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HomeContentsOnline exhibitions > John Loengard: Celebrating the Negative

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John Loengard
Celebrating the Negative

It is a quirk of nature that silver and chlorine combine in the dark but separate when struck by light, leaving behind tiny, black, round particles of silver. In 1833, an English gentleman named Henry Fox Talbot coated a sheet of paper with silver chloride and after putting a leaf on top, left it in the sun, so that dark silver appeared everywhere except in the leafís shape. Under the leaf, the paper remained white. A wash in saltwater stopped the process. The negative was born.
Etherton Gallery
Tucson, Arizona
I photographed the negatives in this portfolio as quickly and simply as possible. I used a small camera on a tripod. Any light box, window or even a sunny wall would do as a background. I wanted to catch the moment when the negative first came out of its envelope and was shown with pride. How people touched the negative played subtly against the image on the negative itself. At least, I felt this was so.
I noticed that Richard Avedon held his negative barehanded. Imogen Cunninghamís son, Rondal Partridge, held hers that way too. Yousuf Karsh put on gloves, but he was holding his 1941 negative of Winston Churchill, a jewel in the National Archive of Canada. The archivists might have shot him dead had he touched it unprotected. Harry Callahan went barehanded too, but his light box was so small that I suggested we use the picture window in his living room instead. Against that surface, it seemed wise to keep the negative in its plastic sleeve.
Nearly every curator gloved up, but I sensed the negatives were the photographersí children, and you donít put on gloves to handle your kids. Or even those of people you know. I did not wear gloves when I photographed Margaret Bourke-Whiteís negative from Buchenwald, and I didnít ask anyone else to hold it either. It seemed wrong to take pleasure, (as I knew I would), in a graceful arabesque of fingers next to that terrifying piece of film.
For over 150 years, including when I made the photographs in this portfolio, every black and white photograph had to be made first as a negative. Since then, digital technology has caused the negative to become an obsolete industrial artifact. Perhaps the implications of that obsolescence will spark wider interest, but so far, collectors do not collect them, and most museums wonít accept them. George Eastman House, the Universities of Arizona and Texas and the Library of Congress are notable exceptions. By and large though, itís the photographers, their heirs, their employers and chance that have kept negatives safe.
Iím surprised by the widespread disinterest in the negative, because when exposed, it is the plan for what the print will show. I know that once in the darkroom, Iíll recollect how light fell upon the subject; what shadows I wanted to lighten; what gesture Iíd hoped to see clearly, and what shapes I expected to dominate the scene, when color and one dimension vanished. All these commitments are lodged in the negative. Making a print simply brings them to life. Ansel Adams likened the negative to a composerís musical score, and the print, to its performance. The serious work was done when the film was exposed. As Adams said, "It is especially rewarding to me when I am going through the thousands of negatives I have never printed, to find that I can recall the original visualization as well as discovering new beauty and interest which I hope to express in the print."
Photographers treat their negatives differently. For example, Adams fussed with his zone system for exposing and developing film, while Edward Weston, who was equally dedicated to profound control of his image, used instinct. But thatís not the point. What is significant is that no photographer has destroyed his or her negatives during their lifetime, (even if Brett Weston made a show of starting to do so on his 80th birthday). I suspect thatís because deep down, we all recognize the truth that Callahan expressed to me many years ago, after a group of investors bought all his prints, and the University of Arizona bought all his negatives. The loss of the prints didnít bother him. But even though the negatives would remain in Callahanís possession until his death, he recalled, "When Tucson bought the negatives it nearly killed me...."
"You see," said Callahan, "The negative is all I have."
They are interesting, beautiful and original.
Photographers take them very seriously.
Here are a few.
John Loengard
March, 2008
All photographs copyright © John Loengard. Gelatin silver prints printed by Chuck Kelton, Kelton Labs, New York City, under the direct supervision of John Loengard. Printed on Ilford Multigrade Warm Glossy paper. Design and portfolio box construction by Jace Graf, Cloverleaf Studio, Austin, Texas.
Celebrating The Negative/Photographs by John Loengard was published by Etherton Gallery, Tucson, Arizona, in March, 2008, in an edition of eighteen portfolios, including fifteen numbered copies and three artistís proofs. 



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