Although we are increasingly talking about artificially created images, analog photography is experiencing a renaissance. But how does it differ from digital? How does a photographer approach film and how does he approach his printing process? We talked about this with Mariano Doronzo, an Italian photographer and a poet based in England since 2013.
His photographic research begins with documenting his personal journey within the British landscape and culture with an old analog camera. At the same time, he specializes in the use of the darkroom, from negative development to traditional darkroom printing. In 2021, one of his works is selected by Magnum Photos for a long-term mentorship with Matt Black and Susan Meiselas. He is currently working on producing his first photography book.
Shooting on film is a very peculiar approach to photography. Although digital photography has now become mainstream, analogue photography is making a comeback. As an artist, how do you justify this new enthusiasm for film photos?
It’s all about feeling, like to what happened in music with the vinyl record comeback. A digital photo is generally sharper, clearer and has more information compared to a film photo, but for some people it will be cold and soulless. A film photo will carry less information, yet for a lot of people it will have a greater emotional value.
Firstly, this happens because we have something physical, a concrete entity we can connect with just by touch. Secondly, analogue as opposed to digital photography is not immediate. The process is long and laborious and options are very limited. Shots are not wasted aimlessly (considering that films are very expensive nowadays): the effort and time spent on every picture make each photo more valuable. So, what did happen in this process? We made life harder in order to appreciate the result.
Some people say the film comeback has got to do just with a nostalgia factor for a specific aesthetic. I believe it’s much more than that. Definitely a reaction to a society where everything has to be rushed and perfect. Error, unpredictably and imperfection remind us we are human and give the artist and their audience a chance to suspend expectation, and for a moment, to allow life to take its course.
On printing a photo, its tangible form is already visualised in the photographer’s mind: do you think the approach in making a print is different from analogue to digital?
Photographers, no matter what technology they use, should preferably visualise the final outcome in the moment they take a picture as they wish to make a print or simply share it online. Post corrections can be tricky and complicated sometimes and do not guarantee to always present as we wish. Traditional printing from film is also a very long and expensive process in which every change of parameter (even simply adjusting the contrast) requires a print test to see the result. To make things easier, we are better off intervening at the time of shooting and also during film development (for example using particular techniques such as pulling or pushing the film) in order to minimize interventions during the printing process in the darkroom.
It is (perhaps wrongly) believed analogue photography does not allowed as digital photography post-production and editing after the shot has been taken: is this a preconception or not?
It is definitely a preconception! Post-production has always existed. An example (not the only one) is an edited photo of the USSR Communist Party in 1934. Stalin had one of the members removed from this picture as he was later considered an enemy for the state. It is said that over time, when other were also suspected of treason, Stalin made party members removed one after another until he was the one and only member to appear in the photo.
The darkroom is a sort of a wonder room for those who print their own photos: what are the essential tools to get perfect prints? Also, how many times you can get it wrong and try to print again the same photo from film?
Perfect prints do not exist. The quality of a print is very subjective: taste and personal vision are key factors in the decision process. Not less important is how we want to convey a concept through a particular type or way of printing. What feeling do I want to communicate with my photos? This is the question I try to ask myself every time I print. And every time I find myself producing completely different prints, even from the same negative, simply because we are in a different mood every day. There is no right or wrong print, but different ways of seeing a photo.
Can you briefly explain the darkroom printing process? What advice would you like to give to those who want to build their own small darkroom?
Let’s assume that we have already developed a roll of film, printed the contact sheet (by placing the negatives on the photographic paper) and chosen the negative to print with the right crop. We insert the negative in the enlarger and we make sure its projection is of the needed dimensions and in focus right on the easel where we are going to place the photographic paper. At this point, starting from a neutral contrast, we have to calculate the correct exposure time to make sure the print looks as we wish. To do this we have to cut a sheet of photographic paper into five strips of equal size and expose each of them to a different time, for example 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 seconds. We develop the strips by dipping them together in the developing tray, then we move them in the stop bath to stop the development and finally in the fixer to stabilize the image. If one of the strips will appear exactly as we wish the print to look like, then we can expose an entire sheet of paper to the corresponding time. We carry on dipping the paper in the three different trays as we did for the test strips. Then the print is washed and finally hung to dry.
My advice is to start printing, even in a small bathroom at home, with basic equipment and in small size, at least to practice the basics. Once you have improved your technique, it will be easier to manage a larger and well-equipped spaces such as those of a professional laboratory.
In the case of commissioning a professional laboratory to print your photos, what are the main criteria to get the best results?
Most professional labs can generally guarantee good prints. For best results, I would choose a lab based on the printer – someone who does understand my vision, in order to give my prints that feeling that resonates with my taste. Similar to the choice of a recording studio, although technology guarantees good sound quality, bands will still choose a studio who works with bands with a similar sound to guarantee their album a sound that reflects their artistic vision.
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