Nathan: In the spirit of how all of these interviews typically start, let’s start with the roots of your earliest interests in photography and how they led you to where you are today.
Jeff: My earliest memory of anything photographic is of a collection of cameras that my grandmother had, mostly Kodak Brownies and a few folding cameras. I must have been two or three years old and had no idea what they were at the time, but I was fascinated with the various buttons, knobs and windows displaying curious numbers and settings.
It wasn’t until I took a photography class in high school that I became completely enthralled with photography. For me it was the perfect fusion of creativity and technical process that captured my heart. I knew absolutely nothing about the photographic process at the time and was very curious, so much so that when I returned from the camera store after buying my first list of supplies for the class I opened the box of (light sensitive) photographic paper in broad daylight. Needless to say it took me some time to figure out why my first prints were coming out totally black! But I quickly learned the basics of exposure, film development, and darkroom printing and was completely hooked. I remember having this overwhelming sense of unlimited creative possibilities at my disposal. Within a few weeks I bought a used darkroom setup and was developing film and making prints in my parents basement.
During my senior year in high school I began applying for colleges. My father mentioned an art school in Detroit and asked if I ever thought about studying photography as a career. With the help of my high school photography teacher, I submitted a portfolio and was accepted to the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. Over the next four years at CCS I became fully immersed in photography, learning the technical aspects of the craft as well as becoming exposed to the works of the great photographic masters and cultivating a greater appreciation for the arts in general.
I came straight out of graduation in 1995 and started a commercial photography and digital imaging studio with a fellow classmate and good friend. At this time digital photography was just becoming a feasible technology and we branded ourselves as being on the leading edge of digital photography and imaging technologies. We were schooled in the ways of traditional film photography but fully embraced the new digital capabilities. In retrospect, I feel privileged to have had my career begin at such a pivotal moment.
Nathan: Your images are always quite wonderfully composed. How do you approach composing an image, and why, in general, do you typically choose the square to frame your subject? Also, why long exposure? What quality does it bring to your composition or, perhaps, what I am really asking is: what purpose does it serve in what you are, ultimately, trying to express? After all, in my view at least, long exposure is, at heart, a photographic parlor trick, a sleight of hand, a touch of the illusory, one that can provide wonderful tonal qualities and / or certain moods and dramatic expressions, but they, quite honestly, have become ubiquitously ubiquitous (so, yes, quite ubiquitous)— so much so that many who experiment with it seem to be far more enamored with the trick than the reason. These are quite a few questions I know, but I am very curious about your thoughts about such things and, if you feel such things, the ways these things are interrelated and how you go about working with / thinking about them.
Jeff: I used to shoot quite extensively with a Rolleiflex TLR and Hasselblad, both of which utilize the 6X6 square format on 120 roll film. I love the simplicity of the square format and really enjoy composing within a square space. I suppose I was a bit of a purist at the time and believed one should be faithful to the format they were shooting and compose full frame. Needless to say, when I transitioned to a DSLR I found myself in a bit of pickle. I really struggled with this for quite some time but finally decided to forgo my purist stance. After all I was entering into this new world of digital imaging where it seemed anything goes.
I never set out to be a “long exposure” photographer which apparently is something photographer’s label themselves as these days. I was doing 45 minute exposures back in the film days out of necessity, shooting architectural interiors of churches with ISO 50 sheet film, trying to pull every bit of detail I could out of the deepest shadows. I became inspired by an image of Kenro Izu’s on Easter Island where enormous stone Moai statues sat motionless, juxtaposed against sweeping clouds and breaking ocean waves which had turned into a soft frothy haze. The effect seemed to emphasize the passing of time in which these stone monuments continue to sit in utter stillness. I’ve long been fascinated by the concept of time, how everything is merely a fleeting moment. The long exposure “parlor trick” is one way of capturing that feeling of time passing and is something I try to convey in my images.
Nathan: Your subject matter ranges from the sea, the landscape, the interiors of abandoned buildings, and the shapes and lines of architecture (and the lighting for each provides a variety of difficulties). How do you go about addressing these various subjects and lighting challenges? Also—do you feel that these various subject matters are that—a variety of different subjects—or do you, perhaps, see them all as being interrelated, all part of your overall way of “seeing” things?
Jeff: For me, making a photograph is a collaboration between myself, the subject and light. The word photography literally means to “write with light”; it’s ultimately about being able to interpret light and its interaction with the subject.
This can be a difficult dance and often requires patience and determination. It may come easier for some than others but for me it took many years to cultivate. It has been very frustrating at times but also extremely rewarding.
I definitely see all things as interrelated and believe that what I am drawn to photograph is a culmination of the way I see the world around me. I’m not sure there is a general theme to my entire body of work per se but there are multiple streams of visual consciousness flowing throughout, all of which contribute to my overall vision and aesthetic.
Nathan: It’s become a cliché to talk about such things, but what are your thoughts about working with film versus working with digital? I ask, in part, because I plan to guide my questions towards your interests in printing.
Jeff: Well, coming from the perspective of someone who learned photography before digital, my perspective is most likely very different from someone who discovered photography in the digital age. The wet process is the reason I came to love photography. Working in a darkroom is an experience like no other; there is so much mystery in exposing a piece of light sensitive paper and watching your image magically appear in the developer tray. As you begin to dig in deeper and start to understand that you can (to a limited degree) control this process through modifying exposure and development times, things get even more interesting. Shooting film requires technical precision and mental focus. There is much more “wiggle room” in a digital workflow; one can be a bit sloppy and still achieve good results.
In the early to mid 1990’s, I was very excited about early advances in digital imaging and embraced these new technologies wholeheartedly. The traditional photographic process has many inherent limitations, and digital photography promised virtually unlimited control which was a very exciting proposition. This was especially welcome news at a time when I was coming out of college and entering into the world of commercial photography. While on commercial assignments, having the ability to see your images at the time of exposure inspired a great deal of confidence.
Looking back at my transition to a digital workflow, I can now see advantages and disadvantages of each process. The inherent characteristics of film based photography plays a major role in why I think photography is such a captivating medium. Film grain, depth-of-field, depth-of-focus (or lack thereof), the surface texture of the paper, imperfect frame edges, even dust spots define the nature of a photographic image. So many of these characteristics today are being faked via digital imaging because they are not inherent to the digital process. While digital imaging seems to be all-powerful, it (in my opinion) is sterile and lacks soul. By using techniques such as long exposure and tilt-shift lenses I am attempting to re-introduce a sense of “photographicness” to my images.
I am currently exploring a hybrid workflow to leverage the strengths of both analog and digital processes. This is actually very similar to the workflow I was using in the early 1990’s for my college thesis project where I attempted to merge traditional and historical photographic processes with the latest digital imaging technologies. I was shooting large format film, scanning, post-processing in Photoshop, then producing LVT film outputs for creating negatives for platinum printing. It was an expensive, overly complex process in which I learned many lessons, but ultimately it was not a suitable workflow at the time.
Significant advancements have been made over the past 20 years making a hybrid workflow much more viable. I am now shooting film again, which is digitized via a custom built camera scanning system utilizing a Nikon D800E, Rodenstock reproduction lens and glass plate for wet mounting film. The glass plate sits on a moveable X/Y table, where multiple overlapping exposures are made and then stitched together, producing very high resolution files. The results I am achieving equal, if not better the quality of previous drum scanning efforts. The scans are then post-processed and printed digitally using Piezography B&W inks or digital negatives are being produced for pt/pd printing.
Nathan: Tonal quality. Yes. Your images have a truly wonderful tonal quality that I always recognize as yours. I’d like to hear your thoughts about such things both as a photographer who creates your own tones and as a printer who gives life to the work of other photographers on paper. How does printing your own work affect the way you process your images? And what kinds of things do you focus on when you print other photographers’ work?
Jeff: The culmination of my photographic efforts results in the form of physical photographic prints. It’s not an afterthought but an integral part of my image making process. For images I post online I try to best represent the tonality of my prints.
I use Piezography for B&W printing, a system which replaces the standard color inks in an inkjet printer with up to 7 shades of grayscale inks. With Piezography the tone of a print is determined by the inks used. There are several ink sets available for producing various tones, including neutral, selenium, warm neutral, and carbon/sepia. In addition, you can further customize print tonality by mixing and matching different inks within each shade value. For instance, you can create a split tone ink set by using carbon inks in the darker shades and selenium in the highlights. I have created my own custom ink blend which I use for my personal print editions and it has also become a very popular choice for clients I print for. Paper selection also plays a major role in determining the overall look of a print. Piezography inks interact with each paper differently and by experimenting with various combinations of inks and papers it is possible to achieve a wide range of results.
When it comes to printing for clients, I look at the style of their imagery and inquire about their personal preferences, then suggest some paper and ink combinations that I feel would best compliment the images. For new clients, I suggest first getting some sample prints to help finalize their choices. I have found that a collaborative approach is the best way to achieve the highest degree of quality and customer satisfaction.
Nathan: I still have those images that you printed for me. While I am now more or less satisfied with my own printing, I have to admit that you really are quite excellent at printing, so I can completely understand why photographers would be willing to wait in line to have you print their images (and I have encouraged quite a few photographers to use your services). Still … I must ask this: do you think a photographer should learn the craft of printing for him or herself if he or she truly wants to master the art of photography? I know this is an entirely loaded question. Truthfully, while I think, personally, learning to make my own prints has been and continues to be essential to my development as a photographer, I don’t feel that every photographer needs to worry about such things, and there are, very definitely, great benefits to having someone as skilled as yourself make the best possible print of an image. Yet … you, after all, mastered the craft of printing for your own work first before you ever got around to thinking about printing for others. So … what are your thoughts about this?
Jeff: First, thank you for your kind words. It’s always a pleasure to have the opportunity to make prints of such wonderful work. It makes my job as a printer much more fulfilling.
Historically speaking, the darkroom has been a key component in the creative process for the majority of photographic masters. Ansel Adams famously stated, “The negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score and the print the conductor’s performance.” On the other hand, many legendary photographers did not print their own work and partnered with trusted “master printers” to realize their photographic vision. Henri Cartier-Bresson said, “I’m only a hunter, not a cook.” and preferred taking photographs over slaving away in a darkroom. The majority of Robert Frank’s images were printed by his long time master printer Sid Kaplan.
To say digital photography has changed the way we make photographs would be an understatement. Techniques traditionally done in the darkroom during printing such as contrast control and burning & dodging are now handled in digital post-production with incredible precision. Photographers today have more control over the creative process than ever. Unfortunately, for the majority of photographer’s learned in the digital age, printing is most often a complete afterthought. The overwhelming majority of images made today remain in digital form and are never realized as physical photographic prints.
For me, printing is an integral part of my creative process, but I don’t think it’s necessarily essential that every serious photographer make their own prints. Printing is an investment in time, money and energy and most people would rather be out shooting than dealing with things like profiling papers and clearing clogged nozzles. That being said, as an advocate for fine art printing I highly encourage anyone serious about their photography to take the time to understand what a good print is and what it takes to consistently make them. Having a better understanding of printing will positively impact the way one captures and processes their images and will increase the overall quality of ones work.
Nathan: We, via social media and the affordability of cameras that produce quality images, live in a world that, if one allows it to, saturates the eyes with a deluge of images. In fact, many well-known and established photographers present their work primarily via social media, leaving their work to the whims of the varying quality and settings of millions of monitors, consequently resulting in the careful tonal qualities and contrasts being left to chance. The print had long been the end goal of photography, especially the kind that many label as fine art, but now, of course, most photos never see paper. As a “realizer” of other peoples’ visions, what are your thoughts about the world of photography and its relation to social media?
Jeff: It’s no doubt that the advent of social media has made an incredible impact on our world culture, creating communities of like-minded people with very specific interests like fine art photography, or even more specifically B&W long exposure photography. It’s incredible that we are able to instantly share our work with people all over the world. It would have been incredibly difficult for me to launch a successful B&W fine art printing service without the use of social media. It gave me the ability to reach a niche market on a global scale.
However, all these benefits come at a price. There are negative aspects as well and I think we need to be mindful about how wrapped up we get in the whole social media thing. Even though online communities can be a great source of inspiration, I am of the opinion that it can actually stifle ones creativity. Certainly when one is starting out in photography, scrolling through thousands of amazing photographs can be quite inspirational. But when one becomes more serious about photography it’s important to develop a unique vision. To do this, one must unlearn all their preconceived notions, as one’s true vision can only be found from within. It can be a difficult process, especially after subjecting oneself to an endless barrage of images online.
It’s true that the majority of images never make it past the screen and it’s understandable as to why that has become the norm. Social media allows one to easily share our creations with a very large, global audience. Also, modern high quality displays are capable of displaying images with incredible dynamic range, color and saturation. Even though uncalibrated monitors display images unpredictably, it still is a great way to view images. But, as a proponent of the fine art print I feel that many are missing out on a very important aspect of the photographic process. There is something very rewarding about making physical photographic objects.
Nathan: The time has come for the “does size matter?” question. One of the end goals for many, many photographers— especially landscape photographers, is creating bigger and bigger and bigger prints (as if the bigger the print can be the more cooler it can be). I am certainly an exception to this rule. I have typically printed my own square images as 7” x 7”. Recently, I begrudgingly gave into the fact that a lot of people prefer a larger print and I have started printing as large as a 12” x 12” square. I recognize that a larger print has a more immediate dramatic effect as it draws one in almost instantly because it dominates the space, but—and perhaps this is influenced by my studies of Zen and Japanese aesthetics of art— I prefer to invite the viewer to come in closer and explore the tones and contrasts of the small window of a 7” x 7” square. As a printer of others’ work, I am guessing that you more or less print whatever size your client requests, but do you have any preferences or thoughts about the dramatic possibilities and expressions of different size prints?
Jeff: 12X12 whopping inches… you are a madman, Nathan!
I’m definitely in the same school of thought as you and prefer smaller, more intimate prints. Perhaps that comes from my days of contact printing where 4X5 inch prints were pretty much standard fare. Back in art school we had this inside joke between friends about print size. During critiques, if a fellow students image wasn’t being well received we were supposed to offer constructive criticism. There would be an uneasy silence then one of us would say, “Maybe you should try printing it bigger.”
My standard edition size for square format images is 10X10 inches. I’ve struggled immensely with the pressures of galleries wanting larger prints and have settled on larger edition sizes of 15X15, 22X22 and 40X40. People want big prints these days and they do fetch big money so I suppose if someone wants to pay for a giant print of mine I am happy to sell them one. But personally I prefer getting lost in the mystique of a 10X10 print. Big prints generally leave me spiritually unaffected.
That being said, I have become much more open to making larger prints, especially for commissioned pieces where the final print size is known at the time of shooting. When I’m making a photograph, I’m pre-visualizing the final print in my mind, and when you visualize an image printed on a larger scale it changes the way you approach the subject. It also allows me to choose the appropriate tools and workflow necessary in creating a larger piece at the level of quality I strive for. On numerous occasions, I’ve gone back and reshot subjects with a different lens, higher resolution camera or film so that I am able to print at a larger scale.
In terms of printing for clients, ultimately, I will print at any size they desire but I feel it’s my duty as a printer to help them better understand how an image will degrade at larger print sizes if not captured or processed appropriately. I encourage technical perfection but understand everyone has different expectations of what a final print should look like.
Nathan: What about paper? I use Hahnemühle’s papers almost exclusively (Bamboo, in particular, but from time to time I use Museum Etching, William Turner, and Photo Rag). How do you go about selecting the paper for your own images? How do you approach selecting the best paper for your clients’ work (or how do you help guide them to make their own selections)?
Jeff: I experiment with a lot of papers and look at characteristics like surface texture, paper weight, brightness, dMax and archival qualities. The most important thing I look for is how a paper reacts with the various inks that I print with. Especially with Piezography, the ink and paper work in tandem to produce a specific tonal quality. An ink can look very different on one paper than on another. Paper choice and recommendations are generally driven by the ink being used and whether it will be a matte or baryta print. I probably spend the majority of my printing efforts in finding the best ink and paper combination for a particular project.
I personally prefer a paper with some texture over a very smooth surface. I also like a more natural white over bright white. The custom ink blend that I created for my personal work was designed specifically for printing on Hahnemühle Museum Etching. It’s a great combination that has become very popular with my clients as well.
I avoid paper’s containing Optical Brightener Agents as they have caused me problems in the past. OBA’s make a paper base brighter white but the brightness fades relatively quickly and the coating discolors easily from air contaminants. I’ve made prints on Hahnemühle Photo Rag (which contains OBA’s) that have stained during shipping, the likely culprit being sulfur from delivery truck and jet exhaust. I highly recommend spraying any prints made on papers with OBA’s with a protective coating like Premier Art Shield.
For someone new to printing, I’d suggest experimenting with different papers and see what works best for you. Most paper manufacturers offer sample packs making it easy to try many papers without having to purchase an entire box. Once you find a paper you like I recommend sticking with it for awhile so that you can reduce your variables and fine tune your printing to that specific paper.
Nathan: Why Piezography inks?
Jeff: I come from a film background where I was passionate about producing the most beautiful (and archivally stable) prints available. That journey led me to primarily shooting large format (4X5 and 8X10) and making platinum/palladium contact prints. Pt/pd printing is still regarded by many as the highest form of photographic print making, and for very good reason. A finely produced platinum print is an absolutely exquisite object to behold, with a beautifully smooth and subtle tonal range and unmatched dimensionality. In addition, the image is integrated into the paper surface which contributes to the overall aesthetic of the print.
In the early to mid 1990’s I started adopting digital technologies into my photographic workflow. Photoshop processing allowed for an unprecedented level of control. At this time however, inkjet printing was nowhere near the quality of what one could achieve in the darkroom. I spent quite a few years experimenting with various ways to output digital negatives that were suitable for platinum printing but it still would be a long time before this technology would become fully feasible.
One day I came across Piezography which promised darkroom quality digital prints by converting an Epson inkjet printer into a B&W specific printer. At that time most high-end photo printers were six color printers using a single black and five color inks. With the Piezography system, the color inks are replaced with five additional shades of gray, making a desktop inkjet printer capable of producing black and white prints with a tonal range and detail on par with that of a darkroom print.
Inkjet technology has come a long way and the out of the box solutions are definitely closing the gap, but in my opinion it still makes sense to make B&W prints with a dedicated system designed for it. There are compromises that must be made for a printer designed to handle both B&W and color printing. Modern Epson printers use three shades of black whereas Piezography uses six or seven. In order to mimic the entire grayscale range with only three shades of black, the Epson driver uses dithering algorithms to spread the ink droplets further apart, creating the illusion of lighter tones. In reality it’s simply using less ink in the highlights. Piezography is capable of producing the entire grayscale range by utilizing up to seven shades of ink, from black to a very light gray. Instead of using less ink in lighter areas it uses the lightest shades of ink to fully cover the paper, resulting in smoother tonal gradations across the entire range of ink densities.
In addition, Epson’s Advanced Black & White printing mode utilizes color inks to produce cool, neutral or warm tones, whereas with Piezography the tone is in the inks. Piezography inks come in Neutral, Warm Neutral, Selenium, Carbon and Special Edition. It is also possible to mix and match the various ink shades to produce split toned prints or create your own custom blend. In my opinion, the tonality achieved with Piezography inks is far superior to what can be achieved using Epson’s ABW mode.
Nathan: Let’s shift the direction of the interview to some more general questions that I always ask the photographers I interview. First, I’d love to hear about some of the photographers, whether they be established or upcoming, alive or passed on, that you particularly admire and, most importantly, why and how.
Jeff: Well, there’s always the classic masters: Edward Weston, Minor White, Edward Steichen, Walker Evans, Frederick Evans, Joel-Peter Within and Aaron Siskind to name a few. These photographers were instrumental in my forming of a lifelong love for the art of photography. They laid the groundwork for my appreciation of exquisite black and white imagery and beautifully crafted prints.
More contemporary names come to mind like Charles Grogg and The Starn Twins who are challenging the very definition of what a photograph can be. Both the Starns and Grogg go beyond the surface of the print to create compelling works of art. Having both a strong aesthetic and conceptual component to ones work is a trait that I admire.
Nathan: What writers, painters, filmmakers or other artists have influenced your work (and, most importantly, how)?
Jeff: I believe that the culmination of our entire life experience forms ones artistic vision. Everything we experience is interconnected. It can take years for our creative vision to mature. I am most certainly influenced by other forms of art but I believe it goes far beyond our artistic preferences. Everything is influence. Nature, spirituality, human ingenuity, it’s all very fascinating to me.
I’m definitely influenced by artistic ideologies and movements such as The Bauhaus, Minimalism, Precisionism, Feng-Shui and Zen. I’m also heavily drawn to Gothic architecture and the industrial landscape. In terms of direct influence by other artists, that’s difficult for me to pinpoint. Some names that come to mind are: Alberto Giacommetti, Walter Gropius, Charles Sheeler, Egon Schiele, Moholy-Nagy, Lao Tzu, Thich Nhat Hanh and Jeff Magnum.
Nathan: Do you listen to music while you process your images? If yes, what do you listen to and in what ways do you think music shapes your work?
Jeff: I find a great deal of inspiration from listening to music and enjoy a wide variety of genres. In terms of creative inspiration I generally prefer listening to instrumental music while I work on images, particularly post-rock bands such as Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Explosions In The Sky and Mogwai. I find G.Y.B.E. especially inspiring, the post-apocalyptic feel to their music is seemingly the perfect soundtrack to my photographic vision.
Several Images with Notes from Jeff
Refinery: While studying photography in Detroit in the early 90’s I became fascinated by the surrounding industrial landscape. I spent a lot of time photographing in and around the heavily industrialized River Rouge area of Detroit. At that time I was primarily shooting with large format 4X5 and 8X10 view cameras. I could set up just about anywhere I wanted and rarely would anyone care what I was doing. If they did approach me it was mostly out of curiosity as to what I was doing with such a large camera.
Twenty years later, I decided I wanted to create a series of industrial images so I headed back down to The Rouge. Much to my surprise things were very different. Just about every time I mounted my little DSLR to the tripod a security vehicle would approach me and tell me I wasn’t allowed to take pictures. The area is now buzzing with Department of Homeland Security personnel, deeming anything labeled “Critical Infrastructure” by the use government off limits to photograph. It became a bit of a game for me for awhile, sneaking around taking pictures and trying not to get caught. Eventually I decided to pack things up for a while. I had got written up so many times I started to worry I might be on some sort of terrorist watch list. I suppose it wasn’t all for naught, I received 2nd place in the 2011 International Photo Awards for my Rouge Series. One of my personal favorites, “Refinery” is a result of one of my late night missions photographing the Marathon Oil Refinery.
Click for larger View
A Threatened Legacy: In the early 90’s I spent several years documenting historic churches for a book project called “A Threatened Legacy: Detroit’s Historic Churches.” The purpose of the project was to document historic structures that were being threatened to be closed and eventually demolished due to the severe population decline in the city of Detroit. This eventually became my senior thesis project, where I combined emerging digital technologies, making digital negatives for the historical photographic platinum/palladium printing process.
Fifteen years later I started an epilogue to this project, photographing churches that have since fallen into decay. In addition to creating new images I’m also revisiting the digital negative for pt/pd printing process, using the new PiezoDN system.
Lost Horizon and The Path: Many times, when I set out to make photographs I have a particular image or scene in mind that I am looking to capture. Often times I go back to the same location a number of times before I am able to achieve the results that I have visualized in my mind. On one occasion, I drove a few hours to the Lake Michigan shoreline specifically to photograph a particular scene that I had in mind. I spent a few hours out on a break wall capturing “Lost Horizon” which turned out to be pretty much the image I had visualized. The light was fading so I packed up everything and called it a day. As I was heading back to my car I came across these trees at the top of a hill alongside a sandy pathway. The wind was blowing hard, I was exhausted and it was almost dark. I was about to keep walking but briefly hesitated, deciding the scene in front of me was worth the effort in pulling the gear back out to make a few more exposures. I’m glad I did as the resulting image “The Path” is one I am proud to have made. I’d suddenly realized that my best photographs more often than not have been stumbled upon while out trying to capture something much more specific. The not-so-obvious scenes almost always make a stronger image than the one staring you in the face.