I can't believe this building was anything more than a temporary accommodation for peat cutters on the Isle of Lewis: it is certainly very isolated and to have reached it by foot would have taken a good days walk. Nowadays there is a minor road just a few meters away but it still stands overlooking the modern peat cuttings that stretch away to the hills of Harris to the south. It was the combination of that isolated location and the late afternoon light that made me explore the area for a photograph and this angle takes in the sweep of moorland away to the distant hills.
As I lined up the camera there were certainly a wealth of features: the sunlight on the building, the dramatic outline of distant hills and the spectacular clouds above. Important ingredients to a photograph but here they are rather at odds with each other and I would have preferred if the sky were 'reversed' with clouds over the building with the doorway facing the clearer sky.
The initial straight print looks rather two dimensional
The initial straight print (A) is grade 1 1 / 2 using an exposure of 10 seconds on Agfa Multicontrast RC and from this I saw that the tones of the sky needed to be changed to lead the eye left to right across the print. The tone of the grass is too uniform and would benefit from some localised burning in. Despite the low angle of the sun on the building, the overall impression at this stage is bland and two dimensional.
Extra tone in the foreground and sky now add depth to the print
After a couple of test prints where I added varying amounts of burning in I arrived at print (B). I kept the initial 10 seconds but at grade 2 and added a further 6 seconds to the foreground grass using a lower grade 1 too keep the detail becoming too contrasty.
The sky proved more difficult because even with a lower grade the white clouds remained too bright against the darkened background. I opted to preflash the top half of the paper with a very brief 0.3 second exposure with another enlarger. To shade the lower half of the paper I held a sheet of card about 30cm above the paper, which avoided a distinctive hard edge. With the paper sensitised, the detail and tone of the white clouds emerged more muted and blended better into the darkened sky. I used a soft sheet of card to feather in a curve of extra exposure on the sky with 12 seconds at grade 1.
Although I could have called it a day with a purely black and white print I thought that it would lend itself to a sepia tone. I particularly like the way the lighter clouds above the hills seem to glow and this effect would translate well into the colours of toner. For this I switched to Ilford MG FB matt paper using Agfa Neutol WA developer and had to modify all my settings to match its speed and tonal range. Fortunately I make notes when I print so changing to a different paper becomes a simple mathematical calculation once the basic exposure has been matched. For simplicity I have shown the Agfa settings here but the importance of the numbers is their proportion to each other.
The printing scheme was not complicated
Having produced a good pre-toning print I made sure it was washed for 30 minutes in water at about 18c. It is vital that all traces of fixer are removed by this wash or the bleach bath of the toner process will become permanent and important highlight tones will be lost at very least.
To make the glowing clouds really sing I used a weak solution of Farmers reducer that lightened areas of mid tone in the clouds above the horizon. This too must be washed out of the paper until all traces of yellow bleach have gone.
I use thiocarbamide toner that I make up from powder supplied by Silverprint in London. The stock solution it produces is further diluted for use with a solution of Sodium Hydroxide: the proportion of the two constituents will affect the colour of the tone and here I added a greater amount of Sodium Hydroxide to give a purplish, rather that yellow, colour to the tones.
Whilst the paper is wet the image has a beautiful depth and it is sometimes a little disappointing when the final matt surface appears when dry. However the Ilford paper has a lovely softness in its tone and I have always enjoyed working with it. I hope that it will be available for many years to come.
The tone colour matches the time and place and makes the clouds glow