San Francisco Art Institute Photography History 16

June 19th, 2014 by David Leland Hyde Leave a reply »

Reciprocity Failure

Lecture By Ansel Adams

Introduction And Philip Hyde Lecture Notes

(Continued from the blog post, “San Francisco Art Institute Photography History 15.”)

Sunken Car, Sausalito, Marin County, Alcatraz In Distance, San Francisco Bay, California, copyright 1948 by Philip Hyde. Made during photography school.

Sunken Car, Sausalito, Marin County, Alcatraz In Distance, San Francisco Bay, California, copyright 1948 by Philip Hyde. Made during photography school.

No other known set exists of complete student lecture notes from the first ten years of the California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute. During the “Golden Decade,” directly after World War II, while Minor White was lead instructor, beginning in the Summer Session 1947, Philip Hyde took detailed class notes. These notes are what make up the core of a good number of entries in this series of blog articles on the history of the San Francisco Art Institute’s photography department.

Background And Founding Of The World’s First Professional Creative Photography Training

Minor White and Philip Hyde both attended their first Ansel Adams lecture on the same day at the start of the California School of Fine Arts Summer Session 1946. Ansel Adams brought in Minor White with the idea he would take Ansel Adams’ place as lead instructor. Minor White came directly from Columbia University on Beaumont and Nancy Newhall’s recommendation. In the 1946 Summer Session Minor White quickly proved himself as a coach of the young students and as a guest lecturer. Within a few weeks Ansel Adams felt confident enough in Minor White’s teaching abilities to leave him in charge of the class and set out on the road to photograph the national parks for his recently awarded Guggenheim Fellowship.

That Fall, Minor White also led the first class of full-time students in the world’s first academic full-time creative photography program. By Fall of 1947, a new crop of first year students began learning from Minor White at the California School of Fine Arts, renamed the San Francisco Art Institute in 1961. The San Francisco Art Institute still has one of the world’s most innovative photography departments, but the first ten years of the program, now called the Golden Decade, are the stuff of legend with guest lectures arranged by Minor White that included such photographic luminaries as Imogen Cunningham, Lissette Model, Dorothea Lange, and many others; as well as the highlight of each semester: a field trip to Wildcat Hill in Carmel to visit Edward Weston, complete with a field walk with him out on Point Lobos State Natural Reserve.

Ansel Adams first taught the photography Summer Session in 1945. Minor White joined him teaching in 1946. Philip Hyde started as a student at the same time, but due to an office paperwork error, did not make the list to attend the first full-time class in Fall 1946, but began photography school in the second full-time class in Fall 1947. The Summer Session 1947 featured lectures by both Adams and White. Philip Hyde’s lecture notes begin in the Summer Session 1947. Philip Hyde proved to be one of the most eager students, despite his full personal life.

On June 29, 1947, Philip Hyde married Ardis King in Berkeley. Ardis King’s family was from Sacramento, but her parents owned a house in Berkeley, where she and her brother Clint King lived while attending the University of California Berkeley. Philip and Ardis got to know each other while attending classes at UC Berkeley, where Ardis earned her teaching credential. They took a number of classes together, including a course in Calligraphy and Japanese Painting by the famous Japanese-American artist Chiura Obata. More on these classes and their influence on the Hydes in future blog posts.

Reciprocity Failure Defined

Following Minor White’s lecture on The Technical Aspects of Visualization on August 19, 1947, Ansel Adams came before the class and held forth on Reciprocity Failure for the next two days. Most of the lecture contents were too technical to reproduce here, with many graphs depicting film densities and sensitometry readings.

Reciprocity failure oversimplified, results in the failure of film to show accurate and unflawed detail in shadows. While the subject may seem dry in some ways, it is an important concept in straight photography where the values of clarity, sharpness and clean rendering without artifacts and film noise are considered of utmost importance. Many photographers today in the digital age don’t care about the technical aspects of photography because they don’t need to in order to produce high fidelity photography. Camera technology today, if used according to the manual and a few simple rules and guidelines, does much of the work automatically, when the correct settings are chosen. However, with large format film cameras, everything had to be done manually. Ansel Adams was a stickler for all technical aspects of photography and developing a solid base of knowledge and aptitude in his students. The results speak for themselves, evident in his negatives and black and white prints, as well as the negatives and fine art prints of his students. It is precisely because of their perfection that Ansel Adams prints are some of the most sought after by collectors and considered some of the most valuable in the history of the medium.

The Film Photography Project blog gives an excellent explanation of reciprocity failure:

Whether you’re using a lower speed film in daylight, trying to maximize your depth of field in a landscape, or just setting up the camera for an exposure at night, sooner or later you’re going to start pushing the limits of your film’s light gathering ability. As light becomes more scarce, the silver halide grains residing in your film will be less uniformly struck by photons, causing a steep drop in density after a few seconds of needed exposure. This exponentially diminishing response to low light levels is more popularly known as a film’s reciprocity failure.

The Film Photography Project goes on to give examples of how different films exhibit reciprocity failure. For example, with black and white film, exposures of one or two seconds or longer will result in reduced density, that is, thin or non-existent shadow detail. With color negative film, exposures over 20 seconds cause color-shifting as different color dye layers in the film absorb light at different rates during prolonged exposure. With color slide film, exposures over five seconds result in color shifts similar to color negative film, while high color saturation slide films such as Fuji Velvia color shift to an even greater degree than lower color density films.

Ansel Adams’ two-day lecture on reciprocity failure gave his students the tools to avoid reciprocity failure. Some of the technical terms and information implies previous knowledge from earlier lectures of various photographic subjects such as the Zone System. Stay tuned for a simple explanation of the Zone System in future posts in this series. These notes are presented primarily for the historical record.

Philip Hyde’s Lecture Notes, August 19, 1947

Reciprocity failure—inertia of film in low intensity light—film doesn’t respond to slight illumination.

Visualization and light metering—Use a long tube for the light meter to explore light readings of distant objects.

A Wratten 90 filter (tan color) for viewing—neutralizes color

Example: Greens on Kodak Verichrome Pan film drop nearly a full zone in value due to lack of green sensitivity.

All measurements for density should be above film base plus fog.

[Film base plus fog refers to the inherent density of any film before exposure. It consists of the film base plus any fog that has accumulated on the film due to subtle light exposure in handling]

For the sake of measurement and calculations, film base plus fog should not be less than 0.1 in density.

Pre-Exposure Exercise

Expose a white card for Zone II or Zone I depending on amount of exposure added. Then expose the scene normally. The units added will equal the numeric relation between zones. That is:

Zone I = 1 unit

Zone II = 2 units

Zone III = 4 units

Zone IV = 8 units

Zone V = 16 units

Zone VI = 32 units

…and so on up to Zone X

More on reciprocity failure and the Zone System in upcoming posts…

(Continued in the blog post, “San Francisco Art Institute Photography History 17.”)

My impressions from this lecture and other sources, as well as my own experiences, leads me to believe that it was complicated to make good photographs with large format film cameras. When photographers take for granted how easy photography is now, I often think of my father, Philip Hyde’s notes and his early training with Ansel Adams. What are your thoughts?

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