I have a concept for a project, a continuing exploration of my sense of place and belonging after returning to my hometown 35 years after my departure as a teenager. As the concept has gestated, I've realized that a series of related images requires thoughtful consideration of decisions that might otherwise be made on the fly. I decided early on that I wanted to use lumen prints, the process in harmony with my deep connection to the natural landscape of my little corner of the earth and my vision for the project. That narrowed the field in some areas and threw the door open in others. At first glance, the lumen print process is very simple - lay something on top of a piece of darkroom paper, take it into the sun, and allow an image to develop. It's deceptively simple, and maddeningly unpredictable and complex. Get lovely color one time, nothing you'd want to keep the next, the influencing factors difficult to isolate and pin down.
There are bigger picture questions also. What size will these images be? Do I want to settle on a single paper or use a variety of papers? Is there a natural affinity between some subject matter and a paper choice? Is the original captured image the final product or simply a step in the process? Will I allow myself any digital manipulation of the images, and if so, where will I draw the line? Will there be accompanying text or will the images stand alone in telling the story? What am I trying to ultimately build? A box of plates to be tucked into a drawer? A virtual experience on a series of web pages? Images to be framed and exhibited? A book?
I will allow serendipity to guide me down this road as much as possible, trying to keep the channels open and unfolding, but some choices have to be made in order to get started, and that leads me to this little piece. That leads me to the testing game.
I may be a bit of a mad scientist - I love to test. I love the 'what if'. I love challenging what I've been told, sometimes learning the 'why' of it for myself. Sometimes realizing that conventional wisdom is unnecessarily confining. I love learning something new. I've now made at least 70 test images - my record keeping at the beginning being a bit sloppy, I can't say exactly how many test images I've made. I've tested at least 8 papers. I've tested exposure times that range from 3 minutes in full sun to hours in the shade. I've tested adding moisture by spritzing the paper before exposure. I've tested exposures at different times of day. I've compared glossy paper surfaces to satin and semi-matt ones. I've learned an exhilarating amount. I still feel like a rank amatuer.
I'm narrowing in on some decisions for my project, though I know that tomorrow or the next day, eBay will alert me to the availability of some old paper that I haven't tried, and the testing game will be on anew. On, in full force, despite the conclusion I've already come to that there is no absolute right or absolute wrong in the world of lumen printing. It all works in one way or another, at least some of the time.
In the end it's simple - take out a sheet of darkroom paper, place something on it, carry it into the sun, and leave it there awhile. Bring it in with eager delight and see what you got.