Sunday, October 4, 2015

Traversing the Urban Landscape

Patriot Rollercoaster, Worlds of Fun, Kansas City, Mo., fall 2005, Holga 

As I work my way through the ongoing Analog Project, I keep coming back to one theme, the topics of this weeks blog post.

I find myself fascinated, for now at least, in the Urban Landscape. I know, the term may seem like an oxymoron. But, I think, if you look around you where ever you might find yourself, you might see what I'm talking about.

The Urban Landscape is ubiquitous. It's everywhere I look. It seems to be replacing, at least in part, the "natural" landscape around me. In a smaller city, it's still possible to travel a relatively short distance to "open" country, to find a more "natural" view.

Country Road, Rural Kansas, fall 2005, Holga 

But even those natural views are being usurped, in part, by the Urban Landscape. Though I can get out in the country, out into rural areas, I still find the evidence of human hands on the landscape. In this part of the country, even in this part of Texas, everywhere I turn there's the impact of human habitation on the landscape.

But the real Urban Landscape is a different kind of critter. And it fascinates me for some reason I can't explain. It seems to be stacking building upon building, reaching ever higher in the sky, mixing old and new, burying evidence of the past in gleaming stacks of glass and metal.

I've travelled, some, in Europe. There, the evidence of the past is relished, it's revered for it's connection to the human community of days gone by. Thousand year old buildings, filled with the memories, the lives, the stories of the people who've gone before.

In America, though, it still seems there's an attitude of old is bad, new is good. It's a holdover, I think, from the rush toward so-called Modern Architecture from the last century. It's getting better and there's still a movement toward preserving the past. But there's also a movement to the new and modern.

Red Barn Square demolition, Sept. 30, 2015, in Tyler, Texas, Pentax Spotmatic SP

Get rid of the old, make way for the new. Not sure I'm really understanding that. 

But it's all part of the Urban Landscape. A couple of years ago when I was just getting rolling on the Analog Project, a friend of mine, another photographer, told me I was making important images, keeping a chronicle of the area that no one else was making.

I think it all goes back, in part, to a long-term project my father worked on. I didn't even know he was doing it until after he died and I found the images. For years, he'd wandered around our hometown in Iowa, making photos of demolition and construction where ever he found them. If there was no construction, he was chronicling the businesses, homes, anything in the community.

When I was going through his darkroom, I found several massive three-ring binders, filled with the images from his wanderings in the Urban Landscape. I donated them to the local historical society museum he'd helped found, with the caveat they were to be kept available for anyone who wanted to view them, to take a stroll through the changing Urban Landscape of our small Iowa town.

I guess, now, I'm trying to do the same thing. I don't know if I'm making vital, important images. But I do think it's important someone make these images, keep a chronicle of the community. 

Urban Skyline, Sept. 30, 2015, in Tyler, Texas, Pentax Spotmatic SP

I keep wandering, I keep making images, I keep finding things in the community to see with, hopefully, a different eye. I continue to explore the Urban Landscape, looking for connections, searching for the different, the visions that make the community unique.

Old And New, Sept. 30, 2015, in Tyler, Texas, Pentax Spotmatic SP

Hopefully, before it all goes away.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Pentax Spotmatic SP: A piece of my own photographic history

I've been wandering the streets for the past week, getting in touch with my roots again, shooting with and testing my latest acquisition - A 1960s-era Pentax Spotmatic SP.

This particular model of camera has a very strong emotional component for me. I picked this particular camera through the popular auction site which shall not be named (Voldemort? Where are you?). That's not why there's significant emotion attached to it, though.

After all, I've bought several cameras on-line over the past couple years. And I've been looking for a Spotmatic for almost the entire time I've been working on The Analog Project. Why? Because the Spotmatic is really the model I learned on. It's the first camera I really remember in the hands of my father.

Sadly, Hans had sold his Spotmatic years ago. I'll admit, I was a bit disappointed when he told me he'd let it go. Thus began my search.

I even owned a Spotmatic I picked up when I was in college at the University of Iowa. I really loved that camera. But, sadly, it got destroyed one day while I was out shooting in the ice and snow of eastern Iowa. (I slipped and fell on it, Okay?) I let the guy at the camera store I frequented convince me not to repair it, a decision I've always regretted, and it was relegated to the scrap heap.

Some (most?) of my earliest memories of my father include the Spotmatic camera. It seemed he had it with him everywhere he went, when we'd go out as a family, when he was out visiting farmers on his daily rounds selling for the feed store we owned in Newton, just everywhere. I don't know for sure how many family vacations, birthday parties, dinners, etc., were recorded with the Pentax Spotmatic.

The camera played a huge role in my growing up.

A little history: The original Spotmatic was designed and manufactured by the Asahi Optical Company of Japan. It previewed in 1960 as a concept prototype at Photokina, the first camera to use a built-in spot metering system, where a very small area of the overall image frame is used to determine exposure.

Spot metering proved too difficult in practice, so the first Spotmatics were released in 1964 with the more common average metering, where an overall reading is made of the entire frame.

The cameras (there were several models before the line was discontinued in 1976) used a screw-in lens mounting system. The camera is totally analog, with the only electronics in the camera the match-needle metering system.

Over the years, Pentax Spotmatic cameras captured important images. A friend of mine here in Tyler, former Morning Telegraph Editor Dave Berry, used a Spotmatic as an Army combat photographer in the Vietnam War. He's just one of many photographers who shared the same passion for the Pentax Spotmatic camera.

For me, the Spotmatic is an elegant design. The body is substantial without being heavy or clunky. Before he got the Spotmatic, Hans shot with a Mamiya 500DTL camera, which I later inherited. Sadly, the Mamiya, too, didn't survive me. But I picked up a non-working body and lens several years ago that are still in my collection today.

As I take these little walks down amnesia lane, shooting with antique cameras, capturing images the way thousands of photographers both professional and amateur did for decades, I think the spirit of my father travels with me. I still find myself viewing images I've made, both analog and digital, and wishing I could show it to Hans, tell him about the situation, how I got the shot, share my photography with him.

I like to think, wherever he is, he can still look down and see when I get a particularly good photograph. I like to think he knows, even today, what I've done with my photography, what that little spark of passion for the craft he ignited has become.

I've seen some amazing things (and some horrible things) through the lenses of my cameras. I've been to some unbelievable places, where I never could have gone, if I hadn't chosen photography as my profession.

As always, thanks for looking. If you haven't done so yet, please check out my website at:

Friday, September 18, 2015

Taking the plunge . . .

I'm just doing a brief update, even though I know it's been quite a while since my last addition to this venue.

I've finally taken the plunge and created a personal website for my photography. Okay, I'll admit. This is a bit of shameless self-promotion for the new site, But what am I supposed to do? I've got to get it out there somehow.

I've been working at photography for most of my life. When I started out, the inter-webs wasn't even a gleam of a dream in any inventor's eye. Computers were these massive things that occupied entire rooms and there were only a few of those.

Even when computers became household appliances, I resisted the temptation to create a website. Oh, I had one, once, about 15 years ago. It came with the (gasp) dial-up internet service I had installed when I first moved to East Texas.

But it was slow and clunky and, honestly, kind of off-putting to people. It took forever to load, had limited space and really didn't display my work as well as I'd hoped it would.

Today, though, with a plethora of web hosting companies out there, I decided it was time to take the plunge with both feet. So, this is my effort to get my work out there on the web, hopefully attract some attention and, maybe, some additional work.

And don't worry. The Analog Project is well represented. In fact, there's a whole section devoted to the work I've been doing with the old cameras, along side some past, and recent, digital work.

And, though I've said this before, I'm planning to get back into the blogging on a more regular basis. But, you know what they say about 'best-laid plans.'

I seem to go through phases, dedicated to the blog, then letting it slip for weeks (months?) at a time. By way of total disclosure, part of that recently has been due to taking a new job a few months ago.

Since April, I've been Chief Photographer for the Tyler Morning Telegraph. It's a larger paper in a city about 90 miles northeast of Nacogdoches, where I was for a total of 10 years. As things are settling down, hopefully I'll be more diligent with updates, both here and at the new website.

That's the plan, anyway. Please keep checking back.

Oh, and comment on the website. Anything you like (or don't like). It's still a work in progress.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

'Peace . . .'

The Clark angel marker at historic Oak Grove Cemetery in Nacogdoches, Texas, photographed Sat., Jan. 31, 2015, with Mir rangefinder camera c. 1960 from Former Soviet Union and Industar 50, 50mm f3.5 lens on Ilford FP4 Black and White Film.

This week, I'll be talking a bit about my newest camera from the Former Soviet Union. 

I know, last time I wrote about what was supposed to be the final installment of the Analog East Texas Project, the ongoing project I worked on during 2014, using vintage film cameras from my collection. Well, you didn't really think I was going to quit shooting, just because I wrapped up the project as far as the newspaper is concerned.

In fact, I'm very happily continuing to shoot with the film cameras, just going in a new(ish) direction. And, as the party continues, I've picked up a couple of new pieces of equipment to supplement my growing collection.

The first (I'll talk about them in the order they arrived from the Former Soviet Union) was a M39-mount Jupiter 12 lens, the Soviet version of the Zeiss Biogon 3.5cm f2.8 lens designed for Contax cameras. This is actually my second Jupiter 12 lens. The first I received as part of a kit with the Kiev IV camera I purchased last year, which is the FSU version of the Contax rangefinder.

Why two of the same lens? you may ask. Different mounting systems for different camera systems. The new lens matches the Leica Thread Mount (LTM) standard which fits the FED-3 camera I
already have, as well as the new camera I'll talk about in a moment.

Members of the Nacogdoches chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) stage a peaceful protest Saturday, Jan. 31, 2015, in support of Texas House Bill 507, calling for the decriminalization of possession of one ounce or less of marijuana, as well as legalizing whole plant medical marijuana in the state. Image made with Mir camera and Jupiter 12 lens on Ilford FP4 black and white film.
I think the 35mm focal length is probably one of the most versatile formats. It's great for landscapes and for street photography. It's not so wide that it distorts straight lines, yet is wide enough to show a broad vista.

My second new toy is a Mir, a 35mm rangefinder camera manufactured in Moscow from 1959-1961. The Mir is a simplified version of the Zorki 4, yet another in the long line of clones of the venerable Leica cameras from Germany. 

The difference is the Zorki was produced for export while the Mir was manufactured for sale only within the former Soviet Union. Also, the Mir was designed without the separate timing device allowing shutter speeds slower than 1/30th second, which is probably a good thing, because I've learned the timing device is very delicate and easily malfunctions.

Based on the design and serial number, my Mir is a version 3 built in 1960, so it's as old as I am. (It's body number 942, so it actually may be a few months older than me.) But, according to the seller, it was factory refurbished before I bought it, so is as good as or better than new. It came with a refurbished Industar 50, a 50mm f3.5 lens, which also was reworked before sale. 

Swing set at Pioneer Park, Sat., Jan. 31, 2015, in Nacogdoches. Texas. Image made with Former Soviet Union Mir camera with Industar 50, 50mm f3.5 lens on Ilford FP4 Black and White Film.
I've put a grand total of one roll of film through the camera with both lenses, so my experience with the camera is quite limited. But, so far, I love it! It feels very nice in my hand, the viewfinder is huge and bright with a 1:1 magnification factor, so it's easy to focus and, from the results, it's dead on as far as the shutter speeds go.

People have asked me why I seem to be falling in love with the FSU cameras. I have four now, including a second, not-working Mir body I got as part of a member trade through the Rangefinder Forum website at Christmas. 

That was a neat program, where people offered up used and no-longer-wanted equipment, finding new homes for cameras, lenses and accessories. (I threw a Nikon-mount 1.4X teleconverter and a Pentax K1000 camera into the mix, if you're curious. But I digress.)

To be honest, I'm not 100 percent sure what it is about the FSU cameras which attracts me. I mean, they're rangefinders, which are notoriously difficult to shoot with. They were manufactured usually under less-than-ideal working conditions with sometimes less-than-ideal quality control. It's no secret, really, the FSU cameras can be kind of a crap-shoot. 

I happen to have been fortunate with my purchases, despite minor problems with the lens which came with my FED-3, problems which could be addressed once I get up the nerve figure out how to clean and lube the thing. Generally all my FSU cameras are good shooters.

Family fishing during Nacogdoches Kid Fish event Saturday, Jan. 24, 2015, at Lakeside Park in Nacogdoches, Texas. Image made with Former Soviet Union FED-3 rangefinder camera with Jupiter 12, 35mm f2.8 lens on Ilford FP 4 film.
And I have to admit there's a novelty factor to the things. I was shooting the annual Nacogdoches Kid Fish event, where the city stocks a local lake with trout and invites families to fish for free, on January 24 and I brought out the FED with the Jupiter 12 to give it a good workout and test the lens. As I was walking around, one of the exhibitors from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department saw the FED from 20 feet or so away and we ended up talking about the FSU cameras, rangefinders and film photography in general.

But that's something I noticed throughout the Analog East Texas Project. People would see the vintage cameras — particularly when I was shooting with the REALLY old cameras like the Brownie Hawkeye, Tourist II folding camera or any of the Duaflex models — and it was almost like a ticket into making their photos.

My subjects would seem less intimidated by the old, analog cameras than they were, say, by the big, modern digital cameras I use for work. It also led to some very interesting conversations with people recalling their families using similar cameras when they were growing up.

I'm really not sure where I'm going with the FSU cameras. There are so many models, most with several variations, there's realistically no way I could assemble a complete collection. Economically, if for no other reason, it's just not feasible.

I do know it's fun taking these cameras which could have been languishing in closets or gathering dust on shelves and putting them back into the service for which they were designed — making photographs. It's definitely something I plan to continue. If you want to see more, you can check out some of my work on Flickr.

Stay tuned.

Members of the Nacogdoches chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) stage a peaceful protest Saturday, Jan. 31, 2015, in support of Texas House Bill 507, calling for the decriminalization of possession of one ounce or less of marijuana, as well as legalizing whole plant medical marijuana in the state. Image made with Mir camera and Jupiter 12 lens on Ilford FP4 black and white film.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

That's a wrap . . .

For more than a year now, I've been working an ongoing project, shooting with film and cameras from my collection. I've been publishing monthly features in The Daily Sentinel, the newspaper I work for here in Deep East Texas, and I've published one book with another one on the way.

It's been an interesting year and, while the monthly features came to an end with the publication of the final installment in December, The Analog East Texas Project goes on. I'm almost certainly not going to be shooting with the intensity I was in 2014. But I've rediscovered my love of film photography and I can't let myself put it away again.

I did that for a while, you see, once I picked up my first digital camera when I came to work here back in 2000. Oh, I continued to shoot film for awhile, since I still had access to the old wet darkroom at the newspaper and then-publisher Gary Border's blessing to make the facility my own. But, eventually, I left The Sentinel for colder climes back north and, without regular access to a darkroom, let my film shooting slide.

Eventually, everything I was shooting was digital. While I was doing some work I was proud of — and my fingers eventually returned to being flesh-toned instead of old-developer-brown — I guess I realized even then something was missing. I just couldn't put my unstained finger on what it was. I was still using my Holga cameras periodically, even shooting a few assignments for the newspaper(s) I was working for. But, without the darkroom, I was relegated to finding professional labs to process and scan my film and that was getting expensive.

Then came the move back to Nacogdoches in late 2010 and things seemed to continue on in the same vein: Shooting all digital with my film cameras gathering dust on shelves or in bags in the back of my closet. My enlargers remained in pieces in that same closet, or in storage in the garage/barn of a previous landlord in north-central Texas, along with much of my processing equipment.

Then came the night in mid-2013 when I was sitting in my apartment after a particularly unsatisfying day of shooting, looking at an old Nikkormat EL I'd inherited from my father. I remembered all the fun we'd had, going out shooting without a set destination in mind, simply the idea of burning some film in our heads. I decided I needed to do something to revitalize my love of photography. What could be better than trying to recapture that sense of mystery I'd felt while developing my first rolls of film?

For those of you who've followed this blog over the past year, you've shared and experienced a good bit of that journey with me. Which brings us to the final camera in the project, the Mamiya 645E, an entry-level medium format camera which works equally well for the photographer interested in trying their hand at the larger negative size as it does for a working pro like myself.

The Mamiya 645E embraces much of the design of its bigger brother, the M645, a modular camera system which has been a main-stay for pro shooters for years. The 645E adds a couple of features to its one-piece body — electronic aperture priority automatic exposure.

Part of the beauty of the 645E is its larger negative, many times bigger than "standard" 35mm film, yielding the prospect of much larger prints. That was a definite drawing point for studio photographers who weren't as worried about the "need for speed" that characterizes the life of the working photojournalist. They had the advantage of being able to take the time to set up with a bigger camera, even when shooting on the fly at a wedding, for example.

The 645E gets its name, in part, from the size of its negative: 6X4.5 cm on 120 medium format film. There are several formats possible on the standard medium format roll, with the other popular format being 6X7 cm, just slightly taller than the square 6X6 cm format.

I can remember discussion with my father over the "perfect format" for medium-format roll-film photography. Though he owned a 6X6 format YashicaMat 124G, which I featured earlier in project, he always contended the 6X7 format was preferable because it more closely matched the "standard" print sizes of 8X10 and 11X14 inches.

I opted for the 645E, largely for the simple expediency of cost. The camera could be had, brand new in the early 2000s, for a fraction of the price of the M645 or comparable 6X7-format cameras. And early reviews indicated solid performance, despite the camera not being built quite as tough as its bigger, more expensive siblings.

My first shoots with the camera, including the image above from the Nacogdoches Nine-Flags Festival in 2003 or 2004, indicated I'd made a good choice. The camera was easy to use, with a big, bright viewfinder (an advantage since the camera is manual focus) turning out massive, beautiful negatives or slides (The Fiddler is a black-and-white scan from a Fuji Provia 100 color chrome).

And, while the 645E can be hand-held and framed and focused through its eye-level finder, I still usually opt to put the camera on a tripod and use a cable release. In addition to allowing me to shoot with slower, finer-grain films with greater depth-of-field permitted by smaller apertures, it also forces me to slow down and take my time composing the images.

I'll admit, I kind of had to relearn the camera, since I put it down and seldom if ever touched it in the intervening years. After I bought it, I really doubt I put more than 25 rolls of film through it before I slipped down into the digital abyss I found myself in for so many years.

I probably shouldn't be slamming digital as much as it probably sounds like I am. That's not my intention at all. I do appreciate my digital cameras for the ease of shooting and immediate feed-back they offer. But, as I've said numerous times before and will probably say again, there's just something about analog photography that captured my mind and heart years ago (long before the advent of digital imaging) and continues to hold it today.

So, while the monthly grind of producing a multi-image feature for the newspaper is over and we're putting the finishing touches on the second volume of the Analog East Texas book, I plan to continue shooting. For the time being, I'm concentrating on the FED-3 and Kiev-4 I bought about a year ago, hoping to better educate myself to the ins-and-outs of those cameras before moving on.

I did purchase a couple of cameras for the project and pulled many more from my collection, surprised at the quality of images I was getting from 60-plus year old (and older) cameras that probably hadn't felt a roll of film inside them for most of that intervening time. So, I guess the plan now is to definitely keep shooting, further exploring the vintage cameras I may have only touched upon briefly during the project.

I'll try to keep this as up-to-date as possible, as well as regular postings to my Flickr and Instagram feeds. For now, though, one final 645E image, made south of Nacogdoches on Press Road in the spring of 2014:

Thanks for sticking with me. The Journey Continues!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Photography in an instant

A recurring subject in the Analog East Texas Project, the Coca-Cola mural on the side of the Old Time String Shop in downtown Nacogdoches takes on a different, almost ethereal appearance through the lens of a Polaroid SX-70 instant camera.

That was the dream of Dr. Edwin H. Land when he demonstrated his first Polaroid Land Camera on Feb. 21, 1947. Curiously, it took his daughter asking why she couldn't immediately see a photograph he'd taken of her on a family vacation in 1943 to spur is creative juices and launch what arguably became one of the biggest innovations in photography since its inception in the mid-19th Century.

In its hey-day, Polaroid cameras could be found in the hands of a large percentage of families across the United States. Some of my earliest memories revolved around an early Polaroid camera which belonged to my grandparents and the wonder of having a photograph develop in my hand.

Today, just about everybody has the capability for instant photography — after a fashion — as close to hand as their smart phone or tablet. But it's just not the same, at least in my mind. I'm still a firm believer that photography is just one of the things which goes better with a little chemistry.

And, while most of the Polaroid cameras ever manufactured are languishing on shelves or gathering dust, packed away and forgotten in attics, storage rooms and worse, there's a new resurgence of interest in instant photography as one more path into the wonderful world of analog photography.

I had my first re-introduction to instant photography through a curious chimera of camera design called the Holga-Roid. It consisted of a film back which accepted Polaroid instant film and could be attached to one of my beloved Holga cameras.

I talked my family into getting me one for Christmas about 15 years ago — sadly about 10 minutes, it seemed, before Polaroid announced the discontinuation of the only type of film it would take. I was somehow, by calling or visiting every camera store I knew, able to find a few packs of film before it disappeared forever.

There were actually three different formulations of film the Holga-Roid would accept, a color version, a black-and-white version and a different black-and-white which produced both a positive image and an actual film negative, an example of which is displayed here. (That's my old friend and former co-worker, Kendal, by the way, and I'm not making any commentary on his character by way of the double-exposed image I made.)

For me, really creative instant photography came about several years earlier, when my father received a Polaroid SX-70 camera as a promotional prize for something or other from the company that manufactured the livestock feed we sold through small family feed store in Newton, Iowa. I remembered reading somewhere the emulsion (the part where the image actually appears) remained, shall we say, fluid for anywhere from several hours to several days after the photograph was taken and could be manipulated with pencils, fingers, pointed sticks — just about anything that could be used to push, warp, distort or other wise mess with the image. 

Well, I promptly stole borrowed the SX-70 and started playing around. It was interesting, to say the least. But again, my timing was a little off and, before I could really get good at what I was attempting, Polaroid once more announced the discontinuation of film stock, this time for the SX-70. I was starting to see a disturbing pattern here.

Sadly, it was a pattern which would eventually result in the closure of Dr. Lands company. I figured my play-time experimentation with Polaroid instant photography was finally a thing of the past.

But, about a year ago, as I was really getting to thinking about the Analog East Texas Project, I came across a post on the world-wide interwebs about a project which was starting up in Europe around, of all things, Polaroid instant cameras. Polaroid film production had finally succumbed to the smart phone in 2008. But an ambitious group of photographers refused to let their beloved analog instant imaging go quietly into that good night.

The Impossible Project, now based in Berlin, Germany, acquired a defunct Polaroid film production plant and was determined to bring back  — in a limited fashion — instant film. Current CEO of The Impossible Project Creed O'Hanlon, in an email responding to a list of questions, told me the group couldn't bear to let the instant film they loved to go the way of the dodo.

Instant photography "is one of the few things left in this increasingly digital world that is close to alchemy," O'Hanlon said. "If you don't believe it, watch the face of a teenager when they see an instant photo process in the palm of their hand for the first time."

I quickly dusted off my old Polaroid cameras — my trusty old SX-70 and a simpler Spirit 600 — ordered a few boxes of film and started going to town. It was just as much fun as I remembered it being, just like all my other ventures so far with this project. O'Hanlon has called himself "a passionate evangelist" for the project and the return of Polaroid-based instant film to the world of photography.

It's just like every other camera and type of film I've worked with over the past year of the Analog East Texas Project. Each has its own, unique foibles and needs, its own special look and feel I just can't seem to find in digital imaging technology.

There's a real, almost visceral pleasure about the unknown aspects of analog photography for me. No matter how much film I shoot — and, believe me, I've shot a lot of film in my photographic career — there's always that sense of the unknown with each click of the shutter I just don't get from digital imaging technology.

I've said it I don't know how many times before, but by the time I started this project, digital imaging had become just that — more of a technology than a technique. And it's something I've noticed with each new — to me, at least — camera I pick up. I can think I know how a particular film is going to react to a given situation. But I can never quite be sure until I make the images, put the film through its chemical processes, and print or scan the negatives.

And that, more than anything else, is why I love analog photography. With digital, so much of what I do is controlled by software — in the camera or on the computer. With analog, I can vary the temperature of the chemistry, fiddle with the time, increase or decrease the temperature, change the exposure — all of which has an only-partially predictable affect on the final image.

The Impossible Project has managed to save the potentially thousands of instant cameras which had been relegated to the shelf or languishing in an attic. It's also rekindled the passion of old photographers like me and lit a fire under a whole new generation who are developing a passion for analog photography in general and instant analog photography in particular.

O'Hanlon perhaps said it best when I asked him what was at the core of his passion for analog photography: "The chemistry becomes a partner — and sometimes and enemy — in your creative efforts. Unlike digital, the output of which is predictable and anodyne, you have to learn to understand (the chemistry) to allow for its complexity and its simplicity. 

"The unusual reactions of its chemistry, its unpredictability, its sensitivity — it was a material you work with without expectation that it would work for you. How could you not love it?"

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Analog Interlude: Finding the Range II

Looking out from inside a drainage tunnel under the South Street viaduct in Nacogdoches. Yashica Electro 35 on Ilford FP 4 35mm film.

For want of anything else to write about in this week's Analog Interlude, lets talk a bit more about the rangefinder cameras and the images I've been making with them.

Working with the rangefinders has been taking me back to my earliest days when I was still learning about photography and what I could do with it. I got my first camera from my father when I was about 8 or 9 years old, an old Kodak. It wasn't any great shakes as far as photo equipment was concerned. But it definitely opened my eyes to the joys of photography.

I have absolutely no memory of where he got it, or even which Kodak camera it was. All I remember was it was an Instamatic camera and, from the moment I picked it up and looked through the lens, I knew I was hooked.

It wasn't too long before I graduated from giving my dad the film and him giving me back a handful of photographs. Soon, I was following him into the darkroom he had built out of an old coal room in a dark corner of the basement of our home, watching him develop the film and make those prints.

And, it wasn't too big a step from there to learning how to do it myself. I'm pretty sure I've mentioned it before, but I can still remember the thrill of watching that first image I had developed and printed as it appeared as if by magic in the tray, turning from a blank white sheet of paper (well, yellowish red, under the darkroom lighting) into an image I could remember seeing through the viewfinder of that first camera.

LEFT: "Iron Fence, Old North Church Cemetery, Nacogdoches, Texas" 
Minolta Hi-Matic 7 35mm Rangefinder camera, Kodak Tri-X film.

For any of you who know something about darkroom technology, those were the days of the old bromide printing papers. Today, the majority of black-and-white paper used is coated with a plastic resin which the photo-sensitive chemicals are layered on to. It's supposed to prevent the chemical soaking into the fibers of the paper which, unless carefully and meticulously washed away, will eventually ruin the print.

But, when I first started out in the darkroom, the paper was heavy and thick, almost more cloth than paper. There were none of the chemicals imbedded in the emulsion to speed the development in the tray. It was truly a matter of watching and waiting, judging when the image had been processed fully, when the contrast of the image had developed to its optimum point.

You can still buy bromide-style photographic paper today and it is truly a different critter. Fiber-based papers in general, without the plastic resin coating, are easily available, mostly in what's known as a variable contrast configuration which react to different colors or wavelengths of light from the enlarger to increase or decrease the contrast of the image.

The old bromide papers were formulated for a specific level of contrast, depending on the negatives you were working with at the time. A standard paper, meant for perfectly exposed and developed negatives, is classified as a Grade 2, and they increase and decrease in contrast from there.

From that first Instamatic camera, I graduated eventually to an ancient scale-focus 35mm camera. I think my dad found it used at a small camera store or perhaps a flea market somewhere and fixed it up for me. I shot I don't know how many rolls (miles?) of film through that camera before I finally graduated to a single-lens reflex camera.

RIGHT: Semis waiting for loads sit inside the fence at the Lone Star Feed manufacturing plant in Nacogdoches in July under a sky filled with fluffy clouds. Olympus 35RC and Ilford FP4 film.

So I guess I sort of bypassed the whole rangefinder genre of camera, until later, when I entered junior high. Then I was using a Yashica Electro 35 which belonged to either our art teacher or the school, I'm not sure which.

There are advantages and disadvantages to the rangerfinders compared to the single-lens reflex cameras. As I've mentioned before, the rangefinders can be smaller, because they don't need a massive prism system to direct the light from the taking lens into the viewfinder. They're also quieter, because they don't have a mirror to divert the light into the prism, which has to be yanked out of the way to expose the film.

But single-lens reflex cameras, by virtue of the same mirror and prism system that makes them larger and louder than rangefinders, are easier to work with at close focusing distances. Essentially, you're seeing exactly what your photographing with an SLR camera, which makes macro photography especially much easier.

It's the difference between the viewfinder and the lens on the rangefinder cameras which causes that effect. It's not great at distances, but close up, the difference causes problems with framing the image. But camera companies have adapted to that problem, either by putting alternate/closeup framing lines inside the viewfinder or by "coupling" the viewfinder to the focusing lens so the viewfinder moves ever so slightly as you focus closer to keep the framing true.

Most older rangefinder cameras have fixed lenses of a single focal length. Not all, by any means, and modern rangefinder cameras (there are still a few companies making them) have interchangeable lens systems.

The fixed lenses on a lot of the old rangefinders are really amazing, with great color reproduction and clarity coupled with relatively fast apertures. And, as I'm sure I've said before, they are just really fun to shoot with.

A lot of the work I'm doing on the Analog East Texas Project has been and continues to be in black and white photography. It's where my roots really are and, to me at least, there's just something about black and white images that's truer, if that makes any sense. And it's so much easier to develop and print black and white film than color.

That doesn't mean I don't occasionally shoot color. In fact, I'm toying with a trip idea in the near future to shoot some fall colors. If, and when, that trip comes to fruition, I'll definitely be posting some images here and on the Analog East Texas album on Flickr.

In the meantime, here's a final image for this week, made with the Olympus 35RC on one of my many wandering trips around downtown Nacogdoches.