Back to the Future

An interesting phenomenon occurred in the 1970s. I observed its manifestations in the fields of boatbuilding and photography. With the rampant advances in technology in the 1950s came the miracle consumer products – many based on petroleum, or put most succinctly in The Graduate – plastics. Convieniences were created – but at the expense of aesthetics. For those who cared, the answer was to look to the past.
Boats, until the 1950s, had largely meant wooden boats. It was a material that worked and had evolved into many traditional types, each a regional solution uniquely suited to its environs. But as successful as the traditional wooden boat had been, there were issues of maintenance and wood’s limited ability to take complex shapes. Plastic, blended with fiberglass promised to solve those problems. Combined with the efficiency of mass production, radical modern styling, reduced maintenance and a flush middle class eager to spend their newly found leisure time boating, the traditional boat found itself in a perfect storm. So in the 1950s and 1960s wooden boat production declined greatly. The complex skill sets that had been passed down from builder to builder were lost as the continum was broken. Appreciation for classic and historical vessels declined. The look of the waterfront changed as long-lived plastic boats proliferated and dominated the scene.Enter the counter-culture. I don’t think the wooden boat revival of the 1970s was a specific political statement but it did share many characteristics with national movements that were. Like the back to the earth movement the wooden boat community looked to the past with its human scale methods of working. A reverence and appreciation for tradition found museums such as Mystic Seaportkeepers of the torch, and along with small scale schools like the Apprenticeshop, skills on the verge of disappearing were recorded and taught to a new generation. This movement was at once championed and led by Wooden Boat Magazine as a clearinghouse for information.Some people never succumbed to plastic fever in the first place, and as such became the foundation of the later wooden boat revival. It was my privilege to know some of these individuals and I’ll be writing about them in future entries.Bob Baker, who I knew in his final years in Westport, Massachusetts was a dreamer mesmerized by the waterfront of yore. Some people are living in the wrong century. I’d say Bob was off by a hundred years or more. To keep the present at bay he lived in old houses and surrounded himself with old boats. He actively sought out significant historic small craft; several of the finest found their way to Mystic Seaport. Bob pulled rotting boats out of the bushes and made drawings, thus preserving their lines. And not necessarily showy boats either. His last projects involved the simple, common, ubiquitous flatiron skiff. These boats were so ordinary that when they disappeared no one thought to miss them. Bob’s last shop was a converted chicken coop – a good boat shop shape, long and narrow with lots of natural light and precious few power tools. He did build some new boats, but one was more likely to find a tired old boat getting a restoration, as Bob laid on hands.
Waldo Howland was either a visionary or a stuborn traditionalist. I couldn’t say which, likely a bit of both – I loved him either way. Waldo was a team builder. In the 1970s he was writing his autobiography and found me working in the bowels of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, attempting to create order of the Museum’s collection of historic photography. He steered funds into my nascent department and bent my ear with the history of things marine – not a few of which he had experienced first hand. After the Second World War, as the crowd headed for plastic, Waldo’sConcordia Company created one of the most beloved wooden yachts of all time, the Concordia Yawl . Waldo also put a good deal of work on the plate of retro designer Pete Culler. If all this wasn’t enough, he brought the struggling Beetle Cat Boat line under Concordia’s wing, keeping it viable through some lean years, until the boat buying public came back to its senses. These were some of the embers, kept live, that were later to burst forth as the modern and healthy wooden boat movement.

In photography the same tide of consumerism that swamped wooden boats brought rapid change to photography. The 1960s was the first decade that saw more color than black and white. For the convenience of the consumer film sizes were reduced. 35mm became a standard. Larger film sizes were available but became professional products. There are undeniable advantages to smaller film, such as portability and spontaneity but they came at the cost of image quality. Color photography, with its’ warm, wet processing, necessitated a nonabsorbent paper base. Which brings us back to plastic.

For over 100 years photographs had been made on a base of durable, achivally processable, pure rag paper. That ended with color. And then to facilitate machine processing of black and white it too was offered on waterproof, resin (plastic) coated stock. Before long, gelatin silver emulsion on real paper was a premium product. Then in the late 1970s the Hunt Brothers cornered the silver market. The price shot up and Kodak reduced the silver content of its papers. Predictably, image quality went south. Prints from 1900 were looking better that those from 1979. Achieving really fine print quality was becoming very difficult. Agfa and Ilford did offer some excellent alternatives, but the gelatin silver print had its’ limitations. As with boats, progress was not bringing us forward, it was time for a look back.

Before there were standardized, manufactured products, photographers concocted their own paper. Very simply put, paper is coated with a light sensitive substance. From the dawn of the medium in the 1840s to this day, silver has been the basis of the vast majority of black and white prints. There are however other options. Platinum and palladium were used from the 1890s until about 1915. Superb photographers such as Henry Peter Emerson, Alvin Langdon Coburn, and Alfred Steiglitz made platinum prints, which have with stood the test of time. But how were we contemporary workers to use these processes from long ago? You needed to be a chemist – which I am not. My friend John Rudiak was and he helped me at a time when answers were scarce. John and Sprint Systems of Photography founder Paul Krot worked out a system, which Sprint offered for a while in the late 1970s.

It was Richard Sullivan who’s Bostick and Sullivan smoothed out enough of the many bugs so that reasonably consistent results could be obtained. Bostick and Sullivan has become a cornerstone in what has evolved into the alternative processes movement. For me the platinotype, a mix of platinum and palladium became the medium of choice for my landscape work. This century old system does demand a negative of special characteristics and it must be the size of the final print. Previously, these enlarged negatives had been made by adapting lithographic or other specialty films. These films could be made to work, but were expensisive, and often inconsistent. Enter the computer. Computer generated enlarged negatives can be adjusted to perfection. Now excellent prints can be made using vintage materials – the best of both worlds.

In both boats and photography, historic materials combined with craftsmanship and technology are proving to be the way of the future.