Thursday, December 27, 2012

Inteview with Scott B Davis

Scott B Davis is a Director of Exhibitions and Design at SanDiego Museum Of Photographic Arts.  Along with doing a fabulous job at that post he is an accomplished photographic artist working in platinum prints and teaches that technique in private workshops.
Earlier today it was my great pleasure to visit his home and take a tour of the darkroom, which he built over this summer.  The work there is still continuing (show me an artist whose vision is done and finished and I’ll show you a dead artist) and you may see a few construction tools in some of the images here.  His platinum prints are among the finest that I have personally seen. His work and accomplishments can be found by visiting  You can aslo find contact information there in case you are interested in purchasing a print or taking a workshop.
Here is a transcription of our chat, which was conducted in a loose interview format:

(Scott B Davis in his darkroom)
Q.  What was your first darkroom experience and how did you become a photographer?
A.  Well, I took photography in high school in the ‘80s and I thought photography was purely for dorks and dweebs and I thought it was not for me.  Took a class, passed it and forgot about it.  Then I moved to California from D.C. area when I was 18 and I remember a moment when I was driving on the freeway and had an epiphany that I wanted to take black and white pictures.  There was no reason for it, but I just knew that’s what I wanted to do.  I got my fathers camera, took some pictures, went to community college to gain darkroom access and just kept going.  That was 1991 and by ’97 I sold every piece of darkroom equipment I gathered because I was printing solely in platinum by that time.

Q.  What equipment do you use to create your work?
A.  I use a Burke & James 8x10 and a 16x20in camera that I designed and built in 2002.  I use a 19in Dagor and a 30in Artar, but mostly I’m a wide-angle guy.  I used the 16x20 full time for 5 years, but after switching to 8x10 and starting to scan the negatives I found the experience to be a like working with a 35mm – it’s just that much easier.
 (16x20in camera custom made from cherry wood - folded)
 (Meticulous plans for the above camera)

My 16x20 prints are all direct contact from original negatives, while for larger 20x24 prints I scan the 8x10s and make a digital negative to print from.  I print the 16x20s in an edition of 10 prints and the big enlargements are editions of 5. 

I process my film by inspection method using a number 3 Kodak safe light.  It is very accurate – as soon as you see the highlights you know you have about 45 seconds more in the developer.  There is still work to be done in the darkroom like building the light baffle, print viewing rack for the 20x24 triptychs and lots more.

For a long time now I have used a UV exposure unit for printing - it's a lot more consistent than the sun and I can print at any time.

Print washer – 22x28in was also designed and built from scratch.  I use it mostly when I am making the larger prints and when I’m in full production mode, which means that at most I make three of four final prints a day.  Platinum printing is a very meticulous and time-consuming process.
Q.  What about your history with platinum printing?
A.  I got into platinum in 1996 when I bought the 8x10 from Nelson Photo here in San Diego.  I taught myself the process, but after a year or two of printing I took a workshop with Dick Arentz who wrote the book on platinum printing.  That workshop taught me two things.  One was how to make a platinum print – because there is ‘making a platinum prints’ and then there is ‘Making A Platinum Print’.  And also it taught a lot about using the right side of the brain and interpreting work and making more personally expressive prints rather than simply making prints by the numbers.

Q.  What makes you stick with platinum through all these years?
A.  Truly – I love the actual process of making physical prints.  It’s a process that, not unlike print making proper, requires a lot of knowledge and experience to master the technique.  I love the fat that it has a rich history and heritage.  I also like to exploit platinum for the things that most people don’t exploit it for – most printers are interested in the mid-tones and the glowing, singing whites, and I love to get a nice white as much as anybody but I love to get these juicy, mysterious, heavy dark tones.  I’ve had master digital printers tell me that they can make a print that looks “exactly” like this pint in front of us, but personally I don’t want my next print to look exactly like the last one – I want the next print to be a little different because they stopped making the paper, or I was having a bad day, or I was having a good day and it’s the best print I’ve ever made from that negative.  I love the fact that these prints are artifacts that are unique things onto themselves.  
  The other part of it is that, in essence, nobody can take these materials away from me.  Epson can stop making 7800 K3 inks tomorrow, or they make a new printer that doesn’t use those and they stop supporting your printer’s technology.  And, sure, miners in the Ural Mountains can stop mining platinum and I’d be out of business, but really, it's like making your own D-76 developer – the materials are there, in theory I must emphasize again, nobody can take them away and I can continue making prints that I love and work with a historic process that has a lot of character and integrity to it.
Q.  What subject matter inspires you most?
A.  I shoot at night primarily and LA is where I have done most of my night work.  There I make photographs that suggest a different story of a city that is loaded with iconography and are in opposition to people’s perceptions of what that city is.  LA as a city is very different from what "the industry" and Hollywood wants you to see.  For example this image of an alley and a ramshackle house behind a tattered fence – no wealthy people or stars live here, real Angelenos live here and that’s what my work is about. 
 (two 20x24in prints)
Q.  Who is your top influential photographer?
A.  That would have to be Mark Klett – I took a workshop from him once and that taught me more than three years in a university.  I really love what he has done – from the photographic survey project all the way to today.  He continually explored the medium, and fused it with history well.  He’s a really smart visual thinker.  What originally drew me to his images is his innovative approach to landscape.  For example he started including power lines in his landscapes because that’s the landscape of the world we live in today.  He painted the most accurate picture of the American West that I have seen – from petroglyphs to graffiti, cars on highways and power lines and all that is the definition of our culture today.

Q.  Do you think there is a benefit to new aspiring photographers in learning to use film?
A.  I do, I definitely do.  That benefit is actually in understanding how to use Photoshop on a much deeper level.  It’s a slow road to learn, as you know.  There’s not a lot of people today who have the patience to learn what the film curve is, how to manipulate it by development and do all the testing.  However that knowledge the toe and shoulder of a film curve can give people a huge leg-up in understanding what a natural curve looks like in Photoshop.  A sensitive eye of someone who went through the process of learning film, ‘practicing the scales’ is what I call it, will have an understanding of the proper relationship of zone 4 to zone 5 as an example

Q.  Do you think film will survive in 25 years?
A.  I doubt it.  I like to think so, because I like the materials I use and I like the process, but we have already seen it decline to a point that there are very few good films now being made.  Even the companies that have their heart in it 100% will come to a point when they will only fire up the coating machine three or four times a year and at that point the quality control will drop drastically, the chemistry will not be fresh and there’s not going to be that consistency.   It’s like making scrambled eggs – if you make them only a few times a year they are probably going to be mediocre, but if you make them every morning you’re going to have a good technique down.  So that’s what I see – there’s probably going to be film around, but is it going to be any good?  That’s anybody’s guess.  I do think there is a chance of digital resulting in a greater appreciation of a physical print, but whether even that is true I don’t know – very few people appreciate newspapers any more…

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating. Makes one want to haunt antique stores and junk shops. Keep hunting