W. Eugene Smith

Copyright W. Eugene Smith

The website “A Photo Editor” has this article which is an excerpt from this interview  with James Karales, who worked as a darkroom assistant for the legendary W. Eugene Smith. In it, Karales talks about Smith’s approach to darkroom work, what he wanted in his pictures, and what techniques were used to accomplish his goals. It’s a great read if you’ve ever spent time in a darkroom, and fascinating to hear what W. Eugene Smith valued in his photos, and what his process looked like. A favorite part:

“At least fifty percent of the image is done in the darkroom—I think Gene would say ninety percent. The negative has the image, but it can’t produce the image completely, as the photographer saw it—not as Gene saw it. You have to work it over and over with the enlarger, you have to burn it in, you have to hold back areas—this detail down here or over there.”

Karales continued, getting more specific about the technique: “Gene always liked to get separations around people, figures, and that was always done with potassium ferrocyanide. It was the contrast that made the prints difficult. Gene saw the contrast with his eyes, but the negative wouldn’t capture it the same way. So he would have to bring the lamp down and burn, and then if that spilled too much exposure and made it too dark, you would lighten it with the ferrocyanide. You had to be careful not to get the ferrocyanide too strong, and yet you couldn’t have it too weak, either. If it took too long, it would spread. So I would blow the fixer off of the paper so ferrocyanide would stay in an area, and then dunk the paper right away to kill the action. Or if you wanted something to go smoother, then you left the fixer there. It was extremely delicate and complicated, but we got it down pat.”

A few of my favorite W. Eugene Smith images:

Copyright W. Eugene Smith

Copyright W. Eugene Smith

Copyright W. Eugene Smith

Copyright W. Eugene Smith

Copyright W. Eugene Smith

Copyright W. Eugene Smith

Copyright W. Eugene Smith

Copyright W. Eugene Smith

Copyright W. Eugene Smith

Copyright W. Eugene Smith