Monday, December 16, 2013

David Vestal: 1924 - 2013

 David Vestal, 2009, by Ellen Wallenstein

David Vestal, longtime photographer, educator, and writer, passed away on December 5, 2013 at his home in Bethlehem, Connecticut. For many years, Vestal wrote a column for PhotoTechniques magazine and I always tried to read those when I could. They were illuminating and pithy and often tried to push their way through the veils of pretense that hides much of the art of photography. He had a way of breaking things down and explaining them in understandable, commonsense terms. In many ways, he was a role model for me and my writing about photography. I never had the chance to meet him, but he was a powerful influence on my life and my photography.

New York City, 1958, by David Vestal

David Vestal wrote two photography books, The Craft of Photography and The Art of Black-and-White Enlarging. The latter book became the book I turned to in learning how to print and in how to be a photographer. When I learned photography in the late 1970s, I gravitated towards Ansel Adams’ Zone System for the exposure and development of black-and-white film. I used a 4x5 camera with a spot meter and tried to decipher how to use it all. Adams’ three book series at the time seemed kind of intimidating, so I picked up and read Minor White’s book on the Zone System. It may have been a small book, but the prose was dense and impenetrable, and practically impossible to apply in a useful way. It was more poetic allegory than technical instruction. So I bought Fred Picker’s Zone Workshop book. It was easier to understand, but turned out to be more of a sales tool for his business than anything else, however it did serve as a basic primer for the Zone System. Finally, I broke down and picked up Ansel Adams’ series of books and set about reading and learning his way of working. At the time I had access to a densitometer, which Adams required to determine correct exposure and development, and off I went. After a few years of working on this and getting the hang of it, I attended the Ansel Adams workshop in Carmel, California, only to have John Sexton, one of the last great Zone System photographers, say something like, “Well, I can see that you are doing everything by the book, but you need to expose more and cut back the contrast.” So that’s when I learned that following what Adams wrote down only gets you in the ballpark and really isn’t necessarily made for real life situations. 

Gallup, New Mexico, 1966, by David Vestal

And that was when I discovered David Vestal and his book, The Art of Black-and-White Enlarging. In his book, Vestal laid out a way of testing film exposure and development that was practical and sensible. I tried it, and after a few tweaks to accommodate my own working methods, it became how I tested every new film and developer combination, and it was responsible for a vast increase in the quality of my negatives, which became easier to print and produced better looking prints. Indeed, this book was filled with commonsense approaches to the practice of photography that made my life easier and my photography better, and David Vestal was the person who made that possible. His book was the mentor that I turned to when I needed to learn something and he made all the difference in the world to me. I kept his book close at hand and referred to it all the time. It became my standard reference work. Like I’ve already said, I never had the chance to meet him in person, but he was indeed my teacher and mentor, and I will never forget what he did for me. Thanks, David Vestal, and rest in peace.

New York City, 1959, by David Vestal