The Luminous, Private World of Christopher Burkett

written by Tricia Louvar | photos by Bill Purcell

Behind a thicket and up a hilly driveway sits an unnumbered house on an unremarkable street in Portland. The three-story, 6,000-square-foot Dutch Colonial from 1924 hides in plain view and between normative structures with reserved parking spots. This location, behind its red door, houses analog photographer Christopher Burkett’s handmade life.

Landscapes and their innermost patterns stop Burkett in his tracks. His photography accentuates the luminosity of natures’ repeating lines, its curves, and more than anything, the light bestowed upon the scene at the right time of day.

At his studio location, Burkett manifests some of the world’s last remaining Cibachrome large-format photographic prints in progress. He shoots on 8-inch by 10-inch film transparency and prints on 30-inch by 40-inch Cibachrome photographic paper.

“It’s the only photographic paper in which the dyes were in the paper when manufactured,” Burkett said. “In the processing, it subtracts the unwanted dyes in the paper, which results in no light scattering in the emulsion, resulting in sharp color print material, and no by-products from the photographic material. It’s totally archival. A print should last 500 years in the dark. And it’s extremely resistant to light fading.”

Three years ago, Burkett and a Russian businessman who is a passionate advocate of traditional photography bought eighty percent of the world’s remaining Cibachrome just before the company in Switzerland went bankrupt. “The factory was melted down to scraps for sale, and the people are gone,” Burkett said. “It will literally never be made again.”

He owns seventeen pallets of Cibachrome, which are stored in a walk-in freezer at an undisclosed location. The paper all together costs more than the median home price in Portland. He takes out of the freezer only a small batch at a time. The rest stays frozen.

Cibachrome is twenty to thirty times more expensive than the next most expensive photographic material. It’s time-consuming and technically difficult to work with. “But the quality is the most important thing,” he said. Burkett, 65, estimates that he has five years’ worth of material left. He’s been printing on Cibachrome for thirty-six years.

The photographer has spent the last forty years obsessed with exposure, color balance, tonal separations, developer chemical temperatures and water pressure, which all converge on a single luminous, velvety tonal balanced Cibachrome print.

His Italian-made, floor-mounted Durst enlarger, approximately the size of a Smart car coupe, holds a film transparency and projects the film onto the wall-size easel. “You can adjust the color to one tenth of a cc on this enlarger. CCs are algorithmic. Other enlargers are one cc units. Digital doesn’t have that kind of control for color,” Burkett said. He’s a photographer’s photographer, obsessed with the mechanics and the science of the equipment.

“What makes a print come to life is that it takes about ten percent of effort to make it look good,” Burkett said. “Then it takes another thirty percent to look better. But it’s the last sixty percent to make it come to life.”

He goes deep into the science of seeing, reading volumes on how the eyes and brain perceive color. In 1984, Ansel Adams selected Burkett as one of his students for a workshop in Carmel, California. “The light within Christopher cooperates with the sunshine,” said Ruth Burkett, his wife and creative works partner of almost forty years. “Christopher always jokes that a set of car brakes is the most important tool for a photographer.” She does the driving, and Christopher does the looking.

To print big, he shoots big. Once when on a trip to make photographs, a bush pilot in Alaska needed to know the weight of Christopher Burkett’s photography equipment—840 pounds.

He uses a one-degree spot meter. Before a photo trip, he takes eight of his camera’s 8×10 lenses and calibrates each lens before leaving his studio. He calibrates and calculates each exposure within a sixth of a stop. “In so many instances you only have one chance anyway,” he said.

Many photographers take multiple shots of the same image. Not Burkett. Frequently, he captures one moment on film transparency. “Light is so fleeting. I don’t take that many pictures. There is only one shot to take most of the time,” Burkett said.

In Burkett’s darkroom, the lights go off and thin pieces of phosphorescent tape highlight switches, marks and what not to bump into, like a nighttime runaway. The timer ticks as the enlarger projects his transparency onto Cibachrome. With Burkett’s homemade wands, which resemble fly swatters, he sticks them in front of the print to burn and dodge segments of the exposure. He brings life to the frozen moment, while outside his studio, beyond the thicket, drivers pass.

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