Getting back to basics / by Ron Cowie

When I entered photo school, I wanted to make 8x10 portraits of people and print them in platinum. There was something very validating about that idea: bold, grand, expensive images that were hard to make. My influences at that time were the old masters, and they continue to be on some level, but times have changed. The biggest problem or flaw in my plan was that no one is that interested in how hard I work. Using cumbersome equipment and processes doesn’t equal success.

Photography and art as a vehicle for personal validation has been a big letdown. I’ve been making images for almost 20 years and the issue I’ve had is not new: unrealistic expectations.


I’m interested in getting back to basics. I love the digital platform, but something got lost in the mix. This arose from making images requiring a lot of post manipulation. It was difficult to get consistent prints using rubylith.

The natural, and correct, solution was scanning in the 8x10 negatives and using photoshop was the best alternative. After a while, I noticed I stopped trying to get things in camera because I could always do it later. In short, I got sloppy.

It is no wonder that my personal vision as dimmed a bit. I stopped paying attention to the details. My landscapes were easy to make because I pretty much pointed and shot. That gets expensive with am 8x10 camera. I was treading on familiar territory. I was shooting without aiming.

Making portraits of people or still life photos still has weight and validity. The challenge is letting the printed image be “enough”.  Good ideas are simple. Good photos are too. I’m not suggesting the only good photos are minimalist in composition but have a clear thought behind them.

Getting back to basics means focusing on the easily overlooked step. Is my lighting correct? Have I developed the film properly? Did I make a good print? Am I organized? Am I paying attention?

I can feel the anxiety bubble up inside me when thinking about this mainly because I don’t like following basic steps. I don’t like simple, because there is no place to hide.

I just ordered some roll film to shoot film developing tests. I haven’t really calibrated my film to the photo processes I’m using (Platinum and Cyanotype). That has more to do with me not thinking the rules apply to me. My experience tells me I don’t have to bother with that little stuff.

Artmaking has been about confronting personal issues that stand in the way of whatever message moves through me. The creative roadblocks are self-generated. Admitting I need to relearn film, I’m bringing myself to right size. I’m slowing down and being mindful. I’ve never been very good at outrunning the process, so I might as well align my pace with it and trust that the lesson I need to learn will reveal itself in due time.