Interviews, Multidiscipline, Photography

Journey to excellence – what qualities made Tim Rudman the expert in lith printing?

A visit to a bookshop started Tim Rudman on an unusual career change away from medicine. But his subsequent journey to expertise, from a self-taught amateur to the authority in lith printing, might not have happened without a background in science.

Tim Rudman

Tim Rudman preparing for an exhibition of his photographic prints. Photo: Viviane Li

Smooth, creamy, warm, soft – these are some of the emotive adjectives Tim Rudman enthusiastically uses to describe ‘lith printing’ – a black and white photography technique. He is in his element; his face lights up and his voice picks up in pace. This is probably one of the most evocative description of a technique I have heard. Although he is an established expert in this method of image-making, you can tell he isn’t simply a technician.

Meanwhile, in my other ear, I can hear the contrasting dull hum of a small fridge in the corner of the room where our interview took place. The context may be somewhat fitting – it reminds me of a beautiful picture emerging in a developing tray, under the monotonous drone of an air extractor fan in a photography darkroom.

But this is much more significant than a pretty picture. Behind his words lies a force not every one of us might experience. It’s that genuine passion that can change the rest of your life. It is love at first sight.

Love at first sight

“I saw a book when I was a medical student… this black and white photography book by Sam Haskins… And suddenly I saw these, what struck me as really quite daring images. I’d never seen anything like that photographically before,” recalls Tim. This turning point, which eventually steered him away from a fulfilling career in medicine to pursue photography full-time, is still a vivid memory even decades afterwards. He describes the everlasting impression he sees clearly in his mind’s eye, “black and white, dynamic, things taken on the tilt, very grainy, huge grains. White skin tones and other whites blasted out to pure paper-based white. There was a lot of positive and negative space. And it was just used in a very graphic form, which struck me powerfully. I thought it was amazing! And I knew at that moment standing there with that book that this was what I had to do and that this would be my route.” Lack of a teacher and the necessary facilities did not deter his drive to answer his calling. Within two weeks he had found a communal darkroom and had begun to teach himself to print photographs.

Curiosity innovates

Having the courage to explore alone in the dark (almost literally) from the onset, without a teacher to tell him what he had done was wrong, no doubt allowed Tim to be more experimental in his learning. “One of the things I’ve always found fun and useful is playing in the darkroom, rather than just working in the darkroom. And thinking ‘what happens if?’,” he explains. His self-directed approach also has an innovative advantage, “…you make a lot of mistakes and as long as you learn from them, before you throw them in the ‘learning bin’ – which is what I call the waste bin – every so often you’ll find some golden moment which teaches you something wonderful. A technique which you’ve never seen, never heard of which gives you a lovely result; and that becomes then a part of your regular armoury of interpretive techniques. I’ve always tended to do that. I’d go in there to play around and have fun or to make work.”

Being unrestrained by received wisdom would prove useful later on when he came to explore lith printing – a specialised technique which can produce unique image qualities. Tim remembers the mystique surrounding the process at the time, “when I started lith printing, there was very little written about it. I couldn’t find out much about how to do it. It had the reputation of being uncontrollable and unpredictable, so that when you made a lith print, it was alleged that you never knew what it was going to look like. And having got it, you’d never be able to repeat it…”

Where an artist might simply ‘go with the flow’ and accept the uncontrollable as a characteristic part of the method, or even a way to create a unique artwork, a scientific mind knows that chemical and physical processes have predictable behaviour, if only you understand the rules. Repeatability is one of the basis of scientific practice, and Tim went about dissecting the process of lith printing like a scientist during the Enlightenment. After persistent rounds of trial and error, isolating variables, careful note-taking and result analysis, he eventually unlocked the key points that control the procedure.

Publishing your results, materials and methods is another attribute of science intended to advance knowledge as a whole, by allowing others to build upon your findings. Instead of jealously guarding what he found out, Tim wrote the definitive ‘how-to’ book on lith printing1 and established himself as the expert on the subject.

Logic meets the artistic

Even today, after having left medicine for years, Tim still gives away his scientific grounding when he speaks. “Just use good lab technique” is his tip to getting successful results for beginners searching in the dark like he did many years ago, and his reference to the “lab book” has a geeky charm.

Written notes with line drawings

A page of notes from Tim Rudman’s ‘lab book’ for printing one of his landscape photographs. Photo: Viviane Li

Unusually, this is a lab geek with an artistic voice – a voice which comes through his images with intent, “I print for how I want to print and I make artwork that I like to make and it’s coming from inside me. And that’s really what it’s about for me,” he declared. With an approach more like a painter than a photographer, his images are interpretations of what he sees, rather than photographic records of the here and now – this is not about the decisive moment.2 Tim continues, “I want my pictures to transmit not just a record of this tree or that valley. I want them to transmit a feeling, a mood, an atmosphere, and so I try to print them in such a way that opens up that channel for the viewer to identify with and follow, if they choose to.”


Tim Rudman’s artistic creations are guided by instinct rather than analysis, but his control is built from something an artistic temperament might dismiss as dull and uncreative – discipline and scientific-like repetitions.

You might think of it as a beautiful picture emerging in a developing tray, under the contrasting but necessary cyclic hum-drum of an air extractor fan in a photography darkroom.



Notes:

  1. The Master Photographer’s Lith Printing Course: A Definitive Guide to Creative Lith Printing, Tim Rudman. Published by Argentum, 1998. 
  2. “Photography is not like painting. There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture… That is the moment the photographer is creative. Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1957. The Washington Post, 5 August 2004. 
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