The montage magician - this is probably the best concise description of what Bob does with his film images in the darkroom. When Bob shared his stunning darkroom montage projects on our website, we decided to find out more about him and how his ideas could stimulate imagination and help others discover new creative expressions.
"Phoenix" - an excellent example of how darkroom forces me to do something better
To create montages Bob works with analog photography, but he also experiments with digital. This puts him in a very good place to explore a wide range of techniques and comment about different experiences that these media offer:
"With digital you can obviously do things you could never do in analog, the possibilities are endless. But in way that creates a new problem - you can easily get lost in the possibilities and find it impossible to make up your mind. Since my 'practice' of montage is solidly based in analog, I tend to not get lost, stay focused, and after not too many layers think "enough already! I'm getting lost in layers!". But the temptation is still there, I succumb sometimes.
In the darkroom I have to make up my mind, pretty quickly, no bells or whistles (='filters or layer options'), it's just about choice of negs, and their design. Also, I don't have numerous enlargers, just one. I make exposures sequentially, and there's no going back.
"Shady Number Six"
I have been using digital to make 'sketches' with Photoshop, I scan or shoot quick low-res files, and put them together to see how something will shape up, without committing myself to a full fledged print. I did a sketch that I liked that sandwiched two negs, and added a few more, it felt good, I wanted to print it. But when I pulled out the negs and started looking at them, the sandwich just didn't work. (With a sandwich, I am stuck with the size and quality of the negs, they are 'cast in stone'.) So I ditched that design, worked with fewer negs, turned a horizontal image into a much more focused vertical image. Being limited by darkroom was actually the thing that turned a so-so image into a 'wow!' image. I coined a phrase lately that I think says a lot - "The best software is between your ears". Yeah, definitely."
There are many people who look at Bob's work and think 'I wish I could do that', but they don't even try. Experimenting with montages in the darkroom can trigger a new creative path for someone who has never done it before. Bob tried and before he knew it he got addicted:
"I had seen work by a guy named Oscar Rejlander who worked around 1850 or so. Rejlander pioneered the painstaking technique of combination printing – combining several different negatives to create a single final image. In 1857 he used this technique to produce his best-known photograph, an allegorical tableau entitled The Two Ways of Life, created using over 30 separate negatives.
I'd also seen Jerry Uelsmann's work - who interested in photomontage hasn't?
I had started shooting architecture on a 4x5 around 1982 in the Wash., DC area. Spring, summer, fall - that's when you do most of your work. No one wants to see anything covered in snow, so unless you have interiors to shoot? You are pretty much unemployed, hoping that what you saved from last year would last until the spring. At this point, I had a Beseler 45MXII with a cold light head, and many negs I had shot in previous years - various landscapes and street scenes. So with time on my hands, I gave it a throw, tried a montage.
I think I wasted most of a 50 sheet box of 11x14" paper before I got this one right. At this point I was hooked, totally.
One of Bob's first montages. You can find out how he did it here.
I think that anyone who starts working with montage will find their own 'path'... because their 'path' is the cumulative result of their negs, their 'design'.. and their use of techniques. I share alot with Uelsmann, but I take different sorts of negs. It looks like JU uses a tripod, stops down as far as possible, makes very sharp negs, 'Ansel Adam's' style.
Everything on my site was made after I moved to California in 1992, after 10 years of shooting architecture with a 4x5, I tossed the tripod out, it was just too much to carry. By the time I filled a camera bag with a Pentax 6x7, a couple of lenses, some food, water, filters, film?... well, after 10 years of a 4x5, and 15+ years of the aforementioned camera bag, it's no wonder I have sciatica!
Even if you were to try and copy my stuff ( or JU's stuff, or anybody else's for that matter) it would work out different - after all, you would be using your negs, the choice of which is your own 'eye'... and the way you combined them, once again, 'your eye'."
Even if you try to follow processes, so well illustrated by Bob in his blog posts, it is almost guaranteed that after some experimentation you would discover your own creative style and, in time, perfect it and enhance it with new ideas. But for Bob nothing is random:
"The first, most important, part of my montage is... collecting the negs in the first place! I can't emphasize that one enough. That's 'square one'. Gotta be done right... but what 'right' is... is up to the photographer. At least my version of 'right' - yours might be different, and that's quite OK. I've been doing something art related since 1976, and my mom was dragging me, my bro' and sis' to see Winslow Homer and Andrew Wyeth when I was a kid - it all adds up, all your experience
I just go to places I like ( beach, desert) and walk...until I see something that 'clicks' and before I know it, I am reaching into the camera bag, ready to take a frame of two... or three.
Without any preconceived ideas of how I might use it, whatever I am looking at just does something for me, it's a sixth sense I guess.
Yes, sometimes an image comes into my head - in a dream, or somewhere between a dream and waking up.
I used to sift through contact sheets, and make sketches on tracing paper, recently I've been making digital sketches, printing them out, and going back over contact sheets again, looking for new unexpected possibilities. I've never had an image for my fine art portfolio that I preconceived, and then gone out to make the negs.
However, I've also done commercial/assignment illustrations with all the same techniques, and a few more that I don't use making 'fine art'. For these prints, I definitely preconceive - after all, I have to deliver a particular result that an art director and editor can be happy with, so before I even send in that first rough sketch for approval, I have to know that I can follow through.
There's no ('Bob's) secret magic ingredient, no 'silver bullet'. It is, was, and always shall be about immersion in what you are doing. There's no substitute for that, never will be."
'...there are no rabbits you can pull out of a hat to create montage images, there are no easy tricks...'
In the digital age, the dark room may seem somewhat extinct. A lot of mature photographers who remain loyal to film make this space feel exclusive to artists of their kind, but Bob thinks it can be a place where people have the opportunity to discover 'new' techniques and experiences:
"I think that as people explore digital, and then explore darkroom, they will see that each has it's own upside and downside. Has anyone reading this seen a tintype? or a glass plate negative? or a palladium print? These 'old' technologies have a quality that cannot be equaled by digital, no way, no how.
"Stairs" - one of my personal favorites. It illustrates the 'sixth sense' kicking in and how importatnt choice of negs and composition is. The landscape is just a vast desert space, but it has marvelous clouds. I think I took the shot mostly for the clouds. The staircase was shot in Bombay Beach, a rather forgotton place by the Salton Sea, in south California. The stairs start where the desert ends & the mountains start, and the way they blend/ascend into the clouds is perfect, and quite mysterious, the two frames seem to be made for each other.
Setting up a simple darkroom is not that expensive... or you can try doing things digitally, there's nothing wrong with that. Find your own path.
Whatever it is that springs to mind, however you work on it, grab on to it, and work it for all it's worth.
And?.... be prepared to fail and learn from it! Failure is OK, but only if it is a springboard to something better. I have made more than a few prints that sucked, but I 'learned' moved on... and did something better the next time. Just dive in & do it! work on it!"
Edge of Town is Bob's own favourite montage. It illustrates the gathering of negs, the sixth sense, the improvising without a net in the darkroom. Visit Bob's blog to find out how he made it.
To find out more about Bob Bennett's darkroom methods click here. You can also view a wide range of his photomontage projects on his website.
Visit his darkroom montage projects 1 and 2 on Analog Advocates.
We wish Bob many more years in the darkroom, producing stunning inspirational images.