Thursday, August 5, 2010

New McNeil Blog Site

Blogosphere Update: Why I switched to WordPress

This switch is mostly about protecting our livelihoods as creative people. Today I went public with my new blog site. Please add this new address as my blog site:

It was made by our friends at liveBooks and as usual, they did a spectacular job. I really love how it mirrors my website with the basic design elements so that it's more obviously linked to my main website.

My number one reason for changing from google's Blogspot to WordPress is that google claims ownership of your blog content. There is something fundamentally wrong with this, and I've been meaning to make the switch for a couple of years but just never got around to it. Blogspot has a lot of excellent features, but so does WordPress, and the latter is not heavy-handed with any claims of owning your content. I made a point of copyrighting all of my written materials on Blogger, and especially any images. Hey, we're artists right? We need to protect our livelihoods along the way.

Blogspot was really great and I liked just about all of their features, including being able to customize templates and generally being able to set up the page to how you want it to look.

At any rate, please add the above new link!



Friday, July 16, 2010

The Immigrants in our Blood (& the Rollei)

As much as anything else, this is about a German immigrant with the last name of Spurgeon, a bona fide wild-assed character who thrived in the utter insanity of the Klondike Gold rush in the late 1890's. A sense of lawlessness dominated that particular time and place, and gold fever was just as much a cultural reality as a state of mind. Take my word, there is a reason it was called gold fever; people were out of their right minds and things like logic, lucidity and something as basic as a sense of right and wrong were all irremediably blurred beyond recognition. Very little had a plain black and white clarity. It was every duck for themselves as they say, and the ones with the most intact wits generally won the day.

The timing for this insanity couldn't have been more perfect for our protagonist, Mr. Spurgeon. His natural traits fit this scenario perfectly and he was the proverbial fish in water and he blossomed accordingly. How he met Susie Spurgeon, our Great-grandmother, married her and had children is a mystery lost in time. She was the polar opposite of him; someone who represented logical thought and clear moral standing. I'd love to have heard one of their typical morning conversations.

Saying Spurgeon was the black sheep of our family would be putting it mildly. My Great-grandfather did a lot of things that are also lost in time, and there are only fuzzy stories here and there about his exploits, many of which fit the lunacy of the gold rush. A colossal rift shattered our family the last time he was seen alive by any of them. Let's just say when the gold dust cleared, all of his children took other last names and the Spurgeon name is nowhere to be found in our family tree, save for one humble entry in the late 1800's. It was as though by getting rid of his name, we could get rid of him. Guess what? He's still there, tenaciously hanging on to that one branch of the family tree. With a silly expression and cigar in the corner of his mouth, but hanging on, nonetheless.

At any rate, over a cold beer on a hot, hot day in Northern California back in the 1970's, our uncle Judson Brown burst out laughing while telling me part of the story of his journey to Germany in search of our mysterious Spurgeon family roots. It was infectious. He had a German Rollei SL66 camera system spread out in front of him on the table, and was showing me the finer details of how to use it and before we knew it, he was literally roaring with laughter; you see, Judson had a booming voice, and an even more booming laughter. It was interesting that Judson was unfolding this family history while talking about the Rollei and trip to Germany; it inferred that history, place and objects were intertwined in some manner and it was up to us to figure out what it meant.

I think Uncle Judson may have gotten this Rollei SL66 camera system from his trip to Germany. Maybe not. It's a real beauty, regardless. He was in Germany over 40 years ago looking for relatives, which was a bit ironic, given that he was one of our honored Tlingit elders, a Chief, intellectual leader, commercial fisherman, and so on.
Judson Lawrence Brown (I have his middle name)

I made a print from this story, titled Great-grandparents. There was only one original segment of a photo of Great-grandpa. Someone cut up the antique photo; I can't imagine why (facetious voice inflection here). It appears to be an albumen print from a large format glass plate negative, professionally made. Part of the photo has a rough gash along the side, and I can just imagine someone ripping it up in a state of exasperation. This portion of the photograph was given to a family friend; I don't think that anyone in the family even wanted the segment of the photo to be near them, let alone in their possession.

The thing that saved the torn photo from certain eradication was that our great-grandma was also in the photo. I think that it is notable that one of the base meanings of the word eradication means to pull up by the roots, which couldn't describe the scenario more precisely, both literally and metaphorically.

Someone cut a mask and taped it over the photo so that they wouldn't have to see Great-grandpa. Judson went to his desk and pulled this original photographic remnant out and flicked it across the table with a hint of a sly grin.

It's kind of funny that this story is intertwined with the camera. This bent story kind of transforms this camera into a de facto stand-in for something. I'm not sure what, but it seemed to represent something more than a camera, and I really liked it that Judson was able to laugh about it; I think that perhaps it may explain a part of why many relatives were so rambunctious. Maybe not, who knows? I think Judson was searching for remnants of Spurgeon in Germany because he wanted to know too. We're all looking for answers about our own identity, sometimes going on life-long journeys that take us to the other side of the world.

When Judson passed on, my brother Chris asked me if I wanted this fine camera, since I was one of the photographers in the family. I told him that perhaps it should go to Da-ka-xeen, our nephew, because I already had a Hasselblad system. Years later, I asked Da-ka-xeen if I could trade anything for the Rollei system. I'd sold my Hasselblad and needed another medium format system. I used it for a few years, mostly photographing desert scenes to use as a background for my Tonto series.

Da-ka-xeen is a wonderful artist teaching at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks and is making a name for himself in the art world. He made a series of works, including this one titled Reflections, where he placed himself in various Tlingit tableaus, or scenes.

Reflections, by Da-ka-xeen Mehner

Da-ka-xeen with the Rollei

It did my heart well to see this print by Da-ka-xeen, not only because of it's content, but if you look closely, you'll see that he's holding the Rolleiflex in his right hand! I almost feel like naming this camera the Uncle/Nephew Dakl'aweidei Kéet Gooshi Hít (Killer Whale Fin House) camera. This Rollei is going to a second generation Kéet nephew, and yes, it does have Tlingit strings attached.

It has a 40mm Carl Zeiss Distagon lens that is nothing less than phenomenal. It is the equivalent of using a 26mm lens on a 35mm camera body, which has an approximate 88˚ angle of view. What is really cool is that it is so distortion free, no distorting lines in the scene like with most wide-angle lenses. Even the legendary pro Canon L lenses have a touch of barrel distortion at this width. This was a lens made by German craftsmen to impeccable tolerances, and the venerable Distagons are still sold to photographic connoisseurs for their high-end digital SLR bodies.

Photograph of Larry by T'naa McNeil

This 40mm Distagon is my all-time favorite lens for medium format cameras, and I'm going to miss it a lot. I got the photos I wanted and am sending the system back to Da-ka-xeen. Damn that glass is good. This film camera earned its place in the digital world by way of producing superb negatives that scan beautifully, rendering prints of impeccable quality.

The classic array of prime lenses: normal, wide & short telephoto

I think it's cool that this Rolleiflex SL66 is a German camera system. For some reason, I feel that perhaps some of our family blood is swimming around in there somewhere. Judson didn't explain everything, and left something akin to a Cheshire cat grin for us to try and figure out.

Have fun with the camera again, Da-ka-xeen. I shipped it this morning.

Copyright Larry McNeil, 2010. All rights reserved. Reproduction by permission only.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Jim Pepper and ‘Squaw Song’

Jim Pepper with Ponca dancers in Germany

It is possible to be beautiful beyond words.

When an artist uses words in a song all of a sudden you add poetry, emotion, humor and whatever else it is that makes that performer or artist unique in the universe. You get the spark of life igniting the words, especially from someone like Pepper who established his own 'one of a kind' presence in the world of jazz and art.

I mention this only because Jim Pepper reached that rarefied height where the air was thin and other birds could only dream of flying; listen to his Squaw Song and if you close your eyes and let yourself soar, you can sometimes join him. I’m sure that this makes him smile.

But first, a couple of facts about the controversial use of the term 'Squaw.'

  • The term ‘squaw’ is derogatory, plain and simple. Jim used the name ‘Squaw Song’ because it was in use at powwows, kind of like Ndn slang. It is most certainly not for people outside the cultures of the Native Nations to use.
  • Don’t use the term ‘squaw’ unless you want to get seriously hammered by the most powerful force in all of Indian Country: Indigenous Women. This is just a fair warning to those inclined to argue for its use. If you want to live another day, stand up straight and address the women by their proper names. Here in Idaho a number of years ago, certain backwoods ignorant state legislators argued in favor of keeping the name 'Squaw' on certain maps. It caused a rift in the community because the legislators refused to acknowledge that it was a racist term. Their arguments only served to illuminate their willful bigotry; they refused to listen to the facts of why it is a racist term.

Anyway, back to Pepper's exquisite song. To be included in one of our traditional ceremonies it means you have earned a special status for yourself, and the people offer a heartfelt acknowledgement of your deeds. Sometimes it means you have earned a name, or are there to honor a soul going into the forest as they say. The act of naming is what is significant and cherished here, and is a critical part of just about all of our traditional ceremonies. It is critical because the act of naming allows that person or people to live on and be present, no matter what.

Ceremony is everything.

Many ceremonies occur to honor someone, or even a group of people. Honor is everything; it is carried with love, strength and an intellectual beauty that is above all else, because to give is one of the most cherished acts that we can do for one another. To give honor is sometimes all we have left when everything else is stripped away.

Pepper knew all this because he was an indigenous man living in what was often the stark brutality of what the 20th Century had to offer the indigenous people of the Americas. So many of our people did not survive. Did not survive. You can hear this between his lines, sweet and bluesy, because many of us did survive. And play. And assert ourselves when everything else was indeed stripped away.

I am honoring you, Jim Pepper. With your Squaw Song you formally named many Native Nations, honoring them specifically, in a timeless manner of our ancestors. I am writing this because whenever I feel empty and drained from this life, I play your Squaw Song on a loop in the background while I’m trying to fix whatever is was that got messed up. It especially gives me strength when you call Tlingits along with so many other Nations.

Our elders believed that if you say a prayer, it just falls to the ground, like a sorry lump of uselessness, silent and invisible to the cosmos. However, if you sing it with your heart, the creator can hear it.

Sometimes I do find myself singing it right along with him. It is almost ceremonial in itself, like an informal ritual that anyone can perform on the sidewalk while you’re pedaling your bike, outside the brick institutions, on the plane, by the river, on the mountaintop. Everywhere.

As a young man, I was inspired by Pepper's songs and had his albums on cassette tapes, the iPods of the day. While strategizing for new work in 2007 I kept finding myself drawn to how Pepper sang out each Native Nation with his song, and used it for inspiration in my lithograph First Light, Winter Solstice. I wanted to name as many Native Nations as I could and include them on the print, Vis-à-vis Jim's song.

I suspect that many discographies and other sources of information about Jim Pepper have this song in particular edited out of their references because of the controversial nature of the term Squaw. One of the links on YouTube even renamed it Square Song, something I'm sure Pepper would have found completely ridiculous. Get over it, because this is one of his best songs, and we cannot honor his memory by pretending it does not exist. It is one of my own all-time favorites, not only of his, but all songs in the universe, especially the version from his Comin' and Goin' album with Don Cherry and others. As a side note, I think it's very synchronistic that he recorded part of this album on my birthday in 1983; what a gift!

So there.

Upstream Productions Link Sandra Johnson Osawa (Makah Tribe) and Yasu Osawa. They made the film "Pepper's Pow Wow," which was also broadcast on PBS. Sandra and Yasu are an amazing filmmaking team; I just this moment purchased this DVD from their site (I keep giving my previous copies away as a special gift). It's a great deal, check it out.

Gunalsheésh Sandra and Yasu, this video is superb and am so thankful that you made it while he was still alive and captured his voice and personality, along with his music, of course.

Copyright Larry McNeil, 2010. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction by permission only.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Mystery of the Felix Bonfils Glass Plate Negatives

Felix Bonfils Glass Plate Negatives
From the Larry McNeil Collection

Felix Bonfils Negative #1
22.8 x 28 cm. or 9 x 11 inches


This is an historical accounting of the Felix Bonfils negatives that also involves pivotal moments the history of photography. There may be some new research on Felix Bonfils unearthed here. It involves pointed questions as to what was going on from a cultural perspective, specifically with the notion of "Ethnographic Photography," in addition to the more objective information, so there are scholarly questions for further reseach mixed into the various presented scenarios. In the end, hopefully it unfolds an element of humanity about Bonfils that is sometimes absent from other research and it becomes even more evident that he was a brilliant photographer, regardless of when he lived.

I would put forth the notion that being able to study these Bonfils negatives offered a rarefied opportunity to gain insight that could not have been obtained any other way. Conservators were able to gather objective, scientifically sound information, which answered key questions, but also led the way to more questions for further research. I think that my status as a Professor of Photography brings a unique element to the research too, because I am able to ask questions that perhaps other photography historians overlooked. Such as, “What do specific photographic techniques such as negative contrast have to do with the visual aesthetics of Bonfils’ photography?” This is discussed near the end of the essay.

The story of the mystery of these Felix Bonfils negatives is also about a key transformational moment in the history of photography with what Bonfils was doing at that time. Who is the mystery person that Felix Bonfils, Ansel Adams and I have in common? Who would have guessed that I'd have ended up with the only original Felix Bonfils negatives in existence today? As far as other scholars and I know, anyway; if you know of any others, please let me know.

(The website has a function where you can view the
negative, push the "next arrow" and see how it looks in positive form.)

Felix Bonfils
Part One

Fist and foremost, I am writing this from the point of view of a fellow photographer who has a sincere appreciation and admiration for Bonfils' high level of expertise and tenacity for sticking with photography and helping it to evolve in a unique era. Bonfils was a photographer when it was slow, meticulous work to make just one negative, let alone thousands of them, including the albumen prints that made his livelihood possible.

Bonfils had to have a fairly sizable darkroom production facility, especially for the thousands of albumen prints that were made by his studio over the years. Making albumen prints was technically easier than making the collodion wet plate negatives, but the sheer volume likely necessitated a staff of lab assistants who were very knowledgeable with the process and could do the production work efficiently. I'm not going to describe the albumen process here, but can direct you to another website that is able to quantify it exceptionally well.

I would challenge any professional photographer today to try and make a wet plate collodion negative. It is an exceptionally sophisticated process that involved handling delicate materials in a complex manner. If any one step along the way had the minutest part of the formula wrong, the negative would not work. Not only that, but it would be challenging to make one in a controlled laboratory environment, let alone in the back of a dusty, hot wagon in the middle of a desert.

The Getty has an excellent video that describes the
Collodion Wet Plate Negative process

Bonfils was a Frenchman who moved to the Middle East with his family in the 19th Century to set up a photography studio. He was a very prolific photographer who specialized in exotic views of the Middle East. He made thousands of photographs at places like Egypt, Lebanon and Israel (Palestine or 'The Holy Land'). There was a fascination for capturing photographs of the region, because many of the places still looked remarkably like they did a thousand years in the past. Time seems to have stood still. Immediately following this period, the region started to change, especially at the start of the 20th Century. Bonfils and other photographers of the era knew that they had a unique opportunity to capture the look of the Middle East just before it changed forever.

The driving force with this major transformation happened with the humble negative. It was the negative that revolutionized and changed photography so that it became more universal and democratic; a social equality with the use of photography came forth...

Bonfils was a European colonialist photographer who brought Western ideals and philosophies to his work. He had preconceived notions of how what is now Israel was defined, and he sought out to fulfill those notions with the visual aesthetics in his photography. It is notable that these Bonfils negatives were made in what is currently one of the most controversial and contentious places on Earth with what is unfolding between Israel and the surrounding Arab countries.

Many of his contemporaries were looking for what defined “The Holy Land,” and it strongly appears that Bonfils went out of his way to make visual representations of places mentioned in the bible. His passion appeared to be more with place than people; the vast majority of his existing photographic archive of the Holy Land consists primarily of ancient villages, ruins, buildings, countrysides, orchards, churches, historical places and people in what appears to be traditional dress doing mundane everyday activities like herding cattle or grinding grain.

The Bonfils studio also made a significant part of their livelihood as a portrait studio in Lebanon, so it was clear that he and his staff (or family) were also very proficient at photographing people. Bonfils was especially gifted with photographing architectural scenes; as a past architectural photographer myself, I can recognize instances where he used camera movements in order to correct perspectives that would have otherwise been skewed with characteristics such as converging lines in buildings from looking slightly up at them. It was obvious that he used perspective controls on his large format camera to correct minor distortions.

The above camera is my contemporary 4x5 field camera. I would bet that Bonfils' larger camera looked similar to this one. The back of the camera that I'm handling is called the rear standard. It is the part of the camera that controls perspective. If you want to minimize distortion, you just angle the rear standard parallel to your subject. It has a hinged bottom so you can adjust it to your subject; this is called a 'tilt' control and is likely what Bonfils used to get such distortion free photographs whenever he photographed buildings and other linear structures to make them look correct.

The only way to prove this would be to revisit the specific locations and use the same sized lens to negative ratio and duplicate the scene with a large format bellows camera. This would be an exciting way to evaluate his skills as a professional photographer; I am certain that the results would be enlightening and would clearly indicate his high level of expertise with his camera controls.

19th Century Wet Plate Collodion Camera

The above camera appears to be a field camera as opposed to a studio version. The studio cameras were nearly twice this size and generally sturdier, in order to minimize camera shake. Field cameras needed to be as lightweight as possible because photographers still had a lot of gear to carry in order to make their photographs.

It was clear that as a professional photographer, commerce drove his decisions about his subject matter and his family relied on his photographic expertise in order to make a living. This is likely why Bonfils was so prolific; in order have a sustainable livelihood, he likely had to have a diverse and broad archive of photographs to market.

He used various camera formats, including the size from this collection of negatives. Stereoscopes were a cultural phenomenon of this era and sold well, as did the smaller postcards. Other items included the sale of entire albums of large albumen prints. These are still common at places such as eBay, where one often sees albums taken apart and sold as individual prints.

Bonfils likely used a stereo camera very similar
to this version. Looking at stereo views from around the
world was a common pastime in the late 1800's

The Bonfils legacy also involves key elements in the history of photography, from his unusually large collection of photographs made primarily in the late 1800's to how he is recognized as one of the significant photographers who worked in the Middle East in the late 1800’s. Bonfils did his photography at a time when it was rapidly changing from being extremely difficult to make a negative to a time when photography became dramatically easier, and opened up to amateur use. The driving force with this major transformation happened with the humble negative. It was the negative that revolutionized and changed photography so that it became more universal and democratic; a social equality with the use of photography came forth, and along the way, the snapshot was born. But I'm getting ahead of myself here.

The Anchorage Auction
Part Two

Fast-forward to the early 1980's in Anchorage, Alaska, where I was at an auction where a retired or deceased photographer was getting his estate auctioned off (I don't remember whom it was, and if anyone knows, please let me know; he may have been associated with a photo store in Anchorage).

There was a multitude of boxes of photographic paraphernalia, most of it old, dusty and utterly useless. I was disappointed because it appeared that the family was not auctioning off any of the good stuff. There was not a Leica, Nikon or any other good camera gear to be found anywhere. "Dang," I muttered to myself as I briskly went through box after box, hoping that I'd find something worth bidding on. After seeing enough junk, I dusted myself off and looked through one last shabby looking box. At the bottom, I found a box of glass plate negatives and a couple boxes of old 4x5 negatives.

The auctioneer jolted my attention to the podium with a loud announcement. "Five more minutes," he bellowed through his microphone. I held one of the large negatives up to the fluorescent lights and was immediately taken by their ethereal beauty. Excellent negatives seem to glow when made to perfection, as these obviously were. All I could muster was "Wow," saying it out loud to nobody in particular. After quickly scanning a number of them they were put carefully back the way they were found.

After seeing the large glass negatives, I went over some of the smaller 4x5 plastic negatives. Ansel Adams was clearly recognizable as he stood in a forest talking to a group of what looked like workshop attendees. There were a few negatives that looked like they were made at an Ansel Adams workshop. I only had minutes before the start, so I sped up a bit. The remainder of the negatives appeared to be Alaska scenes from the early 1960's, including the 1964 earthquake and aerial views of Juneau, my hometown. I quickly put everything back as found, and hurried to get a seat.

The auctioneer was selling boxes at a fast pace and things were going cheaply, from five to twenty dollars apiece as I recall. When the box of negatives came up, the auctioneer was clearly weary of selling box after box of what were obviously photographic remnants of long-dead equipment; mostly parts of outdated gear no longer useful to anyone. He asked what anyone would offer for the box and I yelled out "Twenty dollars!" "Do I hear any other offers? Going once, twice... SOLD." And just like that, I was the owner of some very sophisticated and cool negatives.

New Research with Bonfils Negatives
Part Three

In 1998 I was a student at the University of New Mexico, nearly finished with my Master of Fine Arts program in Photography. Our then current Curator of Prints and Photographs at the UNM Museum, Kathleen S. Howe, Ph.D. was a scholar of Middle Eastern photographers from the 19th Century, so I asked her if I could take a Graduate Tutorial with her. Dr. Howe responded by requesting that I write a formal proposal regarding the research, and she was just as intrigued as I was about the Bonfils negatives. She had recently published a text titled Revealing the Holy Land, The Photographic Exploration of Palestine, published by the University of California Press.

The photographs in the text are from the collection of

This was a fitting Bonfils research plan, because it gave me the opportunity to interact with a scholar whom was very knowledgeable with the nuances of photography in the Middle East in the 19th Century. Dr. Howe was invaluable with pointing me the right direction with my research into the Bonfils negatives. The first thing she wanted me to do was meet with a museum conservator whose expertise was in 19th Century negatives.

The conservator's experience allowed her to make some startling discoveries with the negatives. While delicately examining the negatives on a light table with a powerful magnifying glass, she was able to easily identify the wet plate collodion negatives that were hand-coated by the photographer, in addition to the first commercially available negatives that were coated at a factory. This transition between the two marked the time when photographers could do what we other photographers have taken for granted for decades: to simply buy film.

The conservator mentioned that the collodion wet plate negatives were higher quality than the manufactured negatives. This made sense, because the first manufactured film plates were still being perfected and photographers gave the manufacturers critical feedback about what they could do to improve the manufacturing process to make better film. The new manufactured glass plates were nearly instantly popular with photographers though, because for the first time it released photographers from being required to carry a portable darkroom and hundreds of pounds of supplies with them.

I can imagine Bonfils going from having to use a large wagon full of photographic supplies and a fairly sophisticated darkroom pulled by horses, to just a couple medium sized bags and a tripod. This would have been a life-changing event for photographers, even more radical than going from film to digital media.

These negatives are historic because they represent a groundbreaking technical transition in photography, and we can physically see that transition happening right before our eyes with these negatives...

Bonfils must have felt a tremendous sense of freedom with the new glass plate silver gelatin negatives, and it also must have affected the look of his photographs, because for the first time, photographers could be way more spontaneous than before. They didn't have to go through the laborious and very time-consuming process of making wet plate collodion negatives just prior to making their photographs. Hand making the wet plates must have been incredibly difficult, especially in a hot, dry and dusty desert environment.

It is an historical fact that the sensitivity of the manufactured silver gelatin glass negatives became up to ten times more sensitive to light than the former wet collodion negatives, and photographers were able to do things like use faster shutter speeds and a deeper depth of field with their aperture settings (make the aperture opening smaller for a sharper image). It also likely meant that they would be able to capture detail in sky areas, whereas with collodion negatives, skies were rendered as a dull, dense area because they were overly sensitive to the blue part of the spectrum, which equated to plain white skies when making prints from those negatives.

The blank white skies were a major reason why photographers started manipulating their negatives as a common practice. Their clients preferred a more realistic photographic view, which ironically meant that photographers would have to place the clouds there artificially, via negative manipulations. One of these Bonfils negatives shows where the photographer carefully painted out the sky so as to make a dense area of the negative. It was a work-in progress and was never finished, but we can surmise that he was preparing the negative to leave an unexposed area on the print, in which a sky may be printed in later. This is only speculation, but seems the most likely reason for the careful masking job.

One can clearly see where the negative has the name
'Bonfils' handwritten backwards in script on the emulsion
side of the negative in gold ink

Many museums and especially galleries have no interest in negatives, even from well-known photographers. I would put forth the argument that collectors should be interested in original negatives, especially since these negatives represent one of the few instances where an actual signature in ink is present in any Bonfils photographic materials. The thousands of prints in collections around the world lack authentic signatures. The signatures in their prints are not written in ink, they're reproduced via the photographic process and lack the authenticity that these negatives represent.

Use of the newer manufactured negatives likely translated to dramatically less retouching requirements, which also likely made the processes from exposure, to negative and print processing faster and dramatically less laborious. For the first time, this also opened the door to the amateur photography market, because they could simply buy the negative plates instead of being required to use a highly technical process to make sensitized collodion negative plates. This was just a few years before silver gelatin roll film was released, which also revolutionized photography as being easily accessible to amateurs.

It also appeared that Bonfils started to learn how to compensate for the manufactured negatives' shortcomings and started making higher quality negatives from them. It wasn't clear how he did this; a closer study of the negatives is likely required to answer some of these questions. Perhaps a scientist could measure the residual silver halide (rendered from silver nitrate) in the various plates to answer this. It is common knowledge that the more silver halide contained in either film or sensitized paper, the richer the tonal values that one is able to capture.

The above also made me curious as to how photographers from the late 1800’s made such precise exposures with their negatives. For an example, even today with precise digital light meters with an exposure latitude of less than one third of an aperture setting, it is still difficult to get a proper density with a negative if the scene has what is called low contrast lighting. This is because even with a proper negative exposure, one still has to compensate with negative development in order to boost the contrast in order to get an acceptable tonal range for the negative. In layman's terms, it simply means that in order to get a good negative, exposure and development represents a two-step process for making a good negative.

It means that Bonfils had a precise formula for the inherent shortcomings with capturing various types of lighting situations, which in turn means that he was more versatile than the average photographer and did not have to rely only on the brightness of the sun in order to make great negatives. Bonfils had the unique ability to make photographs at different times of the day when the lighting was more challenging to capture, an ability that only the best photographers of the day could perform.

What I found to be phenomenal was that the negative of the two women grinding grain (negative number eight) was contrasty when it was photographed in low light. The negative should have been overly grey, but had a full range of tones with a proper contrast in order to make a high quality albumen print. This one negative told me that Bonfils was indeed a photographic master with both his technique and visual aesthetic.

In addition to his commissioned portraits, he also made what could be characterized as "Ethnographic Portraiture." The people appeared to be in their indigenous garments on location where they lived, although both inferences could be incorrect. Bonfils could have posed them in costumes of his choice in a location that has nothing to do with where they usually interact, we don't know these details. These two women are lost in time with no names or identification as to what their real cultural identity was or what the place they are photographed in has to do with them. Are they Palestinian farmers processing their grain in the same manner of their ancestors? It very well could be an authentic scene with real people practicing their livelihoods as they have for thousands of years.

Other scholars have written references that argued in favor of the authenticity of his ethnographic portraits. The main argument against it would likely come from anthropologists trained in ethnography, because formal practices must be followed in order for the research to be accepted as genuine.

Two Woman Grinding Grain, Negative #8

A print from Negative #8

Many of the Bonfils original albumen photographs are readily available at various auction houses, galleries and even eBay. I have been purchasing various Bonfils prints on eBay for almost ten years. I have been searching for prints that match my negatives, but have not been successful yet, although there are many that are very similar. Here is an example of what eBay has for sale on a regular basis. The similarities are the grinding implements, women doing the work and clothing. They are different women and the background scene is different, but the layout of their task looks nearly identical.

Bonfils albumen print for sale on eBay

The same Bonfils print, but in better condition

Another example of an ethnographic portrait is from negative number one. It is a scene of a woman and a baby riding a donkey (mule?), being led by a man through what appears to be a rural orchard, going away from the village in the background. Is this supposed to be a visual narrative of the Christian story of Mary and baby Jesus being led by Joseph? If it is, than it offers an argument that it is less an ethnographical portrait and more a theatrical scene made solely for commercial purposes. It could also be a genuine photograph of people as Bonfils found them, carefully posed to look like a small slice of life unfolding in Palestine. Can anyone offer any clues as to the ethnicity of the people? Their clothing looks very specific and perhaps is unique to the area.
I would be very interested in hearing from other scholars who may have information about the people, culture and place within the negative.

Detail from negative #1; the original is highly detailed

My research culminated in a short paper written for the project and a set of experiments with making prints from the Bonfils negatives. I fully acknowledged that my own research was from the point of view of a very experienced photographer and not a conservator, and the paper was slanted as such.

The sheer brilliance of the above Bonfils negative inspired me to try making prints from them. Prior to proceeding, it appeared to me that the negative emulsion on most of the negatives appeared to be very durable and worth the attempt. If these negatives belonged to a museum, I’m sure this would never have been allowed, due to their age. Bonfils himself carried the day though, and I prepared my UNM graduate darkroom for making prints from his negatives.

New Research with Bonfils Negatives/
McNeil's Experimental Prints from the Bonfils Negatives

My UNM graduate darkroom was comfortable, spacious and well equipped for this Bonfils journey of darkroom discovery. It had both a high-end enlarger for printing contemporary silver halide materials, and I also brought in my own specialized equipment and supplies for printing 19th century processes. This included items such as an oversized contact printing frame for large format negatives, an ultraviolet exposure unit for the hand-coated palladium or platinum emulsions, a large array of chemicals for the print emulsion, and other miscellaneous supplies.

I attempted to make prints from the negatives as a part of my research, first with silver halide prints from regular darkroom paper. I quickly discovered that the negatives had more contrast than what could be termed a normal negative with an average tonal range. I had to use contrast control filters to minimize the contrast for the prints. This told me that the negatives were optimized with both exposure and development for a print process that required more contrast than normal.

After that I tried making palladium prints, and they rendered prints with a very good tonal range, way better than the modern manufactured paper. There was detail in the highlight, mid-tone and shadow areas of the print, all hallmarks of an acceptable photograph made from a well made negative. The challenge with any photographic printing process is to pull as much information out of the negative as possible. I used an ultraviolet exposure unit and chemicals purchased from Richard Bostick, an expert in alternative photographic processes. About five years earlier, I took a platinum and palladium print making workshop from David Michael Kennedy where I learned the nuances of using these materials. Kennedy is a contemporary master of both palladium and platinum printing, and a great photographer.

In order to learn additional specific information about the Bonfils negatives, it was my opinion that someone should actually apply a 19th Century photographic process to the negatives. I suspected that the negatives were optimized for making albumen prints that rendered a proper tonal range. The vast majority of the existing prints made by the Bonfils studio are indeed albumen prints contact printed from negatives the precise size of these negatives.

The Mystery Photographer:
Where did he get the Bonfils Negatives?
Part Four

The mystery of how these 19th Century negatives came to be in possession of the deceased Alaskan photographer remains an unanswered question. How long did he have them and where did he get them? Some clues are the professional negatives that accompanied these ones. The black & white 4x5 negatives were clearly for various assignments, from the Juneau aerials to the 1964 earthquake scenes of destruction.

There were beautiful 4x5 black & white negatives made at the Ansel Adams workshop that appeared to be from either the 1950's or '60's at Yosemite; this told me that the mystery photographer left Alaska (at least for brief spans) and was interacting with not only Ansel Adams, but also a group of other photographers. Did this mystery photographer meet Ansel Adams when Adams made his first trip to Alaska in 1947?

In my opinion, the Bonfils negatives assert the essence of what defines great photography...

Did our mystery photographer meet someone from the Middle East along the way? Or did he find the negatives on his travels in some obscure store, or perhaps at a flea market at places such as Carmel or San Francisco? Maybe he even bought the negatives from a garage sale in Anchorage from someone who previously lived in Palestine. Anchorage was a crossroads for people working in Saudi Arabia because of the budding oil industry. Oilfield workers and engineers were common in the Kenai Peninsula just down the road from Anchorage in the early 1960's.

Part Five

I still think that it is very ironic that I ended up with these beautiful negatives. They have been inspiring to have for these nearly 30 years, and I have learned much about photography from them. It is interesting that these negatives are from the precise time when film was first made available for purchase, immediately following the time when photographers had to make their own negative materials.

These negatives are historic because they represent a groundbreaking technical transition in photography, and we can physically see that transition happening right before our eyes with these negatives. This still amazes me. Contrast that with today, when film is becoming obsolete in the age of digital photography. It is the other end of the above technical transition that marks the near-end of the use of negatives (as opposed to the beginning).

If I had my choice, I'd retrace the places that were photographed in these negatives and offer a contemporary view of them, photographing the same places as they look today. This would be an excellent project, just in case any of you know of any organizations willing to fund such a heroic endeavor.

In my opinion, the Bonfils negatives assert the essence of what defines great photography; namely making photographs full of life and meaning, coupled with a technical virtuosity that also honors what photography is all about. Here's to you Felix. I love your negatives.

Felix Bonfils Links:

Copyright Larry McNeil, 2010, All Rights Reserved. Reproduction by permission only.