Dags and Digitals: Interviews from The Luminous Landscape

Video interviews by Michael Reichmann

Michael Reichmann of Toronto operates a popular website "The Luminous Landscape". A feature of his site is his quarterly Video Journal and tonight's programme presents two articles from the Video Journal highlighting each end of photography's timeline. The first and longer article features Mike Robinson on making daguerreotypes, a process from the beginning of photography. The second shorter article is an interview with Kevin Raber of Phase One, a maker of high-end digital backs on their new P-series digital backs which permit medium format photographers to use their cameras without being studio-bound.

From a modern Daguerreotype by Mike Robinson
Michael Reichmann
by Mike Robinson

DAGS. There are only a half dozen active modern day daguerreotype photographers (those averaging one or more images a week). The materials are dangerous, the processes difficult and demanding, and each image takes time and skill to create.

Mike uses a mix of antique apparatus and authentic reproductions he has made using patent drawings as a guide. His lens is a vintage f/3.3 optic (faster than a modern-day portrait lenses to accommodate the much less sensitive daguerreotype plate). It took him two years to complete and equip his studio and darkroom. He took an introductory daguerreotype workshop at George Eastman house to get started, then researched via books and the internet. Interpreting the ancient books and translating their contents into meaningful modern terms was most challenging.

The interview with Reichmann began at the Ryerson Gallery in May 2004 during Robinson's "Contemporary Daguerreotypes" exhibit and then proceeded to his Century Darkroom studio where we see Reichmann posing for a portrait and watch Robinson step through the stages from making the sensitized plate to developing the latent image.

The interview begins at the Ryerson Gallery
Robinson & Reichmann
Mike holds a modern union case for a daguerreotype image
Union Case

The gentle shades and luminosity of a daguerreotype are not attainable in any other medium. If properly sealed, a daguerreotype has a life of over a hundred years - witness the number of images surviving from the 1840s. A sitting takes three to four hours including processing. Robinson takes and processes three images, selecting the best for final casing and presentation. The rejects are polished and re-sensitized for later use. Such a sitting and image costs $750.00.

Robinson's landscapes and still-life images, especially those hand coloured, can go for as much as $6,000 (authentic 19th century landscape daguerreotypes are very rare). While sensitized plates will last a day, exposed plates are very short-lived. They must be developed quickly after exposure before the latent image silently fades away -- no time for a leisurely walk back home to process after supper!

The buffed silver plate is sensitized by exposing it to iodine fumes. Image contrast depends on the thickness of this coating. Thicker gives higher sensitivity and lower contrast - like high-speed film - for use in outdoor light with its wide dynamic range. For studio use a thinner coating gives higher contrast and a punchier image at lower sensitivity.

The plate changes colour as it becomes sensitized with a characteristic deep yellow signifying a fully sensitized plate (the iodine combines with the surface silver to make the light sensitive silver halides which underlie all silver-based processes).

replica of a plate holder used when polishing the silver plate before sensitizing a quick puff of air - dust as always is the enemy
checking the colour of a plate being sensitized
Mike's replica camera body with an authentic 1840s lens
back to the iodine box for more sensitizing
Taking the likeness
washing the plate after mercury fume exposure using heat to encourage to latent image out fixing the developed plate with 'hypo' The finished image before inserting in a case
Preparing the plate
Developing the exposed plate Ready to case

DIGITAL. The second interview introduced Kevin Raber, marketing executive for Phase One discussing their new P-Series digital back attached to a Contax 645 camera. The P-Series take the medium format cameras out of the studio and into the field. The older H-Series scanning backs and their competitors were tethered to a computer. This lack of portability led to the current domination of field photography by high end 35mm style Digital SLR cameras.

The Phase One P-Series backs have both a larger sensor and larger pixels than the DSLRs resulting in faster operation and lower image noise. While the P-Series is currently offered in 16 and 22 mega pixel resolution, Raber expects to see even greater resolution as the medium format back technology moves forward. The P-Series backs are self-contained with a large capacity compact flash (CF) card, batteries and a viewing screen in a package the size of a traditional film back. With the P-Series, photographers can shoot in the field with medium format cameras as easily as with a Digital SLR. Processing the 120 meg files created by these backs places a heavy load on the photographer's computer equipment.

The Phase One backs are high-end and priced accordingly (the $25,000 - $35,000 price should fall in time just as the Digital SLR prices are falling). Phase One make only about 1,000 backs per year while Canon alone make that many Digital SLRs in a week. Phase One backs are made only for a few cameras and sold through a small number of dealers like Vistek in Toronto. The Mamiya ZD camera, similar to the Pentax 6x7, was recently announced and is shipping this summer with a sub $15,000 US price tag. With a similarly priced Mamiya digital back, it lowers the total cost and changes the business model for medium format digital cameras.

The Phase One digital backs are complemented by software and accessories designed to improve a photographer's workflow. The productivity gains help justify a switch to digital. Phase One sees software as a key part of its product set with integration of the camera and software aiding in creation of an efficient, continuous workflow.

The rapid transition to digital camera products has led to a rebirth of interest in photography with a new ease in picture taking and sharing. This gives the professional the challenge of making better images to compete with the amateur snap-shooter. And products like Phase One give the professional that edge.

Raber &Reichmann
P25 back in use
Mamiya ZD camera

Well that's it for this month. If you have any questions, you can contact Mike Robinson or visit The Luminous Landscape. The images on this page were taken with a Nikon 990 digital camera directly from the screen during the presentation and adjusted in Photoshop. Click on any small image to see it larger in a separate window. Please note this page is ©2005 by the Photographic Historical Society of Canada. The video images are copyright The Luminous Landscape.

Bob Carter

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