Friday, February 01, 2013

Say Cheese! It's Leica Time.

Hoo Har, scuse me maties.
The spitoons are fairly o'er flowin' with the gobbings of a chesty crew.
Oh yes mates, we got the lurgy real bad. Something to do with pullin' into Liverpool and too much Brain's Bitter in them pubs, and then some rather dodgy kebabs on the way back aboard. Then Sheephouse appears, having visited his Aunt in Chester and brought us back something rather nasty in the form of the worst cold we's ever had.
The riggin' was slippery with cloughers, the decks awash and truly awful.
It's been a nasty week no doubt about it - we even had to use up Mog's collection of small bear costumes to deal with the sputum . . very very nasty indeed. They solidified fairly quickly and got chucked overboard as we were leeward of the fair town of Morecambe.
My arse.


Well it's a cold Tuesday morning here below decks and as usual, I could think of nothing to write. All I had in my head is an image I made on Saturday, which I have rather taken a liking to. It isn't in focus, there's a twisty camera shake to it, it doesn't even look like a 'proper' photograph, however I do know that I will print it to my best ability and keep it with my other prints.
How did I take it? Well, this article is either going to be about surreptitious photography or, probably more likely, an anatomy of a trip out with my camera. It'll probably be the latter, though I have to warn you in advance, the scans of the negatives are shite, courtesy of my Epson V300 scanner. It is fine for certain things, but for film not so good. And I'll add to that, that I only made the photographs last Saturday (the 26th of January) and have only made a contact print so far.
I'll also not bore you with the jetsam but I will go through the contact print and present the larger images . . . so here goes . . got your hard hat ready?
Regular FBers (there are such people . . what a strange bunch!) will know that in recent times I have had a dalliance with Leicas - it just seemed like a good thing to do at the time.
I really saved up for one, at not a small amount of difficulty, and then had to send it back (Leica Sniff Test) which made me sad as I had really enjoyed using it.
So I scrimped even further and added some more money and bought a 1960 Leica M2.
Now I will state this here and now, undoubtedly they seem to be regarded as rich boy's playthings, however don't knock 'em till you have handled one. I have used a lot of cameras over the years, but I have never used one which was so beautiful to handle.
Yes mine is what they term a 'user' - it has been well-used over the years, but the rangefinder is accurate and the viewfinder is relatively clean.
The film advance is like nothing you have ever tried - my Nikons are smooth, but this is like mechanical butter. It actually is a joy to use and considering it is a tad older than me, I think, pretty remarkable.
To put it into perspective, it was made before Vietnam, before Kennedy's assassination, before the Beatles changed the world, before Psycho became a benchmark . . . and it hit the world running.
It was a not inconsiderable investment by someone at the time, and it has been used, a lot.
It hasn't been treated the way Leica collectors seem to do things by putting their precious investments away in cotton wool, nope, internally, parts of the film advance are worn away to their brass. It has a few scratches. it has a slightly wheezy 1/15th of a second, but when I use it, it feels like an extension of my hand and eye. And to be honest, if you are a photographer, that is surely all you could want.
Those craftsman in Wetzlar who made my M2 were the real deal.
It is in fact so well put together that to my strange and romantic mind, it seems to have transcended it's highly machined physicality to become something other.
Can machines have a soul?
Yes, I truly believe some of them can.
I have been tempted to return it to the vendor and say "Oi, why is the shutter wheezy like that, when you said the shutter was serviced?" but to be honest I have already become attached to it.
I would dearly love someone from Leica to read this and say, "Come on then, send it to us at Solms and we'll give it a going over . ." and restore this amateurs instrument of joy back to its former glory . . . but dream on Sheephouse, it isn't going to happen.
Anyway, onwards.
The camera as stated is a 1960 Leica M2.
Lens is a 1934 Leica 50mm f3.5 uncoated Elmar, fitted with a FISON lens hood. The lens and hood predate the Second World War . . that too is incredible.
Film was Kodak Tri-X, which I rated at roughly EI 320.
The thing with using the camera the way I am going to describe is that film speed is a nominal, relative thing. I take a meter reading before I go out, and then adjust from there. As you'll see from the contact print, it doesn't always work, but then the overexposed images are still useable. You just have to up the exposure when you are printing . . simple.
Film latitude is a thing that not many people bother with. But certainly if you are using black and white, then you will have enough to deal with a huge range of lighting conditions.
It is all very flexible.
I used to meter everything, but have moved through all that in 35mm work to realise that roughly anything you take will be ok, so long as you follow the one cardinal rule:
Do not underexpose!
Overexposure is fine. Even that dread combination Overexposure and Overdevelopment is fine . .
One of my heroes is Ralph Gibson.
I never knew photograph could be so lyrical until I sat down one day and looked at his essay 'The Somnambulist' . . suddenly a large number of cogs moved together, like a smooth-working Leica advance, and I knew that I could make a photo essay.
I haven't yet, however I am getting there . . there's more than enough images to be gone over.
The key is, that for me it isn't a deliberate journey. I have a lot of similar images that will serve each other.
Anyway, I am digressing again - Mr.Gibson's key thing is that he deliberately Overexposes and Overdevelops!
It's mad.
It is so against what you are supposed to do, that it is like heresy, and yet, there is a lyrical intensity to his images. They are like a waking dream. They are all his own.
He said that he only discovered he could do this when he was watching a lithographer ink up some plates for the first publication of The Somnambulist. The extra ink created rich deep blacks, and it hit him that he could use broad expanses of black against highlights and get to where he wanted to go.
Whilst I might emulate his approach, I am not copying him, so you won't find anything like the depth of what he does . . but then, I am just me.
Anyway, intention set, camera loaded, my little key turning on my back . . off I went!
Two sessions/walks.
Film developed later in the afternoon.
Developer was Kodak HC 110, Dilution B at 20 degrees Centigrade.
I used a very small tank, so it was 9ml developer to 298ml water. Agitation was constant and gentle for 30 seconds, then I did 4 inversions every 30 seconds, halted at 7 minutes and poured developer out at 7 minutes 30 seconds.
A lot of people would say that I have overdeveloped this film, however to that I will add that everyone is different.
In my case, because of the extreme lack of contrast from the Elmar (due to its age and being uncoated) I felt that developing for longer would be the way to go to gain extra contrast and accutance.
Anyway, Tri-X and HC 110 is a classic combination - I like it, and to be honest looking at the lack of fog on the film base, I think the time is just about right actually!
Right, here goes.

Don't panic!
Contact prints of a film invariably look rubbish.
This is because there is just too much going on and your eye can't settle on anything.
Ilford Multigrade RC, Kodak Polymax, Agfa Ag Fix.

This is my contact print and as you can see, I have slightly underexposed the print.
The key thing with contact prints is to use the old maxim 'Minimum Time For Maximum Black' (MTFMB), basically meaning that when the unexposed edges of the film are indistinguishable from the exposed black density of the paper, you have exactly what you have shot.
Obviously film does develop some fog when it is being developed, however it is something you don't really have to worry about.
Try and get that film edge indistinguishable from the density of the paper. MTFMB is a useful base point and means you can read your negatives on the contact print, relative to something.
You don't get this frame of reference with scanning negative strips.
As you can see from my contact print, some of the frames are a tad underexposed and some are overexposed, however given that I haven't given the print enough exposure, then you can see that the overexposed frames will print down slightly more.
I wanted to try something with my lens on this journey, and that was to keep a set aperture and vary exposure by using shutter speeds, which is what I did. I tended to keep the f-stop at f9 (it's an old lens - and doesn't adhere to modern settings). The only frame I didn't do this on was number 16 which was approximately the equivalent of f5.6.
It was a cold morning - the snow from the day before had frozen, and there was plenty of condensation in the  shop windows, hence my first two frames. From there, I wandered up to one of the old University buildings (which is a waste of a huge building . . it is totally unused!) and from there, dondered along the back of the Wellcome Foundation building on the Hawkhill and down by the side of Duncan Of Jordanstone. From there, it was back up the Perth Road and the famous Tartan Cafe and back to the car.
Afternoon, was park opposite Tescos at Riverside and  walk along the river, skirt the Discovery, go along the back of the Leisure Centre to the Tay Bridge and then walk back.
You have to be receptive on trips like this. I view it as sort of like 'I have film loaded and I want to use it all - so let's see what we can see'. There is no set agenda as to what I will make images of. It is all down to what catches your eye at the time, and that can vary depending on your frame of mind, energy levels etc. It really is a voyage of discovery and one of the great pleasures in life. Photographing isn't the dark art a lot of pseuds would have you believe. Getting what you have on film into something you can use, is a semi-dark art/craft, but one that can be learned by anyone. I feel that I am at a stage now where making images is as natural as breathing. I have done a Joe Pass - 'Learn it all, and then forget it all.'
I have decided to limit this to 8 images as I don't want to bore you too much. This is after all all about me, and for some reason you are reading it . . .
Right, here goes:

Kodak Tri-X, Kodak HC110 Dilution B
Frame 2

Well, it was, as I have explained a very cold morning, so here I was confronted with a lovely flower shop, but, the condensation was such that you couldn't see anything. To be honest this would have worked better in colour as they were all muted and covered in whitey-grey condensation droplets. It caught my eye, I was aware of only having around forty minutes, so I made this by focusing on the droplets and as is often the case with my window pictures I am in there too! 

Kodak Tri-X, Kodak HC110 Dilution B
Frame 4

Then it was up to the Hawkhill via the lane at the side of the Tartan Cafe. This passes that disused University building I was talking about. It has become a bit of a magnet for graffiti, however and strangely, a lot of the graffiti is in chalk, so I am assuming that the artists are Art students from the nearby DOJ. 
This photo is unusual in that the grafitti is in spray paint. It could be by skaters as they use the vast expanses of concrete around the building. The interesting thing about it though is that it shows what happens when you use an uncoated lens into bright light. The shadows take on this flare of light and are almost contrastless. It is a nice effect, but relatively uncontrollable.

Kodak Tri-X, Kodak HC110 Dilution B
Frame 13

Moving on, I went round the back of the Wellcome building making another 8 pictures and headed back down to the Perth Road. 
This inspiring lump of concrete is actually the 'new' Crawford building of Duncan Of Jordanstone. The lower windows are the library. 
I like the way that the Elmar has made this look like it is a photo of the Bauhaus! Though, again the scanner has not managed to scan the full frame, so my verticals are terribly iffy.
The light was very beautiful, but I was even more aware I was running out of time . . .

Kodak Tri-X, Kodak HC110 Dilution B
Frame 18

They really ought to employ some window cleaners though . . . again the Crawford Building. 
I have cropped this, because the ****in scanner cannot scan a complete full frame. In my negative the verticals are correct . . in the scan they aren't . .so crop it was.
What attracted my eye, was the incredible brightness and that scuff in the lower part of the picture.
"Ooo aaar . . round these parts they be callin' that a waste of film . . ." 
Anyway, although that didn't actually conclude the pictures I made, it was frame 17.
I made another three and then headed for the car.
Yum yum . . lunch.
Boo boo . . housework.
Vroom vroom . . Dad taxi.
Happy happy . . Leica time.

Kodak Tri-X, Kodak HC110 Dilution B
Frame 27

It was incredibly icy down by the Tay, but the light was quite bright and some watery clouds were advancing and threatening more snow.
Again, another picture with me in though I am not nearly as svelt as that. 
Again I have had to crop very slightly because of the scanner. Incredible to make such allowances to infallible technology!
This is the back of the soon to be extinct Hilton Hotel . . it looks like a Victory V from the other side. The river side though is fortunate to have this incredible vista. 
What you can see is Fife and the Tay Road bridge. There's also a massive anchor stuck there too . . just to remind you of the area's heritage.

Kodak Tri-X, Kodak HC110 Dilution B
Frame 28

Well just to prove this is a city with its various bunches of nutters, further along by the Hilton's gym window, I discovered an area where someone had had a go at smashing what is fairly obviously safety glass. They hadn't suceeded and the crack was covered in film - hence the above. 
I rather like it as it reminds me of Minor White and some of the American photographers of the 1950's and 60's. It almost makes me want to go back with the 5x4 camera and do it as a large negative.

Kodak Tri-X, Kodak HC110 Dilution B
Frame 32

I have cheated a bit with this. I don't know why but I must have been listing when I took it as the vertical of the bridge on the left is ever so slightly squint. I can impart a bit of Gary Winogrand's wisdom here with regard to photographs. Try your best to keep the left vertical straight. The rest of the verticals in the picture and the horizontals can go to hell, but that left one has to be straight. It is sensible practice when you think about it, as we read from left to right, and visual disturbance on the initial scan will affect your whole view of the photo!
This photo also illustrates the beautiful drawing qualities of the old Elmar. 
Look at that glow from it - really lovely. 
This is under the Tay Bridge by the way - that staircase takes you up to the road level and I think it is a beautiful stair - it looks like a Mies van der Rohe two fingers to the Nazi's from 1933. Interesting to think that my lens was made one year (1934) after the Bauhaus was shut! That's that old heritage thing at work again.
Anyway . . onwards.
The following is a scan from the 1967 Edition of The Leica Book by Theo Kisselbach. It's a marvellous book and highly recommended for users of all film cameras.
It shows what I wanted to achieve.

Walking Snapshot
If only photography was still like this.
The text describes very well how to go about achieving the 'walking snapshot'.

Unfortunately for me, my technique let me down!

Kodak Tri-X, Kodak HC110 Dilution B
Frame 37

When out photographing I try to adhere to my own adage .  . always keep one up the pipe. 
Meaning, save a frame for the final bit of the walk back to your starting point. I did, and there, coming towards me was the most extraordinarily shaggy and weird looking dog I have ever seen. 
I had to capture it, so I thought I would capitalise on the Leica's quietness, and do the walking snapshot:
I preset the focus to 3.5 metres and I could see from this that my depth of field at f9 would take me from 2.5 metres to just beyond 5 metres . . so plenty of leeway for things being in focus. I set the shutter to 1/60th and nonchalantly wandered towards the dog and its owner with my camera on its strap around my neck. I thought I could angle the camera down and capture it that way. Snick and it would be done. 
Well, I did all that. 
The camera was almost silent, the lens was smooth to focus, but I didn't figure for the fact I would be so shite at it. 
Hence the above photograph. 
Dog missed. 
However of all the photographs I made on that cold Saturday, it is the one I like the most.
So there you go, the last photograph of the day and my favourite!
You know reading this week's blog, it is sort of a paean to Leicas. 
I still find it hard to believe that I am regularly using a lens that is 78 years old . . and it isn't junky . . it is beautiful and jam-packed full of character. I also find it hard to believe that a camera made before I was born could handle in such a way that it is as natural as breathing. It's a testimony to craftsmanship and design and fine engineering.
I would also state that my little visual expeditions are always done in the spirit of the man who taught me - Mr.Joseph McKenzie. He always urged us to go out and make photographs of anything that caught our eye. And that's what I do.
Well as usual, God bless and thanks for reading.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Phil, there isn't much I can say but that I love reading your posts. Probably because we appreciate similar things :) The way you write about an M2 or the late Polywarmtone paper for example really resonates with me (loved that photo of the mountain pony!)

    Here, how you put the age of the camera & lens into perspective is very striking indeed.

    I tried that walking snapshot for maybe 2 rolls. 70 odd frames of pure rubbish were enough to convince me that it wasn't for me.


  3. Hi Omar - the book actually recommends trying it without film, but it sounds like you are like me . . you can't wait to see what you get!
    Thanks for the nice comments again - they are much appreciated.

  4. Frame 37. What can I say? You can be very funny at times but that was hilarious! I've taken lots like that but always thought of them as cock-ups. Well done for showing it - I set fire to mine. I have to agree, though, that it is an interesting shot in a WTF sort of way. Frame 18 is my favourite. I must start looking in more windows. Black and white is all about highlights and shadows and that negative has them in just the right amounts for my taste. I like the way the window frames dissect the 35mm frame and the mysterious content made me stop and have a good look. My favourite part is the reflection of the tree near the top, just to the right of centre. It has the look you get when you diffuse something under the enlarger. I hate to say this but the only way to do the walking snap is with a digital camera. Film's too expensive.

  5. P.S. The writing in frame 4 is (slightly misquoted) from Lana Del Ray's Video Games.

  6. Thanks Bruce! But who is the guy in the tammie, that's what I want to know.
    Windows are fantastic, and you can often incorporate yourself in there too, which makes looking through endless photos of windows a bit more interesting. That sounds a bit narcissistic though - didn't mean it like that.
    I am thinking of setting up a Walking Snapshot school, though everyone has to enrol looking like the two people in the clip ';0)