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Regional Interests

Carbon art photographer captures grand images of western forests

Photographer Jim Fitzgerald chronicles the cycle of time and nature photographing the forests of northern California, Oregon and Washington. Going back to his boyhood on camping trips with his parents in Yosemite, Fitzgerald recalls, “The trees many many years ago took root in my heart, and it’s my main subject matter. It’s just something I absolutely love.”

Based in Vancouver, Washington, Fitzgerald works out of his home studio where he has built his printing studio, a custom bookbinding area, and a woodshop where he makes his own large-format cameras crafted in the style of the late 1800s.

Using his large and ultra-large format cameras, Fitzgerald creates images using a unique and historical printing process known as carbon transfer photography. The prints yield beautiful black and white photos with subtle textured relief running over the light and dark areas of the surface, giving the photographs a three-dimensional quality.

The carbon transfer process was developed in 1864 by physicist and inventor Sir Joseph Swan. “There’s no chemical in there.” Fitzgerald describes. “It’s hardened gelatin. It will last a hundred lifetimes. It’s why it’s the most archival print you can make.”

“About 14 years ago, I was able to see my first carbon transfer print. I knew in that instant that it was a life-changing experience, and to this day, I have done nothing but print carbon transfer.” Fitzgerald said. “You make a handmade, one-of-a-kind print that is the most archival print you can create. They’re the most beautiful prints that you can ever imagine.”

In 2006 Fitzgerald began what has turned into a lifelong project documenting the black oaks of Yosemite valley. Fitzgerald describes being drawn to “how fragile they are and how they’re fighting for their life.” He found his way along a trail, discovering images that, to his knowledge, no one else was seeing, and by the end of the day, as he finished taking his last photographer, Fitzgerald realized he had no idea where he was. So consumed by the experience and the images he had found, Fitzgerald knew right away what he wanted to do with the photos. He said to himself, “I want to do a book.”

“So I learned how to book bind. I took original prints and printed them on fine art watercolor paper. I developed a process to print text in carbon transfer and incorporate it into the book. So the first book, “Survivors 1” is basically my journey of that day, and my feelings for the imagery in the book.”

Jim often returns to the same areas, noticing how the light has changed, how the scene has transformed. Sometimes he discovers some of the trees are gone. Sometimes they’re still there but in a terrible state and might be gone before he returns. “I look at it as a gift that I am able to record these before the process of life takes over.”

Time is often an embedded subject in Fitzgerald’s work, but it also plays a role in the process. One that takes a certain temperament and patience. “Camera building is a lengthy process. Exposures are lengthy exposures. The handmade print is a lengthy experience. We’re in a society where everybody wants instant results, but as an artist - any artist I would think is working to produce the best that they can. For me, it just happens to be carbon transfer printing, and it takes a little longer to do.”

That rhythm of time and patience runs throughout Fitzgerald’s approach to life and art, and it all comes down to instinct and the moment he looks through his lens. “I like to keep my art form as close to the purity of what it was back in the early days. There’s no going back once you click that shutter.”

A print from Jim Fitzgerald' "Survivor" series
Jim Fitzgerald /
A print from Jim Fitzgerald' "Survivor" series
Jim Fitzgerald sets up his hand made large format camera in the woods near Lucia Falls
Jacob Pander /
Jim Fitzgerald sets up his hand made large format camera in the woods near Lucia Falls

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting