. If it’s to translate well into print then the contrast of the file has to be matched to the contrast of the final process. Just as a printer will select a specific grade of gelatin silver paper or a multi contrast filter to match a negative, I apply a Photoshop adjustment curve to achieve the same result. These are curves that I’ve developed over the years and that are optimised for every combination of paper, process, sensitiser and developer that I work with.
Depending on the client’s location or preference, test strips or proofs are sent for approval and changes made if necessary. Once the final proof has been approved then the prints are made to match it.
Would you tell us about your workspace?
I work in a studio in south Minneapolis where I’m very fortunate to have a small darkroom but access to a larger studio for print finishing and other tasks. This is especially useful now that I’m making hand-bound books and portfolio cases – jobs that require plenty of large, clear spaces to work in.
In terms of layout, the darkroom itself is very simple and small by most standards. I’ve never worked in large darkrooms, although I’ve experienced them and have never liked the feeling. There’s something intimate about printing in a smaller space with low lighting, music and good negatives. That would be lost if I were to work in a large space. Also, platinum printing and the other historical processes I work with don’t require the room to be light-tight, so I can work with the door open.
The historical processes I work with all require an exposure to ultra-violet light, so I have a 5KW mercury-halide plateburner that is fast and dependable. This lamp is suspended above a vacuum frame into which the paper and film are placed and a vacuum draws out the air to ensure tight contact and a sharp image.
I have a dry area that has one of my three 4″ x 5″ Omega enlargers and a coating area for platinum and gum dichromate prints large enough to coat a full size sheet of paper easily, which is about 30″ x 22″, lightbox, film drying cabinet etc. Two walls are taken up with three large stainless steel sinks and plenty of trays. I have a separate set of trays for each of the processes to avoid contamination, and that adds up to a lot of trays.
How does your art affect the way you see the world?
Most of my work is still shot on film and with Rolleiflexes so I usually see things square and dark. I can turn the brightest of days into doom and gloom! I don’t wait for the light to be just right – if it’s mid-day in July when I see a photograph then that’s what I have to work with – but I do tend to print quite dark. It’s partly my way of separating what I feel is important in the image from the general clutter surrounding it that I have no control over.
I found it interesting when I first started using a digital camera, after decades of using just black and white film and Rolleiflexes, that nothing made sense to me. I saw nothing on the monitor of what I’d seen at the time of exposure. But as soon as I started cropping the image square and converting it to monochrome, it starting making sense.
I had never been interested in working with colour, either for my work or for clients, until digital made a few things easier or possible. I’d never been at ease with the vibrant and realistic colours that colour film and printing used to offer and always preferred a slightly desaturated image and muted colours. Now that it’s easy to do this in Photoshop I am looking at things slightly differently. But monochrome is still my first love.
I’m drawn to places of historical interest and usually at times when the light is quite flat. Bright sunlight and high contrast scenes don’t make me happy.
How important is it to your art form to have “creative community”?
I’m very much a loner when it comes to creating my personal work. I don’t like to talk about new work and certainly never show work in progress to anyone other than to a very close circle. I’m not usually looking for feedback during the creative process, so it’s not important to my art form in that sense. People get to see it once it’s finished and I’m happy with it. The exception was the MCBA mentorship program where I had to show work in progress throughout the year.
Despite working this way, I couldn’t live where some form of artistic community didn’t exist, so yes, in that respect it is important. We’re incredibly fortunate in Minnesota in having the arts communities and the funding that we do. I’ve never hidden the fact that Minnesota has given me more opportunities as an artist than I would ever have had if I were still living in the UK. I love the UK, but the grants and opportunities for artists in Minnesota are wonderful, even in these hard economic times, and we know this and realise how lucky we are.
If no one else saw your work would you still create it?
Of course! Gallery shows and print sales are vitally important not only for the income but also for the boost they give and the affirmation that you’re doing something that resonates with others. But I have to make photographs, and will continue to make photographs even if no one sees them.
Is there another type of photography or subject matter you would like tackle?
I’d love to make portraits, and I admire the work of Steve Pyke, but I’m shy when it comes to photographing other people. I certainly wish I had the patience, and the time, to spend hours waiting for the right light in a landscape too. I have a lot of patience in the darkroom but not on location it seems and so I admire those photographers who can do that.
Where can we see your work ?
You can see more of my work online at Keith Taylor
Thank you Keith for sharing your words and your art.