Silver and Oil - 55 Years of Classic Photography
When people ask me what kind of equipment I use, I often tell them about my first Brownie Box with the sliding aperture and up-down, open-and-shut release lever. It was a mid-teens relic by Eastman Kodak that was handed down to me from my mother. I jokingly referred to the lens as a leftover chip from a broken pop bottle. Eventually, I wore it out. I can still remember the day the leather-covered back fell off; I must have been about thirteen. (Mountain Man 1971)
From this camera came a stream of 120-roll film negatives, which I used to make contacts in the mid-1940’s. I worked on moonless nights in the back corner of an old wood shed with several wax-lined trays, assorted odds and ends, and a bit of primitive chemistry. The safelight was a single red bulb dangling from an overhead rafter. This hands-on experience was my introduction to what would later become fine art photography. Much later, and perhaps to my surprise, some of those early images were actually published.
I took the giant step from photographer to artist in the early seventies. In fact, I might be the first fine art photographer in this country to pit my work against other media and take a Best in Show in a large, juried all-media art show. (Illustration 2 Mountain Man Silver Sulfide P84 1971)
Now, several thousand of my black and white, silver sulfide images are in private collections and museums around the country. Hundreds more, including many of my stock color transparencies, have been published over the decades. After spending more than thirty years documenting the Appalachians and publishing two books about the region, I retired to Lander, Wyoming in 1996, to fulfill a childhood dream of living and working as a western artist. Higher mountains would mean greater challenges I thought. The western landscape provides me with a new dimension to expand my artistic skills. I am now combining the silver image with transparent oils, a process more commonly referred to by the layman and photographic world as “tinting.” The western scene, with its never-ending variety of colors and grandeur is perfectly suited for this traditional technique that has been around for well over a hundred years.(Red Rock Country) 2000
When I started competing with other media in the early seventies, one of my secondary goals was to produce art that would stand the test of time. A toned silver image printed and processed to “archival standards” is predicted to last for hundreds of years. I can recall reading a statement in an old Eastman Kodak brochure years ago that the life expectancy of a properly made silver print could reach a thousand years or more. It is my opinion that the paper base will self destruct before the silver emulsion. I use only fiber-base papers and a representative from Marshall’s recently assured me that the inorganic pigments that make up the oils will last as long as the silver image. Thus, I create works of art that will more than compete with the archival qualities of paintings and other two-dimensional media. I feel that it is my way of leaving something of historical and artistic value behind for future generations to enjoy
The question of what kind of camera I use still arises, and this usually provokes a big grin as I respond, “the brush does not make the painter, nor does the camera make the photographer. Art comes from people, not from tools. As much as I love a view camera for commercial work and other special applications, I will be quick to admit that for most of my outdoor work I prefer the 2 ¼” format. A view camera is big and it has a large surface area. Setting it up is a slow process. Images requiring quick action can be missed while just getting the camera ready. Carrying it for any distance or time is tiring and awkward, but more importantly, the slightest wind will wreck havoc in terms of vibration.
Wind is a critical factor in outdoor photography that many overlook. While exposing the negatives for the majority of my landscapes, such as Red Rock Country, wind was present(Illustration 3, Red Rock Country) Silver & Oil W54 2000. At times, in fact, it has been nearly impossible to keep the camera still. I have had to hold the eight to ten pound tripod down by hand while shielding my 2 ¼” camera with my body. Despite those efforts, it has been frequently necessary to increase the shutter speed a bit more than I would normally prefer.
I love a view camera with all its tilts and swings. It has character and carries a certain amount of romance. However, in terms of everyday practicality, its limitations outweigh its charms. If it were not for the fact that I use medium format most of my outdoor work, especially those images of people, would never have been made. The weather conditions I frequently seek-cold, snow, and fog-and the speed required to have the camera ready at the right time do not favor the view camera. (Firing #5)1977
As an example, the image of the locomotive being fired during a sudden snowstorm is typical of what we often refer to as the “decisive moment.” I would have missed this spontaneous happening had I been struggling with a cumbersome view camera. I had to set up fast, anticipate what was about to happen and make the exposure when all the elements came together at once. Had I missed that one moment in time I would not have had a second chance. (Illustration 4, Firing #5) R-1 c1977 Silver Sulfide.
Over the years, advances in films and much printing practice on my part have made the medium format camera an ideal tool for me. I believe it renders excellent results for my fine art printing and painting. (Red Canyon,WY) 1999
In art circles, silver and oil would normally be classified as “mixed media.” It is time consuming and detailed work, and it’s necessary to be a competent printer before you think about painting. The work print must be made with a painting in mind. For instance, if you want to emphasize the red areas of Red Canyon as red you should use a red filter when exposing the negative to produce a light area on the print that will take the red oil(Illustration 5 Red Canyon,WY) Silver & Oil W28 c1999.
On the golden aspens a yellow filter helps to lighten the leaves even more than a normal exposure on PXP film. Usually a slightly lighter print than usual is desirable, but after a few tests you learn to visualize the final combination of print and oil. (Illustration 6, Golden Aspens Silver & Oil W46 c1999 Wind River Mountains, WY.(Golden Aspens) 1999
Some decades ago I worked with oil on canvas to develop my own techniques for applying and layering colors on photographic papers. In addition, I attended a number of seminars on acrylics and watercolors to broaden my education in painting. With this background and continued practice, I made the transition from canvas and watercolor paper to photographic papers quite naturally. I stick with the traditional methods of applying paints with cotton balls and Q-tips as well as a variety of fine brushes. As when working on canvas, I always begin working beyond (above) the horizon and come forward, bringing my colors to the immediate foreground. Finally, I go back and make little changes here and there if necessary. This is the nice thing about oils. They take considerable time to dry and this gives the artist ample opportunity to go back and add little highlights or rework a questionable area. It just comes naturally when you work at it.If I am working on a complex piece that requires additional layering over some delicate sections of the print, I will often set the print aside for a week or more to allow the oils to dry before adding the finishing touches. I place my palette in a zip lock bag and put it in a refrigerator until I need it for the final applications. Most of the oils will last for a week or more when refrigerated; thus enabling you to pick up where you left off without having to mix a totally new set of pigments.(Matthew)
Not all images are suited for oils. My candid portraits of the Appalachian Mountain people, for instance, stand strong as silver images. Most of my early landscapes that capitalize on strong lines and shapes require no additional enhancement. (Illustration 7 Cyrus) P23 1972.
Appalachian Portfolio Silver sulfide (Illustration 8, Highland Farm) 1980 Silver sulfide.
It was only after I made my retirement move to Wyoming that I dove seriously into the added dimension of transparent oils. The western landscape, with its varied textures and hue, is naturally suited for this mixed-media technique. My finished art is both a photograph and a painting. I can work in subtle, layered tones that are quite different from the options available in color dye photography, which has the reputation of having a relatively short life span. The image is mine from conception, to the camera and darkroom, and finally to the brush.(Illustration 9, Brook’s Lake WYSilver sulfide ) W53 c2000 and (Illustration 10, Brook’s Lake Silver & Oil) W53 c2000.Brook’s Lake - Silver Sulfide & Silver & Oil
After the initial breakthrough of photography into the art world, and while many photographers were pondering over whether or not to number their prints, I followed the traditional methods of printmaking. I set up a numbering and documentation system before I introduced my art to collectors during the late sixties. I use that same system today, concentrating on very short numbered editions. (Wyoming Outback)
I maintain that true printmakers should personally make all of their art from concept to completed original. In my opinion, it is not appropriate for an artist to farm out work to a lab or to hire an assistant to make art that the artist then signs as his or her own original work. When I purchase a work of art I want to have the satisfaction of knowing that it was made one hundred percent by the artist. I hold myself to these standards.
I also feel that it is important to keep print editions short—less than a hundred, preferably a couple of dozen or less. Many of my editions do not exceed a half dozen. My oils make up a small part of an edition because I simply tire of painting more than one or two images from a single negative. In an edition of six, I may make two silver sulfide images and a couple involving transparent oils, leaving two open blanks in the record book for future needs. Or for what I often refer to as “MY” copy
This has the added benefit of providing a good answer for those who ask me if I am going to destroy the negative when I have completed the edition. Of course not! If I lived to be two hundred I would be unable to print half the editions that I have already started. Besides, it is more important for me to create new works of art than to print the same image over and over again. I want my collectors to know that when they purchase one of my originals they have something unique and that very few images from the same negative exist. I also have the satisfaction of knowing that virtually every image I make from the same negative is different from any of the rest in the that edition. This is one of the joys and benefits of working with silver and oil.
A final note about numbering prints: I personally prefer to number, sign and date directly on the finished image because, you could lose this valuable information if the mat ever has to be replaced. I always select an area that allows me to discretely place my signature.
State of The Art
As fine art photographers, we have come a long way during the past few decades, and there are excellent vintage images by the old masters that are fetching high prices in the art world. But the bulk of the art buying public is still struggling with the acceptance of fine art photography as an equal in the art world. It really strikes home when you tour an art show or a mixed-media gallery and realize that most photographers continue to give their work away for a comparable pittance. In many instances you can purchase a nice original photograph for less money than a painter has placed on a reproduction/poster. This sends a strong statement to the general public
It appears also that there is still a clear division of galleries. On one side of the avenue you have photography galleries, while on the opposite you have those who cater only to painters and sculptors. This is more the norm than the exception. Very few all-media gallery owners will give photography a chance because in their minds this new intruder will never measure up to the sales potential of paintings. In essence, why fill valuable hanging space with a photograph when you know you can sell a painting more readily and for a much higher price?
Furthermore, there is still a strong sentiment in many people’s minds that photography is not “real art.” Some years ago I had an art rep approach me with the intention of marketing my work through several galleries along the East Coast. He later told me that the final straw was broken when a certain gallery owner in a large North Carolina city literally ran him out of his gallery with a string of profanities to back up his opinions of photography as non art.
Shortly after moving to Wyoming I joined the Wyoming Artist’s Association, which purportedly was open to all Wyoming artists only to discover that photography was excluded as an acceptable medium for all shows, exhibitions and competitions. It took close to a year to break down this barrier, but even after the fact, I was allowed to enter my work only under “Other Media.” Photography is still not accepted as a separate medium. Why?
According to the past president of the Association, “most of the board looks askance at photography as fine art, and although Jeffers’ work is clearly remarkable, they fear a deluge of discount-developed snapshots in future exhibits.” The art show, one artist says, “might soon look like a country fair amateur photo contest.” The simple answer to this is to JURY the show and make it clear in the prospectus that all work must be made by the artist.
Another painter who was honored that year as Wyoming’s artist of the year commented that, “mechanics make the difference for me. For me, art is about hands-on human involvement, where when Jack uses his camera, it’s a mechanical involvement… To me, it’s more of a craft.” This comment was too ridiculous to even respond to.
The Denver Post picked up on this controversy, and a feature article appeared which dealt with the subject on September 2, 2002. Trudy Wilner Stack, director of the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona in Tucson, home to the archives of Ansel Adams, Richard Avedon, Edward Weston and W. Eugene Smith, among others had this to say.
“People are bigoted about everything and this is a form of aesthetic bigotry. Even within photography itself there are strong opinions about what artistic photography is and what isn’t.” Meanwhile, back to Art Education 101.
When the public is constantly bombarded by the message that anyone can "take" pictures, the ease of point and "shoot" cameras and new gadgets, it is little wonder that such a specialized and legitimate hand process as silver and oil has never gained strong public acceptance. People simply do not understand what goes into the making of a fine silver image processed to archival standards. And now we have digital cameras and fine printers that do make it easy for the masses to make and process images quickly. In fact, digital photography has already taken over as I write this in January of 2007, and I would have to say with certainty that within my lifetime, black and white photography as many of us remember it today will become history. Will the inks in the the new inkjet printers stand the test of time? Only time will tell, but we already know how long a silver particle will last--a long, long time.
Art buyers are out there, but clearly gallery owners, writers, magazine editors, and fellow artists in all media need to learn a lot more about the intricacies of this relative newcomer to the world of printmaking. Only then can we successfully convince a skeptical collector that a fine silver image is a sound investment.
As artists, we must continue to maintain our high standards and place education as the number one priority. It has taken over a hundred years for photography to become generally accepted by the masses as a legitimate art form. It will probably take another hundred before it fully gains its rightful place in the art world. By then the silver image will have long since given way to high tech imagery. Future generations will remember the silver image only as collectibles.
In the meantime, I will continue to explore those landscapes that most people pass by unseeing and to produce the images that offer my perception of the world I experience. For me, silver and oil has always been a lobor of love, but after I retired from printmaking in 2005, I turned to digital. It was time to take a new turn and join the high tech crowd. I have easily made the transition and instead of thinking silver particles, I now think pixels.
(Illustration 11, Wyoming Outback) Silver & Oil W47 c2000 and (Illustration 12, Grand Teton) Silver & Oil W52 c2000.
Silver & Oil 2000
In November 2002, I exhibited at the 9th Annual Art Show and Sale at the Nicolaysen Art Museum in Casper, Wyoming. This was a juried, all-media show highlighting the work of fifty-five artists from Wyoming, Montana, Utah, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, and Idaho. Once again, as has happened many times in my career since I won my first major award in 1972, I received the Best in Show award.
This award resulted in a one-man exhibition at the museum, opening January 15, 2003. I selected the theme East Meets West for the exhibition. It was a retrospective of my over fifty-five years working with photography. The show was touted by the museum staff as one of its more popular exhibitions.