Master Shots: Tillman Crane

Photographer Tillman Crane interviewed by Sharon Kitchens

Sunset, Standing Stones of Stenness, Orkney. Cover of Odin Stone.

What were the most important things you learned as a photographer’s assistant?

I never worked as a commercial photographer’s assistant. However, I did work as a Teaching Assistant at the Maine Photographic Workshops during the summer of 1987. As luck would have it, the majority of classes I assisted were the darkroom classes because they were the most demanding time-wise and the other TA’s weren’t as interested in working week after week in the darkroom. I assisted with Photo I and II classes, Advanced Black & White Printing classes with Craig Stevens and Master Printing classes with John Sexton and George Tice. This exposure to the craft of black and white photography really grounded my knowledge and skill set and provided a new direction from the 35 mm color work I’d been doing for the newspaper I’d been working for.

I later worked for John Sexton in his darkroom for an intense six weeks as he prepared images for publication of his first book. I also worked at times with Paul Caponigro in the darkroom as his printing assistant. I ran the wet line while he made all of the decisions at the enlarger. The most important thing I learned from these experiences was that each “expert” had a different system for reaching their final print. No one organized the workflow like another and chemistry and times were modified for the photographer and to the specific negative. There was no single “system” that was right for every image every time. I’d only been working as a newspaper photographer for ten years so it was early in my career and easy for me to get caught up in the “right way” idea of being a photographer. Experiencing up close how each of these photographers made different choices as they printed their images allowed me to understand that I had to learn to make my own choices when printing my negatives. Looking back it seems like such a small thought and yet without that little “ah ha” moment I wouldn’t have begun the first of the 10,000 hours I needed to master the craft and create work that I today I call my “own”. Though influenced by Craig Stevens, John Sexton, George Tice, Sally Mann, Paul Caponigro, and many other photographers whose work I admire, I’ve had to experiment, make (a lot of) mistakes and find my own path in the process. We all learn from those who come before us, at first by mimicking them, but in the end we have to figure it out for ourselves.

What has been your favorite photo assignment?

When I was working for the newspaper, sporting events were my favorites. As a fine art photographer I tend to work for an extended time on individual projects and so it seems that the project of the moment becomes my favorite. I especially love working on book projects. I usually start a project by defining an objective or picking a location to photograph in and around. For example, I am currently working on a project here in Maine, on Knox County. As the different images begin to come together, the book becomes more defined. The excitement builds from this and I work more fervently on the project. I like the challenge of being both the assignment editor and the photographer when doing these book projects.

Have you ever wanted to collaborate with another artist?

Collaboration? I enjoy teaching with other photographers who I admire and respect and usually co-teach a couple of workshops each year. As an artist I definitely prefer to work on my own. Sometimes it’s possible to make some good images when I am out photographing with a few photographer friends but people work so differently that it can also end up being pretty distracting to have others around. I rarely make an image I’m satisfied with when I photograph while teaching. I recently completed a book project in Utah (A Walk Along the Jordan) in which I collaborated with three non-profit organizations. I had completed the shooting for my project, and had self-funded my costs and materials, when we were offered an exhibit space and the opportunity for the exhibit to travel. It sounded like a good idea so we began the collaboration. Usually my wife and I do most of the editing for the books but we felt it appropriate to give the others some input into the editing and sequencing of the images. As it turned out, our needs and purposes were pretty different and looking back we see how different a book we would have done if we had been left completely on our own.

Donna is my wife as well as business partner. I really should call her the assignment editor because she keeps me focused on specific aspects of each project. In this sense I do collaborate with someone on each project. She is my primary collaborator. We talk about projects, images, approaches, and sequences of images. She also directs the business aspect of my being a photographer.

What is on your “to do” list?

This week’s list looks like this:

1.     We are going through all our inventory of framed work and re-hanging the gallery (first floor) in our home. Last fall we took all the work down and put it in storage so we could renovate and repaint. Although we’ve always treated the first floor as a gallery, we weren’t open to the public. The plan is to have the work (back) on the wall by the end of the month so we can officially hang out the “open” flag.

2.     Prepare for two workshops at Peters Valley Craft Center (Layton, NJ) and at the Maine Media Workshops in July.

3.     Finding the collectors’ market for handmade books. This past winter I printed platinum prints on paper that was then cut, folded and sewn into one-of-a-kind books. Each book contains 15 – 20 images and we’re now working towards marketing this new dimension of my prints.

4.     Preparing for two exhibits that open in September and October.

5.     Photograph.

6.     Working on prints for my next “Collectors Print Special” which will be available on my website in August.

7.     Finishing final touches on my new website (

How would you describe what you do?

I am a photographer using 19th century tools and techniques to make work with a 21st century aesthetic.

What equipment do you use (most regularly)?

I work primarily with 8×10 and 5×12 view cameras making platinum/palladium prints. I use modern film and lenses that date from the early 20th century to fairly new lenses. The film is Ilford FP4+. I process all of my film in my own darkroom and then I edit the negatives and make platinum prints. The platinum print is a handcoated print. I use 100% rag paper, and coat it with a solution of platinum and palladium salts. After the paper is dry I place my 8×10, 5×12 or 5×7 inch negative in direct contact with the paper using a vacuum frame with a pump. The negative/paper is exposed to UV lights and after exposure the paper is processed through a platinum developer, cleared, washed and dried. Each print is unique and different from any other. Prints made one after another are frequently very close but upon close examination usually vary at least slightly from each other. It is an entirely hand made process and I sometimes compare it to the difference between hand cut crystal and machine cut crystal.

What is your most personal image?

My three most personal images are portraits of my wife and sons but these are not for public viewing. It would be easier for me to name the important image or images from each book I have done. For Structure, “Bradd Alan’s News Stand” is the most important image. For Touchstones it is the cover image, “St. Columba’s Chapel”. For Odin Stone it is cover image, “Sunset, Standing Stones of Stenness” and the ending image, “Bus Stop, Finstown”. For A Walk Along the Jordan, my latest book, again it is two images. The cover image is of a tree house diving platform along the river in north Salt Lake City. It speaks to me of the innocence of youth simply enjoying summer. The other is plate 5, “Near Sunset, Germania Park”. This image gives me the feeling of an ordinary day in the late spring when the the sun is warm, the day is nice, it is great to be alive.

Swiming Hole, Redwood Road, 1800 North, Salt Lake City, Utah. Cover, A Walk Along the Jordan.