I love this picture. I took this picture in 1979, wandering around the Greek flea market (Monastiraki). There is something about the composition that makes it one of my favourites.
I was 15 at the time, and getting stuck into photography for the first time: A relatively cheap camera (A Russian plastic Lomo Smena, with a sweet “triotar” 3-element lens), cheap film loaded from bulk (Kodak Plus-X), and darkroom chemicals made from basic ingredients, to recipes lifted from focal books.
I don’t quite remember the circumstances of shooting the picture, but I remember that it was very dim and I know that I under-exposed it as well.
When I first developed the film, this was just a faint negative. I almost dismissed it, but something about the light and the composition caught my eye. I tried printing it but it just didn’t have enough contrast to be useful. I had read about a particular chemical called Chromium Intensifier, which was used to enhance contrast on film, post-development. If memory serves me right, it’s a simple but dreadfully staining orange formula made from Potassium Dichromate and pure hydrochloric acid (not stuff that most 15-year olds should be playing with…). Nevertheless, I managed to get hold of the ingredients and made a batch which did the trick. I now had a working negative. Not brilliant, but working.
After a few small test prints and some trial dodging and burning, I managed to get an OK print. By this time, I had fallen in love with the picture and wanted desperately to print it well. I could see in my head what it could be, but my printing skills were nowhere near good enough for it. The dark face, the shiny bald patch and the overall lack of contrast made life very difficult. I eventually made print a 30×40 print (which I still have) and it is still a lovely picture but, frankly, it was technically quite disappointing.
When I started working with digital photography in 2005, one of the first pictures I went back to digitise was this one. I didn’t have a film scanner at the time, so I just scanned one of the original print copies I had and started processing it. Using PaintShop Pro at the time, I could certainly increase the contrast and do some crude dodging and burning. It was definitely an improvement from the gray-ish print I had made in the darkroom, but it now looked grotesquely over processed.
Over the next few years, I made several more attempts at it, as I learned better post-processing techniques and eventually started again with a scan of the original negative. Every time the results got a bit better and every time I was a bit happier, but I still couldn’t get to the picture I had hoped for, the first time I saw the negative.
I first published a version of the picture on RedBubble in 2009. It was better than the printed version, and became quite successful in comments and challenges that I posted it into, but looking back at it now, it just seems hideous – the head is glowing with blown highlights, the face still too dark, and the grain is just horrendous. It’s OK when seen small on a screen, but as soon as you look a bit closer it just looks over-processed.
Browsing through my files today, I see that I’ve had at least another three attempts at getting it right, at various times since then.
Today, I decided to have another go at it. I went back to the original film scan again and, using Lightroom 5 this time, I started the processing from the beginning. Lightroom’s tools for controlling highlights, Adjustment brush, Radial filter and overall tone adjustments, allowed me in about an hour, to get closer to my ideal outcome than I have managed to get in the last 36 years. It’s not perfect yet, and I’m sure I’ll get back to it at some point in the future. But for the moment, I’m still as excited by it as I was when I first saw the original negative all those years ago.