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Oregon photographer Christopher Burkett is best known for producing large-format film prints of American landscapes, some of the highest resolution color photographs ever created without computer technology. But he only has a limited supply of the materials, which have been discontinued, making his current work a race against the clock. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Joanne Elgart Jennings reports.
JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS:
From blueberry fields in Maine. To swirling veratrum plants in Alaska. To a lone cottonwood tree in Utah. And resplendent leaves at sunset in his native Oregon. Christopher Burkett has been photographing the American landscape for over four decades. He and his wife Ruth have lugged their camera gear across all fifty states.
What we usually do is we go to a place that looks like it has photographic potential. And then we stay there until we don't see any pictures. And that might be half an hour or that might be a week.
On this day, that won't be necessary because we're just in their backyard in Milwaukie, Oregon. Burkett is demonstrating his eight-by-ten camera. It's the same type Ansel Adams favored for his landscape photography. Burkett says it provides the ultimate in image quality.
It is awkward. It's heavy. It's a struggle with depth of field, a struggle with wind motion. But if you get an image you really have something really in-depth to work with.
When Burkett looks through his lens, he says the world he sees is one of indescribable beauty.
If you are really trying to work with photography you find out real rapidly that seeing things and photographing them can be quite different. And in fact, you have an image that is from that viewpoint of the camera is actually higher resolution than you normally experience the world from that viewpoint on that angle. So you have essentially a certain element of I can't really call a super realism because it's real but it's more real than what we normally see.
He says he wants to make both the physical and the ethereal accessible.
To me, again that's the whole point of doing it is to just not just to present a pretty picture but to present something that shows people something that maybe they haven't seen or experienced and something really worthwhile.
Light and luminosity are critical elements of Burkett's work.
That's what photography is all about is writing with light and when you go up to the print, I want light to come out. You don't have to go find it; it's coming out. When I'm looking at a scene, I know what I'm seeing, but then I look to see where the light is coming from and what that color of light is and many times in photographs what makes things come alive are opposite colors illuminating the scene because you get more shape and more color differentiation JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: For Burkett, photography is not just an artistic, but a spiritual experience that's informed by his religious faith. As a young man he spent seven years as a brother in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
I would come out of church sometimes after communion service and I would see light in the world you know really truly see light in the world. And I knew it was real and if it was real then I figured maybe there was some way I could try to photograph that.
Burkett has also studied meteorology, geology, and functions of the human eye, all to advance his photographic skills. But capturing the images is just one part of the process. Burkett is one of a handful of photographers printing from color transparency film onto a now discontinued paper called Cibachrome.
And it's the only paper that was ever made that had the dyes in the paper when it was made. The processing takes away all the unwanted dye and you're left with the image itself which is completely stable because there's no chemical residue and there's just dyes in the paper.
Cibachrome was first sold in the 1960s. As photography shifted from using analog film to digital image sensors, many professional photographers abandoned the technique, but Burkett continued to embrace it. In 2011, when the company stopped making Cibachrome, Burkett bought a ten-year supply of the paper.
It's amazing that everything is in focus. It's like you're bringing us there. How do you get that depth? You can see the bottom of the water there.
Cibachrome has that depth to the image where I don't think any other print material would have that kind of not just luminosity but it almost seems physically deep. I've had people at gallery openings even kind of go like this to make sure we haven't glued something on the top of a print.
These days, Burkett spends most of his time focused on printing in his studio. He walked us through the elaborate process. One step is called "masking."
We make a black and white negative and this is going to be sandwiched with this and this is going to determine the overall contrast with the print.
Then he adjusts the color.
When you get exactly the right color balance, and then even the slight opposite colors say in the veins of green on a green leaf will start to pop you might say or become more luminous.
And that is when you know you've got it?
And that is when you know you have it.
But it's the next step that burkett says is the most crucial.
As light is being projected onto the paper I am withholding light with my dodging tools which is going to darken those areas and I have to keep the items moving to get a smooth edge so there is no evidence of the darkening of little bright areas.
The process is then reversed with a tool that allows in more light and brightens certain areas of the image. It's an exacting dance, precisely choreographed to a score which Burkett arranges specifically for each print.
You have to plan it out ahead of time where one goes in first, then the other one goes in, while this is part way there, then you move it to the other one, then both of them here and both of them there.
How important is timing in this process?
It is extremely important just in the dodging a half a second difference plus or minus and the print is no good just in one little area.
It usually takes Burkett about eight hours to make all adjustments he needs to perfect an image. And when it is finally finished.
You take the print like this and take it over here very carefully.
Burkett is keenly aware that he has a limited supply of Cibachrome paper, which degrades over time. So he's racing the clock, trying to print as many images as he can before the chemicals and paper lose their effectiveness.
I'm still figuring out how many different images I want to print as kind of a legacy of my work. And there are many times I'm printing images now and certain sizes and I know that that's the last time I'm going to print those in that size. So it's kind of a gradual winding down.
While Burkett says he has enormous respect for the work others create with digital photography, once he runs out of his printing paper, he'll hang up his camera.
I also realize there's gonna be one day when I leave the dark room and I turn off the lights and that's the last time I'll be in there, so that's a difficult thing because I love what I do. And going out and photographing is one thing, but spending time bringing the light out of these images to share them with other people is really what it's all about.
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