Taking the Lengthier Route – The Manner in Which Now I Work – By Timothy Hall

Now that I am in my late 60s, I find that authenticity is even more important to me than when I was younger; it is also rarer.  Why is this?  I think it has to do with the time that’s left to us (or me).  Since I no longer think in terms of having all the time in the world, I try to do things that are meaningful, longer lasting and worthwhile.

The advent of the computer age made all things easier and quicker, and in many ways, it brought on an “inauthentic” time, if ever there was such a thing. I started working in the photo industry in 1967 and started my own color lab in 1987.  I went digital in 1995 and began investing more and more into equipment until I had sunk over $1,500,000 into our digital department.  By the time I closed my color lab in 2015 I no longer received films from customers.  Everything was sent via downloads and uploads and the turnaround times for jobs became 1/4 of what it used to be when I started my business.

The comment “good enough” began to describe the ink jet prints that replaced photographic C prints; it was an echo of what was said about digital captures that replaced film images, about 12 years earlier.

Even though my main business was making 6’ x 10’ enlargements for malls and store fronts which were mainly point of purchase images to sell rugs, pillows, coffee makers and whatnot, I still took pleasure and pride in making good photographs.

I looked forward to retirement in 2015 because I had inherited Robert Cameron’s original films.  Bob passed away in 2009 and had thousands of color transparencies.  He was the photographer and publisher of the “Above” series of books, and he flew over New York, San Francisco, Hawaii, Yosemite, Paris, London and many other cities.

My plan was to offer fine photographs and to spend the time left to me making these prints for sale; this was what I told Bob.  I would continue to make his photographic images available to be seen after his death.  I set about to make an inventory of Bob’s best images prior to closing my color lab.  I also began to figure out how best to make black and white negatives from Bob’s color original films.  This was because I would no longer have a color lab, so I decided to set up a black and white lab and work in that realm once again.  It was back to my beginnings.

I did get inquiries from folks wanting to purchase some of Bob’s images, but they never wanted to pay the price I was asking.  It wasn’t nearly as much as Bob used to sell his prints for so they certainly didn’t want to pay the prices that Bob demanded ($100 per square foot).

Then one day it occurred to me that I no longer wanted to sell photographs.  I was tired of it, and I was especially tired of bargain hunters.  I was too used to that in my previous business and didn’t want to have anything to do with money and photographs any longer.  So, I decided fairly early on to not sell photographs any longer.

Then something interesting happened.  I no longer cared if an image would “sell.”  I didn’t have to be concerned with the opinion of others as to whether any particular image had enough public appeal.  I just had to like the image myself, and it had to draw an emotional response from me – day after day.  If the photograph only looked “good” to me for a few days, then it wasn’t worth my attention.  That became my rule.  I would look at a work print day after day and if it did not lose its appeal after many weeks, then I would go to work on it.  And in this way, I found a measure of authenticity in doing my darkroom work again.

It would be disingenuous for me to say that all the years spent in making photographs were done without any sense of sincere pride.  I had, after all, over 50 employees at one time, and the business supported many families.  Quite a few of my fellow workers purchased homes, and it was always a pleasure for me to see their families at the Christmas party.  I enjoyed handing out the photos with Santa every year, and the kids always looked forward to the presents under the tree.

But, as my production manager once told me, we printed and processed over a mile and a half of Kodak paper every month as we produced photographic posters for 400 to 500 stores throughout the United States.  This was in our heyday and our invoices justified the immense use of time, materials and man/woman power in order to meet the stringent deadlines.  But within 4 weeks the posters were in landfill; that was what bothered me.  And we did this for years on end.  Photographs should have more meaning than simply pushing product out the doors of retail outlets.

It was at this time that I first met Robert Cameron; he needed large color photographs made from his films.  He was nearing the end of his life and wanted to show his life’s work in the best possible manner.  I began to work on his images personally and we became good friends.

It was working with Bob that forced me to focus on the method that I began to use.  Before meeting Bob, I had little time to work on images as the deadlines were always short.  The photographs had to get to the stores before the matching products arrived there.

Working with Bob’s films, I began to study each original from the standpoint of what “made them work.”  I began to sense that a more successful image could be produced by eliminating or diminishing elements that detracted from the feeling of the photograph.  I began to notice that my eyes would traverse through the print and settle on the main theme or subject.  There were elements that stood in the way and prevented this flow from being smooth.  It could be simply a strong color in the corner or it could be too much color throughout.  It is interesting that color can be a distraction in a color photograph.  I notice this every time I walk into a store that sells flat screen TVs.  The colors are so jacked up that one doesn’t know what to look at.  It’s all distraction.

I found that sometimes I spent more than a week’s time planning out how to approach a certain image.  Long ago I learned film masking.  This was in the late 1970s and I used it to control the contrast of an image, but then, I learned how to correct color through film masking as well, and I used what I learned throughout the years in order to best approach Bob’s images.  This took a lot of time and often I would redo images if I thought the final photograph could be improved.  This was a skill, as a darkroom technician, that I seldom had enough time for.  Prior to meeting Bob, I simply masked customer images to the best of my ability, made the print and shipped it out the door as soon as was possible.

But with Bob’s images, I was able to do things again and again if I wanted to.  This is because Bob trusted me (and he was nearly blind by the time I met him at 94 years old).  Nevertheless, Bob did notice the improvement in his prints.  He even mentioned to me that his audience noticed the difference too.  I was able to make final color decisions without having to get a sign off from Bob or his assistant.  This was new to me as well.

Spending more time and making proofs for myself to consider required much effort and time on my part.  It is not an easy thing to satisfy oneself if one is honest.  But it reminded me of something Maria Rilke wrote in a letter to a young would-be poet.  “Just because something is difficult to do is enough reason to do it, because you learn so much from it.”

So, now I look for what is difficult to achieve in a photograph.  I learned fairly early on that photography could be a quick and easy task, but in the end I have decided to take a lengthier route.  I take the difficult path, and indeed, I learn so much doing so.  Perhaps difficult is not the right word.  I look for the best way to make a photograph even if it takes longer.

If you’re interested in more of Robert Cameron’s images in Black and White, please take a look at the folio I produced here




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12 thoughts on “Taking the Lengthier Route – The Manner in Which Now I Work – By Timothy Hall”

  1. Thank you Timothy for the story and perspective. Reinforces for me that I am on the right track trying to produce more lasting images and not just shooting everything on digital. I’ve been a photographer for most of my life. Never a full time professional but shoot a lot of weddings and portraits. I’ve recently started getting back into film and part of the appeal is to slow down and make great images that will last! I hope to be shooting wet plate collodion this summer and producing carbon prints.

    1. Thanks Jalanlee – What you wrote – “Make great images that will last”

      I can still recall the day when sincerity became the measure of life’s success or failure. I had recently left my first marriage and my second child was only a few months old. It was a very difficult time, and I was searching for some meaning in my life. Prior to this I thought I knew it all. It is interesting that the older one gets, the less he knows. At the time it was recommended to me by a mentor that I attend a Friday night group at the local Vedante Society.
      Those Friday night classes were given by a Swami who read ancient books from the Hindu tradition. The reading was followed by an explanation and discussion of the subject. In most cases the whole meeting covered only 1 or 2 paragraphs from the sacred texts, and it took many weeks to finish a single chapter from the Vedas.
      After a certain amount of time the Swami would invite questions from the people who attended the class. The questions were placed in a jar and the swami would choose one question to answer. One night the swami picked one particular question and read it out loud. “Swami, if the world is an illusion, and everything we see and experience is not real, even the very ground we stand on, then what is the meaning of it all? Why should we bother to do anything with our lives? Why should we even bother to come to Vedanta?”
      I will never forget his answer. The swami said, “Please do not misunderstand us here at Vedante. We are not wasting our time here. We are not baby sitters for you. And yet, it is like how you teach children. When someone gives something or does something for a child, you say to the child, ‘What do you say?’ And the child answers, ‘Thank you.’ Then when the child grows into a young adult and someone gives him something the response automatically comes. He says, ‘Thank you.’ He no longer needs reminding. After many years the young adult becomes old. Many of his friends have passed on and he goes throughout the days alone. Then one day an old friend comes to visit and spends the whole day with him. They go out to lunch and at night they come home and have a nice dinner together. At the end of the evening when it is time to leave the old man now says to his friend, ‘I am so grateful in my heart that you have done this for me. Thank you.’ And he means it. This is why you come to Vedanta. You come to learn, and this is why we are here. We are here to teach you.”
      I was immediately intrigued with this story. The idea of “meaning” what you say to others became ever so important to me, but the original question posed to the swami was not lost to me. The question was, “If life is an illusion, then what is the meaning of it all?” Was the swami alluding to the fact that what we mean with our lives is not an illusion? Could it be that what we sincerely mean with our lives can be a truth, a constant, that it can even determine our next existence? Don’t forget that re-incarnation is not just a belief in Hinduism. It is a law.
      So, I wrote a letter to the swami and asked him this very question. Was our true intention in life not an illusion? Afterall, on our death bed when all is said and done, there can be no bullshit. We know what we believe and we know what is important to us. Are we not, then, obliged to live our lives with the knowledge that what we think and do with our time are all in preparation for that moment before we die? Is not sincerity the most important thing to learn in life if it is not, as everything else is, an illusion? Alas, the swami did not reply.

      1. Maybe there is no simple answer.

        Science has taught me that underlying everything is chaos, that something we do not understand brings order to that chaos. My faith says God created that order, that there is meaning and purpose to my life. The chaos is always trying to break through (just watch the news on any night) but we can choose to be part of the order.

        So the purpose of photography is to capture that order – what is beauty if not the opposite of chaos? The medium I use is not the point. Too many people get hung up in the gear and the stuff and forget about the light and the beauty. Maybe that is the appeal of your work – composition and light and order conspiring to capture some of that truth. Film helps me to slow down and see those things…

        Thanks again for sharing these personal thoughts and stories!

        1. Thank you for that. I’ve never thought about it in those terms, but I do think that you are correct. I studied music in school and I’ve often thought that sometimes music was the only thing that made sense in this world. You’ve put a different spin on the subject of art.

  2. Mr. Hall, I viewed the folio of images before coming to the comments. Mr. Camerons work displayed there has such a beautiful atmospheric feeling. I worked for a time at an aerial photography studio as a darkroom printer and the commercial side of aerial photography was so clinical compared to these works. Printing and seeing this work presented at large scale must have been amazing. Thanks for the small glimpse into your journey.

    Seeing something penned by someone of similar age who also has journeyed through the era of the heyday of film reproduction is something I can totally relate to. I come from the retouching side of old school when the work was done directly on the photo. I have worked as a print finishing specialist since the mid 1970’s so I can appreciate all the unseen hard work you have done over the years. I attribute much of my success to the individual photographers I was privileged enough to work along side. Their input and insight to me was priceless. My transition to the computer happened in 2006 and I am now one of the last remaining retouchers in the region who specializes in traditional and digital print retouching. My niche is photo restoration(of the original or a digital reproduction) and high end(medium format high resolution capture) portrait retouching and output.

    I also remember how photographers started accepting lower quality because they thought they could do it themselves. They bought a printer and photoshop software and went on down the road. Thankfully two of my more discerning clients understood what a dedicated technician brings to the table is not that easy to replace. I continue to produce their work and this year marks over thirty years working with both. As film makes inroads back into mainstream do you see this affecting attitudes about the work being produced?

    I wish you all the best in your continued journey as you follow the lengthier route. A fellow traveller.

  3. What a wonderful story & approach. It’s hard in this era of digital & Lightroom etc to concentrate on quality at the expense of quantity. And a fully digital workflow means it’s almost impossible to let images “sit” (as you suggest) to weigh their worth. Much food for thought. Thanks 🙂

    1. Thank you John. In the past when I was making photographs for add agencies and other clients, after a couple of decades in the business, it became a role of servicing a younger and younger crowd of professionals who acted as if they were purchasing books an Amazon, and only price mattered. Luckily I was able to maintain a sense of true value in the photograph and it has lasted until today.

  4. “You can’t please everyone so you’ve got to please yourself.” –Rick Nelson
    There is a school of psychology that believes as we grow older, at some point we seek “self actualization.”
    It sounds to me that you have crossed that line.

  5. Not sure about how much “self actualization” went on here. I remember having a number of clients that I did work for. Among them was Mervyn’s, Pottery Barn, William Sonoma, Restoration Hardware, Macy’s, Emporium, Old Navy, Esprit, and many others. But the one that I remember most was the Gap. The in-store point of purchase department thought very highly of themselves. At one point it became a normal practice for them to reject the approval prints just to make the vendor go back to the drawing board. I began to tire of this practice of theirs and so on my last job for them I made a final print based off of an 8×10 initial proof that they approved. When I made the 40″ x 60″ enlargement I knew that the 8×10 and 40×60 prints would not match perfectly but not in a bad way. Both were done on Kodak material, but came from a different emulsion batch, there would be some deviation. So when I delivered the 40×60 I intentionally pointed out the deviation. The lady I showed it to was fairly new in the department and didn’t even notice the difference. She went to get her manager to look over the large print, and, of course, she didn’t approve it, demanding that they match perfectly. I explained that the small proof was done on a different emulsion and that, try as they might, the process of making color photographic paper had some limitations in their makeup. We sat there for a couple of minutes and then she said, “Well, what do you suggest?” And I, having brought the original transparency with me, walked over and gave her back her original.
    Now, I knew that they would get an inferior product going to any other lab, but I didn’t care anymore. I had plenty of other clients to please who were more reasonable and understood the limits of color reproduction. I had already masked the original transparency in order to place the high values (the skin tones) onto the upper part of the straight line portion of the film curve thereby revealing the smoothness of the model’s features on the paper response. So I knew that they would not get as good a print going elsewhere. But the manager’s response to me giving her back the original took her by surprise, and she yelled at me and basically told me she would never give me another job. She told me that, if she were me, she would be calling Kodak.
    But my purpose was to give them the chance to “change their ways,” so to speak. I knew, though, that most likely I would be saying goodbye to the The Gap. You see, we, as photographic technicians, are artisans with a long history of developing a high level of craft in our decision to move into the profession. Mutual respect and admiration goes a long way in our attempt to better perfect our artwork, even though we are only talking about making photographs of models wearing clothes.
    To me, that was more important than having a client that represented $100,000 or more of work every year. I do think that if I had continued to put the client above my craft I would have lost the desire to make outstanding photographs by the time I retired in 2015.
    An aside to all this – a couple of years later one art director from the the Gap called me. She had moved to another office in the bay area but still worked for the Gap. She said that working in that particular office was a nightmare and that they had never found another vendor that could measure up to our quality.

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