Writing With Light

How my experience with Polaroid films helped me discover the qualities of light and its impact for successful photographs

I feel privileged to have had photography as my passion, and my profession, for more than 45 years. I have been fortunate to have wonderful teachers, mentors, friends and colleagues along the way from whom I have learned so much about the craft and aesthetics of the medium, and whose images have inspired me during my journey. I love the word “photography”—its literal meaning being “light writing.” For me, light is the essential element of this magical medium. The pursuit of this often elusive and variable band of electromagnetic radiation, and how photographic films and papers respond to it, is still a magical part of the process for me.

"Sycamore Trunks" by John Sexton.

Sycamore Trees, Dusk, Big Sur, California, 1981. 4×5 Polaroid Type 52.

I was recently interviewed by Jennifer Quick, curator of the Polaroid Consultant Photographers collections at the Baker Library, Harvard Business School, regarding my time as a photographic consultant to Polaroid. In preparation for our virtual video interview, I was inspired to gather numerous portfolio boxes of original 4×5 Polaroid Land instant prints that I have made over the years. We have a few of these images framed in our home and studio, but I had not looked at many of the prints for a number of years. As my wife, Anne Larsen, and I went through the boxes print-by-print, fond memories of making these photographs came back to me. We agreed that the intimate, jewel-like quality of an original Polaroid instant print was uniquely beautiful. I was very pleased when Outdoor Photographer editor Wes Pitts expressed a keen interest in sharing some of my Polaroid images here and decided the best way to reproduce them was to show them in virtually the same size as the original print. The unique palette of a black-and-white Polaroid instant print—which is due to the diffusion transfer process from the negative—is most challenging to reproduce. The “creaminess” of the highlights is difficult to convey in a reproduction. I hope that the reproductions included in this selection will retain some of the beauty contained in my original prints.

My initial experience with 4×5 Polaroid Land instant photography was as a photography major at Cypress College in the early 1970s. The photography program there was excellent, and I was fortunate to have truly gifted and caring instructors, along with classmates fully dedicated to photography, many of whom remain my friends today. If you were photography major, you began using a 4×5 view camera (whether you liked it or not) during your second semester of studies. This introduction to large-format photography was primarily focused on photographing in the studio. My instructor for that class, Marshall LaCour, required that each time before we made an exposure on 4×5 Kodak Tri-X Professional film, our setup had to be checked by showing him a 4×5 Polaroid print, which he would approve and initial. We were to consider him as our “art director.” As some readers may recall, the exposure tolerance of Polaroid instant film was extremely narrow. If you were off by a half-stop, you were definitely off in terms of the resulting Polaroid print. My experience working with studio lighting and using a handheld light meter was limited, so it meant I used a lot of Polaroid film in pursuit of getting exposures and images that were acceptable to Mr. LaCour.

Image of Agave cactus by John Sexton.

Agave, Huntington Library, San Marino, California, 1978. 4×5 Polaroid Type 52.

Image of barrel cactus by John Sexton

Barrel Cactus, Huntington Library, San Marino, California, 1978. 4×5 Polaroid Type 52.

In 1973, along with my fellow photography major John Charles Woods, I applied to attend Ansel Adams’ annual two-week workshop held in Yosemite Valley. We were both elated when we received our acceptance letters. Yosemite was already a very special place for me. According to my father, we first went on a family vacation there when I was 2 years old, and that continued on an annual basis until I was well into high school. Those two weeks of camping and hiking each June were the highlight of my year. Now, I was going to have the opportunity to study photography with Ansel Adams, and the staff he had gathered together, in one of my very favorite places.

Included in the list of materials to bring to the workshop was a 4×5 Polaroid back if we had one available. I borrowed one from the college photography department, along with a 4×5 Calumet view camera, complete with Schneider 210mm and 90mm lenses. At school, we used an incident light meter, but for the workshop, we were encouraged to bring a reflected light meter. I brought my only light meter, which was my 35mm Minolta SRT-101 camera with its built-in reflected light meter.

Monterey Pines in Fog by John Sexton

Monterey Pines in Fog, Monterey, California, 1979. 4×5 Polaroid Type 52.

I assumed we would be using Polaroids for test exposures, as we were doing in my photography classes, and was surprised to learn on my first field session with Ansel that he was not only using the Polaroid instant print to show us what was in front of the camera, but he was also revealing the subtle qualities of light and discussing the aesthetics of the image. He was very effective in making Polaroid prints that were much more beautiful than any I had previously seen. I recall Ansel sharing a quotation from his dear friend and inventor of Polaroid instant photography, Edwin H. Land: “Photography is the intersection of art and science.” Ansel’s goal was not merely to use the Polaroid print as a proof; he approached it with the same degree of care, concern and integrity to make it as successful a final image as possible. He then would make an exposure on conventional film.

At the workshop, there was an ample supply of Polaroid film available for all of the staff and participants. In addition, there were skilled and generous Polaroid employees to help us all get the best results from the Polaroid Land instant materials. They helped us with technical as well as aesthetic challenges and welcomed different ideas on how to use the film—deviating from the “official” instruction sheet suggestions. We learned how to increase the contrast of Type 52 Polaroid prints by processing them for longer than the suggested time and also how to reduce the contrast slightly by under-developing them. We were taught how to use pre-exposure on Polaroid materials to better handle high-contrast situations, which were not easy to deal with. What began to excite me was to discover the quality of light and the impact it had on the success of the final photograph, whether using Polaroid or conventional film. There were a variety of Polaroid products available for our use, and my favorite was the black-and-white 4×5 Polaroid Polapan Type 52 Land film. All of the images reproduced here were made on that film.

Polaroid image of pampas grass by John Sexton

Pampas Grass, Carmel, California, 1979. 4×5 Polaroid Type 52.

I had the good fortune to return to a number of Ansel’s workshops over the years, serving as an assistant, Ansel’s personal assistant, an instructor and, eventually, director of Ansel’s workshops for the final two years they were offered in Yosemite. Every one of those workshops had Polaroid products and staff on hand, and over time, I learned to use the materials more and more successfully.

In 1977, at the age of 24, I was invited to become a participating photographer in the Polaroid Collection. It was a tremendous honor to be part of a group that included some of the best-known photographers working at the time. My participation in the Collection required me to focus my attention on Polaroid materials. The opportunity to work with these instant films transformed the way I made photographs. As I concentrated on trying to make the best-possible Polaroid instant prints, I also focused on the quality of light and how that was as an integral part of a successful image for me. I began to cultivate a greater appreciation of how essential light is to making a photographic image. I would work very carefully in the making of the original Polaroid print, even using pieces of black cardboard in front of the camera lens to “burn and dodge” (darken and lighten) areas of the Polaroid print, just as I would use similar tools under the enlarger lens when printing in the darkroom. Once I got the Polaroid print precisely the way I wanted it, I would then make the negative as a “backup” to the Polaroid. If I had used burning and dodging techniques, I then applied them in the same proportions for the negative, which hopefully would make that negative easier to print.

Aspens, Dusk, Conway Summit, California, 1978. 4×5 Polaroid Type 52.

Four of the 12 photographs included in this small selection of my Polaroid prints are images that I later successfully printed from the 4×5 negative and became popular over the years. One of my best-known images is “Aspens, Dusk, Conway Summit.” The Polaroid I made in 1978 was an important part of the experience of making this photograph well after the sun had set in the Eastern Sierra Nevada. As the light became less intense, it seemed, to my eyes, that the aspen trunks became more luminous and began to glow. I made the Polaroid print you see here and was very excited by the result. I then made a 2-minute exposure at ƒ/22 on Kodak Tri-X film as the light level continued to drop. It was when I first printed that negative in my darkroom a few weeks later that I made a conscious decision to continue exploring photographic possibilities until there simply was not any light left. This, of course, has changed with digital technology today and increasingly high ISOs. I rated Tri-X Professional film in those days at an exposure index of ISO 200 when developing normally. My typical ISO for Polaroid Type 52 film was most often 640—nearly two stops faster than Tri-X. I included “Aspens, Dusk,” in my first monograph, Quiet Light: Fifteen Years of Photographs, which was published in 1989. There are three other images reproduced here that are included in the same book. Those images are “Corn Lilies,” “Pine Forest Detail,” and “Surf and Driftwood.”

Corn Lilies, Yosemite National Park, California, 1977. 4×5 Polaroid Type 52.

Image taken in Yosemite with Polaroid Type 52.

Pine Forest Detail, Yosemite National Park, California, 1980. 4×5 Polaroid Type 52.

Image "Surf and Driftwood" by John Sexton.

Surf and Driftwood, Afternoon, Point Lobos, California, 1978. 4×5 PolaroidType 52.

Because of the more limited contrast range of the Polaroid Type 52 film I found myself often attracted to soft-light subjects. This type of lighting was something that appealed to me soon after I became serious about photography. The Polaroid process brought this to an even keener focus and an even more intense interest. During the years that I was involved with the Polaroid Collection, I was fortunate enough to have 44 original Polaroid prints added to their massive photographic collection. Forty-two of those images were 4×5 original Polaroid Land instant prints, and two were 8×10 Polaroid Land instant prints. As many readers may know, Polaroid Corporation went bankrupt in 2001, and in 2010, much of the Polaroid Collection was sold off at auction. A portion of the collection went to the WestLicht Museum of Photography in Vienna, and my Polaroid prints from the collection reside there. Some of them have been included in two books about the Polaroid Collection, and most recently, I was pleased to have an image included in the international traveling exhibition “The Polaroid Project: At the Intersection of Art and Technology.”

In 1979, I went to work as Ansel’s technical and photographic assistant and helped him in all aspects of his photography. We made use of many Polaroid materials, primarily 4×5, some 8×10, and Ansel absolutely loved the Polaroid SX-70, as did I. During my tenure with Ansel, I had close communication with the folks at Polaroid. Ansel had been a consultant for Polaroid Corporation since 1949. If Ansel was working on a project involving Polaroid materials, I was there working with him side by side. When I left my full-time position with Ansel (he retained me as his technical consultant until his death in April 1984), he wrote wonderful letters to both Eastman Kodak Company and Polaroid Corporation, encouraging them to use me as a photographic consultant. I was pleased to be a consultant for both companies for a number of years.

Waterfalls at the Los Angeles arboretum

Cascade, Los Angeles County Arboretum, Arcadia, California, 1978. 4×5 Polaroid Type 52.

I remember my first trip to visit Polaroid in Cambridge, Massachusetts. My consulting contacts were in the research and development area on Osborn Street. It was a somewhat dilapidated-looking old industrial brick building with the words “Kaplan Furniture Co.” painted on the brick wall. I was taken to a small security entrance that was labeled “Polaroid Corporation.” This is where Dr. Land, as Edwin Land was often called, kept his laboratory and personal office. It was an interesting historical building. Land had chosen it because of its heritage. Alexander Graham Bell’s first long-distance telephone call from Boston to Cambridge had been received in the very same building. Land’s laboratory was located where Bell had done his work. It was in that historic building that I consulted on a variety of technologies that actually became products, including black-and-white “coaterless” films, refining of the 8×10 Polaroid Instant black-and-white film and processor for field use, and many other refinements and explorations.

One of the highlights of my consulting was the opportunity to make the very first black-and-white 20×24 Polaroid prints outside of the research laboratory and to become the first non-Polaroid employee to be trained on the operation and maintenance of the gigantic Polaroid 20×24 camera. The first black-and-white Polaroids were of architectural interiors at the John F. Kennedy Library on Boston Harbor. The huge 20×24 film was the same as the 4×5 Type 52, which required the same type of coating of the print to protect and preserve the photographic image. It took about a dozen print coaters to coat a single print. A few days later, I made 20×24 photographs of the pipe organ inside Memorial Church at Harvard Yard. The dim interior illumination required a 16-minute exposure. Some of the lights near the pipe organ were burned out, which caused an imbalance, so I used the same black cardboard burning and dodging techniques in front of the camera lens during the 16-minute exposure. A print of that image hangs in my wife’s office today and still looks as good as when it was made in 1984.

Rock detail by John Sexton

Rock Detail, Westgard Pass, California, 1977. 4×5 Polaroid Type 52.

I suspect that readers who only have experience with digital photography would think that seeing an image immediately after exposure on an LCD screen would be very similar to viewing a Polaroid print following a brief processing time. I have done both, and I find them to be distinctly different experiences. In my own photography and in my teaching at workshops over the years, I have found that the tactile and emotional sensations of holding and viewing a print are completely different than viewing an image on a device. Maybe I am just old (and old-fashioned), but I think there is something amazing about seeing a print up close, whether that is a Polaroid print, a conventional photographic print made in a darkroom or a carefully executed digital print.

I encourage all photographers to print their work. Printing your digital images will produce a physical and tactile object that can be studied, refined and enjoyed over time. I also believe printing your images will help you grow as a photographer. Even though you might have all of the color calibration tools to profile your monitor properly, I still encourage you to make your first print early in the process—before you begin the significant interpretive manipulations available in Lightroom, Photoshop or other image-editing software. Print often and look at those prints side by side, touch them and feel the tactile qualities of different papers.

Polaroid photograph of trees in fog.

Trees in Fog, Santa Cruz, California, 1977. 4×5 Polaroid Type 52.

I will never forget the first exhibition of photographs that I saw. It was a Cypress College class field trip with my great instructor David Drake. That exhibition, which featured the works of Ansel Adams, Wynn Bullock and Edward Weston, changed my photography and my life. I had never before seen such stunning photographic prints. It was viewing those original prints that truly inspired me—where I literally gasped for breath at the sheer beauty of the prints and also had tears well up in my eyes. That was the start of my passion, and my privilege, to pursue light and express myself through photography. 

See more of John Sexton’s work at johnsexton.com.