Monday, January 21, 2013

The Black Hit Of Space

Mornin' Varmints - well, what a snooze that was!
Ar yes m'dearios. Me and Mog finished off 16 stone o' Turkey leftovers on Boxing Day, settled ourselves down for some well-earned shuteye and the next thing we knew it was the 4th o' January!
"Well," I said to Mog -"Happy New Year to you, old friend."
"Happy New Year Cap'n," he said back.
That's weird I thought, he couldn't talk before we went to sleep.
I did wonder whether it were something we ate that was affecting me hearing, so I asked him,
"When was ye born me old soak?"
and he said,
"That's no' clear to me Cap'n. I can only remember the sack and the water."
And I thought, that's good enough for me. If it were my ears playing me up, he would have said something like the 24th o' May.
So I believes him.
Imagine that.
A talking cat.
I'm not going to let too many folk know though - there's a ton of people would pay a pretty penny to own one.


Been out all night, I needed a bite
I thought I'd put a record on
I reached for the one with the ultra-modern label
And wondered where the light had gone
It had a futuristic cover
Lifted straight from Buck Rogers
The record was so black it had to be a con
The autochanger switched as I filled my sandwich
And futuristic sounds warbled off and on

(The Human League - The Black Hit Of Space)


This week I genuinely wasn't going to write anything - call it Post Festive Disorder (PFD) - I didn't get half what I expected done, but I did have a fantastic time, which resulted in me indulging in one of my favourite pastimes ... reading. Lots.
Anyway, I got to Thursday morning this week and a little demon appeared on my shoulder and said 'You know, they're waiting . . .', so I thought Och bugger it and started. So this week's FB will be a little less heavy on the writing being as I've only had a couple of days to get it together - my apologies, but, given my subject matter it seems very pointless to regurgitate potted histories as the world is littered with them . . so here goes.
There's a dirty word still bandied around photographic circles.
It's pretty seedy and in fact, even though (and despite) the fact that it gets mentioned more now that it has been in the past hundred or so years, it's still a bit iffy. 
People get uncomfortable.
They stretch their collars, shuffle their feet and cough.
It is an unmentionable.
However, for myself I will stride into the arena, wearing my frock coat and winged collar, pommandered hair set nice and solid, moustache waxed to perfection and say, to me, there's never been a movement like it.
It was born from passion and enthusiasm and ideas of lofty artisticness way above its station.
It lived briefly like a Mayfly, wings glittering above the fast running waters of life in a dance of beauty, and then committed suicide. 
And when this tradgedy was all but enacted? What happened then? Why, its corpse was buried in a pauper's grave and its memory trampled and left to be picked over by dogs.
Sounds melodramatic eh? Well it sort of was like that.
And to what do I refer?
Brown paper bag ready?

Banner For The Photo-Secession

The greatest, most profound and beautiful photographic movement there ever was.
Lambasted, criticised, cynicised, ignored, Pictorialism stands large in the history of photography as a beautiful jewel.
Strangely I would say these days that is it arguably more important than Ansel Adams and Group f64. How's that for radicalism.
All of your realist movements of the 60's? As nothing.
All the shite that passes for 'art' photogaphy these days? Total bollocks.
You see, somehow, it has transcended its lowly grave and ascended to the heights.
Pictorialism, [which I am sure would be to the surprise of Mr.Alfred Steiglitz (its driver and mentor)] has become something other. As a movement I feel that there has never been another as profound or influential.
You see friends today, Pictorialism is all around us.
It's in films, on television, on posters and in magazines.
It influences and drives like never before, partly I believe because it saw the way naturalistically.
Think about it, and the world isn't really hard-edged at all. Centrally to your eyes it is, but the periphery? Blurred. And that blurriness and softening of image in the majority of Pictorialist photographs is incredibly naturalistic.
I think it is almost why the images speak so well.
Yes a lot of it was done to mimic 'painterly' techniques, but when photographers are already dealing with absolute realism, why not try and show it in a way that could be considered more 'arty'.
The Pictorialists were working with uncoated lenses, and there is a tendency nowadays to believe that lenses from that time (late 19th early 20th Century) were somehow not very good and soft.
This is a misconception.
Most of the greatest leaps in lens design happened in those times.
Ancient lenses can be softer, however they can also be as crisp as you like. There are incredibly wide variations in them, however Pictorialists, semi-eschewed the standard ones in favour of 'portrait' lenses (so called because they were able to soften an image to make it look softer. It was never good as a working photographer to have your customer's blemished skin shining out of a photograph) which when turned to landscape and still life and figurely photographs rendered things deliciously soft.
Pictorial pictures mostly exhibit a beautiful depth too, which somehow, to my mind, sends them over the edge from being a photograph. They are so very natural looking, possibly because my eyesight isn't what it was, but maybe that naturalness is apparent because of their lack of definition. Its the reason I suppose why all hard-edged CGI images in films look somehow so wrong, and why ordinary non-super-imposed filmwork looks so right.
Soft images are laughed at today, they are.
They are seen as being 'Romantic' in a brutal world, but to this I say what is wrong with Romanticism?
God knows the world is difficult enough - if a photograph can touch your soul because it is soft and ethereal looking then all the better.
Of course I am tarring every Pictorialist there ever was with the 'romantic soft image' brush - it was in reality a little like this, but then on the other hand you have Steiglitz's 'The Steerage' - as modern as you like. And of course, the nail in the coffin, Paul Strand's disturbing and harsh and beautiful 'Blind Woman - New York 1916', published in 'Camera Work' the journal of the Pictorialists and as loud as any death knell you could wish to hear.
I could go over this forever, however it is digressing from Pictorialism.
I won't write a potted history of it - pointless - there's loads of stuff on the web.
What I will say is that it repays studying. In spades.
From Clarence White to Paul Strand, from Annie Brigman to Edward Steichen and Frederick Evans - names that have greatness hewn into them.
To be honest I could have chosen twenty images to illustrate this, however I will just go with one which I believe to be the greatest . . but then that's just me.
Clarence White's 'The Orchard 1905' could have been top (it is an image laced with meaning drawn deep from Christian spirituality, and for all its carefree appearence, it is as set-up as a photograph could be) however it isn't.

Clarence White - The Orchard, 1905

To my mind the finest thing ever published in Camera Work, and that is a tall order, is something so old it is modern. It is so poetic, it is a script waiting to happen. Like all great photographs, it tells a story, and can also inspire a story in your head.
Are you sitting down?
Probably my favourite photograph ever is by a man called Mr.George Henry Seeley.
It is called 'The Firefly'. 

George Henry Seeley - The Firefly, 1907

It was made in 1907.
I love this photograph.
It is about as perfect as a photograph can get.
Yes it is soft focus. Oh God isn't it beautiful?
Compositionally, I don't think you could do better actually.
The curve of the bowl leads your eye in.
The woman (his sister I believe) is beautiful in a timeless way.
She could be from now.
She could be from the Dark Ages.
She has the headpiece as a prop, but again, date it . .
And there, she is holding a firefly, its tiny light like a jewel in her hand. The flare from the uncoated lens aids the whole feel of melancholia and age. It exudes carefulness in its composition, but also an instantaneousness, like she has run up to the camera and is saying 'See, brother, see what I have found!'
It is also as modern a photograph as you could ever want to find. I think it actually sets the bar. 
Can you imagine photographs like this in Vogue? I can.
If you are at all interested in looking at more images, then, if you can find it, the Taschen publication 'Camera Work - The Complete Illustrations 1903-1917 [ISBN 3-8228-8072-8]' is to be highly recommended.
If you can find the hardback (for less than the price of a car) all the better as the paperbacks have a tendency to split, due to their massive bulk!
Anyway, from beauty it is a trip back to earth, with an image that is no less profoundly moving, but very different.

Paul Strand - Blind Woman, New York 1916

From the last issue of Camera Work
This was really the loud clanging of the death knell. 
Steiglitz I believe realised that the end was nigh - you can't stand in the way of progress - and yet what an image to sign that warrant. 
Curiously, it is as obvious an analogy with regard to the golden, pre-WWI years and the sound of mechanised death from the Front as you could wish.
On one hand, beauty, etherealism and softness, and on the other, grim reality, indignity and the vision of a world changed forever.
In it's brief 14 year life Camera Work gave more to the world than the world gave to it.
For myself I find it as profoundly influential as I always have done.
If you wish to read further, just Google things like 'Camera Work, Photo Secession, Alfred Steiglitz, Pictorialism. The images really will work their way into your psyche. I think they can help to make better photographers of us all.


As usual with FB, I thought I had better do some shameless shoe-horning in of photography - so here's my pathetic attempt at emulating a Pictorialist style, with a Twin Lens Reflex!

The Woman In The Boughs

I actually am rather fond of this photograph, for a start it is my wife, so that is the best place to start.
It was made with my beloved Rolleiflex T and I was using a Rolleinar close-up set, with the focus somewhere between 10 feet and 30 feet, so totally out of focus.
Not a lot of people know that with the Rolleinars on a Rollei you can have a very subtly variable soft focus lens - at infinity things get more definition, but in the close range they are wonderfully soft, as you are using the natural lack of depth of focus you get with close-focus devices. I daresay any close-up lens used on a camera for a use that isn't a close-up would work, but the Rolleinars are something else optically.
Film was FP4 at EI 80 developed in Barry Thornton's 2 bath. The print was made on Grade 2 Ilford Galerie (my favourite paper) and it was archivally processed and then toned in Agfa Viradon for that vintage look.
We'd watched the film  'Possession' not long before that and the name of the photograph just sprang into my mind, inspired by that film.
Anyway, nuff z nuff. That's me, over and oot.
As usual, take care, God bless, and thanks for reading.


  1. Another great post, Phil. Your final pic is wonderful. Sharpness is SOOO over-rated. I find what's hinted at often more interesting than that which is out there for all to see. I know you're not too concerned about bokeh but I think your photograph proves that it is important. Your image has lovely, soft OOFA (TM Phil Rogers) and that's what makes it. Imagine if there had been some double lines or weird artefacts in the out-of-focus-areas. The jarring effect would have loosened your fillings but, no, everything is dreamy and fluffy. Just like it should be. You should explore this approach some more. I love it. Might try it myself as I've got Proxar close-up lenses for my old Rolleiflex Standard.

    There's something about the 1930s that keeps attracting me. My dad was born in 1923 and my mum in 1930 and my childhood was filled with stories of their youth. My Rolleiflex Standard dates back to 1932 and I'm renovating a Dundee-made bicycle just now that was made c.1937. I have a feeling that, like me, you were born at the wrong time.

    1. Thanks Bruce . . I can't quite see myself in a high-winged collar yet . . but who knows!
      As for the Proxars - they will do the job admirably. I actually have a number of images like that, and it is an approach I have really enjoyed. The Rolleinars are exceptional in their OOFA, but also when you use them properly, their sharpness is beyond anything else I own . . oops . . there go the prices!