Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Writer's Guild Visits Winning Coffee

A reader at Winning Coffee

(Click to enlarge)

Biting the Silver Bullet Once Again

Behind a shop in Nob Hill

Well, I've wrote repeatedly about getting back into creating images using silver gelatin paper negatives in large format cameras, alongside continuing working with my Lumix G1. Today the forces at work in my life came together, permitting me the opportunity to expose, develop and scan a handful of paper negatives.

The day was cloudy, so I knew that exposure times would be too lengthy for pinhole cameras, thus I ventured out with my trusty Speed Graphic, equipped with the 150mm binocular lens stopped down to F/8, and four preflashed grade 2 paper negatives. I carried the Bogen tripod over one shoulder, backpack over the other. Along with the camera and film holders I had my light meter and black shirt as an improvised dark cloth. This particular lens, salvaged from an old 7x50 binocular, gets crazy kinds of off-axis blurriness, but was tamed a bit by being stopped down to a 20mm diameter aperture.

An alley mural in Nob Hill

After exposing all four negatives I went home and set up the processing equipment. I have this portable dark box processor, a homemade wooden box with removable light-tight lid, and two arm sleeves protruding from the front. Inside is room for a 3-tray storage cube for the chemicals, folded paper towels and the film holders. I use latex gloves on my hands to keep the exposure to developer at a minimum.

To use the portable processing box (in the warm kitchen, rather than the frigid darkroom out in the garage) I bring the chemicals up to 68f using the microwave oven, then pour them into their respective trays, developer on top, stop bath in the middle, fixer on the bottom. In this order the drips and spills follow the natural progression of processing, preventing the developer from getting reverse-contaminated with acidic stop bath or fixer. Then it's don the latex gloves, close up the lid, and place the digital clock atop the box.

A shop specializing in small urban greenhouses

I slip my arms through the sleeves of the box, a snug fit, and open the first film holder, pulling out the paper negative carefully, and quickly inserting it face down into the top tray, making note of the time on the clock, and adding three minutes. I agitate the tray fore & aft and side to side, and pull the negative out by the corner at about 10 seconds to done, letting it drip the rest of the time.

Then it's into the stop bath for 15 seconds with agitation, and let it drip for another 15 seconds. Then onto the fixer for two more minutes, with constant agitation. After one minute in the fixer I can remove my arms, open up the box top and inspect the negative while it completes fixing. Then into a holding container of water with rinse aid, left to sit until all the negatives are processed. Then they get rinsed under running water for 15 minutes or so, while I clean up and make tea.

A dead vine

After rinsing I squeegee and blow-dry the negatives using a hair dryer reserved for this purpose, and into their storage sleeves for scanning and inversion in Photoshop as finished images. If I were printing these in the darkroom onto silver gelatin paper it would take a bit longer, but today only permitted scans of these negatives.

I intentionally left the images with spots of dust and lint, something I've been guilty of spotting out in the past using Photoshop. But, were these actual silver prints, the contact printing method really doesn't permit the easy removal of dust and blemishes, either. You gets what you get, and you don't throw a fit. I figure if it's considered stylish to make videos with faux film-like vertical streaks and scratches, then it must be okay to leave real processing flaws on real silver-based images. Think of polaroid images, with their nifty, artsy blemish-laden edges, an artifact of their peel-apart process; we wouldn't Photoshop these away; no, we'd keep them intact, or better yet add them to non-Polaroid derived images.

So, these images are about as genuinely silver-based retro as they can get and still be posted on the Internets.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Long Path

Sometimes there's a long, convoluted path trailing behind what appears up front to be rather ordinary and nondescript. Like the little man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz, the intricacies of what's behind the seemingly banal can be astonishingly revealing.

This image is a good example of that. An initial study reveals it to be a rather ordinary black and white landscape, of some rather visually interesting rock formation. But the means and reasons for how it came to be made, how I found myself perched high atop a sandstone bluff overlooking miles and miles of lava fields in western New Mexico with a strange, metallic box camera atop tripod, reveals a story entirely removed from the surface artifacts of the image itself.

I've revealed in previous entries about some of my photographic background, such as having starting as a teenager in the early 1970's with a Vivitar 110 camera, then in the late 1970's with a Minolta SRT101B, and onto the 1980's and early '90's with an assortment of medium and large format cameras; and the start of my own darkroom work with black and white media. This period of fascination with, and pursuit of, the perfect camera kit came to an end in the mid-1990's when I discovered pinhole photography. This immersion into photographic retro-technology was a natural outgrowth from having been deeply involved in printing images onto silver gelatin paper in my home-based darkroom.

The simple fact revealed to me was of a minute aperture in some otherwise light-tight container, projecting and exposing an image upon a sheet of light-sensitive printing paper placed within. The fact that its subsequent development could precede under the darkroom's red lights, permitting visual inspection throughout the process, became a simple but highly effective creative advantage. The further discovery of contact printing these paper negatives onto sheets of gallery-quality silver gelatin paper was a revelation in aesthetic simplicity fulfilled. I became mesmerized that such elegant results could be attained by such simple tools and methods. Pinhole photography became a personal philosophy, a vision quest.

Throughout the later half of the 1990's I pursued the design and construction of a variety of large format pinhole cameras whose chief attribute was somehow being able to carry a number of large negatives, held in reserve inside the confines of the camera's enclosure, permitting a number of images to be captured during a single photo-safari. A day trip camera.

The necessity for this creative ingenuity was a purposeful decision on my part to not use miniature roll film cameras, but to stick with the intentional limitations of large paper negatives, with their limited photographic sensitivity, contact printing them at a 1:1 ratio as finished images. Realistically, a return to the formative years of 19th century photography.

The challenges imposed by these purposeful limitations brought about the reinvention of some 19th century methods, the principal one being the falling plate camera, a practical solution for storing and changing large negatives inside an enclosed camera box. I evolved these camera designs through several versions, leading to a lightweight box, sheathed in aluminum, able to store and expose nearly a dozen 5"x8" paper negatives.

Along with these camera building ventures I also had to improve the tonal range of the resulting negatives, which led to the use of graded contrast paper, preflash exposures, and temperature controlled development methods. There are paragraphs and paragraphs more of intricate detail I could expend in describing the minutiae of the process that resulted, but I will spare the reader further suffering.

As my tools and methods improved I found the resulting orthochromatic images tended to mimic in large part the photographic aesthetic of the 19th century landscape image. Over-exposed, white-smeared skies devoid of any cloud details; motion-blur of moving objects, caused by the necessary lengthy exposure times; an almost painterly-like commanding overlook of the American landscape, like a window opened upon a new world. I began to further explore the areas surrounding central New Mexico, venturing further afield yet limited in capacity by the few sheets of paper available for my photographic survey, and the physical limitations imposed by heavy, bulky box cameras and tripods. I was my own mule.

So it was that I eventually revisited a photographic destination from years earlier, the Sandstone Overlook in the El Malpais National Monument of western New Mexico, (also the subject of the previous blog entry), burdened yet armed with tripod and box camera, backpack and stopwatch. I had been using the 5x8 camera for awhile, having developed a sense of its field of view and perspective, and therefore knew with certainty, even before planting the tripod's legs across the water-filled sandstone crevice atop the overlook, that I had a wonderful image, if I could but complete the technicalities of the process without error.

I fixed the box to the tripod's head, leveled and aligned the box's viewing dots to fix the boundaries of my yet latent image, then examined the quality and intensity of light and determined an exposure time based on many months of constant practice, and many repeated failures, too. Then it was waiting for the wind to die down, to diminish the vibrations and minute movements of the box perched atop the tripod's spidery legs, two hundred feet above the lava fields below, waiting for that still minute -- not a mere moment but many moments, almost forty five seconds -- and the opening of the shutter, the stepping back from the camera to remove my shadow from the setting, the intent focus on the stopwatch's digits and fretting over every tremor of breeze that might dull the sharpness of the resulting image.

I remember capturing several other exposures during that outing, and the expectant drive back to Albuquerque, wondering with excitement what I had captured, fervent but also tempered with the experience that comes from repeated failure. So many things have to happen in sequence with minimal error in order for a good image to result. I remember standing in the red-limned darkroom, the hush of the ventilator fan running, stirring the developer tray with tongs, watching the reversed tones come up in the brown liquid, and knowing with certainty, the certainty that only comes through countless hours of practice and failure and some successes, too, that I had come away from my venture with something of substance.

Now, it's been almost a year since I've done real photographic work in my fallow darkroom that waits, dusty yet patient, in my cold garage. The allure of the instant photograph, the sexy electronic gadget called the Lumix DMC-G1, has torn me away from my first love, who waits patiently for my return. Soon, I promise; soon.


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What's With the Pictures?

Ah, yes; I'm a freeloader on Photobucket, and because of the plethora of photos I've uploaded this last month, I've exceeded my monthly allocation.

I'm also nearing my storage limit on Flickr, also a freeloader account.

So I'm at the place where I have to decide which of these two photo-hosting services (if any) I will pay to upgrade to a "Pro" account.

Or, I could just wait until January 24, when my Photobucket images will reappear. Then I'll have more time to decide.

In the meantime, you can enjoy reading past blog entries of mine that aren't typecast, and view past images uploaded directly to Blogger.

I also have the option of just uploading directly to Blogger from henceforth, but the limitation with Blogger is on image size; with typecast images it's nice to make them big, so they can be easily read.

In other news, I've started a Sci-Fi piece; was sitting at Winning Coffee about 3 weeks ago and it just came to me. Sort of inspired by rereading William Gibson's Neuromancer. Not sure if this is gonna be an extra-long short story or a novellete. It's around 20 pages of 1.5 spaced typing, and only now nearing the climax; not sure of the word count. I also have not planned the story out in advance, so I'm breaking all the basic rules about good writing.

Perhaps if my photo situation remains tenuous, I'll just post chapters of the new work in installments. Later.


PS: The image at the top of this entry is a pinhole camera shot, onto B/W photo paper, from atop the Sandstone Overlook at the El Malpais National Monument in western New Mexico. Miles and miles of lava fields. "El Malpais" is spanish for something like "bad lands", especially if you had to ride across it on horseback. Ouch.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Square Format Goodness

Open Doors

The square image has long fascinated me. Neither wide nor tall, preferring neither horizon nor height, the circle squared rests in perfect symmetry. Its essential removal from the traditional landscape places it at an ideal intersection of the human scale with the cosmic.

The square image demands balance, cohesion. Empty image space takes on geometric solidity, blocks and fields of tone balancing one another. Platonic idealism held in place by the tension brought about by lines intersecting edges, color a counterpoint to shape, texture against tone.

George Eastman's first Kodak camera, bringing photography to the masses, projected circular images onto paper negatives. Since then, the circle squared has adorned phonograph albums and CD covers, but is now eschewed for the stretched horizon of the cinema and HDTV screen, pinning the future of media firmly upon terra firma.

The square image is simultaneously idealism and abstraction, bringing with it a new way of seeing. Enjoy.

Composition With Yellow










Red Curb








Postscript: Photographic abstraction essentially removes the human element from imagery. These images were captured on a rainy Tuesday in Albuquerque, on the cusp between the once-wealthy Huning Highlands neighborhood of quaint Victorian-era homes, and the more modest houses of the Martineztown barrio. Families have come and gone since, fortunes won and lost, lives lived and died. The boarded up house in "Rectangles", presented as mere geometric abstraction, ignores the story of human tragedy represented by the artifact of a once-new house in a once-nice neighborhood, as does the seemingly discarded bedding in "Parallelogram", quietly asking whether some homeless vagabond sleeps here. So it is that these square format images, having become essentially graphical in nature, still retain some semblance of the realistic. They serve to remind us of the tenuous balance evident in all photographs, a tug-of-war between abstraction and realism, connotation and denotation.


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Have a Nice Day