Vision and Technique: A workshop with Michael A. Smith and Paula Chamlee

By John Sarsgard for the Large Format Page

Michael A. Smith was one of the pioneers of photography workshops in the early 1970s, when he organized and hosted many that included luminaries like Diane Arbus, Andre Kertesz, Gene Smith, and Paul Caponigro, among others. After a number of years, he stopped teaching to concentrate fully on his own work, which lead to a 25-year retrospective at the George Eastman House in 1992, the publication of prize winning books of his work, 200 exhibitions, and placement of his work in over 100 museums...including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. And his marriage to the photographer Paula Chamlee! Paula also has an extensive exhibition history and has published three books, including the well known High Plains Farm.She has extensively photographed the landscape of the American West. Both Michael and Paula work exclusively in large format black and white, with 8x10, 8x20, and occasionally with an 18x22 camera. They support themselves through the sale of their photographs, and do no commercial work.

This three day (Friday night until late Sunday afternoon) workshop covered Paula's and Michael's process of seeing as well as their techniques for executing their vision in the darkroom. It was an intense and wonderful experience for eight photographers. We worked until after midnight both days, in and around their house/studio in beautiful Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Paula prepared our (very tasty!) meals, keeping the group totally together to maximize the interchange of ideas. We looked at hundreds of great prints, developed film by inspection (in pyro, of course), made contact prints on Azo (developed in Amidol, of course), worked under the dark cloth together, and had detailed, constructive critiques of all our own work that we brought.

I was interested in Michael and Paula's favorite techniques...development by inspection and printing on Azo...but I attended more for the vision part, and was just delighted with what I got. I've been working in large format for just over two years, and had my head changed completely in this weekend. I had been finding "things" I wanted to photograph, like old factories, unique architecture, and "sense of place" pictures, then setting up the tripod, the camera, and all the rest, and executing a photograph of that THING. Michael and Paula taught me to focus on the photograph, rather than the thing. A place or thing to which one is attracted becomes a place to start, and a photograph is created by LOOKING, on the ground glass. I learned more about discovering a picture with tonal balance, rhythm, shape, and texture. I learned about making all parts of the picture work as a unity, not just be there. I learned how powerful the corners and edges are. In a nutshell, I discovered the process of parking my tripod in a good place and looking, trying lots of things, and making a picture instead of photographing a thing. This process was reinforced in great detail in the critiques, where we spent lots of time figuring out how to improve our photographs, and in the time we spent under the dark cloth with Paula and Michael. I'd never actually spent time...not just a look...under the dark cloth with instructors before. It was a real-time experience in actually DOING the process we'd been discussing. We did it individually with both of them, and spent lots of time at it.

Michael's darkroom techniques have been described in detail in his articles in View Camera(and also available on their website), but the demonstrations were great to watch. I was amazed at how easy it is to print on Azo, using a metronome instead of a timer. I had never seen 8x10 and larger Azo prints before, and the sheer brilliance and tonal range was most impressive. Impressive to the point that my next project is learning to scan my 4x5 negatives, work on them in Photoshop, and make larger digital negatives that I can print on Azo. Either that works or I guess I'll have to trade up to an 8x10! I had never seen negatives developed by inspection before. Lots of advantages compared to guessing developing time for the highlights and then hoping for the best. Amazing to watch the film begin to change under a flicker of green safelight. I'm eager to try it, but this is scary stuff! Maybe all of this is beginning to sound familiar if you're acquainted with Edward Weston's work...8x10 view camera, development by inspection in pyro, contact printing on Azo. I don't believe Weston (or Michael and Paula) owned an enlarger.

I very well may not use all of Michael's and Paula's technique...that development by inspection stuff is scary! But, what made this work for me was experiencing their process, from looking, seeing, composing, finding a strong picture through the finished photograph in a consistent way. This was not a vacation workshop. It was intense...on Saturday I believe we were together for about 16 continuous hours! I hope they offer it again soon. Meanwhile, take a look at their articles and some good discussion about how they work on There are no photographs there at the moment, but they tell me there will be many very soon.

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