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!

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