Thursday, June 05, 2014

Camera = Good, Film = Good, Photographer = Bad

Regular F'ers will know that I have been mad enough to tote a fully loaded 5x4 camera around all over the place - from near-death experiences carrying one (a Sinar) to a height of around 3000 feet (Dreish and Mayar), to my last exploit which involved the Tay Rail Bridge, driving rain and gale-force winds . . . oh yes, it's a man's life in the LF community.
If you are a LF camera user you'll be thinking:

"What a WIMP! Wot's he complaining about . . . I once paraglided with my dark-cloth over my head and 5x4 Canham accidentally hitched to my trousers during hurricane force winds in the foothills of the Himalyas."

Well, yes, I can appreciate that all over the world there are people using view cameras in all sorts of strange and exotic locations that involve more muscle-power and energy to get to them than running a marathon or three, however, everyone is different. I am finding that what is hindering me most of all these days, isn't the actual weight of the gear (because I have slimmed mine down considerably from the madness of a Linhof Twin Shank, Gitzo Series 5 head with fully-loaded Sinar F and 6 DDs's, to a nice little Wista DX and a Gitzo Reporter) no, it isn't that (which is a genuine consideration by the way) - no, the problem for me is my eyesight.
I really struggle to focus my camera.
In a word it is difficult.
Every LF photographer I have ever read about always mentions the whole zen/vision thing about the world being a calmer place under the dark-cloth, and composition being easier because the world is canted in such a way (upside down) that shapes become obvious and easier to deal with. I think what I shall say from here is that I haven't reached there yet - and maybe I should practice more, because it is a universal statement.
So not only do I find it a total struggle to 'see' my ground glass and the magical image waiting for me, but I actually find it difficult to SEE my ground glass. You know . . with my eyes!
Add in to the mix the sort of conditions found in some of my regular haunts (ie, mountainous areas, inclement weather or extremely 'orrible conditions) and the fact that a ground glass will steam up with only the heat from your face (let alone your breath) whilst the dark-cloth will do it's damndest to make you look like the Invisible Man, and you have a difficult exercise in image making.
Bloody difficult.

A Large Format Photographer relaxes after a particularly difficult session

And that isn't all - factor in setting up and tearing down time (even going quickly it'll take me around 20 minutes to make a photograph) and the fact that even in a slight breeze your camera/cloth/tripod setup will attempt to emulate a box kite and soon the whole process becomes extremely daunting and bloody hard work.
It is more than likely that because of these factors I have a ridiculous amount of sheet film left to use - it's embarassing . . . and it isn't going to change anytime soon.

I have also been having a think (Oh NO! Here he goes again) about suitable cameras for what is, these days (due to the ridiculous price of petrol in the UK) my staple subject matter - namely the Urban Landscape.

Ah yes, Watson, The Urban Landscape, a place of dangerous extremes, of horrible buildings, dirty alleyways, suspicious policemen and violent strangers. A place my Dear Watson, where, a young photographer with a large camera, if he isn't careful, is in danger of that most ghastly of afflictions, that curse of modernity, The Curious Bystander!

You see, trying to operate a 5x4 in a City, a small City, is like trying to peddle real pizzas in Pizzahut - it's a bit of anathema, because the moment you set up there's curious people asking questions and before you know it your swift 20 minute image, has become a full-blown hour of chat, more chat and lost inspiration. That's the main reason I started photographing with 5x4 in the very early morning. However again, you are up a shitty creek without a paddle, because, given that most people seem to be up and about by around 7 AM, you are limited to the hours before this. So basically Spring/Summer/Early Autumn early hours . . and even then . . .

Take for instance a few weekends ago - I arose and was ready by 5.10 am, however, looking out of the windows the light was how shall we say . . . total shit. Flat, grey, not even any mist or haze that could have sorted things out - in other words heading out with a 5x4 would be an exercise in futility. I sighed, swore and went back to bed depressed.
It is harder to use a 5x4 than people realise, and just to prove it (though you can't tell from the photographs) here's a couple of examples of images made on a 5x4 under extreme circumstances:
It was January.
It was pissing.
It was blowing a gale.
I was soaked.
My dark cloth was soaked.
My lens was covered in water drops.
However seeing as the railyard under the Tay Rail Bridge was wide open with no security I had to photograph there before it was shut-up again.
The lens was my old 90mm Angulon, and the film was TMX 400 developed in 1:25 Rodinal.
I guess these are examples of why 5x4 is popular - I think the tonality, especially of the second one, is outstanding.


Tay Rail Bridge. January 2014




Tay Rail Bridge. January 2014


Though I am very happy with the fine prints (on Grade 2 Ilford Galerie) to be honest, the whole exercise scunnered me - it was a real challenge to make those - so to that end I started thinking. And strangely the thoughts that popped into my in-box were about the Armada and Drake's overwhelming ability to outmanouevre the Spanish fleet. Apparently it was all down to vessel size; the huge and unwieldy Spanish Galleons being up against the more manouevreable English fleet.
A bit like photography I thought!
The huge and unwieldy 5x4 being a positive hindrance in the urban landscape, whereas something small . . . that might just be the ticket.

Well from there I started thinking I'd write a post about using the Leica M2 as a landscape camera, using tripods and cable releases and so on, rather like Lewis Baltz' work from the '60's, but time then became a consideration and I realised that trying to make 36 exposures like that would be a lengthy process of a morning.
So what did I do?
I grabbed the Koni Omega instead and headed out with a tripod, light meter, cable release, a roll of Pan F, a skip in my stride and bravura in my heart!

A Camera Aside: The Koni has been a thorn in my side since I treated  myself to it for my 50th birthday. It needed a complete overhaul, at a not inconsiderable expense, and then, just outside the guarantee period of the repairs, the bloody shutter started acting up - refusing to fire properly under 1/30th of a second.
I shouted, sighed and put him away.
And that was how it was for at least a year. and then I thought bog-shit - I now have nothing to loose, and I like the camera . . a lot, so I took my heart in my mouth and semi-stripped down the lens and shutter assembly, and have pretty much (fingers crossed) got him working all tickety-boo again.
The thing about the Koni is the lens - I have a Super-Omegon 90mm on there - the standard lens of later models, based exactly upon  the legendary Konica Hexanon, a lens renowned for creamy oofa's and bitingly sharp focus. I know it is a sharp lens, so partnering it with something like Pan F, on a tripod, with cable release, was going to be a treat . . and might even be the way forward for my urban stuff.

Back On The Streets: 
I was out and about by 5.30 AM and parked in Market Street, just opposite the Nynas Works on Dundee's Dock Street. There's a small bridge over the railway line - cross it and bingo, you're in Urban Decay Heaven!
Mounting the Koni on the Gitzo, I approached my first subject (a scrap toilet unit from an Oil Rig or Dock or something) and instantly realised one thing - getting the levels was going to be difficult as would be exact framing.
I like things to be exact, but with any rangefinder it is hard - damn hard, and with the Koni the framelines aren't exactly what you would call totally accurate. Through the viewfinder, there's a right hand one which is the main one to use, and then with the left hand one, you have to use the outer edge of the line, or else everything goes to cock. You get a very loosey-goosey form of composition, nothing at all like the accuracy of say a 5x4 or even a Nikon F . . but then again you're not having to peer at a fogged-up piece of glass whilst a large piece of material tries its best to wrap itself around your head, and obviously you have quality improvements over 35mm.
I hate to say this to myself, but when I used to own the Pentax 67 with WLF, I had a superb, but moody and unreliable (and loud and violent) landscape camera . . I still hanker after it actually, but then reason kicks in and I re-read my blog post on them here.
On the whole, I think that if I can get a handle on the frame lines I reckon the Koni is a superior camera.
But "What about the results Sheephouse?" I hear you cry . . 
Ah .  .well . . . them . . .
If you look at the title of this post, you'll see that I have scant regard for what emerged from this session - maybe it is just me (but it isn't) however they look pretty damn dull to me . . as dull as the light and the subject matter.
Just how much photographic wonder can you conjure from some concrete blocks, a toilet unit, and a scrapyard? 
Yes . . you've come to the same conclusion as me. Not only that, but I went and placed all my shadows on Zone III.
Now, recently I've said:
"Pashaw . . Zone IV shadow placement, that's for wimps . . gimme Zone III and over-development".
And that's all well and good, and works well with a lot of subject matter, but the Urban Landscape is a bit different, because aside from trying to gather some atmosphere, I think what you are trying to do first and foremostly, is to convey the dereliction of the subject, and only rarely can you do this with an exposure/development regime that is more at home with people and pleasant scenes.
So what did I do? Yep - you've got it. Slightly underdeveloped the film.
I'm annoyed with myself for making this mistake actually, because I should (and do) know better, but then again, working with Pan F and HC 110, I was in danger of increasing contrast to unuseable proportions . . hence my reticence.

Now unfortunately the contact is so shite, I am not even going to bother showing it to you . .
I know I know, here's a hanky . . wipe your nose . . . however for your amusement and delectation here's two frames that didn't and did work (well two prints of said frames actually) of a really dull wall and a really really dull wall constructed of concrete blocks.
Feel free to muse, rub your beards, scratch your heads and have a discourse whilst I go and make myself a cup of tea . . .


Really Dull Wall. Dundee May 2014



A tiny crop - detail is pretty damn amazing isn't it.

The print is an exrecemental proof print on Kentmere VCRC - tis ghastly sirrah, but there's nowt I can do about it now.



Really Really Dull Wall Constructed Of Concrete Blocks. Dundee. May 2014


I am super happy with the second print actually - it has turned out well and with this one, I incident-metered the concrete and placed it on Zone VI. 
It was made on some 10 year old Agfa MCC Fibre paper with some Benzotriazole (thanks Bruce) added to the developer.
The level of detail isn't half bad, though I have seen the Koni do better . . but I think it might well be down to the film/dev combo . . it is possible that Dilution B is a tad solvent.
However what I do think one gets from this, is how well a 6x7cm negative can emulate a 5x4" negative in terms of tonality - I guess that's why Mamiya RBs were the workhorse of generations of studio photographers.
You can however see quite clearly that the Koni framelines have made me a bit squint . . but it isn't too bad is it. I am determined to continue!
Could the Koni be my 5x4 substitute?

Well that was all written a few weeks ago, and guess what I've been back and tried the same experiment again, with Pan F, the Koni on a tripod . . . and, I've very nearly had a successful time. I say very because I stupidly took some 'online advice' with regard to the development timing of the developer I chose (Rodinal 1:100) and to be honest, the resulting negatives are as thin as Bobby Charlton's comb-over.
However it all isn't doom and gloom, because the negatives are actually ragingly sharp in places and the tonality is pretty good. But as every darkroom worker knows, hell is either an underexposed negative or an underdeveloped one! 
I had to put something on this post though, so consequently with time against me, I have made an RC print . . and it was difficult to make. 
There's just no guts in a thin negative is there?
Sometimes, despite the latent image you can see, it is just best to pack up and walk away, because it is frustratingly difficult to get anything resembling a print you are happy with out of the whole mess. 
And a lesson learned from this to pass on? 
Proceed with caution when using unfamiliar developer regimes (especially off credible websites) and if possible try and initially follow the recommendation of the manufacturer . 
I underdeveloped the film by a whole 3 minutes and it shows.


Altered Dundee. Self Portrait. June 2014





Sectional Enlargement - Hardly Any Grain




Sectional Enlargement - Hardly Any Grain

This is the one frame that I am totally happy with from the whole film - had I developed it properly, I would have been happier, but that's one of the perils of traditional photography - the elements of chance.

And that's it folks - I will continue along these lines. 
I sorted out my squintness with a small spirit level from B&Q! 
As to the Koni being a 5x4 substitute . .  .well yes - using the Koni like this is easy-breezy - it is liberating and very easy. If I had had time to make some more prints, you would have got some idea of the levels of detail the Super Omegon can reveal. It really is no slouch.
More soon.
Till the next time, toodles and thanks for reading.