Get Organized, Alt Process Photographer!

Writer and photography / Elizabeth Graves

Elizabeth Graves recommends some good organizational habits for wet darkroom, alt-process photographers.

Elizabeth Graves“Where is my intern? Where did my intern put my masterwork!?!?” Only after shouting this aloud do I recall that my perfect, loyal, organized, and unusually attractive intern is imaginary.  No, I am not especially famous or financially successful in the art world, and so overqualified potential assistants are not (yet) knocking on my door, begging to organize my piles of loose prints, cartons of uncut negatives, piles of sharp aluminum plates, and notes scrawled in ink and stained with silver nitrate.

Despite this, I CAN find many of my prints, files, and notes.  Not all of them, but many!  How? I’ve been a wet darkroom photographer for years, and have some background in organization. (I’ve had “librarian” in my job title more than once!)  I have used my organizational skills to manage thousands of negatives and hundreds of photographic prints.  Let me share my tips relating to some of my better organizational habits.

In Your Darkroom

As you create more and more prints, your memory of your secret recipes for success all begin to run together.  I was alarmed to realize that I could not reprint a favorite 2004 cyanotype exactly the same way after making a hundred or so other prints – my habits had changed, and the specifics of working with that particular negative escaped me.  So, in 2005, I started keeping a darkroom notebook.  I record: the date, the process, the light source and its details (the weather if using the sun, the distance from my homemade UV light bank if using that), a description of the image or subject, the aperture, the exposure time, which chemical recipes I am using, which brand of chemicals I am using, when I mixed the chemistry…  “Everything” that may help me recreate a favorite success, or troubleshoot a problem.  I also list how many prints I made each day, whether they were successful or not.

If I’m printing multiples of the same image to text exposure, I’ll need to be able to tell the results apart when the test prints are dry.  This means making notes on the rear, generally in a non-soluble pencil or pen that will survive chemical processing without contaminating my chemistry.  Even if you aren’t keeping a notebook, some detailed notes about your aperture and exposure times can save you from needing to reinvent the wheel later.  If you are testing new brands of paper or using more than one kind during a printing session, be sure to write the name of the paper on the rear as well.

People who work in the restaurant industry have some clever habits, and my favorite is that they write the date on any food packaging the moment they open it.  Keep a permanent marker in your darkroom, and write the date you start using that chemistry directly on the containers.  If you use many glass bottles, as I do, also keep some marker-friendly tape (such as inexpensive, cream-colored “masking tape”) in the darkroom just for this purpose, and label your bottles each time you mix up a batch of developer, emulsion, or whatever you are using.  If you return after a long break from using that process, take inventory, and be sure to responsibly dispose of any chemistry that is no longer fresh.

In Your Archive

Well OF COURSE you have an archive!  It’s where you keep your film and/or digital negatives, your prints before they are framed, and other important (dry) materials that don’t live in your wet darkroom.

Imagine that you become famous one day, and an art gallery wants to see your early work.  Can you even find your early work, let alone tell them when and how you made it? Can you tell the difference between an early version of a print, and a more recent one?

This sounds like a lot of trouble, but you can take this on gradually.  The evolution from casual photographer to organized, serious photographer goes something like this: first, you have a box called “Prints.”  When you have more than one box of prints, DO NOT title the second box “More Prints!” Instead, put the year on them (“2008 Prints”).   Next, you have more than one box each year, so you start to separate them by process (“2009 Cyanotypes,” “2009 Vandyke Browns,” “2010 Toned Cyanotypes”).  Then, within the boxes, you have many prints, so you start keeping them in folders or presentation folios with the subject and/or month on them (“2011.06 Cyanotypes – Yosemite”).  Then, the individual print numbering begins.

By the time you are ready to make digital scans of your prints to share on the web or submit for juried photography competitions, you already have the file prefix ready from all of this pre-organization you have done, and can just add a number at the end (“2011.06 Cyanotypes Yosemite 001”). This means you’ll even be able to FIND your scans by doing a search of your files by any combination of the year, the process, and the subject!   (You can use a simpler numbering system, of course, but then you should keep an index.  See item E, below.)

Note that your computer will do a better job of sorting your digital files if you (a) name your files consistently, either always by process or always by date, and (b) if you use an all-numeric date format, especially one that lists year, then month, then day (20141231, for example).

Most juried photography competitions have their own requirements for the names for your scanned files.  Set up a digital folder for each contest, and keep a copy of your chosen scans there under the name they require.  (Also keep a copy of any forms, titles for the work, and/or essays you submit with the images.) That way, when they send you a letter telling you that specific images of yours have been chosen for their juried art show, you’ll know which images they are talking about!

For those of us who rely on film or digital negatives, the same organizational principles apply to these as to prints.  I keep binders of negatives in archival sleeves, each of which has at least a year, a number, and a location.  Some sleeves also have notes about which camera I used.  (I am not as diligent about labeling the boxes that I store uncut spools of medium format film in, but I’ll learn.)

200902 aegraves cyanotype photograms IMG_0960
I know from the metadata of this phone photo that these prints were dry on February 1, 2009, so I can add this information to my photogram index.

If I’m exhausted after a day of printing and am not in the mood to create documentation, I take a photo of the prints as a set with my smartphone.  Since I archive all of my smartphone photos onto my desktop and backup drives (yes, in an organized fashion, sorted by download date and location), I can see the date I took the phone photo of my printing frenzy, and then date and organize the prints later.

I was thrilled when I delivered five collodion plates to an art gallery to display, and even more thrilled when I received a check for the sale of three of those plates.  The only catch was: I had no idea which plates sold.  The gallery owner didn’t tell me, and the numbers on the plates had been obscured when I had the plates framed.  Oops.

Unlike me in this example, remember to copy a number (or title, or other identifier) onto the back of the frame, and keep track of where they go – which ones sell, which ones you shipped off to distant shows, which ones you scrub off the plate, and which ones you swap with other artists while developing your art collection.  Make sure the information relates to your organizational system – your image file names and/or your print numbers, for example.  Try to use a database or spreadsheet for this purpose, so you can sort it by different types of information (process, sales status, date, and any other categories that you set up separate fields for).

That Wasn’t So Bad, Was It?

It is easy for us to keep track of the details of our working methods when we are starting out and only have a few images to manage, but staying organized becomes more complex when we become prolific.  By the time I was shooting upwards of eighty rolls of film each year, I could no longer tell my many visits to favorite spots apart.  The same was true as my prints piled up after many darkroom visits.

It’s never too late to start organizing your creative output.  If you don’t yet have a system in place, don’t wait: start now, with your new work, going forward.

(Your older work can wait patiently for you to turn your attention to it. To make getting caught up easy, you can group your older stuff into simple categories based on subject, where you were living, which of your many spouses you were married to at the time, whether the work was monochrome or color, or any other easy organizing principle, but don’t worry about it too much: you can always organize it on an as-needed basis.)

Elizabeth Graves is an artist working with cyanotype, vandyke and collodion and a keen experimenter with all sorts of alternative photographic processes.

1 thought on “Get Organized, Alt Process Photographer!”

  1. Thanks for this. Ive recently got back into shooting again and this is really helpful with my film development and scans. And I can also apply it to my digital work as well. Now the problem is going through the jungle of older work

Leave a Comment