Susan Huber Photography | Salt Spring Island, B.C., Canada.



© Susan Huber

Techniques

I go out in the field on photographic journeys, searching for original landscapes, architecture, and characters. I generally travel with two or three cameras: see equipment page for a run-down of what I use. Each day I choose just one camera and plan what to shoot, with what equipment, based on my experiences, the fluxuations in weather, and the quality of seasonal light. I travel with a Harrison Original tent, made for cinematographers, which allows me to change my film every day in my 'mobile studio' in the back of my VW camper. 

I use Ilford HP-5 film I shoot exclusively in black and white. I use a one degree Pentax digital spot light meter, employing a modified zone system. I use the readings to help determine the exposure and aperture. With such small apertures, I adjust the speed of film to my liking, changing 400 speed to 320 ASA, for instance. I can expose film for as long as two minutes: very long exposures are a trademark.  I use a 5x Pentax loop and reading glasses with Prism to set focus. I tend to shoot two versions of every image.

I return to my studio and develop the images one by one using contact printing.  In the darkroom, I use PMK—Pyro-Metol-Kodalk. The colours that emerge result from the type of water used: I find distilled water results in a very sharp negative. Colours range from greens to browns. PMK restrains highlights and lightens the shadows, preventing overexposure and exposing subtleties in the shadows and highlights. 

I view my images on a light table and make a contact print using resin-coated paper. Then, I determine which alternative processes to employ to develop prints. 

Now for the fun part. Every single print I make is going to be different: even if I use the same measurements, the changes in the weather, light conditions, and humidity will make for subtle differentiations in the outcomes, making this a truly organic process. 

First of all, I set up 6-7 sheets of paper which tends to be the maximum number of prints I can make. The humidity in my studio is up to 93% so I put on my sauna gear. Humidity is really important in the darkroom process: I keep my space within 50-70% relative humidity using a de-humidifier. 

First, I ready my droppers with each chemical that I will need: Platinum, Palladium, and Ferric Oxalates 1 and 2. Next, I will humidify a sheet of paper. The paper I work on is always 11x15 inches. I humidify both sides, until it is fully pliable.

 I put all the drops, drop by drop, into a shot glass. I mix all of my solutions using reverse osmosis water: pure water is crucial to avoid deterioration. I pour it quickly but gently onto the paper. Each image has a different tonality. If I want cooler tones, I add more Platinum, mindful that it increases grain and can be overdone. Palladium leads to warmer tones: I tend always to go towards warmth. Too much Palladium gets grainy and rather cold. 

Next, I brush the chemicals across the paper so that the solutions smoothly cover at least an 8x10 inch area, equivalent to the size of the negative. I coat all 6-7 papers at once, working by a small buglight. I hang the prints up to dry under a low, cool fan. 

Once almost dry, I put the prints in a box to keep them out of the light. I remove paper sheets one at a time and re-humidify them. I carefully put the negative face-down on the damp paper. Then I place them in a handmade splitback printing frame. I place this into an artificial UVL printer, because we do not have consistent sunlight in the Pacific Northwest.  I use an iPhone as a stopwatch. I gauge the image readiness at 5 minute intervals.

When I see that there is enough shadow detail — and I go for deeper shadow detail because I want deep, rich shadows — I take it out of the printing frame and into a series four different very large trays (16x20 inch). The first one will be ready to receive the print, on an angle, so that I can pour  hot potassium oxalate over the image, bringing up the image immediately. It's like magic.

Finally, I rinse the print in well water. Each print goes through 3 successive clearing baths of 5 minutes each. The print is then placed on a special screen to dry. After a few hours I will hang them in a clothes-press. I leave the de-humidifier on to bring the humidity in the darkroom back down to 30%. 

I write the formulas I have used (drop count, time, date, and the type of paper) on the back of each print.