Master typographer and photographer, Alan Robertson shares in this interview the fundamental traits of his artistic practice and career. From the 1960s to the present, Robertson has specialized in black and white printing and photography, collaborating with major museums and institutions in the UK and internationally. In this interview, the master reflects on the state and future of these practices, suggesting a new orientation that differs from the general consensus and the mainstream.
Sara Buoso: To introduce yourself, would you like to describe the crucial moment when you meet the press and photography in the darkroom retracing your career in the sixties?
Alan J. Robertson: My career began in the late 1950s, when progress and education were very lacking. While I was at school, I was walking around the local parks with my neighbor. Once, we stopped to rest and he went out with what we now know as a camera (a box of cookies) and took a picture of me. Days later, he showed me the results. That magic catapulted me into the world of photography and the darkroom. Later, the idea was born to realize what we called the “bathroom”. And in the “bathroom,” we installed Paterson darkroom equipment. That became my home. After school, I undertook what was then a four-year apprenticeship with a photographer specializing in portraits. As an assistant, I would carry cameras and tripods up and down many spiral staircases. Afterwards, I was a lighting supervisor. I then became assistant and junior typographer to another photographer who worked in architecture and industrial photography. There I gained more experience in printing and the Pitkin Pictorial technique, then in vogue. The principle of this technique was to photograph, process and provide samples that the customer could choose. Then the prints were provided and the customer promoted them with a letter. Then a series of changes followed and for a short time I joined a group of photographers as a typographer, including Louis Mawley, but unfortunately it didn’t work. In the eighties, I got a job as a typographer in Woburn Studios, a creative building of new conception, at the time the largest photo studio in Europe, photographing cars such as the Leyland truck and still lifes. The top floor had a laboratory for processing E6 (color transparencies), C41 color negatives and printing, and also B&N darkroom structures for processing and printing to very high standards. Also, it had a highly specialized retouching department. My eyes wanted to learn how to print at their best and I’ve been there for over 17 years. Then, with colleagues, Philip and Rebecca, we set up a study and a darkroom in an isolated courtyard where we are still today.
Since then, you have opened your own studio at 2 Iliffe Yard Studio and now collaborate with major museums, galleries and institutions. How has your practice evolved from that moment to today?
There are distinctive changes from the archival period (wet printing) to the modern digital period (dry printing) that we now use. However, at the moment there is a renewed interest in historical approaches by enthusiasts, an interest in archival methods that are found only in the use of analog. In digital, there is a certain division. While there are people in institutions and museums who believe in a continuous process (wet printing), there are those who now believe more in the dry process. In addition, there is some difficulty with the availability of historical chemicals and the way in which images are structured. In those days photography was like a profession: there were photographers who went out, took a photograph, returned to the laboratory for development. Then came the contact sheets and printing orders that facilitated production. At that time, photographers were preparing to shoot in a large format known as sheet film. On their return, they delivered the work to be processed: it was then a matter of developing a manual loading of the process on clips. You had to provide contact sheets that the customer could select and the chosen photographs were finally printed in the required size.
What are your main references?
This is John French, Diane Arbus, Edward Weston and Bill Brandt. I was recently introduced to the work of Helen Levitt, a documentary filmmaker: her are extraordinary photographs from the very first Harlem period. The other, of course, is Lee Miller. In addition to what we already know about her, she made a social documentary that shows how the situation of the time was a little agitated.
What is your definition of an excellent print? And an excellent negative? And finally, what makes an image a work of art?
There are different interpretations of how the whole range of negatives and paper should be understood. I think photographer Ansel Adams set the bar by looking at how a negative has different reactions and nuances depending on how it is used. You must always be positive when processing from a negative. You must look at it and judge it. You have to consider your feelings before you make a print. What you have is what a person has to work with. So, try and see if you can step forward or step back and see the difference. Keep in mind that we are talking about photo cards that are not graduated. Ranked cards work as one, two, three and four or different types of gradations. But the jump between each may be excessive. So, you should work on a developer of soft gradations as well as processing your normal print. So, you try to incorporate an intermediate gradation while now you have filters that have half a degree and all the different changes: really quite difficult. What makes a good print or a good negative is entirely personal. It’s your interpretation. As a photographer, you become a bridge. Taking a photograph from a negative is already an interpretation. Like artists, we’re trying to create a work of art, and what we’re trying to do is merge the two together. You learn how to make important or subtle changes that may be necessary for a print. There are images in which I really feel that it is a question of the feelings that are felt at that moment. Otherwise, there are some images that you have to leave completely natural. They’re just a record, a representation of what you see outside. In other images, I really feel that the photographer’s mind is projected into the image.
What is the difference between digital practices and black and white photography? What future?
First, to adapt from the beginning to the process, both in photography and printing, you need to explain the operation in terms of tones, that is, the process that allows you to lift the image from the paper. When you get a negative, you can attribute different gradations and take different tests. If you do it digitally, a computer has already been set up by someone else, then you get to an image only of a certain level. A computer image is designed to have an infinite level of manipulation. Whereas, previously, each step was an incremental improvement in a limited set of steps in vision of what was to be. I’m worried because digital development is moving very fast. Black and white has strong support. However, it will never be the same again. Black and white will be there if people want to learn. There is something, a certain feeling to reevaluate when a person decides he wants to see an image emerge from a development tray. Black and white will survive, but in a different context.
In a larger context, there is value in the process of producing an image. Can you delve into the importance of image creation?
We all like to understand some form of history and ask ourselves how an image actually forms. We have two levels: one is what is called “archival” and consists of silver gelatin printing; on the other we have the “digital”, which lends itself to the circulation and consumption of the image. Change the cards, change the stability file. The fiber paper printing is archived, processed and printed to a very high standard, now according to a well-proven method. In the digital version, otherwise, there is a level of museum quality printing. Blacks aren’t that rich, for example, even though digital prints are getting better and better. However, given its brief history, archival speaking, this is not yet a proven method. I still don’t know what the digital universe will hold for us and this is true both for each of us and for photography itself. It depends on the type of work the photographer wants to do. Photography production methods have changed dramatically since the introduction of the camera phone. The consumption of images has also evolved into an increasingly large digital screen. It has become a social event. All this can be intrusive in a way. Photography has become a great station with many tracks. A large and gigantic station with tracks that allow everyone to come and see the process of image formation.
Alan J Robertson Photography and Darkroom
2 Iliffe Yard, London
She is interested in the visual, verbal and textual aspects of the Modern Contemporary Arts. From historical-artistic studies at the Cà Foscari University, Venice, she has specialized in teaching and curatorial practice at the IED, Rome, and Christie’s London. The field of her research activity focuses on the theme of Light from the 1950s to current times, ontologically considering artistic, phenomenological and visual innovation aspects.