San Francisco Art Institute Photography History 15

July 9th, 2013 by David Leland Hyde Leave a reply »

Technical Aspects of Visualization

Lecture By Minor White

Philip Hyde’s 1947 Class Notes

California School Of Fine Arts, Now The San Francisco Art Institute

Photography Program Founded By Ansel Adams, Minor White Lead Instructor

(Continued from the blog post, “San Francisco Art Institute Photography History 14.”)

Landscape Photography Blogger Note:

Bristlecone Pine Snag Against Sky, Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite National Park, Sierra Nevada, copyright 1949 by Philip Hyde. 8X10 Deardorff Large Format View Camera.

Bleached Juniper Trunk On Ridge Above Parson’s Lodge, Cumulus Clouds, Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite National Park, Sierra Nevada, copyright 1949 by Philip Hyde. 8X10 Deardorff Large Format View Camera.

(View the photograph large: “Bleached Juniper Trunk, Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite.”)

Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Minor White were all proponents of visualization or pre-visualization as it is sometimes called. Ansel Adams wrote about visualization, as did Minor White to some extent. However, few, if any, of their students ever published any lecture notes sharing the contents of lectures on the subject. Here for what is likely the first time ever published, are the notes from star photography student Philip Hyde on a lecture by Minor White during the summer session, on August 19, 1947. Today is Minor White’s birthday. He was born on July 9, 1908.

Half way through the class lecture in 1947, Minor White shifted into a technical discussion regarding film density, exposure, the Zone System, film testing, tonal reproduction, tonal separation, contrast control by underdevelopment, various aspects of darkroom processing, waterbath formulas, and other details of film darkroom photography. The purpose of the lecture was to apply darkroom post-processing tools to carry out and complete the process of visualization as begun at the point of exposure in the field with the camera. This technical discussion consisted mainly of graphs and charts that do not apply to today’s digital photography and in some cases not even to today’s film photography. This complex portion of Minor White’s lecture is omitted here, for the most part, with some portions summarized, leaving us with the non-technical core of the subject.

These lecture notes are presented here mainly as a historical record, more than for teaching or learning purposes, though they may serve the latter two purposes as well, with certain readers. More on the theory and philosophy of visualization will follow in future articles and blog posts. Yet this lecture, may put into perspective how relatively easy making good photographs has become, due to technology replacing many of the processes mentioned below. Photoshop is certainly not simple, nor do we now merely press one button that eliminates all visual distractions and turns our images into artistic masterpieces, as many uninformed people seem to believe. Nonetheless, the lecture below puts into perspective the level of diligence involved in darkroom black and white photography. Which of these two post-processing methods do you feel took more skill? Or if the skills are different, how do they compare?

Technical Aspects of Visualization Lecture By Minor White

Philip Hyde’s Notes August 19, 1947

Visualization is the basis of creative photography as taught at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) photography school. Visualization is simply visualizing, imagining in the mind, the final print while looking at the scene you are photographing. The approach to applying visualization is to place tones on a scale, in the 10 gradations of tone in the Zone System and internalizing the relationship of exposure to development taking into consideration the relationship between exposure and density of the film being used.

Any tone in nature can be reproduced with exposure control exactly as is with normal development. This is considered a normal exposure to development relationship. The relationship of tones remains the same with normal development. Less than normal development will compact the relationship, that is, it will compact the scale of tones. More than normal development will stretch the scale.

A full-scale print is one in which all the values of the 10 Zone scale are present including white and black, Zones 0-9. When exposure is graphed against density, there is a portion of the curve at the beginning, or toe, where the curve gradually increases steepness. This toe portion of the curve is preferred for enlargement, but can cause loss of accuracy of tonal relationships in darker areas. The curve then straightens out. This part of the curve is where tonal reproduction is accurate. The top, or shoulder, of the curve, where it gradually decreases steepness, is the least desirable for photographic enlargement and printing.

The lightest Zones, Zones I, II and III are on the toe portion of the graph and will be less dense than expected. Contrast can be controlled by underdevelopment. This must be determined by testing of the film to see whether upper or lower values will contrast more and in what relation to development. When lower values are in the toe, they can suffer serious loss of tonal quality. A good waterbath helps to increase separation in the lower tones, or the toe of the curve(s) and decreases or diminishes this effect in the upper Zones. Testing is done with a gradated step wedge.

Lens testing is also related to the success or failure of visualization efforts. Testing lenses determines the differences between theoretical and actual light transmission, due to flare, aberrations in the lens and technique of the photographer.

(Continued in the blog post, “San Francisco Art Institute Photography History 16.”)

For those of you who did both post-processing in a film darkroom and now use Photoshop, Lightroom or some equivalent, do you feel traditional film black and white photography or digital photography post-processing is more difficult? In what ways are the challenges of each different?


  1. Guy Tal says:

    Nice to read these notes from a class I wish I could have taken. I hope you can share more of these.
    Difficulty is not just about the differences in process, but is also a matter of skill and experience. I don’t necessarily think that one method is easier to master than the other. Personally, I’m just grateful I don’t have to smell fixer each time I open Photoshop.


  2. Thanks, Guy. LOL, good point about the chemicals. As much as I like to promote my father’s vintage black and white prints, the phrase, “hand made” I feel is somewhat of a misnomer. Darkroom made gelatin silver prints ought to be considered, “Chemical made.” This was something Dad was greatly concerned about. He reconciled that the harm he did dumping chemicals into the environment from his darkroom, he offset by all the land conservation work his photographs did. The irony is, though, that the inks we print with today are extremely toxic. Computers are known to offgas carcinogens and not just the inks, but the paper itself is full of chemicals, chlorine bleach and formaldehyde. So if you are closed up in your office making digital prints, you are probably exposed to nearly as much toxic buildup as in the darkroom. Some manufacturers are aware of these concerns and actively researching and offering better alternatives.

  3. I attended the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and the classes I took opened my mind to
    do more research, in photography, the early pioneer photographers made the way, what they had to do to
    bring an image to view said it all in your blog, it was a
    health hazard but they gave it their all, for such an excellent job, even in our day and time, where images are somewhat easier but still have some complications, we still show respect for all those GREAT Photographer’s work.

  4. Hi Beverly, I appreciate your visit and comment here on Landscape Photography Blogger. Very good point about respecting the older masters. Hats off to you and any other photographers of today that recognize that all art is related to all other art. We can’t divorce digital photography from darkroom film photography. Many would be wise to study the history of the art form. The Academy of Art University has clearly been a good influence on you and is doing photography a service.

  5. Anil Rao says:

    I am very glad I visited your blog today, David. Thanks for a most wonderful post. It was a real treat to read your father’s class notes.

    Rather than argue which approach is more difficult, working in a wet darkroom or using a digital photo-editing program, I would like to say that I have always considered determining what to photograph is more challenging that figuring out how to photograph something. Given the mechanical nature of our medium, each successive generation of photographers will have better and more sophisticated tools at their disposal. That is not the point. When I look at an Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Philip Hyde or Elliot Porter photograph, I never once stop to think that they had it tough. Instead, I am struck by the ideas contained in their work that despite the passage of time are as strong as ever and continue to inspire. Therein lies the brilliance of those great artists.

  6. Anil, this is an important addition to the discussion. I agree whole-heartedly that in the end, the ideas of photographers are most important, certainly not whether their images are “pretty” in a basic sense, but whether their photographs offer us quality ideas. Ultimately, art is about ideas much more than about the tools or techniques used to make it. Art that fails to make us think is merely home decor.

  7. I think sharing your father’s notes is a generous opportunity for us to experience photographic education by the masters. I am eagerly awaiting your future publishing of more.
    I am horrified when I read or hear comments denigrating the work of early artists as of little usefulness today. Everything that is created currently has some tie to previous work experienced by present day artists whose work will grow with its assimilation by future artists. There is a continuum there that is healthy and vital. Even totally unique creations are still the outgrowth of experience digested.

    With the demise of Google Reader I have missed some of your posts and was not receiving email notifications, David. But I have re-subscribed so I hope that will not happen again.

  8. Couldn’t agree more, Steve. The flip side of it is that photographers who have been around for a long time, collectors and the general public ought to also pay more respect to the work being done today, where appropriate. Photoshop is not at all easy to master by any means. Doing good Photoshop or Lightroom work is a difficult skill that also takes much time to learn, just as making black and white prints or color prints in the darkroom. If you study Jackson Pollock, you see a natural progression of his work from a more traditional modernist painting style to his drip paintings later. “Everyone” said that “anyone” could paint his paintings, but it turned out whenever anyone tried, they failed. Nobody could do it like he did. When people make snide remarks like, “just fix it with Photoshop,” I want to challenge them to try it and see what it’s really like rather than looking down on the particular type of hammer or saw in use.

  9. I think the reason these folks who think anyone can do it are missing the boat is that what makes a great artist is the artist…not the medium, not the tools, not anything but the artist. Sure, it takes great mastery for the tools or medium to be bent to an artist’s will and if a person applies him or herself to the practice and study of technique then a darkroom or photoshop can be mastered. But no one will have the vision of Ansel Adams, Philip Hyde, Paul Caponigro or any from an endless list of accomplished photographic artists many of whom visit this blog on a regular basis.

  10. Oops. I left out the man of the hour…Minor White from the visionary list.

  11. Exactly, Steve. The vision is the “why” and the tools are the “how.” Anyone who truly has a vision with a big and clear “why” can learn “how” to master the tools.

  12. Sharon says:

    Wonderful article, David. Thanks so much for posting this.
    Summer is our busy season here – I haven’t had much time to read. This was a wonderful find.

  13. Hi Sharon. Glad you liked it and I am grateful for the appreciation and that you get a chance to visit from time to time. Hope you have a very successful season.

  14. Mark says:

    Thank you for sharing David. I can’t tell you how valuable I think these glimpses into history are. I rather like reading them little bits at a time as I often have difficulty sitting down for long periods of time engaged in a in-depth book. I wish I was able to take one of Minor White’s courses as well as I feel a connection to much of his work.

    I never got heavily into developing my own film, but I do remember the smells and handling of the chemicals as a kid along side of my step-father. It is nice to know the history behind some of the names of the tools in Photoshop and where the terms and processes originated from. I don’t know if one could be easier than the other. I could certainly spend hours in Photoshop on a single image, where a similar amount of time could be spent developing a chemical print.

    With all the nostalgic film looks being the rage these days with “one button” filters, I do wonder how many will appreciate the history of where those looks came from.

  15. Hi Mark, thank you for the addition of your thoughts about the various “film” looks incorporated into Photoshop these days and the importance of having some sense of history. Interesting how you remember the chemicals from the “hand-made” traditional printing process. I too remember the chemicals very well. I would go in and sit for hours with Dad in his darkroom while he made black and white prints when I was a young boy. He was nearly always in a great mood when printing. He often had big band jazz blasting: Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Glenn Miller and others of the jazz age. I can still smell the darkroom black and white printing chemicals in his darkroom at home today, even though no prints have been made in his darkroom for decades. He did a small part of his dye transfer printing in the darkroom and the Cibachrome too, but even that was a long time ago now. Nonetheless, every time I go in there, I can hear my father in my mind as plain as day belting out, “Chattanooga Choo Choo, won’t you carry me home…”

  16. pj says:

    Interesting as always David. Your dad’s notes of a Minor White lecture are a true treasure. What an experience those classes must have been.

    I think we had a short exchange on the differences between wet and digital darkroom on twitter a while back. In a way I think it’s kind of comparing apples to oranges. The end goal is the same — a fine print — but the methods of achieving that print are quite different. I wouldn’t say either one is any easier.

    I have no desire to return to a wet darkroom. I’m more than happy to leave those chemicals behind. I also like being able to make incremental changes to the work as I go along and not have to commit each step to paper to see what it looks like.

    There are times I feel a bit of nostalgia for working under the red light, projecting a negative image onto a sheet of paper, and feeling the magic of seeing it come up in the developer… but not enough to make me want to do it again… 😀

  17. Hi PJ, I enjoyed our discussion on twitter and your comments on this, as well as the others in the discussion too. Seems like many Photoshop users who also worked in the wet darkroom have similar sentiments to you, but no regrets about switching to the current technology. In some ways, gelatin silver black and white prints had more soul, but generally the prints being made now in the digital darkroom are far superior technically because we now have far more control and many more options as to what can be done.

  18. David – Great post with your Dad’s notes. I did a lot of black and white wet darkroom work back in the day and while I miss it to some degree, I find the digital darkroom has some advantages. The biggest one, for me, is being able to see each step in the process and being able to undo anything that doesn’t work. I remember using a whole lot of enlarging paper to get what I wanted in a print…But, lets face it, watching that image slowing emerging in the developer tray was always a special moment.

  19. I enjoy hearing your experiences in both darkrooms, and feelings about the printing processes Bill.

  20. Greg Russell says:

    As the others have said, I really appreciate you taking the time to post these notes. They’re an interesting glimpse into the past.

    I definitely agree with what the others have said regarding people today hopefully appreciating how difficult it was to learn darkroom techniques (which are now somewhat reproducible with the push of a button), and I will add that I am learning to despise how some people defend the heavy (in my opinion, overphotoshopping) photoshopping of images by saying, “Well, Ansel heavily manipulated his images.” Yes, but he also knew what he was doing.

    Anyway…great post, and I’m looking forward to seeing the future posts on this subject.

  21. Hi Greg, Good point about Ansel knowing what he was doing. He did not heavily manipulate all of his photographs. Most of the time he did not even use filters on his camera. “Moonrise Over Hernandez” evolved over time. It is common knowledge that Ansel printed it many different ways, some heavily manipulated, some not. He made over 900 prints of it, the earliest being closest to the negative, but not necessarily to the original scene. His goal in “manipulating” his photographs, those few that he did, was to equal his feelings while viewing the original scene, not to create something completely new and transformed from the original scene as is often done today in digital printing.

  22. I’m loving these posts! They are so interesting. Really exciting to get inside the minds of the greats. Like you said, many of the technicals no longer apply, so it makes no sense to take all their words as canon, but a glimpse into the creative thought process is invaluable

  23. Glad you’re enjoying the experience here, Matt. Thank you for reading. Large format film photography forced photographers to slow down, think about what they were doing and become more contemplative in the process. Photography leaders and instructors like Minor White had a great deal to teach anyone from any era regardless of the technology used previously or currently. One of the worst influences on photography and photographers today is the arrogance that comes with the ease of making good images. As easy as it is to make good photographs, it is still challenging to make artistically significant images. In fact, the news I’m hearing from many contest judges is that there are fewer and fewer outstanding images all the time. The digital age has lulled inexperienced and often experienced photographers into a false sense that they are creating something of significance when they are not. To make truly great photographs, it still takes time and mileage behind the camera. Many aspects of the art have not changed, but taking time to think and compose slowly, is much like slow food. The majority of people will never understand it’s attraction or why it matters, but for those who do, the richness of the flavor and the increased meaning of the overall experience is worth the extra thought and slower pace.

  24. I agree wholeheartedly, even though much of what you said often applies to me, unfortunately 🙁 But let’s think more about this. I think sometimes the sentiments you discussed arise from considering photos from the great landscape photographer artists as “the ideal standard,” instead of looking at them as individual, personal works of art from individual, personal artists. The former allows one to say something along the lines of “look at my picture of Half Dome! it’s as pretty as Ansel’s!” The latter reminds us that it was Ansel’s creative process, pioneering vision, and reaction to (and creation of) context that made his images what they were. This is why I often find emphasis on their technical approaches potentially dangerous… in a way, it validates everyone who has ever looked at a Piet Mondrian painting and said “pfft, I could paint that!”… yes, you could, but so what? His paintings aren’t renowned for their difficulty to reproduce. Anyone who boasts that they could paint a Mondrian would sound foolish, but anyone who boasts that they create an image as pretty as an Ansel Adams sounds impressive. It should sound just as foolish.

    I hope my rant was easy enough to follow. In short, I agree with your statement “Photography leaders and instructors like Minor White had a great deal to teach anyone from any era regardless of the technology used previously or currently,” but would rather phrase it “Photography leaders and instructors like Minor White had a great deal to teach anyone from any era. Please don’t ask about technology.”

  25. Hi Matt, I thought of going back and editing my comment a bit to say something like, “Beware of falling into the trap of thinking like some landscape photographers these days who exhibit arrogance,’ because I didn’t intend to accuse you personally of anything without knowing more about what you were trying to express and where you were coming from. You appear to have good intentions and a friendly demeanor and I do not at all intend to be inhospitable. I also agree with much of what you’ve said. There is always much to be learned from studying and even emulating the masters who have come before, but it is the emulating part where aspiring photographers today get into creative quicksand, as you point out. The main fallacy and arrogance is in the line of thinking that sets out to compare or strive to be “as good as” Ansel or any of the other recognized great artists of any medium. The “I can do it as well or better” syndrome is a path that will only lead to frustration when anyone with that view does reach any significant level of experience. If a photographer’s focus is primarily on comparing, equaling or one upping others, then he or she may be surprised to find that when she does make one “superior” image, it is a hollow victory because she has spent little time developing her own artistic vision or exploring her own inner motivations beyond approval and recognition. The hollow heart will then continue to seek more approval by seeking after another great image, rather than enjoying the process of creation and self exploration that leads to development as an artist long-term. The pressure to produce “great” images will ultimately lead to burnout or delusion, if pursued in this manner. I like the way you steer away from this approach in your own work. I appreciate your artist’s statement. I also agree with avoiding “iconic” locations for the most part.

    Along the lines of what you said about Piet Mondrian, many people said the same about Jackson Pollock’s paintings, but when it came down to it, ironically or perhaps predictably, nobody could paint like him. Anyone who studies the development of his art throughout his career can readily understand the significant training and discipline it took to get to the point where he made his famous drip paintings. As it turns out, nobody could do what he was doing, though many tried. Nobody can duplicate what Ansel did for many reasons too, which become obvious when anyone takes the time to study his life and accomplishments. There is only one Ansel Adams. While I do agree that technology is over-emphasized, over-discussed and ultimately unimportant, one of the main reasons Ansel’s work cannot be duplicated is the difference in technology. The large format film photographers might as well have been creating in a completely different medium, the technology is so different from digital photography. Any photographer who has worked with both large format and digital photography, darkroom printing and digital printing, knows how different the two are, yet they are also paradoxically in some ways the same too. The technology is ultimately irrelevant, but comparisons are problematic because of the great differences in tools. Ultimately building a house with power saws, power nail guns and all of the tools carpenters use today is exactly the same as building a house without electricity using hand saws, adzes, hand hewn lumber, and pins and pegs, yet it is also very different. Anyone who builds a house today and pounds his or her chest because he did it better than the pioneers who carved their homes right out of the local forest, is indeed foolish. This person is foolish precisely because of the difference in technology and the irrelevance of having made a superior product more quickly using completely different technology.

  26. Some solid additional thoughts on the differences between film and digital come from David Taylor in his blog post, “Ruminations – Part 8: Poignancy Lost”

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