Christchurch photographer Stuart Clook shares his passion for the land, analogue photography, and historical printing processes
D-Photo: How did you get your start in photography?
Stuart Clook: Other than family, friends, and holidays, it would be around 2003–’04 — that was when I bought my first ‘proper’ camera: a Nikon F60 and kit 28–70mm lens. I would photograph most everything, but, as I was also a keen tramper and fly fisher, my photography was very much about the places that I visited.
I joined the Christchurch Photographic Society and Photographic Society of New Zealand [PSNZ] a year or so later and that really helped my photography. The feedback I received on my images and the new friends I was making were a great way to learn and to be constantly challenged and exposed to new ideas and techniques. That was very much what had me hooked … line and sinker, you could say.
Your landscape images are beautiful; how do you describe your personal photography style?
Thank you. My yearning to take my landscape photography to new places led me to explore the historical and alternative photographic printing processes of the 19th century. The refreshing change from chasing so-called technical perfection and the precise nature of digital processing and printing to a hands-on process in which the finished print has a unique beauty I find extremely rewarding and satisfying.
As a result, my work is heavily influenced by the Pictorial and Tonalism movements and style from that period, whereby I try to portray a feeling or atmosphere of a place rather than a literal or descriptive record of the scene. These printing processes are very hands-on and tactile, with the outcome influenced by many variables; some I try to control, others I leave for serendipity to make her mark. The result is that each print will stand the test of time and reflect who I am.
Can you tell us a bit about these alternative printing processes?
I have always enjoyed printing my photographs, and for several years now I have been making my landscape prints using the printing processes of platinum palladium, carbon transfer, cyanotype, and gum bichromate. These are contact printing processes that require a negative of the image that is the same size as the final print. I use Photoshop to make the ‘digital negative’ and print it onto a transparency using an inkjet printer.
Depending on the chosen process, the light-sensitive chemicals are measured out, mixed, and then brushed onto the chosen paper or substrate and allowed to dry in the dark. The digital negative is then placed on top of the dried sensitized paper, held tightly together under a sheet of glass, and exposed to UV light, by being placed outside on a sunny day or inside using UV lamps. Exposures times are typically 10 to 30 minutes before the print is developed, washed, and dried.
These alternative processes are renowned for their subtle tonal range, luminosity, and inherent permanence. They are labour and time intensive, yet I find them rewarding and addictive and have many variations and combinations that allow me endless creative possibilities.
What gear are you currently shooting with?
I have been using film cameras for the past three years. I find the whole experience of working on a composition through a waist-level viewfinder or from under a dark cloth and taking spot readings to work out the exposure has transformed my image making. The experience is totally consuming and, although frustrating at times, is highly rewarding and satisfying.
I am currently using three cameras. A Bronica S2 from the early 1960s produces a square-format negative, and I love using the symmetry of the frame to help with my compositions. Most of the time these days, I use a large-format 4×5 Chamonix camera — a gorgeous camera made of teak, aluminium alloy, and carbon fibre. If I am travelling light or find the day’s weather not conducive to using a large-format camera, I will use my Zero Image 69 pinhole camera. There is something very satisfying in making an image using nothing more than a wooden box with [a] hole on one side opposite a piece of film or light-sensitive paper.
I work with black-and-white film, develop my negatives at home, and digitize them using my Nikon D800E and 90mm macro lens.
You had a number of successes in this year’s PSNZ National Exhibition — although the event itself sadly had to be cancelled due to Covid-19; can you tell us about those images?
I was awarded a gold medal and the HS James Landscape Print Award for Kaikoura Coast, a platinum palladium print on a cotton rag paper. This is a particularly special print for me, as it was one of my first successful prints with this process and initiated a whole series of platinum prints that I collectively call Precious Landscapes.
I was awarded a bronze medal for Kiokio Fern, also a platinum palladium print but printed onto a vellum paper — plant based not animal skin — that was gilded on the reverse with silver leaf after the print had dried. When varnished, the vellum becomes translucent, allowing the silver leaf to be seen through it, particularly through the lighter tones, which really enhances the luminosity of the print.
You’re a part of putting together the PSNZ’s New Zealand Camera publication; how did that process have to be redesigned due to the lockdown?
I have been on the editorial team for the past two years, and we meet for two days over a weekend in April each year. With the whole of New Zealand in Level 1 Covid lockdown, that was obviously going to be impossible this year; we needed some out-of-the-box thinking if we were going to publish New Zealand Camera.
As a team, we felt it was critical that we do this together, so the only option left to us was to meet online. Through a series of video calls and extensive use of Lightroom’s cataloguing tools and the book module, we were able to produce what is an amazing collection of images that is a true reflection of our time, our values, and creativity in New Zealand photography.
Can you talk about your upcoming exhibition at Photospace in Wellington?
Yes, I’m very excited and really looking forward to going to Wellington. This was originally planned to happen during June but, again thanks to Covid, we have now rescheduled to 28 August through to 12 September. I will be showing my Precious Landscapes work, with prints of the South Island’s familiar and lesser-known places in platinum palladium, carbon, cyanotype, and gum bichromate.
To accompany the exhibition, I will be delivering a printing workshop over the weekends of 29–30 August and 12–13 September. Those who come along will learn how to print and calibrate digital negatives and how to use these to make platinum palladium prints of some of their images. Spaces are limited to four participants for each weekend. Anyone who is interested can contact me directly for further information through my website (stuartclook.com) or through James Gilberd at Photospace gallery.
What else are you looking forward to in 2020?
I have had my mind on a new project of nocturne landscapes for over a year now, and during our Covid lockdown I was able to spend some good-quality time really focusing on nailing the gum-bichromate print process to print the images.
I also want to spend some time promoting and growing the platinum printing services that I offer to other photographers and artists. Printing other people’s work really makes you hone your process, and any income is quickly used to keep the paper and chemistry cupboard full.