Fred Picker and Zone VI

Fred Picker’s company made view cameras, enlargers, cold light heads and assorted clever darkroom gizmos, but mostly he helped build and sustain a Golden Age of black-and-white photography

 

    Many of us lucky enough to have been B&W photographers during the heyday of Zone VI are probably familiar with this special company and the man who started it, Fred Picker.


Fred Picker did as much as anyone to champion B&W and large format photography during the 1970s - 1990s, helping to usher in, and sustain, something of a Golden Age for both B&W and big cameras. He also instilled in many an appreciation for slow photography and careful B&W printing. His video series, especially Printing with Fred Picker, remain essential additions to the knowledge base of serious B&W workers. Many items he sold are still available from Calumet to this day; other discontinued items are hot sellers on ebay.


Picker, notably, demystified the Zone System, making this expressive tool accessible to many more photographers. He had his detractors, and some of his products and teachings stirred controversy, but Picker was clearly devoted to his field and pursued it with passion and energy.


(Zone VI was a photographic-specialties mail-order company based in Vermont. It sold a long list of items, from the mundane to the esoteric, including its own brand of view cameras, B&W paper, chemistry, enlargers and cold light sources, and highly specialized devices such as compensating print development timers that adjust development time based on precise measurement of the developer temperature.)


Zone VI was sold to Calumet Photographic in June 1990 but Picker continued his involvement with the operation, and the wonderful catalogs, for several years; he died in April 2002.


bwphotopro would probably not exist had I not sent away for a thin Zone VI catalog in the mid-eighties, after seeing their tiny ad in a photo magazine. So we’re going to pay tribute to Fred Picker by running short excerpts from his Newsletters and catalogs as often as possible.


We’ll start with Newsletter No. 1:


From Zone VI Newsletter No. 1, August 1, 1973


“We who photograph seriously share an interest in the most exciting, expressive visual medium of our times. Photography has had a short history but we have already seen great accomplishments. Many of its early greats are gone - Hill & Adamson, Curtis, Stieglitz, Steichen and Weston. But Adams, Caponigro, Strand, Gagliani, Smith and others continue their search in the great tradition.” (Ed. Note: Remember, this was written in 1973.)


Picker described assisting his friend Paul Caponigro in producing his Portfolio II, consisting of 100 sets of eight prints.  


“We began the printing with a lovely photograph of stones on a beach. It was a beautiful negative and seemed to present no problems. My guess is that more than a dozen test strips were made utilising different combinations of paper, developer, dilutions of developers, development times and developer additives such as glycin, B. B. solution, etc. Finally straight unmanipulated prints were made (from this one negative) - about 15 or 20. They were toned for various times in different dilutions, washed and dried. Each print’s formula had been listed on the back. Of these, Paul chose the single print that had the feeling, the atmosphere that he wanted to convey. The print “lived.” Two and one-half days of hard work lay behind us - but we had the formula. Dodging and burning procedures were minimal and quickly worked out, and 150 exquisite prints (from this one negative) were then produced.


The point is simple. It didn’t take two and one-half days to make one print because the photographer didn’t know what he was doing. It took two and one-half days because the photographer knew exactly what he was doing and was tirelessly determined to repeat the statement as clearly and beautifully as its original appearance in his minds’ eye.”

--Fred Picker


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Spring 1990 Zone VI catalog cover, left, and their 8x10” and 4x5” cameras, right.

Zone VI Newsletter content and catalog images appear courtesy of

Calumet Photographic: http://www.calumetphoto.com/ctl?ac.ui.pn=search.Search&query=zone+vi&x=0&y=0