Silver and Gold: Interview with David Flanagan

In his solo exhibition, Silver and Gold, David Flanagan presents hand-printed abstract aerial photographs of Australia’s rich and evolving landscapes. The exhibition is the result of the inaugural PhotoAccess Dark Matter residency, a six-month darkroom residency and exhibition opportunity, which enabled David to print from his extensive archive of negatives. We caught up with David to find out more about his process, and the techniques he explored for Silver and Gold.

Lake Eyre Aerial # 11_web

Lake Eyre aerial #11, 2008, printed 2010, selenium and gold-toned, warm tone silver gelatin fibre-based print, 25.5 x 30.5cm

David, you undertook a six-month darkroom residency at PhotoAccess. How did you use your time in the dark?

I began in the first month purely testing. I used different paper stocks, toners and developers to see the different results each would produce. I kept notes on the process and labeled each print or section of each print so that if I needed to return to them later I would have all the information. During this initial period, I spent a fair bit of time looking back at my old contact sheets and built a list of images I wanted to use. Once I had made my final decisions on the paper and toners, I spent the next 4 months or so just printing. My life is fairly busy so mostly I worked outside PhotoAccess business hours. This allowed me to play my music loud without fear of offending anyone. I tried to print 3 images each session. If I wasn’t happy with a print, I would reprint it the next time. The last month I spent toning the images, which is a slow process that requires a large amount of care. There is a lot of washing and rewashing of each print. Finally I edited the images down from around 30 to 20 and sent them off to the framer. Then I had a cold beer or two!

Where did you capture your images, and how did it feel to return to your archive during this residency?

The images printed for this show come from all over Australia, Lake George, Mt Kosciuszko, the Blue Mountains, the Riverina and Stockton Dunes in NSW, coastal areas of southern Queensland and Lake Eyre, the Painted Hills and the Davenport Ranges in outback South Australia. It was a real pleasure to revisit this work. One of the most frustrating things about working in series, the way I always have, is that I spend a lot of time, energy and money in shooting this work and when it comes to printing for exhibition only 10-12 images make the cut. I then move on to my next project. There are always a number of images for different reasons I am unable to produce. This gave me the opportunity to allow these images to see the light of day.

The title ‘Silver and Gold’ is a reference to some of the printing techniques you have used. What were they, and can you explain the process for us?

The photographs are silver gelatin prints. This technique was invented in the 1870s and is the most common of the many photographic printing processes invented and commercially available since 1839. Others include salt prints, daguerrotypes, wetplate collodion, the list goes on and on.

In silver gelatin printing silver salts are suspended in gelatin and coated on to paper and then exposed to light through a negative in a darkroom. They are then treated with chemicals to produce the image. I chose to then tone these photographs with selenium and gold. I’m not a chemist, so I can’t explain the process particularly well, but the toning process creates another chemical reaction in the print whereby the metallic silvers are turned into a silver compound such as silver selenide. The effect this has is to make the print more stable and more archivally sound but it also can shift the colours in the print and affect the densities across the tones in the photograph. Selenium shifts the colours in the warm tone paper toward magenta and makes the shadows more dense or darker. It starts in the shadows and works its way toward the highlights. Gold has a blue effect which works fairly evenly across all parts of the image. I aimed for a split tone effect by toning in selenium first but removing it before it has worked into the highlights and then adding the gold. The effect is a subtle magenta in the shadows and blue in the highlights.


Toning tests in the darkroom

Were you surprised with the results during the printing process?

I’m not sure I was as much surprised with the results as I was with how challenging the entire process was. I’m reasonably comfortable with making silver gelatin prints, but adding the toning techniques produced difficulties I wasn’t totally expecting. Having to print with the foresight and understanding to know that they will change after toning was hard and took practice. I didn’t always get it right and I have the reject prints to prove it! With anything, practice makes perfect and the time spent in the dark has definitely honed my skills. I’m still a long long way from the masters whose work I love and admire so much but hopefully I am a little bit closer now.

You often work at a very large scale. How do you think the smaller scale changes the effect in this exhibition?

The main difference with small and large works is the viewing distance. The large works have a big impact from a distance and I love that about them. The images can and should be able to be absorbed from a large distance, as much as 10 or 20 meters away, so they need a big space to be shown. As you get in closer you are able to see the finer details in the image which give it a new life. With smaller works such as the ones I’ve made here, the viewing experience is more intimate. Hopefully they can be enjoyed from a smaller distance, say 3-4 meters, and then they invite you in to enjoy the details from much closer. I really like seeing people looking right in to the image to the point where their nose is almost touching the glass.

Stockton Dunes Aerial # 13.jpg

Stockton Dunes aerial #13, 2010 printed 2015, selenium and gold-toned, warm tone silver gelatin fibre-based print, 25.5 x 30.5cm

What would you say to people who feel that darkroom printing is a waste of time, when digital technologies are so readily available?

I’m not sure if it’s best to get me started on this! For me the process of working traditionally is important. Firstly, I appreciate the history of making work in this way. People can learn a lot about photography and improve their techniques shooting with film and printing in the darkroom. Film forces a photographer to slow down and think about what they are capturing, their composition, their exposure settings and other details. Not being able to view your work on a screen on the back of a camera makes you think more about what you are doing and why. For me there is a satisfaction in waiting to see your results. It’s exciting, like opening Christmas presents when I was a kid. We are all becoming more and more impatient. The anticipation of waiting to see your films develop, the successes and the failures, it’s all part of the learning experience and part of the fun of working with film. I also get more satisfaction creating something with my hands that I don’t get sitting in front of the computer. I’m not dismissing digital, I have used it concurrently for many years for my commercial work and teach digital photography at CIT [Canberra Institute of Technology].

On the straightforward side of aesthetics, if I can be blunt and undiplomatic for a minute, a black-and-white silver gelatin print looks better than a black-and-white digital print. Period, end of story. The blacks are richer and deeper and the subtle variations between tones is spectacular. The only people that argue against this are the ones that have never printed this way and probably are those saying that darkroom printing is a waste of time. These days we all spend too much time in front of a computer and in front of our devices. Darkroom printing allows us a chance to get away from our screens and go back to another time and use our hands and old technology to create something spectacular. For those whose interest may be peaked I would say enrol in a PhotoAccess course with Robert Agostino and see for yourself what it is all about. You won’t regret it.

David Flanagan is the inaugural recipient of the PhotoAccess Dark Matter Residency. For more information on residencies at PhotoAccess, click here. For information on the PhotoAccess darkroom, see our website.

Silver and Gold is on show at PhotoAccess until Sunday 13th December. Join David Flanagan for an in conversation event and closing drinks, along with Emerging Artists-in-Residence Thea McGrath and Hayley Boyle on Sunday 13th December at 2pm.

Images: 1. David Flanagan, Lake Eyre aerial #11, 2008 printed 2015, selenium and gold-toned, warm tone silver gelatin fibre-based print, 25.5 x 30.5cm, edition of 5, 2. Toning tests in the darkroom, photo: David Flanagan, 3. David Flanagan, Stockton Dunes aerial, 2010 printed 2015, selenium and gold-toned, warm tone silver gelatin fibre-based print, 25.5 x 30.5cm, edition of 5

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