Saturday, February 09, 2013

Waiting For Dawn

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The things we do for this dark craft . . . .
Time: 5:03AM
Temperature: -2° C
Colour Of Sky: Black
State Of Brain: Fuzzy
Clothing: Comfortable 'Weekend' Stuff.

In my photographic life I always strived to get the best quality I could out of everything I was using, which, when I restarted making pictures again, was entirely my Rolleiflex T. There's a lot to be said for making the most of what you have, because my Rollei and I travelled a long way and made a lot of great photographs. I knew exactly what I was going to get, and that by (on the T this applies . . others Rolleis differ) stopping down to f11, I would be maximising the performance of the Tessar lens. And this did. For a long long time, until one day I felt an itch that had to be scratched . . . it was an itch that posed itself as a question: "What if?"
The what if, was based entirely around, "What if I moved up to a larger format?" It is a question that most photographers will come to eventually, and it isn't actually based on any sane decision; it just gets bigger and bigger, like that scratchy bit underneath that plaster cast you had when you were a kid, and eventually you break down and scratch and scratch in an insanity of scrimping and saving and more What if-ing, until, like me you end up with a ridiculous number of cameras of a larger format (and by this in my case, I mean larger than the 6x6cm format of the Rollei). In my case it is a three: A Koni-Omega Rapid 6x7, a Sinar F 5x4" monorail camera and a Wista DX 5x4" Field Camera. Add to that a 150mm Schneider Symmar-S, a 203mm Kodak Ektar and a 90mm Schneider Angulon, plus two large tripods and obviously an enlarger that can enlarge 5x4" negatives (a DeVere 504 Dichromat) with its appropriate lens (150mm Rodenstock Rodagon) and then the necessary gadget bags to carry a field camera in, and film holders, and currently about 150 sheets of Kodak and Ilford film in cold storage and you can begin to see how that itch has become something a tad unmanageable.
I think I really got to this situation because of a love of the great American photographers like Mr.Wynn Bullock, Mr.Ansel Adams, Mr.Edward Weston and Mr.Walker Evans who all inevitably found themselves dining at the table of Large Format photography, because of the sheer ability to manage your image and because of the breadth of tones available to one when one makes a Large Format photograph. For my own ends, I go further back to Mr.Clarence White and Mr.Frederick Evans, purely because I love the lyrical beauty of their photographs. I have dreamt of making beautiful, exquisite photographs like my heroes. Photographs that are breath-taking in their depth and luminosity, but you know what, save for a very few early attempts, I have never managed it. I have dallied and made roughly 200-odd 5x4 exposures (4,000 square inches of film!) - not an inconsiderable number, but squeezing that quality out has been difficult, and in the meantime I have all this gear!
I wouldn't mind though . . if I were using it, however dear reader, the truth of it is that I made my last 5x4" negative in June of 2012. As you can see, with such a substantial financial investment, allied to the time investment that was required in my learning to use the cameras correctly, such a situation is rather embarrassing, not to say, goading, like a pixie on your back! It gets to you. and eventually something has to give, and that something is now. Today, Saturday 3rd February 2013. So I am sitting here, at my command post, drinking tea, listening to Dear 23 by The Posies and typing this whilst waiting for dawn, for it is my intention to go out this morning and make 4 exposures. It has required considerable effort to get here, and I feel rather like a hapless Tommy, waiting for the whistle to go so I can climb out of the trench and advance on the enemy guns . . .wish me luck! Oh and it is freezing . . .
Oh bollocks . . . there goes the whistle!
Well I parked up, near the Tay bridge with a hope to capture the preternatural dawn light as it illuminated that lovely staircase, however what I hadn't factored on, was the fact that the place was lit up brighter than a winter's football match . .. streetlights and spotlights, searchlights and just lights . . 'ave you got a light boy? Lights everywhere. It was incredibly depressing and as I was hunting around trying to find an angle that wouldn't be illuminated, I started to get colder and colder. Allied to this that in a view camera your image is upside down and reversed then you start to get an idea of the difficulty. Add poor eyesight to this (and no I don't wear glasses normally, however I do use them for composing on the ground glass) and the glare from the lights and you have a semi-disaster waiting to happen.

By the Tay Bridge
First Skirmish.
As you can see, the lights are ON!
I have had to lighten this - it was a lot darker.

Now, in recent years I have developed Raynaud's Disease, which means that my fingers and toes go white (and sometimes blue/black) and have no feeling to them whatsoever . . not the thing for adjusting cameras, and when you are staggering around like an idiot, with a camera on a nearly fully extended tripod, peering at a ground glass that keeps misting up, snot flowing freely because of the sheer out and out balticness of the wind, your fingers and toes take a real hit, and you sort of become a bit hypothermically befuddled. However, my determination got the better of me and I set up and took a cliché Yep, long exposure, 'smoky' water .  .gawd dontcha hate those photographs. And now I've made another one . . but it was so cold, I had to show something for my efforts . . but you know what . . I wish I hadn't bothered. 
It is, to quote a famous Chinese proverb, 'A giant heap of clap'.

Tay Bridge, Dawn
Woah!  You mean it is back to front AND upside down?!
Second skirmish, and again, a lot lighter than it was.

So, disgusted by my own inability to deal with the cold, and trying to get my extremities back to some semblance of life, I strode off swearing as loudly as I could, and dear reader, you may think your hero is a mild-mannered timerous beastie, but boy can I swear! I reckon I could hold my own in a builder's yard. 
Anyway, as some of you may know, Dundee's delightful ex-tourist destination Tayside House is currently being dismantled, nibbled away by the busy gnomes of Safedem (a Dundee company) a floor at a time. It is exceedingly spectacular in its disappearance, so I had the bright idea I would photograph it as it was disappearing. I positioned myself on a wheelchair ramp opposite, which gave me about 25 feet of height off the ground. I was still bloody freezing, but at least my movements had brought some life back and at least I had something to keep my mind occupied . . oh and it was getting lighter! However dear reader, yet again I was to be defeated . . this time by ineptitude with dealing with verticals. Now regular readers will know I place great importance on them . . but this was a weird one. The right edge of the building (left and upside down on the groundglass) was parallel with the guidelines on the groundglass, but the left edge of the building is heavily angled. I think this might be to do with the netting surrounding it billowing out, but it still looks weird. I grumbled and groaned, I f'd and blinded, but I couldn't sort it, so I made the bloody picture anyway (£1.50 per sheet of film in today's money). 
Again, why did I bother . . .
Embittered by defeat, I staggered back to the car, packed my gear down, and muttered bounteous supplications to the Gods of Photography.
My next battleground was back to a favourite haunt - that old University building as detailed in previous blogs.
I was determined to get something decent and knew that if I was careful there were enough things to make photographs that look like you've seen in books by some of the American greats. I forgot earlier to mention other American photographers I admire. Step up Paul Caponigro and Frederick Sommer, and Harry Callahan too. All legends. All influences. 
I wanted to make something they might have made, but with my own pulse.
First off, was another of my reflections. I seem to have taken an inordinate number over the years, simply because I love them. You never know what it is you are seeing. Nor where reality begins or ends and unreality starts. I like that!
First picture, was the early sun catching a tree reflected in a window. This was a bit better, but there are two things wrong with it though - the first is that I overexposed it - I wanted darker areas - broad swathes of them. And the second is I didn't develop it enough, as the tree should have stood out a lot more - och well . . never mind; that's the nature of the game.
My last picture was of something that makes me laugh out loud. You'll maybe not believe it, but these windows have been like this for about three years. They just get dirtier and dirtier, and of course the dual meaning of that comes in too.
I'll do a brief aside here and also explain that up till my last picture I hadn't used a dark-cloth. For non-photographic readers, you know when you see films of old photographers and they disappear under a big blanket . . . well that's a dark cloth. Mine, is a rather hopeless modern variation - two t-shirts, one inside the other. The elasticated end of the shirts goes over my head and the loose bottoms over the camera - it sort of works, but if I am honest it is a pretty shite solution. And especially, in the case of my last photograph, it was utterly annoying. The air had got cold again, and draping this semi-heavy layer of cloth over my head resulted in the reading glasses I was wearing (I find it easier to compose on the groundglass wearing them) misting up . . . not just once though, but about twenty times. I do wonder what the odd student passing by thought, a man with two t-shirts over his head, cursing loudly, and rubbing away frantically at something under the t-shirt. Anyway, it looked good on the groundglass, so I made the image.

University Of Dundee
Somebody get me a sponge.
The eye of truth lands upon a suitable scene.

There's something really beautiful about a groundglass!
Even though you can see that the glare from the surroundings has washed out any image whatsoever, I put this picture on, because I thought it looked nice. Obviously this was pre-t-shirts and swearing.

University Of Dundee

I eventually made my photograph, despite the circumstances and glowing in the aftermath of achievement, I packed everything up and headed back to base.
Now we come to my favourite bit - development time! why? because in the words of Forrest Gump's Mama: 
"Life is like a box o'choclits. You don't know watcha gonna git!"
Photography is like that. You can narrow down your choice of choclits, but at the end of the day, you are still In The Hands Of The Gods Of Photography.
All the care and precision and concentration you can muster is required at this stage, because once you get into the dark there is very little going back.
I tray process my film, one slow sheet at a time . . . and yes it takes ages. I have tried handling multiple sheets of film before as recommended in many LF technique books, but I have also been a fisherman, and to be honest, handling 4 sheets of 5x4" film in pitch darkness is akin to handling very thin, very delicate, inert eels, in a coalmine, without a lamp.
They slide everywhere.
I could do it if I didn't care about what was on the film, but I do, so slow and easy does it.
I use a metronome to count out the seconds, speaking aloud the passing of each minute. I have tried doing it mentally, but found myself zoning out, so I started speaking the minute to keep myself awake and aware . . and it works.
I was using Kodak TMX 100, rated at EI 80. I have used a  lot of TMX in 120 size, but this was a first for sheet film. Developer was HC 110, Dilution B (9ml syrup: 295ml water), temperature 21° Centigrade. and you know what I think next time, I'll use Rodinal. HC 110 is a fine developer, but with TMX and enlarging to the print size I normally do (8x10") the grain is almost invisible. I actually prefer a bit of grain - it gives edges an edge as it were. TMX in Dilution B in 120 size is very nice indeed.
Time was exactly 7 minutes 30 seconds for each sheet. Agitation was constant for 30 seconds and then a gentle tray sequence (tray: left lift, centre lift, right lift, centre lift) every 20 seconds from the minute mark onwards.
And this is what came out.

Dundee 2013
Spawn Of The Unfortunates.
A land of grey awaits the unwary.
And as you can see my verticals are oot! 

Right, the way to read the above is as follows:

Top Right: Bridge landscape. Utter shite and a total cliché. A total waste of film. Even the bleedin' horizon looks off . . but it isn't (by much).
Exposure was 1 minute 30 seconds at f32. I placed the bridge shadow on Zone IV.

Bottom Right: Tayside House. As you can see, the right vertical is correct, but the left isn't. I am wondering whether my camera was properly aligned. The thing was, it was so dark when I initially set it up I couldn't quite see what I was doing, so it may well have been.
The Wista DX doesn't have infinity stops, just lines engraved in the rails . . .
Exposure was 11 seconds at f22. I used front rise and placed the netting on the building on Zone V.

Top Left: Dundee University. Another of my window pictures from this disused building. I would dearly love to get inside and photograph it. It has the look of something slowly slumping into decrepitude.
Exposure was 10 seconds at f16 and I placed the shadows on Zone III. The focus was precise on the reflection of that tree on the right.

Bottom Left: Dirty Windows. At last, something I can be happy with. It looks grey (very) on the contact print, but it isn't actually.
Exposure was 6 seconds at f22. I placed the lighter bits of the concrete on ZVI. I always do this with concrete - it is the correct tonality, though the print is slightly darker.

So, making some executive decisions from this, I decided to print my final frame.
It is the only one I am happy with.
And here it is. I printed it on some really quite old Kentmere Fibre-based VC paper. It is an exceptionally fast paper, with exposure times around half those of Ilford Galerie. I find it difficult to use fast papers. Dodging and burning requires a little more time, however, despite my rapid hand movement, I have come up with a print I am happy with. Actually, Kentmere is a good paper . . . though this batch was from before Harman/Ilford took them over. It has a little of the Lake District in it . . .

Kodak TMX 100, Kodak HC 110 Dilution B
Dirty Windows

So the question I am now going to pose is, where has all this agony and ecstasy got me?
Is the above any better than pictures I could make on my Rollei, or even 35mm for that  matter?
Is Large Format photography more akin to carrying on a tradition, striding the world with your be-bellowed camera and the weight of giants upon your shoulders?
I don't know actually. Speaking for myself, the masochist in me says:
Oooh Ya. Yeah. Great. Bigger Format. I need Bigger Format.
But then he gets locked away in his room, and sanity reigns.
I do sort of feel a weight of responsibility to those who have gone before. In this world of the instantaneous, there is something very archaic and perverse about making random pictures of everyday rubbish, in such a way that you simply spend ooodles of time making an image that you only feel marginally happy about.
So to close this I will leave you with a LF photograph I am happy about.
It was made with my lowly and humble mid-60's Schneider Angulon (90mm, f6.8), mounted on the mighty Sinar F, on a Gitzo Series 5(!) pan and tilt head, topping an ancient and wonderful Linhof tripod . . . in other words, it weighed about 16 gravities.
Film was Ilford FP4+ and HC 110 Dilution B.
I followed this route on the recommendation of the great American photographer Mr.Steve Mulligan, who is still alive and kicking.
He said this combo was the one he always came  back to, and I can see why just from the sheer quality of image.
The grain is crisp and tonality is everything I could want.

Schneider 90mm Angulon F6.8, Sinar F
I think this print is on Ilford Galerie.
Unfortunately you cannot get the quality of the finished article from this scan.
I did have one on Polywarmtone, but I cannot find it.

And that's it folks - another wee adventure with me and you. Hope you had a nice time . .
LF Photography is a massive pain and incredibly difficult, but also strangely satisfying at the same time.
Maybe now the mornings are getting lighter I will get back to my occasional weekend regime of a 4:30 AM rise and dawn will be waiting for me for a change!
Take care and God bless.


  1. Hi, this blog is really amazing and provide me answers to all my questionsPhotographs and pictures of sun

  2. Hi Harry - glad to have been of help!