Author: Ralph Lambrecht and Chris Woodhouse
Publisher: Focal Press, 2nd ed, 2010
Aimed at: Dedicated hands-on photographers
Pros: Beautifully presented, nostalgic, well explained
Cons: Idiosyncratic, not for "happy snappers"
Reviewed by: David Conrad
A book about monochrome photography? One that concentrates on film? Surely they cannot be serious....
This book has the power to disrupt and make you feel very unsettled. Or it does if you have had anything to do with "traditional" photography in the past. If you have used a darkroom and struggled with the process then this book will not only bring back the smell and excitement of seeing a latent image become a visible image, it might even encourage some digital photographers to discover other ways of working. In case you think that this is some sort of throwback to past times I should mention that it is right up to date and does cover the digital approach - although it has to be admitted in a rather dismissive sort of way.
The book is a hardback and lavishly illustrated with black-and-white examples. The first part The Basics takes you though the essential physics, physiology and psychology of vision and imaging. It also deals with the basics of print control and mounting and presentation which is an odd topic to be included in the "basics". I was also fascinated by the discussion "What size is the edition?". Today the big problem with digital photography is controlling the number of times your work appears without permission. The idea of doing a limited print run from a negative that was then put out of use - by say being taped to the back of a print - is an intriguing idea. How else can you turn a mass production product into something unique - or at least limited.
The second part - The Science is an in depth look at all aspects of imaging and silver processing. There are chapters on the zone system, image capture including digital image a capture, negative control and print control. If you have worked with film, particularly black-and-white film, then a lot of this will be revision but it is very well explained. The authors never talk down to you and never make something simple seem difficult.
The section on advanced print control was particular interesting from my current point of view. I have used all of the techniques described in the darkroom but today I most use their digital darkroom equivalents. I have to say that while I have used a real retouching brush and ink it simply makes me feel a relief that I can now use a digital clone tool or similar. However, this is not to say I don't feel a nostalgia and even an enthusiasm for the memories of the hours spent retouching exhibition prints. The section on negative control was equally a trip down memory lane, apart from the description of the unsharp mask procedure which is one I never got the opportunity to try out ... now there is an ambition!
Overall if you plan to get into film based black-and-white photography then the first two parts of the book provide your grounding in theory. There are other books that cover the same ground - but they are mostly out-of-print or not as easy going. The final section of Part 2 is a collection of assignments complete with descriptions of how the images were obtained and processed. You can either treat this as a set of master classes or you can treat it as a sort of virtual assignments designed to satisfy your need until you can get around to building your darkroom.
Talking of building your own darkroom brings me to the third and final part of the book. This is a collection of short essays on equipment including darkroom design. All great fun. It also has some tools, tips and tricks along the lines of make your own shutter tester and so on. This part of the book comes over as very amateur in the nicest possible sense and, yes, to be honest the whole book is very amateur in the same sense. However the book is technical - at times possibly too technical for the average reader who is just interested in, rather than dedicated to, photography.
I'm also not sure what a digital photographer who had never worked with film would make of the text. My best guess is that they would decide that the process is so complex, sophisticated and just fiddly that it was too intimidating to get started with. Before you retreat to your digital cameras I would like to say that it mostly works even if you don't get the nuances right and the point is that you get started with the basics and refine your technique as you identify your errors - it isn't so tough.
Does the book have any omissions? Yes it does. It doesn't cover the chemistry at all well. Many a photographer had their own favourite developer or even their own recipe for one. Perhaps this is too much ancient history even for a book on monochrome film photography. It also isn't strong on discussing the aesthetics of photography - is it an art or just an exquisite technology? This is the sort of discussion you will have to have else where.
If you are a committed digital photographer you will still get a lot from this book from its technical discussion of exposure and other aspects of image capture. However the details of negative and positive characteristics and processing are going to be totally irrelevant.
Not for the beginner but a magical book if you have ever used traditional film methods or plan to keep the art alive. If this description has any resonance with you simply buy a copy - you won't be disappointed.