Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Old Lenses And Long Stories (Part One)

Morning squirls and tots . . well, what can I do for you today?
What was that at the back? Speak up lad. I cannae hear ya!
Ah yes, another piece about trying to emulate a famous photographer's technique like wot I did with Ralph Gibson?
Yes, well that sounds interesting.
And what?
Call it the Garry Winogrand Experiment?
Well, maybe not, but then again . . .

Regular FB'ers . .or just plain ol' F'ers (you don't mind being called that do you?) will know that I dedicate all my spare spending money for your delectation and enjoyment; in fact, I would say that I selflessly buy myself all these things just to please my readers who are a knowledgable lot and not a little bit inclined to enjoy my purchases just as much as I do!
It's your fault that I spend days and weeks staring at pictures of Hasselblads. Your fault I dissect the relative merits of every single 35mm lens that would fit my Leica . . and dammit, it's because of you lot that I lost my resolve and chunked my Hasselblad fund in favour of a 1957 (or thereabouts) 28mm Canon f2.8 rangefinder lens (and finder) to fit the M2.
Damn you all. But I just couldn't take the pressure.
I could feel it on me all the time. Buy. Buy. Buy . . .
So I did.
And the relevance of this lens to everything?
Well it is none other than the same (not the same, no not his, but the same type) used by Sir Garry of the Winogrand during his formative years in the early to mid-1960's, before he used Leitz lenses.
It is an interesting lens - the fastest of its type when first made, and nowadays, though considerably a cult lens, generally considered an also-ran in terms of sharpness, fall-off, vignetting, use, etc etc.
So why the chuffin' 'eck did I buy the useless thing then?
Well, apart from it being all your fault, I already own another Canon lens - a really nice, late Blackbelt 50mm f1.8 and being totally impressed with that and its wonderful build quality, I succumbed.
Add to this that, to be honest, I have become a bit bored with everything being 'normal' visually as it were and getting a really decent price on the deal  . . well, what can you do, except go a little crazy every now and then!

The Sepia Glow Of Memory
Leica M2 & Canon 28mm f2.8 Lens

And there you go - that's the little beauty resplendent on my M2 . . they go together like cheese and toast don't they. I especially like the finder on top too - it all looks incredibly space-age and just so 1950's-NOW
However, before we get all excited and dash around like mad schoolboys on a humbug bender, I will halt this reverie immediately - you see one problem arose when I made my initial quick inspection of the lens - it had separation on the rear element . . In the words of someone who regularly drinks Yorkshire Tea . . "By chuffin' 'eck. What a bloomin' nuisance missus an' that's no mistake!"
In case you don't know, it means that the elements of lens glass cemented together with Canada Balsam were becoming uncemented. It never gets better, and basically is a time-bomb waiting to get worse, or not worse . . so, despite falling immediately in love with the lens, I contacted the vendor and we arranged a deal on a near mint 28mm f3.5 Canon that he had in stock instead.
It isn't quite the Winogrand special . . . however it is of the correct era and only a stop slower (and by all accounts sharper than the 2.8). So lets sit by our letterbox with the elephant gun and see if we can pick off the postie from this distance . . .

The Cold Light Of Day
Leica M2 & Canon 28mm f3.5 (Type IV) Lens

There, that's better . . so what do you think of the camera now? 
The lens is about mid-1950's and is a solid piece of exquisite craftsmanship - it is surprisingly small and surprisingly heavy and very beautiful. Peter Loy (the vendor) was right in his condition description (as he always is) - the glass is as clear as a bell, focus is smoother than a knife through butter and the aperture is easy and positive. All in all, it's hard to imagine the lens is that old and has seen a useful life. In fact, were I of a nutty mind I could stand on a street corner with my M2 and one of these on a short strap, with a trilby on my head, and pretend I am working for Life Magazine!
The design was the fastest wide angle in the world at the time of original production in 1951, and I can see why Leica were worried - it is a beautifully made thing. I've trawled through lots of Life photographers biogs and photos, and this looks to be one of the lenses favoured by them at the time, as well as being a stalwart of the Korean War. . so that can only be a good thing, can't it.
And you know what? I would be more than happy just to sit here and look at it all day, but that's no good . . To be honest, I am steadily dying (as are we all) - entropy is catching up with us - life is moving quickly . . someone might just be pulling a perfect monkey pose on a pelican crossing whilst a real monkey is actually crossing in front of him . . . in other words - THERE'S NO TIME TO LOSE!
And this folks, is how you should approach you picture making . . like the greatest thing is out there.
And you know what? It is, and the thing is you never know when it is going to be right there in front of you.
So where does that leave us . . well, back to the original tenet of the Blog - trying to emulate and photograph like a classic 1950's/60's 'street' (I hate that term, but for want of a better word) photographer.
So, Leica - CHECK
Reasonably priced (at the time) Japanese wide angle lens - CHECK.
I seem to have forgotten something . .
Oh yeah FILM.
Well, I've got that sorted out - some Tri-X that I've had nesting with the blocks of cheese in the fridge, so I'll use that . . . and . . . I am going to be doing the unheard of for me . . pushing it to unheard of speeds AND over-developing . . .
Yes, I know!
Look it's alright, I'll wait whilst you go and sort that mess out in your trousers . . . I must admit, mine are in a similar state too . . TERRIFYING isn't it.
See you in a min.

There's that's better - not sure how I'm going to explain a full-on brown-trouser moment to the missus, but I'll address it later on over a pot of tea . .
Anyway, bless me barnacles . . I hate to imagine how this is going to turn out . . . but sometimes you just have to go for things.
So, film? - CHECK.
Ready to go? Well, not quite, because thinking about it, my main problem is that I don't live in a vast urban sprawl, just a smallish city on the East Coast of Scotland (there simply aren't teeming hordes of people so preoccupied with their lives that they don't notice someone taking their photograph). If I were to achieve anything, I would have to approach this my way, or risk the long arm of the law again (a long story, best viewed here). So really, people snapping is probably out, which is just as well.
And are there any tips the pros can add to my excursion? Well, according to Joel Meyerowitz, who often photographed with Garry Winogrand:

" It's a difference in the ASA at which you're shooting. We were using Tri-X film pushed to 1200 ASA, whereas the normal rating is 400. The reason was to be able to shoot at 1/1000th of a second as much as possible, because if you made pictures on the street at 1/125th, they were blurry. If you lunged at something, either it would move or else your own motion would mess up the picture. I began to work that way after looking at my pictures and noticing that they had those loose edges, Garry's were crisp. (Robert) Frank didn't work that way. His pictures were much slower. You could see he was working at 1/30th and 1/60th and 1/125th."

Now there were several things about this statement that had me worried and scratching my head, so I grabbed my trusty light meter, pulled up a pot of tea and had a think
"We were using Tri-X film pushed to 1200 ASA"
Now maybe you're thinking the same as me . .1200 ASA? OK, so Tri-X's box rating is 400 . . . shouldn't it be 1600, and put the 1200 down to a crazy old brain recalling stuff incorrectly? Well, the more I thought about it, the more confused I got, and then, like a wet cod around the face it hit me . . of course . . they were experienced photographers, so they'll probably have gone for the fact that Tri-X's actual speed is nearer 320, so + 2 stop push that and you have 320, 640, 1280. That was as near a good enough explanation for me, 1280 it would be.
"The reason was to be able to shoot at 1/1000th of a second as much as possible, because if you made pictures on the street at 1/125th, they were blurry."
Now, to me there is a massive problem here - this is Scotland. There's often no way in a million years on a bog standard East Coast day you can achieve 1/1000th of a second and get anything useable. As you can see from the meter reading below (taken on the morning of my excursion) a reading for a rough shadow placement achieves an EV of just short of 12. Even at 1280 and using that as a placement for a Zone IV shadow I would be operating on f2.8 . . and as the more astute of you have seen, I no longer have that option.

Postcards From A Scottish Sitting Room

Man's Best Friend

So, basically I would have to forgo my usual Z IV shadow placement and fly by the seat of my pants on either a ZIII or even heaven forbid a ZII shadow . . och well . . life is interesting. I concluded from this that I could probably manage 1/250th at f8, or 1/125th at f11. This was starting to look a lot like:

The Garry Winogrand Experiment  

The Bog Standard Bloke With A Wide-Angle Lens Experiment

or even

The (Shit) Bog Standard Bloke With A Wide-Angle Lens Experiment 

Yep, things were looking more dire than a lone redcoat at Rourk's Drift. Well fortunately for me (and you) things perked up a bit by lunchtime . . the haar lifted and the sky was quite bright even though there was no sunshine . . come heading out time, I took a few more meter readings and came up with:

So that was better.
If I took chances and trusted my processing I could achieve a Zone IV, III or even II shadow placement and hopefully everything would work out alright.
Could it be your intrepid fruitcake photographer could achieve his goal of 1/1000th at f8?
Would he be able to grab shots of passers-by with a smile on his face and no fear of a bloody nose?
Well, now dear reader I am going to leave you on tenderhooks, because this has become far too wordy and boring and stuff, and I haven't even gone into the niceties of developers (oh boy that's a fun one - more fun than catching yer nether-regions on a barbed-wire fence I can tell you . . and yes . . I have . . .well nearly . . about 35 years ago - tore the arse out of my jeans and very nearly achieved eunuch-hood). 
So to that end (if you can bear the tension) until next time . . anon!

Och alright - you've twisted my arm - below is a scan from the negatives, so please excuse any artefacts like that faint horizontal line . . that's my flatbed at work.
Exposure was 1/30th at f16 and the film was developed in HC 110, Dilution B for 16 minutes.
I think it has the tonality I have been after for a long time.

Abandoned Building. University Of Dundee, April, 2014



  1. That viewfinder looks extra
    cool. Reminds of the one on Feininger's "The Photojournalist" ...altough that one seems to have more of an offset.

    Looking forward to part 2.


  2. Thanks Omar - I did try to do a Feininger, but underexposed, so it isn't very good . . but then I'm spoiling the next part. The finder is very good - a little distortion, but very very clear . . . I just have to get used to it.

  3. I had a chuckle at your exposure meter pics. I don't think people appreciate how gloomy it can get up here. 1/1000th at f2.8 with 1280 ISO film? Heehee. An enjoyable read once again, Phil. How do you find the grain in these shots?

  4. Hi Bruce - I haven't had the negs up the enlarger yet as there just hasn't been the time, however I would say the grain is pretty alright actually.
    And yes, I think most parts of the world would struggle with the light levels we get around here.
    I'll go more into methodology and processing and stuff in Part 2 . . . hope you can wait that long.