Big Bend National Park: “I was invited to be a guest in [a workshop] with Justin Black and Jack Dykinga,” says Crane. “It was my first real outing for an extended period of time working with the Fujifilm GFX. In this image, I wanted to push the limits of contrast and see just what the camera would capture and how the file would look. I was stunned at how much information the sensor could capture.”
It was 36 years ago when a young newspaper photographer named Tillman Crane dropped by the Philadelphia Art Museum to see an exhibition of turn-of-the-century platinum prints by photographer Frederick Evans. Moved by what he saw, Crane eventually altered the trajectory of his career thanks to the profound impact of the visit.
“I told my wife, ‘I’ll pop in here for a minute, and then we’ll go up to the Egypt exhibit,’” Crane says, “and I stayed in there for three hours. I was stunned by the beauty of platinum prints. The man was photographing cathedrals—which was right up my alley. It was just phenomenal. And when I later got into photography seriously, I said, ‘I know how I want my prints to look. I want them to have the luminosity of Frederick Evans’ cathedral prints.’”
As a photographer for a small-town newspaper—with a rare color front page—Crane was already exhibiting an affinity for mastering the technical challenges of his chosen medium. He preferred Fujichrome over Ektachrome film, for instance, because of the neutrality of its base, which ensured colors would print accurately on the newspaper’s Heidelberg press. Soon enough, he started taking classes at schools like the Maine Media Workshops, learning from master black-and-white photographers in his free time and taking vacations from the paper to study the art and craft of large-format black-and-white photography.
“I’d spend two weeks with John Sexton or two weeks in the studio,” Crane says, “working on both sides of photography. One, trying to learn to be a better journalist, and the other trying to fill the art side and my desire to make beautiful pictures.”
During this time, Crane began to focus on specific subject matter for making his beautiful fine-art prints. “My primary passion is what I call the built environment, those places we as humans have built to defeat the environment to stay warm, to stay dry, to worship.”
So it should be no surprise that, after leaving the newspaper, Crane embarked on his photographic mission for the next three decades, finding beauty in the ordinary and photographing many interpretations of that built environment on large-format film that he processed and lovingly printed on paper, hand-coated with platinum/palladium emulsions.
A lifelong learner and dedicated craftsman, Crane has continued his quest to perfect the printing process that enraptured him in that museum visit long ago.
Until last year, that is, when everything changed.
For now and likely for good, Crane has given up his large-format film cameras in favor of the Fujifilm GFX 50S digital medium-format mirrorless camera. But he has not and will not abandon his preferred darkroom printing technique. It’s just that his creative process now begins with digital capture. But it still ends with a beautifully crafted platinum print.
Making A Statement With Platinum Prints
Unlike a traditional gelatin silver black-and-white print, in which the light-sensitive silver halides are suspended in a gelatin emulsion atop the paper, platinum printing requires painting an emulsion that soaks into the paper. That fundamentally changes the look of the finished product in a way that’s fully intertwined with Crane’s creative vision.
“The print itself is a statement,” he says, “What you’re seeing on my website are not scans of platinum prints. Those are the files I use to make the platinum prints. With a silver-gelatin print, sure, it’s beautiful. You get a deep, rich black…But the tonal range is limited. A platinum print has a very gradual step between tonalities. With silver, if you’re lucky, you get nine steps from pure black to pure white. In platinum, you’ll get 16. It’s a longer tonal range. It’s subtle. I have deep, rich blacks, and I have white whites. The metal is actually in the fibers. So, there is a physical depth to the image down in the fibers of the paper. Silver tarnishes, but platinum and palladium are [known as] noble metals. Theoretically, as long as the paper has been properly cleared and washed and as long as the paper stays intact, the print should not change.
“That’s scientific,” Crane says. But it’s not just science that draws this photographer to this type of printing.
“I just love the internal glow from a well-made platinum print.” For Crane, Frederick Evans’ prints seem to have this internal glow, like each one has backlighting. “That’s what I try to do on my best platinum prints.” Crane says it’s as if when you turn off the lights in a room, the last light that would disappear would be from one of his platinum prints. In other words, there would almost be an afterglow to the images.
A Shift To Digital
Crane has spent two decades dealing with constant challenges to find his preferred darkroom materials—namely for the creation of internegs that allowed him to create contact prints, for instance, of an 8×10 negative as a 16×20 print.
The final challenge, though, has been his shift to digital, which, the photographer notes wasn’t a seamless transition.
In fact, Crane says he limped into the digital world “bass-ackwards.” That’s because he’s been scanning large-format negatives for a decade in order to output upsized inkjet-printed internegs, all the while struggling with the challenges of wet scanning, spotting and retouching, and the general headaches that come with all the most tedious aspects of large-format photography: darkroom processing and printing, as well as digital scanning, retouching and digital printing.
These are challenges that would defeat all but the most dedicated craftsmen. But for Crane, the craft is as important as his vision and the images he captures. “Oh, the craft is absolutely important to me,” he explains. “The craft of seeing and the craft of making the prints are critically important to me.”
However, this type of printing means giving up flexibility, particularly with this type of analog technique and with these materials. For example, unlike a traditional darkroom print, platinum printing makes dodging and burning all but impossible. So for the bulk of his career, Crane was forced to make straight prints from his negatives.
But with the advent of digital imaging, suddenly dodging and burning and layer masking opened up a whole new world of nuance and print quality.
Using Digital To Match And Move Beyond Analog
Crane’s process changed further when he purchased a Fujifilm X-Pro1 mirrorless camera and three lenses. He added it to his kit and carried it in lieu of a second large-format camera. Previously, Crane carried 5×7, 5×12 and 8×10 cameras if he was traveling by car, and “only” the 5×7 and 5×12 if he was traveling by airplane. With his 8×10 in a backpack, 15 film holders and accessories, plus a Ries tripod, it wasn’t uncommon for Crane’s kit to tip the scales at over 100 pounds.
“I took the 5×7 and the Fujifilm with me when I went to China the first time in 2013,” Crane says. “When I came back, I had 200 5×7 [negatives], and I had 2,000 Fujifilm files.” Using both the analog and digital images he shot on this trip, Crane mixed the final prints and exhibited them.
“For that year’s show… I mixed 5×7 prints directly from the 5×7 negatives with prints made from digital files.” Crane then asked people who were knowledgeable about both types of prints to compare them. “I said, ‘Tell me which ones are shot digitally and which are shot with film.’” Crane said they couldn’t. “When you couldn’t tell the difference, I began to think, okay, this has possibilities.”
These possibilities weren’t just about creating prints but also about how he captures his photos.
“I am left-eye dominant,” Crane says, “with bad vision in my right eye. So when I’m shooting with an eye-point camera, I have to close my left eye, unlike what you’re taught. You’re taught to leave your left eye open and see through your right.” But a view-camera screen was different. It allowed Crane to use both eyes. “I didn’t want to go back to the 35mm, where I have to hold the camera up to my eye.”
With the X-Pro1, Crane never needed to look through the viewfinder. He simply used the LCD. “I used it as my ground glass, period.”
So, now, Crane uses his new digital cameras in the same way that he used his view cameras, but with some improvements. For instance, he sets the LCD to display black and white, which he couldn’t do on a film camera’s ground glass.
Nevertheless, large-format analog film still retained its place in his workflow. That is, until he complained one time too many about the scanning and retouching process.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever scanned negatives or not,” he says, “particularly a wet scan. Are there air bubbles? Any scratches on the negative? Any flaws? I was moaning and groaning about it, spotting negatives in Photoshop at 300 percent.” He simply found it to be an incredibly tedious and numbing process.
But then, one day, Fujifilm announced a new GFX, medium-format, 50-megapixel camera. “I drooled over it,” says Crane, who stopped in at B&H to look at a sample and decided he wanted it even more. “A year ago, I’m scanning yet another 300 or 400 negatives, and whining about it. Then my wife walks in and says, ‘I’m tired of listening to you, just buy the goddamn camera.’”
And he did.
Since then, he has dedicated himself to mastering the new camera, putting aside his large-format equipment.
What Changes And What Remains The Same
The biggest challenge in Crane’s switch to digital has been mastering the Photoshop work. “It took me 30 years to learn what I knew in the darkroom. I’ve got to learn all of that in the digital darkroom. Now, I have to know it because this camera produces such beautiful files, it would be a shame to not get the best I can out of it. It is such an overwhelming program that there is no standard way of doing most things.
“One of the major revelations to me this year,” he says, “has been that I get a better print if I start with a good color file and then convert to black and white, rather than converting instantly to black and white and doing everything from there. If I work in color first and work on the subtleties in that, then when I transfer it to black and white, it’s a better file.”
Is the blending of new and old techniques changing Crane as a photographer, impacting the type of work he produces?
“I hope so,” he says. “I hope I’m growing. I mean, the digital cameras allow me to go places that I simply couldn’t go with a view camera, physically. You just simply couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t go to a spice market in Guilin with a 5×12, even a 5×7, and put up a tripod and start shooting. I can take the Fujifilm and put it on a monopod and shoot. They glance at me, and nobody gives a damn. Nobody notices. So that’s been exciting.”
However, while Crane may have changed his process and type of camera, his objective remains the same. He wants to turn his photograph into a beautiful platinum print.
“Everything I do photographically is aimed at that point,” Crane says. “I will use the best tools available and work hard to master the craft required for the camera vision to be matched by the print on the wall. It is all about the print.”
Tillman Crane’s Philosophy For Working With The Fujifilm GFX System
“I try to work with the Fujifilm GFX [camera] in the same way I would work with my 8×10 view camera,” says black-and-white master Tillman Crane. “It is on a tripod, with the rear screen used as the ground glass. I pay careful attention to metering and exposure. I use the vertical and horizontal level with almost every exposure.”
Working with the Fujifilm GFX camera required Crane to hone his Lightroom and Photoshop skills. He’s dedicated himself to learning online and in workshops—which he has used throughout his career to learn new techniques and refine his skill set.
“It took many years to master my darkroom work, and now I have to master the digital darkroom,” he says. “The GFX demands nothing less.”
Occasionally, Crane uses HDR (or high-dynamic range) bracket exposures. “For me, HDR is the digital zone system,” he says. “The HDR bracket exposures give me files with rich shadow information and exposures that tame the highlights. I can combine them in either Lightroom or Photoshop to create the file with the most information and least noise possible.
“I also use the bracket-focus feature of the Fujifilm GFX,” he says. “It allows me to get sharpness and depth of field in the same image. I will shoot at the optimal aperture, and the camera determines how many exposures are needed to create the depth of field. Like HDR, I have to be careful not to make the images look unreal or un-camera-like.”