Last weekend Kathy and I had a booth at the annual art fair in a park a few minutes away from the house. Operating a booth for three days, eight to nine hours a day is a lot more work than it may sound like. We don’t do many of these but we sell some prints and get into a lot of conversations about photography with people of various ages and backgrounds. The conversations are the most interesting part of the event.
There are invariably those who “used to do darkroom and film”, who have either converted to digital cameras (and many of these often say so apologetically or with a tinge of sadness) or had done it in their youths, which was decades previous, and talk about it with nostalgia and sometimes surprise that there is still film available. It surprises us that so many people believe that film is no longer made.
There are young people who have been exposed only to digital photography and who are often really impressed with the look of black and white silver prints, and as I usually carry a camera, intrigued by one of the 1960’s film cameras that we use at such events.
Last weekend was especially interesting as I talked to several people who wanted to, or were planning to get into film photography and asking questions about darkroom requirements and where to get materials and equipment. I gave a primer this morning for one of those contacts, on 4X5 film including loading holders, using a spotmeter, focusing and camera controls and processing negatives. This was for a man living in Mexico who has already purchased a Beseler enlarger and is picking up equipment here in the states to take back to Mexico. This evening another new contact came by and we took him to the darkroom and showed him what he needed to get. His Leica M3 arrives on Monday and he is eager to start a new phase in life, taking black and white images and learning to print them. For a rainy and cold Saturday, it was very busy.
While these two guys were, I guess, in their late 40s or early 50’s, another contact from the weekend was a thirty something with background in 35mm film processing and printing but who wants to renew his photo work in large format. Once he gets his equipment he will get in touch and we can give him the basics of shooting and processing large format film. There was another young guy who was, I think, a war vet who expressed interest in a platinum print we displayed and had a friend who was already working in platinum. As Spokane is no major metropolitan area these folks, with others who asked about how difficult it would be to set up a darkroom has me thinking that something is in the wind.
And it smells like stop bath. In the last six months or so we have had 4 students from our photo workshops who have committed to setting up black and white darkrooms. These were all women.
The sweet irony of the so-called collapse of film photography is that this is a great time to set up a darkroom at home because there is so much used equipment available. First of all, there are the darkrooms of those who were printing in the 1960s and 1970s who are either feeling too old to continue, or who have switched to digital, or who are dead! Widows have been a good source of photo equipment, and I don’t mean that to sound macabre. We have heard from widows whose husbands loved photography and their cameras and just wanted to find a good home for it all, and who tearingly talked of their husbands devotion to the media.
Places like the local “craig’s list” have been good sources for often complete darkrooms for very little money. Sometimes the darkrooms have included camera outfits like the one of our students found that included a Mamiya TLR outfit. My response to enquiries this last weekend was just like that: “This is a great time to get a darkroom together.”
Just to add to the point of how much equipment is available locally, I have a Beseler 4X5 enlarger under a blue tarp outside up against the darkroom wall and a Beseler 6X7 enlarger under another tarp sheltered on the front porch! I did not have to purchase either of them. Our home’s storage areas are full already, hence the tarps. We have set up 2 darkrooms for two boys in our family, a freshman and a sophomore in high school. Just a couple weeks ago two ladies who run a junk-recycling shop called us in to help them sort a bunch of darkroom materials that had been donated; two complete darkrooms and more. The plethora of equipment may look to some to be a sign of the demise of film photography. To me it looks like so much potential. And after 3 days of conversations at the art fair I am even more convinced.
Photography is not always about making memories, but sometimes it is just that. That’s the part the KODAK emphasized in its concept and in its advertising. We have a flyer on our kitchen wall, a water color image of a couple on a sailboat, the girl with a postcard sized folding Kodak. The text reads in part “there’s all this and more for those who keep a record of their outings with a Kodak.” This was an important part of the cultural revolution energized by making cameras for the masses. Few people were immune to the allure. Avant garde painters in Paris bought Kodaks and snapped each other on the boulevards. And even before the Kodak working people found the quarters to pay for tintypes from small studios and street photographers. Workers carried the tools of their various trades to the camera and paid to get a record, a memory of themselves and their liveihoods.
The tintypers did a great business in the army camps of the American Civil War and their thousands of quick informal portraits not only gave families at home memories of the many who did not return, but they instituted the public affection for cheap portraits, cabinet cards and so on. They also made an incredibly important contribution to the National Memory.
The tin type photographers of the era remain, for the most part, anonymous and forgotten. Most of the individuals photographed for these one of a kind images are also lost as identifiable individuals. So what remains? The little photographs, dull in color and found in junk shop bins, these remain. There was a day, an afternoon, adequate light, the excitement of the one being photographed, the photographers hand on the plate, dipped in developer and fix, rinsed off, the sitters first look, blowing on it to dry it, showing it to spouse or parent or friend, or slipping it into an addressed envelope and handing it over to a postman. All the participants, all the witnesses interested or not, are gone. Now the image is anonymous. Then why does it compel us, interest us, fascinate us?
Many people are fascinated with Vivian Maier, a woman who died in obscurity but now garners public interest because her unprocessed rolls of film were discovered. As it turns out Maier was a good photographer, and not only technically competent but with an excellent eye that sought out images rather obsessively over decades in some very photographically interesting places; the streets of the city. People are fascinated with the story of her obscurity, that she was a complete unknown, in the world of photography. It is her photographs, nearly all have been printed by others after her death, it is these photographs that are of much greater interest, and it is their subject matter clearly presented with her command of exposure and focus and skills of composition that remain what is most important in the Vivian Maier story. Through the 40’s and 50‘s and 60’s she recorded city life in New York and Chicago and that city life has been so transformed, that her work chronicles that which was but is no more, i.e., converted it to memory.
We value images from an earlier time. The Ken Burns documentary on the American Civil War used a lot of literature, letters, newspaper articles, books to fill in layers of detail and nuance, but the popularity of the documentary, and its inherent power would not have been the same if instead of photographs there had only been artists renderings available. The public sense of authenticity of the photograph, and even more so the common perception of the photograph as captured reality and captured moment made the images of the era almost time travel vehicles for the imagination. This, the artist, sketcher, painter can not do.
Other Peoples’ Memories, Other Peoples’ Photographs
I suggested earlier that when I was looking at the little print books of family gatherings that I was looking at other peoples’ memories, as I had not been present, had not existed at the moment of exposure. Now I am not so sure of the characterization. If I read a memoir of some time or event I am reading the author’s recollections, interpretation, of his or her memory of the time. A skillful author can convey even the impression of his emotional state at the time in the retelling. Language has the potential for nuance and subtlety that would be very difficult to express in a photograph. The creator of a photograph might, on the other hand, feel the welling up of such subtleties and nuance in looking again at her photograph, and in this case the image serves as a catalyst for recalling these things in the form of memory revisited.
Is it possible that someone else’s photo could stir up in me such subtleties of emotion? This is the supposition behind the long held idea that the photographer should try to express in a photograph the emotional response the scene evoked in him at the time of its taking. This classic Ansel Adams take on artistic photography goes back to Stieglitz and his “equivalents” and is especially noted when it comes to landscape images. The artistic skill here is beyond the technical achievement of exposure and focus, and represents the supposed ability to control the subtleties of the medium as to gain control of the readers’ emotional responses.
Stating it this way makes it seem like a far-fetched and rather presumptuous notion of a photographer’s ability. This is not to say that a photograph does not itself have the potential to stir emotional responses and memories. It is just that one must be very suspicious that a photograph can serve as a channel between the emotional response of the photographer and the same of a reader. If one’s memory is stirred by another’s photograph, whose memory is stirred? Not the photographer’s.
If not another’s memory, then what am I seeing in the other’s photograph?
We learn the language of our family and our community and that makes it possible to communicate on many levels. The common language is the basis but not the whole of the community grammar, which includes norms for politeness and respect, recognition of common meanings to traffic signs, all kinds of rules for behavior and so on. There is even a more fundamental body of understanding: such things as lighter in color usually suggest higher in elevation, from the basic awareness of sky and ground, or that reflections of the sky on a surface suggest wetness, or water. We know that shadows tend to fall under things rather than over. Much of this kind of innate knowledge is applied by us to the photographs we make. So we have a basis in this common grammar that helps us to convey in our photographs things that the reader will understand and if we were to turn down the expectations of those photo gods a bit then there is some truth in that sense that “artistic photographs should convey something of the photographer’s emotional response to the scene…” I cannot, however, read another’s memory in a photograph.
It’s not what you look at that Matters, It’s what you See!
That’s a loose quote from Henry David Thoreau, who was not a photographer.
In this last section I want to imagine a large retrospective of a photographer who worked with a camera his whole long life. I don’t want to pick out a famous photographer so you can just imagine that it was you that I am imagining. It’s all the same in any case as the principles will apply. To do this I have to exclude the images made, let’s say, by a portrait photographer who toiled for 40 years in his studio on Main Street, already tired and struggling to stay creative after the first decade. I do this because what I have in mind is one who roams about, a lover of photos, if not obsessed with taking pictures at least warmly passionate about it. So you see, it’s not the same as it is with a commercial guy who went to school and into business initially because of his love for cameras and film, and then spent decades always on the verge of burnout. For my photographer he or she should be one who would rather die with a camera in hand.
So in this retrospective we begin with, of course, the early years and as critics we look for signs of what is to come. Are there hints already that our photographer prefers certain themes, times of day, lighting qualities and so on? Is a youthful exuberance and optimism, even naivety present in the prints on the wall? Or is there something darker that will manifest itself more strongly later on?
Into the second room of this big exhibit: here the photographer has reached some new level of energy and awareness, out of school and into the world, the real world. Can we note the photographer’s take on the social realities of adult life? We fully expect something of that sort, don’t we? We expect to be able to, ought to be able to gain something of the photographer’s take on the world. Why is that? Why should we have such expectations?
As photographers we know that the process of making images has much to do with choosing, with selecting, with excluding or including, with deciding whether to make an effort or not, with looking through the viewfinder and making subtle adjustments and so on. We understand the process. The walls of this imaginary retrospective would be blank except for the choices the photographer spent a lifetime making. So we can walk through these rooms and gain some sense of this photographer. It’s inevitable.
Here we are in the middle age room. Each image represents now 30 years of taking pictures. What can we see from that 30 years of shooting? Are there things that this person is now photographing that were not being photographed in the first ten years of work, or the second ten? Yes, we say, look at the difference here. See the shift in emphasis.
And then we are in the final room. Critics often note in viewing this room, the later years room, how there is a darkness not before present, that there are notes of mortality present. Critics love to get into that drama.
When we walk out of the hall, what have we seen? Did we just go through the photographer’s lifetime of memory or memories? No, not memories, but what? The first level of the answer to the question, what did we see?, is that we saw the collection of what the photographer chose to look at and the moments he or she captured. The first answer to our understanding this photographer is to learn what caught his eye, captured his imagination, captivated his vision. The short answer to the question is the photographers question back: “What did I look at?” Thus the photographer responds when we ask, “Who are You?” That is, according to Thoreau, not enough, not sufficient. It is definitely the right direction to take though. The photographer after all, is keenly visual in his or her approach to life, if in fact, this person with the camera is really a Photographer. Thoreau’s question that seeks to clarify, “What did you see?” represents a deeper understanding of how the photos reveal the person behind them. Seeking that deeper understanding of another is a valid quest, but it might be even more useful to turn back to face the self, an inward turn to self-revelation. The question then becomes: What do I look at? What do I see?
Photography for me is full of mysteries. I wanted to find in my fascination for looking at old family photos an ability to connect to other peoples memories, but found ultimately that I could not. My memories are my own. The photos still hold power over me and they become part of my memory but only as photos, not as the moments in time. The process of photographing on the other hand is partly in capturing moments from the flow that stops for no man. In some ways, the photograph represents a stubborn resistance to that flow of time. The movie line, resistance is futile, applies here. When my box of my Dad’s photos and paperwork disappeared, all the efforts at preserving those moments proved futile, and thus I felt a death had occurred. When the family of the Civil War soldier got the tintype in the mail, they somehow could feel as if they had their son and brother back, but when his corpse was thrown into a battlefield mass grave, the reality of the flow of time prevailed.
Is photography about the struggle against Death? Perhaps it is more about preserving moments of Life. That doesn’t explain so much of photography and so many genres. It doesn’t directly throw light on why one spends hours photographing inanimate objects or setting up still life images. But then one thing cannot be expected to explain everything, can it?
There was a cardboard box full of memories, mostly black and white photographs, contact prints from roll film cameras, some documents, like an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army, a C.C.C. publication that was more or less a yearbook of a camp, all stuff of my Dad’s life. It disappeared a few years after his sudden death from a heart attack, as my Mother struggled with her demons, along with his work shoes, tools, his car, all obliterated in a spell of alcoholic and drug addled insanity.
The photos included pictures from the California Redwoods, CCC boys in the deep snow of North Idaho national forests, old cars, bare-breasted native women somewhere between the Admiralty Islands and Manila. There was a photo of a Japanese soldier up to his armpits in a muddy hole, hands raised in surrender. There were young toughs with “bogarted” cigarettes hanging from their lips on the streets of Chicago (he was one of them).
The box was gone, including the rising sun flag that Japanese soldiers wore inside their shirts, a black and white skull and crossbones flag that flew from the antenna of my Dad’s amphib (amphibious tractor) during the invasion of Leyte – all gone. He was already dead for a couple of years and with the box gone it was as if he had died again. Though he showed up in a few of the prints, he was mostly the photographer. They were his memories, passed on to me, now memories lost.
It occurs to me that from an early age I associated photos with memories. It also occurs to me that they were not my memories. There were in the family little yellow booklets of deckle edged black and white prints, one per roll, of 4thof July picnics, birthday parties and so on, from before I was born or at least from before I was able to form and retain memories. (what a concept! We are not born with that capacity, it has to develop like language and face recognition.) Photos thus connected me to time and events in which I had not participated, at least not wholly. In this essay I want to explore that side of photography, as I continue to reflect on its meaning and significance.
Photography and Memory
My initial exposures to photographs were to black and white, mostly in the form of family prints. Black and white images represented a distance in time. They represented the past. The present was a world of color, a reality reinforced when NBC first put up its peacock and The Wonderful World of Color came on air. Color meant modern and it represented progress. Black and white came to represent the past, the old days, the time before I was. My Dad’s parents, Ignatz and Franciska had both died young, he in 1925 and she in 1930 and they were only figures in some mythical time long before the world I lived in. My maternal grandfather Bill died when I was a toddler, and I have only vague memories of him, but on the wall was a formal portrait made when he was older and white haired, black and white and vignetted. My memories of him were dreamlike, and in black and white. My grandmother never told family stories. I had no idea where she came from or who her parents were. There were no stories of my Mom as a child, and Grandma didn’t talk about her husband.
My Dad, on the other had, at least a couple times talked to me about his life, about good neighbors and his Mother’s singing voice, about his time in an orphanage in Chicago, in the CCCs, about the war. But he was orphaned at 13 and had a lost boy’s perspective on those times.
And he had some photographs.
I always wanted to know more about his life, to know him better but it was difficult as a lot of the men of that generation kept much to themselves. I got a set of books called The Pictorial History of The Second World War when I was about ten or so and I spent hours, days, looking through each volume trying to find a photo of my Dad in the Philippines. All the images were black and white. I tried to find him in them, but he was not there.
For me, there was a mystery in the looking at old photos. In the photograph was a hint of Distance: photographs in black and white represented a contradictory revelation of distance even as they breached the distance of time and place. A presence of the past, or was it the transportation of me in the present to some time now past? That was part of the mystery of photography for me.
I was still pretty young when the family got a Polaroid Swinger. In fact my first photo instruction manual was a book about using the Polaroid. It was a nice switch from the whirr of the Super 8 movie camera I used chronicling the foster babies, but I still ended up photographing the little ones, the foster kids and my second cousins who lived down the street. It was all black and white. There was for me, still a kid, a sense of power in making the little prints. It wasn’t from making something pretty; it was about snatching and fixing a piece of Time, capturing a moment that whirred ever past like the frames of the movie camera. Even with the nearly instant production of the Polaroid print, the moment quickly became the past and the print became an artifact of history as much as an albumen print from a glass plate made in the American Civil War.
In some sense, when one photographs a friend or family member, the photograph bears the implicit shadow of regret, as the moment captured already becomes a moment past, and a moment lost. The baby so fresh and so innocent will quickly become a toddler, then a school girl and so on, and the parent sighs with nostalgia for the little one who now cops an attitude and has pimples and no longer wants to be hugged. The camera can snatch a moment, capture it, but only as a moment past.
To be clear, I am not saying that photography does this inevitably nor always. When I shoot a still life, or close in with the long bellows of the view camera on something small, digging deeper into its presence by enlarging it beyond its normal reality, and then open the shutter for 30 seconds, I am not snatching a moment nor creating a memory. There is no reference to time and its passing even though the process is all about time. There is no sense of memory. I am saying, however, that photography has the power to do those things, and more.
Let me give another example: my Dad’s parents, Ignatz and Franciska were married in 1902 and both died at 45 years of age, long, long before I was born. In fact, I knew their names from my Dad as Ignatius and Frances but little else. They had no faces in my memory, no real presence. After he died, my Dad’s oldest sister brought their original wedding photo from California to Illinois and my cousin Al made slide copies and I got one. For years however, I didn’t look at it. Finally, I decided to scan it and there was Franciska, a pretty, female version of my Dad’s face, and there was Ignatz, who looked so much like me in a photo my Dad made of me when I was sixteen. After living as imaginary mythical figures in my mind for so long, suddenly they were family, enfleshed, connected.
As you perhaps can tell, I have found photography a potent and meaningful medium in my life, both as a taker and as a reader of photographs. If I spend so much time talking about my life it is only because it is an easy channel for me to try to understand the social significance of this medium that is less than 200 years old and yet seems now so natural and normal a part of human culture that it is difficult to imagine its absence. The world never was really black and white and grey but photography has made such a world totally believable. That’s quite a powerful thing to ponder.
Of all the film formats, for me 35mm is the most fun to use. It can be spontaneous and quick, it can be carried without burden, even when taking an extra lens and film and because the film is the least expensive of any, I can be more aggressive when something catches my eye than I might be with a TLR or 4X5. I can use it even when I’m taking our dog Bella on a long walk, as long as I pay attention to her and let her know to sit and wait.
As my shooting is not limited to family gatherings and special events, or to put it positively, as I am always on a quest for a new image, throwing a 35mm camera over my shoulder when leaving the house is more the norm, “just in case.” If I decide to carry a Mamiya TLR and a tripod, on the other hand, it is because I have something specific in mind, i.e., I am going to a particular place with a photo or photos in mind. The opportunity to switch film formats in such contexts is a real blessing.
So has been my ability to try out a variety of 35mm cameras and I will offer some things I’ve learned in doing so. There are, after all, so many used cameras available one way or another that it can be a kind of adventure to try them out.
I bought a Realist 35 on eBay for about ten bucks a couple years back and did my usual cleanup when it arrived. It was made in Germany, very early 50’s. It’s a rangefinder camera with a fixed lens in the between the lens shutter. The lens does pretty good but the rangefinder image is rather dull. So one roll through was enough.
A student gave me an AGFA Karat, a pretty little bellows 35 a bit like the Kodak/Nagel Retina, with a very nice and bright rangefinder, and although this one does not have a Tessar lens it does just fine, single coated, made in about 1951. The Karat is really nice to use, especially with its great rangefinder. My version does not have any issues with gummy rangefinder shaft that some of them have. I was walking downtown with it around my neck and some guy starts smiling really big and stopped me, saying, “That’s a rangefinder!” . He was an Associated Press guy from the Spokane office and when he looked closer he said, “Man, that was my first 35mm camera.” These kind of fun things happening carrying around nearly 70 year old cameras.
Another of the rangefinder cameras that was given to me is a Petri Super 28 with a pretty blue-coated lens that looks suspiciously like the Zeiss Tessar 28s, and on its first run it produced flat dull negatives. I got ambitious and pulled the front off the lens. It too has a built in shutter on the front with a fixed lens. When I looked close with a loupe I found an interior lens element thick with dirt and what was probably grease. Though I know you are not supposed to do this, I got deeper into the lens and by holding the shutter open with B I was able to clean the lens element with a Q-tip and some lens cleaner, reassemble it all and shoot a roll with fingers crossed that I hadn’t upset the delicate and precise lens setup. Bang, nice sharp, contrasty negatives! So the Petri is a keeper, like the AGFA Karat 35.
Kathy and I bought a Minolta SRT set from a couple who were junk collectors several years ago and thrown in the bag were a couple Contaflexes, SLRs from Contax, both with fixed lenses and as they were pretty early neither had an instant return mirror. Press the shutter and the viewfinder goes black. Wind the shutter knob and it comes back. What initially struck me about the Contaflexes was that the cameras finish was perfect, no scratches, no dull spots, as if they were brand new. Both cameras have 2.8 Tessars with a blue/purple lens coating and one of them came with another front element, a 35mm Tessar. For this camera the lens was designed to change focal lengths by unlocking, removing and replacing the front elements. Though I was skeptical, I found both to be very useable lenses. Though both Contaflexes have built in light meters I get much better results using my hand held meter.
I did an equipment swap with a friend a couple years back and ended up with a Minolta ST 202, a SRT 101 and lenses, good lenses. The 135 Rokkor is excellent as are the two 50mm and the 28mm Rokkors. Kathy uses the 101 with the 25mm Rokkor non-focusing auto-bellows lens on her copy stand work and results from the Minolta equipment have been outstanding. My camera repair tech did a clean-up on the 202 body and was very enthusiastic on the Minolta equipment in general but especially the SRT series.
Finally, There are the Leica screw mount cameras, interchangeable lens rangefinder cameras produced after WWII and based on the pre-war and postwar screw mount Leicas. There are the Russian cameras, some of them made on the same tooling snatched from the Leica factories. I ended up with a couple for under 20 dollars apiece with mixed results. The better way to go is with the Canon cameras from the early 50’s. I had bought the IVSB2 with the Leitz Elmar but like most of my equipment it was burned up in a fire in 1992. Much later we agreed to help a lady inventory the equipment her father had collected over a lifetime as he was suffering from Atzheimers symptoms. We had just volunteered but when she saw I had some nostalgia for a CANON III she gave it to me as a present. The shutter was shot but I sent it off to get new curtains and 400 dollars later had a very beautiful rangefinder. The really nice thing, and the reason I am highlighting it, is the availability of LCM lenses, including Nikon, Canon, Leitz, and Minolta, all compatible with the rangefinders of the various cameras. The color image at the close of the last blog was made with the Canon III and Serenar 50mm 1.8 lens.
The photo of Larry and his Sax was made with a Leica III from the late 1930’s with an uncoated 50mm Elmar, wide open at 1/25thof a second in a very dark club.
I got that Leica III from a friend who had been born in the Phillipines just before Japanese occupation and the camera had been his Dad’s, a civilian working for the U.S.government. It was old and dirty and had some of the internal signs of salt air. The peepholes on these older rangefinders are very small by contemporary standards and take some getting used to. But isn’t that part of this great adventure?
That concludes the series on film formats and their effect on the way we photograph. Here’s to Good Shooting.
When I was still a kid, maybe 8 years old, I got to take some pictures with my parents Kodak Duaflex 620 camera, flash bulb and all. It was at some big family gathering and when the photos came back from the drugstore a family joke came into being as I had taken a picture of the bare legs of three of my Aunts sitting on the couch, cutting off their heads. What did I know of parallax, or women’s legs for that matter!
Sometime later, my Dad bought a used Argus C-3 from a man who came to the house, and paid 25 dollars, which was probably too much. That was the family’s first 35mm camera. As a high school yearbook photographer I used a Yashicamat twin lens reflex a couple of times but when I graduated, bought my own camera, a Pentax Spotmatic II with a super multi-coated Takumar 50mm 1.4 and a 35mm Soligor 3.5 lens. I also bought a table top Durst 35mm enlarger with a Schneider Componon lens, all new. In the camera store there were all kinds of cameras, but somehow, it was in my mind that a camera WAS a 35mm, and the 4X5 monorails and medium format cameras on the shelves never even caught my attention.
As I was growing up the National Geographic photographers shot 35mm Kodachrome and the Life Magazine photographers were mostly 35mm shooters. Gene Smith and Leonard McCombe, Cartier Bresson and Robert Capa, Garry Winograd and Lee Friedlander, and Robert Frank made the 35mm the camera of choice for all those younger shooters who wanted to be photographers with a capital P. In the days before Canon and Nikon became dominant, there were plenty of choices: Ricoh, Petri, Exakta, Contaflex, Agfa, Werra, Asahiflex, Argus, Mercury, even Kodak with its Retinas and Retinettes. Because I had grown up in a house with a regular procession of foster babies and kids, and had been crowned the movie maker for them all by my parents, I came to the still camera rather late. Thus the Spotmatic became my first regular still camera and I read photo magazines to reorient myself to it.
The virtues of the 35mm were obvious. Film was affordable and it was easy to process without an elaborate darkroom. Instead of hand processing 616 film from my Dad’s Kodak Folder in the dark in an open tray, I could load the film on a reel and use a daylight tank. A half dozen years later, hanging the Pentax around my neck I was able to roam the streets of Chicago on long lunches with free rolls of Ektachrome when we switched at the studio I worked in from E-4 to E-6. The Pentax Spotmatic with three lenses (I had acquired the 100mm telephoto) was not much of a burden for a 20 something dude in a denim jacket and blue headband! Back at the office my friend Bill would process the slides and I’d mount them and take them home to roll a tube on the kitchen floor making Cibachrome 8X10’s.
Years later when I taught photography at Gonzaga University, the modus operandi of 35mm played a big role in my instruction. “Carry your camera with you everywhere and if something catches your eye, even if you don’t know why, shoot it.” The Spotmatic finally fell apart around the time my youngest son was born, which is the main reason why there are fewer photos of him. I had my second (used) Spotmatic when I studied in Israel in 1986 and if I had known more about photography at the time, especially light, I would have shot negative film instead of the usual Ektachrome. The contrasty light frustrated me and my failures from that trip convinced me to relearn the whole business of photography. The 35mm camera, on the other hand, was a perfect tool for walking the streets of Old Jerusalem or hiking up to the Mount of Olives in the Summer heat. Without a tripod to burden me, I could whirr around to take a photo of something happening behind me, and when I photographed three old Arab men in traditional headdress deep in the shadows of the Via Delarosa, and the one in the middle whacked at me with his cane, I was mobile enough to miss the force of the blow. Quickness of use is dependent on a lot of factors beside the camera however. In a memorable encounter on Michigan Ave in Chicago one Winter, I heard an explosion of female laughing and chattering behind me. It was the days of “the Dodge Boys wear white hats” and I turned around and at the curb two white Dodge vans had pulled up and pouring out of them were about 20 girl models in hot pants and white cowboy hats rushing towards me into the Tribune Building. I had the camera in my hand loaded with film and as they ran past me waving and laughing, with their legs, I would suppose, goose bumping in the frigid Chicago wind, I could not take a shot. Some other factor had interfered with my photographer’s instincts.
I still regret that during the Spring of my first year of college when I went with 3 friends to Washington, D.C. to see for ourselves what was going on with the peace demonstrations and the Nixon White House, I went without the Pentax. Because, I suppose, of all those years of making Super 8 baby movies, I left the Pentax in the dorm and took a Canon movie camera and all I have of a major historical experience are two 50 foot roll of movies film and not a single 35mm negative. The Pentax would have been a wonderful tool for the marches and the police lines and the camps at the Jefferson Lagoon with the Viet Nam Veterans Against the War and the Welfare Rights Organization and Black Panthers in black leather jackets hawking their papers.
I got my first rangefinder camera by trading a 4X5 monorail someone had given me for a Canon IVSB2 with a Leitz Elmar lens (uncoated). I had become convinced that my best photos had been made with a 35mm and I wanted to move up to what I thought would be a higher level of equipment. The Canon was an aesthetically beautiful camera and the Elmar was a nice clean cutting lens. Meanwhile I was learning photography on my own with a voracious consumption of library books and lots of film. Then my friend John Iacula handed off to me for a few hundred dollars a 2 body Spotmatic set with three lenses, a Minolta SRT set with 4 lenses, a Leica IIIc with a 90mm Elmar and a broken Nicca rangefinder body with a shiny chrome Nikkor 50mm 1.4 lens, the kind that David Douglas Duncan made famous during the Korean war. I still use the Nikkor.
Using a rangefinder camera reduces the bulk of equipment even more and I can throw a couple lenses in bags in my vest and with the camera around my neck I can walk miles just keeping an eye out for whatever might catch it. Nowadays I have newer equipment, a 1962 Leica M3 and a 2001 Voigtlander R2 that has its own meter! Because I shoot a lot of large format I tend to be very careful with composition, and because I wear eyeglasses, the rangefinder can be a little difficult in getting my edges true. The pleasure of shooting with the M3 overrides for me any of the difficulties.
One thing I’ve learned is that even though I can get a shot with a slower shutter speed handheld, image quality improves with a faster shutter, even with the rangefinders and no mirror. Because the small format comes with naturally bigger depth of field, this isn’t much of a problem. While the gritty look of the 50’s and 60’s when magazine photographers push processed their Tri-X to extremes had a certain charm, I make too many big negatives to want that for my 35mm shots and I’d much rather use a cell phone with its dinky flash in those situations. So with 35mm, image quality remains for me just as important as it is with a 5X7 inch negative.
Kathy is shooting a series on a copy stand with an SRT body and a Minolta 25mm lens intended for the auto bellows attachment. She photographs objects that can be no bigger than a dime with this non-focusing lens on Tmax 100, and then enlarges them to 16X20 prints and they are sharp and finely detailed. The idea that 35mm cannot produce image quality is just nonsense. It produces under the right circumstances excellent quality but with a different feel than large or medium format film.
Today, one can get hold of a 35mm camera and lenses inexpensively and easily either at an online auction or from a local listing. Millions and millions of cameras are out there and there is still plenty of film available. It’s true that the cellphone has replaced the 35 as “everyman’s camera”, but then, that means that it is the cellphone that has become ordinary while a 35mm hanging on your shoulder will catch the attention of passers by. And if you really crave the attention, get one from the 50’s, shiny and solid and no plastic!
This is the second in my series on film formats and how they influence our photographs. “…how they influence our photographs” is a rather loose way of putting it as there are countless things that influence us. Still, my own use of medium format roll film convinces me that it is a topic worth exploring.
When I was a 35mm shooter only, and when 35mm was the standard for most amateur and hobbyist photographers, the notion of using a medium format camera seemed pretty exotic to me. I could never have afforded a Hasselblad or a Rolleiflex and those cameras seemed to be for professionals and for me out of reach. In fact, I think it would have been much more economical and affordable for me in the 1970s to buy a monorail 4X5 and a lens and some holders.
When I moved to Spokane, Washington from Atlanta, a house fire burned up all my equipment, negatives etc., and a goodwill gesture from my boss landed me his old Rolleicord, my first medium format camera. Shooting square negatives was a big change as was, “shooting from the belly” which I somehow connected to forms of meditation that I had studied in graduate school. That was 25+ years ago and in the last several years I have acquired a nice setup with two Mamiya TLRs, a C-220 and C-330 with 6 interchangeable lenses and a couple alternative viewing hoods. The accumulation of the Mamiya equipment is not because I acquired wealth, it is rather, directly related to the digital revolution in professional photography! I have gotten hold of the discards from professional portrait and wedding photographers who went digital, and for little money.
I started using the Mamiya TLRs at a time when almost all my images were made on either 4X5 or 5X7 sheet film. A friend had given me a Rolleiflex T that was having winding problems and I did some research and settled on the Mamiya as a camera that I could use more loosely, without a tripod, to make more or less spontaneous snapshots when I was in such a mood, the bigger negative then supposedly increasing the image quality. I guess I was thinking of an upgrade from 35mm.
What I found instead was that the TLR worked best on a tripod, was lightweight, with brilliant lenses and good viewfinder, and lent itself to more formality than I had envisioned. It was also quicker, much quicker than the large format cameras and much easier to carry around with me. As Kathy liked the TLR as well, we found a second body and lens and within the first year became very enamored of the possibilities; hence 6 lenses.
I usually characterize the experience as a dramatic increase in productivity, by which I mean the increase in negatives that excited me, were easily printable, and that helped maintain a strong degree of motivation. I padded my interest in making images by every roll off successful negatives. What was especially gratifying in this process was that I also increased my output of sheet film work, developing a couple of series sets that I found very satisfying. Those were particularly suited to large negatives, long bellows draw and a slow and contemplative process of setup and shooting. In other words, the prolific medium format work made the particular characteristics and strengths of the large format equipment much more obvious which then pushed me to develop the aforementioned series work.
I often print square, with little or no cropping. The square is a nice slice of film and looking down at the ground glass the square is what I see. I know Ansel said that he mentally cropped his Hasselblad images before he pressed the trigger but as he had always preached visualizing the finished image before the exposure he could hardly say anything else! When most of us compose, we quite reasonably use the black 4 walls of our viewfinders or groundglass frame to do so and so I look for a composition that makes good use of the square. Another advantage to printing square is that I can take an expensive piece of printing paper and square it, getting a test strip and a print out of the same rectangular sheet.
Using the TLR on a tripod also means that I can most often use film of 100 ISO or less, increasing the ability to enlarge with little in the way of grain or other “artifacts” of the film negative. It seems strange to think about artifacts with a film negative. Sometimes I really like the feel of grain in an image, but the tripod means that I can use a film like Pan F when I have something else in mind.
As far as image quality goes, I have seen some comparisons done in online blogs “proving” that high end digital cameras produce sharper images than medium format film cameras, but such things are the fodder for self congratulations for those who don’t have the patience to work in a darkroom anymore, and that’s just fine. The notion that one has to have the “best” and sharpest and so on is, in my mind, detrimental to the whole purpose of the game, which is to make significant and satisfying images. And the darkroom is not for everyone, but it is satisfying to see our students, most who have never worked in a photolab before get so excited when one of their prints begins to reveal itself in the developer tray.
In any case, the Mamiyas have proven their ability to produce images of high resolution, great sharpness and fine detail. Even our oldest chrome shutter 80mm lens performs very well.
The histories of photography are usually narratives of “great photographers” who somehow became guiding lights for those that followed them, and to a limited extent there is truth in such stories. My take on the history of photography is a little different, in that I picture the major changes in photography as being technology driven, with the guiding lights as the pioneers of using technological developments to good advantage, (e.g., Stieglitz and the 4X5 Graflex SLR). Each major development in the camera and lens let talented photographers expand the possibilities of the medium. Each new development did not eliminate the utility nor the potentiality of the earlier technologies. Sheet film was not replaced by roll film. This means that because we have such a variety of photo technologies available to us, there is a vast number of approaches to image making. And because so many professionals had to abandon film to meet the market demands, that also means those of us without endless wealth can have access to loads of excellent equipment and the potential images that such equipment represents.
I’d like to spend a few blog posts on thinking about how moving from one format to another, from 35mm to 8X10, for example, can significantly transform the way a photographer works and the kinds of images he or she produces. There’s nothing mysterious in this and I’m not offering a new idea, but I usually gain something whenever I start reflecting on my own camera work and because Kathy and I received a camera collection as one man relieved his own burden onto another, I often feel almost plagued by too many options.
In reality though, my-go to cameras are much more confined than the collection. For this first reflection, I want to think about shooting large format, which for me includes 8X10, 5X7 and 4X5. For the past couple of days I have been contact printing older 8X10 negatives on Fomalux contact printing paper. For these sessions I have been mixing Ansco 120 developer, a soft working formula that has only Metol and a lot of sodium carbonate. The Fomalux paper is available only in grade 2 but it is a pretty harsh and contrasty grade 2, much more so than the Lodima grade 2. It is also much more affordable. The Ansco 120 did its job and really tamed the contrast without sacrificing the rich blacks that mark this Foma paper. We are able to enlarge up to 5X7 negatives so for the 8X10s scanning or contact printing are our present options.
I have had an 8X10 camera for over 20 years. The first was an Eastman 2D with no back rail extension nor sliding block. Then I bought a C-1, B&J version with 3 backs very cheaply on eBay and after installing a new bellows I have a very useable and versatile camera, and very heavy. My last acquisition is an Eastman Commercial 8X10 with block and extension rail and is made of magnesium! This is my big field camera. I don’t own any large format lens later than the 1960s, nothing multicoated, mostly Ilex Acme shutters and my older lenses include my favorite Protar VIIa in a Compound shutter. It dates from the early 1920’s while I have a brass lens with the faceplate missing that I suspect is an 10 inch Goertz Dagor in an Ilex Acme no 4. I mention the lenses because as a large format shooter, I can successfully use a lot of old glass and be very happy with the results. This is, I think, a prime positive characteristic of making large format negatives.
This first illustration is a scan of a platinum/palladium print from an 8X10 negative shot with the 7 inch component of the Protar VIIa. None of the big equipment is really light and the 8X10 and 5X7 cameras require a tripod. These college girl models were dancers and were very good about holding their poses. All of us knew that the big wooden camera required something more than flashy moves, and their facial expression, very relaxed and focused, was at least in part the result of being before the 8X10. So besides that truism that large format takes more time, there is this truth, that often it has a positive effect on those who stand before its studied gaze. Using a tripod leads to a second characteristic possibility of large format: one can do long, long exposures.
The second illustration is from a 4X5 negative taken with a Crown Graphic and a typical Optar 135mm lens. I was deep in a cavern looking down at an unnamed creek with a small waterfall behind my back. The creek and its bed were not spectacular, kinda of tangly and disordered, but there were some interesting rock outcrops. Around here there is a lot of basalt leftover from slow flow lava from long, long ago. My meter groaned at the darkness and I stopped down to f-22 and held the shutter open for a clean 60 seconds. My tiltall tripod did the trick and I made two negatives. Now the disorder and messiness of the little creek became something else, all mystery and light, things that my eye could not see were revealed. It was the possibility on the groundglass that pushed me to the image. If I could have used a 35mm on a tripod I might have got something similar but the 4X5 glass is much more revealing and the large negative evoked much more of the presence of the wet rocks, now luxuriously there!
The third illustration is of a chair sitting by the fireplace. There is a high window behind it, a typical multi-pane Craftsman house window. This is also a scan of a PT/PD print. With an 8X10 negative, it is a natural thing to make a contact print and doing that invites the photographer to explore some of the 19th century printing processes. This image was shot with Ektascan xray film, a very inexpensive option for 8X10 shooters which I have also found hard to process to its full advantage. It is exceedingly sharp, and scratches if you breathe a little too heavy in its direction! (that is an exaggeration). Here the convenience of being in the house makes a heavy 8X10 camera seem very manageable and so it lends itself to such intimate shooting.
Finally, this last illustration represents yet another characteristic of the big cameras. With 34 inches of bellows, some of my lenses can get really, really close. This photo, made on a 5X7 negative is the result of an hour or so of playing with things at hand on the shelf below that same multi-pane window. I had a theme in mind, working in the context of a series of images and this makes a vague reference to the “Devil and his Wife” which in addition refers to a song I wrote and recorded, “The Devil is Beating his Wife”, which also, in turn, refers back to an old Southern saying which my young and Southern wife introduced me to. The Zuni Bear is apparently, their pet. Here the big 5X7 glass lit up with the bright daylight flooding through and behind the widow glass and with painstaking balancing and fiddling and lots of experimentation I finally saw this image, and shot it. The closest object to the lens was about one foot away, thanks to that long, long bellows. At this point, measuring the bellows extension is required and reciprocity factors in as well. I love looking at the big ground glass. It’s beauty is infinite because we can continue to look at new things and see how the glass transforms them.
So that’s a little reflection on using large format film and cameras. The next reflection will be on using medium format film and cameras.