Blog

My sketchbook, notebook, and diary as I try to publish a folio by the end of 2014.

First light

You forget how magical it is to see an image appear after 10 seconds in the developer. 

It took a couple of months of acquisition and modifications to the laundry room, but I've now got a pretty nice little darkroom for souping film and printing. 

I managed to pick up a minty Leica Focomat V35 with a ton of accessories (easels, multigrade head, film holders). It's limited to 35 mm (no medium format). But, it's autofocus. For an enlarger, it means that you can raise and lower the head, and the image stays in focus. The lens has a helicoid linking it to the head height. Set the height for one easel (25 mm for the 8x10 easel), and you're set for life. Since you don't need to refocus on the grain each time you resize, the entire process is faster. The multigrade head flips in and out of the light path for easier composition.

Also speeding up the process is a Leica Focometer 2. This is a big time saver too, since you don't have to make test strips to determine exposure for each negative. It's a digital timer with an integrated light meter. After you've calibrated the device with a given paper/easel/developer combination and a step wedge, you take a reading or two off the image and it calculates the ideal exposure time. It can also calculate the ideal paper grade to set on the multigrade head.

Unfortunately the technical writer who produced the documentation for the Focometer was having an off day, so it's borderline indecipherable. I'll try to do the Cliffs Notes version in another post in case somebody else finds this great piece of kit but is also baffled by the instructions.

Spheres (2003).
Summicron 50/2, HP5+, XTOL 1:3.

First light was with a negative I made in 2003 at the LA MOCA. It's an example of a blind squirrel finding a nut. I should have gotten a bit lower down to the ground to work with the lines in the railing, but this is one of the few examples of mine where the light instead of the object was the subject of the image. I hope that today I would have made more than a couple exposures of this scene, playing with angles and composition until it was deliberately better.

There's some dust marks, but this was really just a quick working print to see if everything was working properly. I might go back and try to do a real "final" print, but I want to concentrate on making some new images first. 

Stop. Just stop.

I fell into the trap again the last few days.

The trigger was a post at The Luminous Landscape by Richard Sexton critiquing camera design. In that post, among other things he described how he avoided fetishizing his camera, avoided making it "precious", by putting less expensive Zeiss lenses on it instead of inflated Leica glass.

(As proof of his claim that Leica glass has gotten significantly more expensive, he included the receipt for his Summicron-M 35/2 purchased in 1975 for $169.50. That's $734 in today's dollars. Today's Summicron costs $3195 new. In comparison, the Zeiss Biogon 35/2 is about $1000 new.)

So, that post triggered a rabbit hole of questions and further reading:

  • Should I switch from Leica to Zeiss?
  • Do I need to sell my Summicron 50 now, since the filter size wouldn't match the Zeiss?
  • How about selling the other lenses? That will simplify things, right? Simplicity is good.
  • How would I build a new lens system?
  • How sharp is Zeiss compared to Leica?
  • Would the chrome look better on the MP?
  • Is the Cosina Zeiss build quality as good as Leica?
  • How much does a used Summicron 35 cost?

And so on and so on, across KenRockwell.com, SteveHuffPhoto.com, CameraQuest.com, photo.net, the Leica Users forum, and even Erwin Puts' old site. Plus eBay, eBay, eBay.

Stop. Just stop.

I wasted a week thinking about this stuff. I have more equipment than someone of my current (or former) skill level could ever master in a year. This is self-destructive procrastination to avoid the harder questions:

  • Can I make anything good?
  • Do I have anything to say?

I'm declaring a moratorium on purchasing anything besides supplies until the folio is complete. It's already April and I don't have time to waste on going around in circles, spending more time thinking about tools and being afraid to actually make pictures.

Tools

I want to spend the next months learning one combination of photographic tools inside and out.

Art lives from constraints and dies from freedom.
— Leonardo da Vinci

It may be foolish to pick tools before selecting a project topic. But, based on a combination of what I have on hand (which is pretty good) and the availability of certain materials in Germany, I'm going to go with this toolset. I'll probably end up talking more about the specific tools in the future once I've gotten a better handle on how they work and interact.

Film: Kodak Tri-X 400TX

The classic high-speed film, apparently re-engineered in 2007. Ten years ago I shot Ilford HP5 because it was cheaper; now Tri-X is cheaper for me (Fotoimpex).

I could have gone with a slower film like Ilford FP4 or even Pan F 50, but I decided on the faster film for a couple more reasons.

First, if I'm going to go through all the extra work and craft of producing silver halide prints, it should look like a photographic print, even when scanned and posted online. I could get really creamy tone and no grain from a slower film, but then it wouldn't have the "look" of film. I think I have to exaggerate the characteristics of film to make it look like film in a primarily digital world.

Second, it's a good match for my camera/lens (see below). TriX and a Leica is the classic portable, street combination. Even if I don't do any street shooting (and I have to admit, it's not my thing), at least I have a portable combo. If I wanted to really shoot slow film, I'd put Pan F 50 in the Rolleiflex and shoot medium format on a tripod. And I don't have a medium format enlarger anyhow.

Developer: D-76

The classic developer. I used XTOL before, but anybody can produce off a D-76 replacement if necessary since the formula is published. Good enough for St. Ansel, good enough for me.

HC-110 would be a viable alternative. It's sort of basically the same as D-76, but comes as a liquid concentrate that reportedly keeps well, like Rodinal.

 

Paper: Adox MCP 310

Adox MCP 310 is a resin coated paper, identical to Agfa MCP. Adox bought all the equipment from Agfa and moved it to Berlin so it could keep making this paper. It's allegedly even better than Ilford's resin coated papers. I've never used fiber papers since I like the rapid drying of RC. 

 

Camera/lens: Leica MP/Summicron 50/2

A classic camera/lens combination. Normal lens and full manual control. I'm not a huge fan of the small shutter speed dial and maybe I'd be lazier with aperture-priority metering, but let's learn how to use the tools right.

 

Sketchbook

The Leica is complemented by the Sony RX100, which I'm using as my "sketchbook". I like the digital camera for instant gratification and learning on the shooting side, but I hope I'll grow less and less reliant on it as I speed up my developing workflow and my instincts with film. It takes the place of the Rollei 35S — the Leica is small, but the even smaller RX100 fits in my jacket pocket. And it is a "real" camera compared to the iPhone. An unfair characterization, I know, but having a "real" camera with you creates a kind of mindfulness that, for me at least, I wouldn't have with my always-there pocket computer.

 

Oh, and I have to finish building out the darkroom. But that's another post.

Kinds of Projects

Brooks Jensen reckons there are ten kinds of photography projects.

(This is taken from his LensWork podcast LW0833 - Kinds of Projects.)

  • Fantasized, idealized world. Think Ansel Adams' Yosemite.
  • The ugly truth. Also known as the School of Realism.
  • The world as it is. Documentary.
  • Dreams from our inner life. Ideas we conceive and then find a way of creating images of them.
  • Stories that are a parable of consequences. Because of this, that happens. Often with an agenda.
  • Story of a way of life. Here's a group of people who live life differently than we do.
  • This thing we all see. Bringing focus to something we don't normally pay attention to.
  • This thing nobody else can see. Because it is a projection of the photographer's inner mind.
  • The idea, illustrated. The concept of the project is even more important than the photographic artifacts.
  • Portrait of a place. I went somewhere and saw something interesting that I want to share. 

The last one is probably the simplest, easiest to grasp, and most common theme. It's the type I thought of automatically when I decided I wanted to do a project.

I'll take photos of trains! Or maybe vineyards. Or train stations. Or churches.

But think about some of those other concepts. There's a lot more potential for depth and meaning. What I don't know, is whether one decides on a richer theme at the beginning of a project, discovers it in the course of the project, perhaps rising to the surface while unconsciously being there all along, or never notices it until someone (a critic or essayist) points it out. Oh yeah, you're right, it is a story about something nobody else but me can see...

I still have a gut feel for what I want to photograph. But keeping these different kinds of themes in mind as I develop the idea, I might be able to imbue it with more richness and depth than I would have considered otherwise. A more mindful approach.