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Fine Portraits From the Kitchen

g. Paul Bishop
An Interview

By Carol Bernson
Darkroom Photography

March-April 1979


[This article was written in 1979 and refers to g. Paul Bishop in the 1979's present tense.]

g. Paul Bishop, a master portrait photographer who has lived and worked at the same location in Berkeley, California, photographing hundreds of famous and not-so-famous people for over 30 years. He is also a lecturer in visual design at the University of California; sometimes with his classes taking place at his home in his kitchen which converts into a darkroom . . . or is it a darkroom that converts into a kitchen?

DP: Since your darkroom/kitchen arrangement is so unusual, especially for a pro of long standing like yourself, let's start there. Will you describe it?

gPB: Well, (laughing) I think the best way is to say it's a system. We live here and work here and have raised three children in the studio. Diapers --- in those days, they didn't have Pampers --- the wash-type diapers were hung on my film drying rack. I still use the rack . . . but for film drying, not for diapers. Our system begins in the morning. My wife and I have breakfast, then the dishes are washed and put away, and out come the chemicals. I try to do my sittings mostly in the afternoon and my "darkrooming" in the morning. At lunchtime, my supplies are put out of the way and we have a simple lunch. The sink area is always kept clear. If I'm going to "darkroom" in the afternoon, the trays come back out again.

In the early days, I used to get so angry with my wife. She loved fresh diapers. She would snap them and all the fine lint would land all over everything. Then it was hours worth of spotting. Now, my wife does all of the spotting, although we do have pretty clean prints these days.

DP: No more diapers?

gPB: No, though our kitchen is still interesting, even tax-wise. It is over 50 percent darkroom so we treat it for tax purposes as a darkroom. We just do out cooking in the darkroom instead of doing our darkrooming in the kitchen.

DP: What about grease? Isn't that a problem?

gPB: No, I keep my equipment well covered though we do have a little grease. My old friend Sam Erlich would always say, "It's that grease that makes your prints so fine."

DP: How did you learn about darkroom work? Did you teach yourself, read books. or ask people?

gPB: My idol was Edward Weston. I spent as much time with him as I possibly could. I'd go charging down to Carmel and just get in his way, hanging around. I'm sure Weston found me very pesty.

DP: You just went down there? Were you introduced to him first?

gPB: Many people did just appear uninvited. I happen to have a mutual acquaintance whom I went with for the first time. I was so taken with Edward and his photography that I learned more than I ever expected. If you look back through my prints, you'll find that no matter what format I used, if they were 8X10, they were 8X10 full frame; if they were 35mm, they were in the proportion of one to one-and-a-half.

DP: No cropping of the negatives . . . ?

gPB: Correct. I think just now I'm beginning, after all these years, to find the freedom to stray from this rule.

DP: To say, well, I really would like it better cropped this way?

gPB: Yes.

DP: I gather you learned printing by picking up Edward Weston's darkroom techniques?

gPB: Yes. My darkroom is very complicated now compared to his. He had a pull chain with a light bulb up over the table. That was how he exposed his prints, by pulling the chain. Pretty soon, if he felt the paper was exposed enough, he's pull the chain and turn off the light.  Actually, Edward apologized to me once because there was an enlarger over in the corner which belonged to his son, Brett. Edward would have nothing to do with it. Newcomers to the darkroom were always carefully told that that was Brett's enlarger. Maybe Edward's darkroom forced me to realize that his work had to come out of him, not out of anything else. Pulling a chain on a light bulb was enough.

DP: What kind of enlarger do you use?

gPB: I'm on my second Durst enlarger. The M601. When I retire darkroom equipment, I move it up to our home in the mountains. My old Durst is up there. Both enlargers are 2-inch format. Here I use a color head because it's a little more diffuse for printing black-and-white. I print most of my photographs on a grade #3 paper.

DP: What enlarger lenses do you prefer?

gPB: I use Nikkors---they're sharp. My usual lens for 2-square film is a 105mm. Most photographers use an 80mm lens with that format. I have to use the 50mm lens to make a bigger enlargement than I can with my 80mm.

DP: Have you any darkroom methods that you think are different than the norm?

gPB: My contact sheet and preliminary prints --- I do them rapidly on Polycontrast paper. My finished prints are on Ilford graded paper, almost always #3. I use Dektol and run the finished prints through selenium toner.

DP: Have you used any of the resin coated paper?

gPB: I use RC paper for glossies all of the time. It's so quick.

DP: I've heard you have a personal film developer formula. How about passing it on?

gPB: Sure. I start out with 28 ounces of water at 68F. Add one ounce of acetone at room temperature. It raises the water temperature to 70F. Do not use paint thinner; it must be a fine-grade acetone. I use U.S.P. (Pharmaceutical grade), but it doesn't have to be that good. Then I add sodium sulfite --- you have to be careful, that's F-I-T-E --- there's a sulfate and a sulfide. I use 30 grains of sodium sulfite. For those who don't want to bother with scales, that's a good rounded quarter-teaspoon --- I still weigh mine out. Add 20 grains of Elon or Metol --- they are both the same thing. I stir well and that's all. The important thing here to remember is agitation. During the first 30 seconds, agitation is continuous. Not a rapid shaking, but about two inversions every 5 seconds. Then it becomes critical to leave the tank alone, let it sit for 1 minute. Then give it 5 more seconds --- about two or three inversions --- each minute thereafter. I haven't put any alkali in this developer, so you don't need an acid shortstop. I use a plain water shortstop at 70F. Then fix.

DP: What about development time?

gPB: The time is different for each type of film, and depends on how much contrast you want. For Panatomic-X, it's 12 to 13 minutes at 70F, depending on contrast. Plus-X is 13 to 14, Tri-X is 15 to 16 minutes. The more development, the more contrast.

DP: Do you process all you film at 70F?

gPB: Yes, I think 70F is easier to maintain the 68. And 70F works fine. My developer doesn't soften the film. If anything, it has a little tanning action, so you don't really have soft film at 70F. I wash Panatomic-X for 6 minutes, Plus-X a little longer, and Tri-X for at least 15 minutes.

DP: How about a washing aid? Do you use hypo-clearing agent?

gPB: I do not. I was complaining about scratches on the film, and a friend of mine said, "Oh, you're using hypo eliminator, aren't you?" He was right. It softens the film just enough so that you get scratches. It isn't necessary, because thin-emulsion films will wash very rapidly. I do use Kodak's Photo-Flo, then I hang the film up to dry. There's the diaper rack right there. If I'm in a hurry for the film, I turn on a couple of burners on the stove. It isn't directly under the film [and far enough away from the acetone], but it's close enough so that it helps. I was in the Navy, and when you're a sailor you learn to make maximum use of your space.

DP: Let's talk about your printing. You make the contact sheets and

gPB: I make proof prints, all burned and dodged.

DP: What developer do you use for printing?

gPB: Dektol for everything, diluted 1:2, with an acetic stop bath.

DP: And fix?

gPB: I just bought some new stuff --- Lauder Paper Fix. You dilute it 1:7 and fix for 4 to 8 minutes. I usually use Kodak fixer, but this came at a little better price. The only thing I vary from the book is that I always use fresh hypo and I don't use two baths, just one and [then dispose of it through a silver recovery process before it is exhausted]. I use Permawash, and then I wash. I have the simplest washer in the world --- see!

DP: A tray with holes in it! After you wash it, then what do you do --- tone it?

gPB: Right, but first I use a little solution of regular baking soda, about a teaspoon in a quart of water, just in case there's a bit of acid left in the print. If there's any acid left, you'll get yellow stains all over. I forgot to mention one thing with Ilfobrom, I don't use fixer with an acid hardener added. The difference is --- if you take Ilfobrom processed in a hardener fixer out in sunlight you'll see a definite purple glow, but if you don't put hardener in, you just get beautiful black.

DP: How do you dry your prints?

gPB: Like this (he pulls out aluminum-framed screens, stretched with cheesecloth). Air dry on muslin or cheesecloth. Then I put them in the mounting press for a few seconds and they are ready to mount.

DP: Earlier you mentioned that you were in the Navy. Were you in a war? Did anything exciting happen to you?

gPB: Well, yes. Before WWII started, I had switched from dental school into photography, and after first going bankrupt, I had succeeded in establishing a going portrait business. So I applied to be a photographic officer in the Navy, and was sent to Naval Photography School. It was the only school I ever went to. Mostly I did aerial photography: damage assessment and photographing beaches before invasion. But because I was once dumb enough to keep going when I should have turned back, I received a Presidential Citation, and as a result I was sent to work with Edward Steichen. Alas, I was only in Edward's group about a month before the Navy stopped his operations.

DP: What did you do while you worked with Steichen?

gPB: We were sent on special trips to make pictorial types of publicity pictures, instead of doing reconnaissance. Edward later made a book out of the pictures called The Fighting Lady.

DP: When the war ended, did you go back to what you had been doing before?

gPB: I didn't have a real purpose before the war. I wanted to be a photographer, to take pictures, but I didn't have a hard-core reason. I knew I wanted to work with people, and the war was a catalyst for me. I saw people killed all around me, but I gained insight into human beings' courage and basic goodness. Some other people were completely devastated by the war; they saw only the negative side. I made up my mind that human beings are the greatest things in the world. Photography became a tool for me to gain understanding and show appreciation. That's all my work is about, an affirmation that "people are wonderful."


Bernson, Carol. "Fine Portraits From the Kitchen." Darkroom Photography.
     - excerpts. 1, No. 1 (March-April 1979). pp. 54-58.



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