Photo Insight with Andrew Sanderson
A renowned photographer, tutor, author and Ilford Master Printer, Andrew Sanderson offers practical tips on working with film and traditional darkroom techniques
This image was taken in 1985 in a field behind a farm at Bedding Edge Road in Hepworth, West Yorkshire. It came about because a friend approached me and asked if I would be willing to take a portrait of his girlfriend’s horse. He wanted to give her a picture for her birthday, so he drove me out to the location.
When we got to the field the first thing that hit me was that the horse was jet black and it was standing in a location covered in bright white snow. Obviously that would provide an absolute tonal nightmare in trying to capture those two extremes. I managed to compensate for this by taking a reading from the shadows and placing the middle tones 2 stops up from that.
The second issue was that the horse wouldn’t keep still. It kept running around and bucking, behaving like a wild horse from a cowboy film. I decided to go ahead and take a few shots with my Mamiya RB7 and then thought that I would come back a couple of days later and shoot the final images when the conditions had improved. When I got back home and processed the film, I produced a contact sheet. Looking through the images I noticed one shot that really stood out from the rest. That’s the shot you see here. Although I knew it wouldn’t be right for what my friend wanted, it was definitely a shot that I wanted to produce for my own portfolio.
The printing stage is where this whole image gets a little more complicated. I made a print that was roughly 5x4in and then used a pencil to shade in the edges on the back of the print (which would go on to form the subtle vignetting border around the edge of the final print). I then placed that print into the negative carrier of the enlarger and printed the image onto another piece of photographic paper – which produced a paper negative. Any pencil work that was on that original print (the border) was then recorded onto the new negative print. On the paper negative I altered some of the tones, such as the line of shrubbery you see in the horizon.
An easier way to describe this technique is that if I’m using pencil on the negative, then I’m altering the lowlights, and if I’m using pencil on the positive, I’m altering the highlights. Once I had done all the pencil adjustments on the paper negative, I placed it into the enlarger and made the final positive print.
The most obvious instance of pencil work on the print is the sky, which I darkened down considerably to make it look stormy. It was originally quite a grey day. You’ll notice that there’s a patch of white in the top left-hand corner of the print. When you see examples of this technique from other photographers, they darken down the entire sky. This can look a little unnatural, but having that little white patch in my print shows that the dark area is a bank of clouds. I think it’s an important part of the composition.
The complicated printing process led to the fact that the image has a strange quality where it looks like the picture is breaking up. That’s because when you print from a print you have the texture of the paper coming through. In this case the paper was Ilford Multigrade Resin Coated. I often find myself experimenting with different types of paper because the textures can be very different, which makes a huge difference to the final print. Some of the older papers that you can’t get any more used to be incredible for printing in this way, with some of them almost like parchment. That’s what I look for when selecting a paper to produce paper negatives – character.
All the shots had been taken with the camera on a level plane – it wasn’t originally at a diagonal angle as you see here. I thought that if I could tilt the horizon, then I could add a serious level of dynamism. The horse was a little further away from me than the shot shows, meaning that there was plenty of room around the top, bottom and sides for me to lose when tilting the paper during the printing stage to skew the horizon. It creates a sense of movement, which is something that is further emphasised by the jumping horse.
I’m quite drawn to silhouettes and I’ve done many shots in the past that contain telegraph poles. There’s something dominant about them and in this shot they break up the expanse of the sky.
This image is definitely dreamlike. Someone once said to me that this photograph should be called ‘Nightmare’, which I though was perhaps taking it a little far. However, there is something undeniably strange about the picture.
If you would like to read more about paper negatives, Andrew’s book Paper Negative Photography is available from www.blurb.com, price £15.
Andrew Sanderson was talking to Oliver Atwell