Saturday, February 07, 2015

The 1960 Space-Age Time Machine


Regular readers will know that a while back I bought a rather nifty old Canon 28mm f3.5 LTM lens. I was chuffed with said lovely piece of brass, chrome and glass and said so here.
Well, since then I've been bad . . nay . . not just bad, but neglectful . . you see I've barely used it, and I can't quite figure out why, because it's lovely to use and adds a certain air of early 1960's gentlemanly charm to my Leica M2 - they look the part don't they!

Tip Top - the 1960 Space-Age Time Machine.
(OK, so the Canon is a Type IV, mid-1950's model, but it didn't have the same ring to it)

I think my problem is, that up till now, I hadn't actually printed anything properly that I had photographed with it.
Notice I say printed, because although I had scanned some of the negatives made with it and had done a few initial crumby work prints on RC paper, I hadn't actually spent a huge amount of time in the darkroom with real quality photographic materials.
Well more fool me, because as such, I was entirely unaware of how fantastic the little Canon was for (how shall we say) . . ahem . . 'vintage tones'.
There, bugger it, that's all the remaining nice ones in the world snapped up by digi-twitchers in search of the unattainable. 
Oh yeah I can hear it now, "It's a bargain in current terms  . . . blah blah blah . . . impeccable build quality . . . blah bloody blah"
And you know what, for all that the world has progressed; for all that digital photography is the be-all and end-all; for all that all but a hard-core of junkie film users even pay attention to such things, I still think there's a hankering for The Golden Age.
You know, Eugene, HCB, Ansel, Wynn, Minor, Paul, Walker etc etc etc.
Their photographs have 'that look'.
"What's that Sheephouse?" I hear you cry .. "What look might that be man, and how does one attain it?'
Well, it's the look of liquid silver.
Of greys that shimmer with depth and airiness.
Photographs of timing and composition and skill made by people that relied on their innate human creativity and not the splurge of a billion frames a second in the cause of hoping to 'capture' something . . anything . .  worthwhile.
It's THE LOOK man, and if you need an arse like me to explain it to you, then you jolly well need your eyes tested!

In short (or long) it is nothing short of why I wanted to photograph in the first place and why I don't think I have ever really achieved my goal and go on searching. (There, how's that! I've hobbled any photographic achievements I have ever achieved). But it's true.
It's also a look I don't really see at all these days and I think the reason for this (apart from the obvious one of completely different materials from then to now) is down to a certain hiccough in the world of glass: coating.
An uncoated lens as you'll no doubt know delivers flare and often low contrast (caused by the flare).
A single coated lens will deliver more contrast, and slightly less flare.
A multi-coated lens has precious little flare, but tons of contrast. True, the little Canon is I believe multi-coated, but it's 'soft' (not physically, but visually) - there's no way you'd get the same look from a modern lens . . 
And then there's coating and coating - stuff that is so soft you could just stare at it and it marks, stuff that is so hard you can smash it against a brick wall, but all of it made with the thought in mind that contrast is better than flare.
(There's a stupid caveat to this too - I recently had the chance to handle and see the results from a couple of Lomo panoramic cameras . . and you know what . . they didn't have the look, even for their so-called 'lo-fi' cache . . . and actually, thinking about it, pinhole camera results don't have the look either  . . at least they don't to my eye. I experimented in pinhole years back and found it to be a faff for something that I just thought was so-so. If you want dreamy and out-of-focus, you'll have to go LF and back to the earliest of barrel lenses (or the misuse of close-up lenses) in my humble opinion . . . anyway . . that's another story!)

So what is the dashed lens bringing to the party, given that a pinhole has no glass??
It's impossible to quantify for me - maybe if I were to read Arthur Cox's Photographic Optics, I'd understand completely, but for now, let me say that the lens acts as a (oh goodness . . . here he goes again) sort of surrogate portal to a different reality.

Now if you could just hold on a min whilst I get the sleeves of this straight-jacket sorted, I'll try and explain myself. Think about it, it does. You're shoving a three-dimensional world, down a narrow piece of metal and glass, to work its magic on a piece of sensitized material and then you are chemically altering said material, and then you are bringing what was once three dimensions into the 2D spotlight of a piece of sensitized paper. In other words, you've stopped time, and transformed 'reality'!
Hah, bet you never thought of photography like that and to me, it is all the more incredible for it.
Your print is an alteration of reality. Yes it is reality (mostly) and yet it is far removed from it.
Of course I could just be wittering a load of old shoite, but if it gets you thinking differently, then I am happy.

Ah, that's better, the tea is starting to kick in and whilst I've spilled half of it down the front of my nice new jacket, I can feel its calming properties . . . so, where were we? Ah yes, coating and contrast!
I think therein lies the problem.
The world simply isn't a contrasty place. It can be, but on the whole, no, it isn't, not really.
Same with your eyes.
Can you honestly say you see everything in razor-sharp, super-contrasty HD? Nope, me neither. Infact, centrally whilst everything is fine, peripherally, the world is a blur.
Stare at something backlit, and I have a low-contrast, flare-ridden mess with blur and my eyelashes take on sunstars!
Totally imperfect and that to me is what is lacking in most photography - that air that the world is imperfect and that light is transitory and always changing. I'm sorry, but the hyper-sharp, hyper-toned, hyper-coloured "reality" that gets toted as photography these days looks to me as fake as a plastic surgery disaster. 
It has nothing to do with how humans see the world and everything to do with the damned idealism with which we are encouraged to view everything in life. I mean, what happened to human frailty and mistakes?
You know, I almost hate "perfection", but I really LOVE real perfection.
To wit, I recently ate a Spanish vanilla cheescake at a tapas restaurant that was so good I started crying - it was perfection - you can ask Ali. Honestly - it sounds daft but it is true and gives you an idea of the sort of person you're letting inside your head with all these thoughts.
I'm thinking about it now, and I'm also thinking this picture by Mr. Edward Weston from 'The Family Of Man' exhibition and book, this too is perfection:

If there is one picture in the world that has made me want to sell everything and purchase a 10x8 camera, it is this. When I first encountered it in an original copy of 'The Family Of Man' book, I was gobsmacked - the composition and the tones, the artful 'looseness', the light and simply everything about it states "Master Craftsman At Work". It looks casual but is anything but; there's contrast, yes, but it's not too contrasty. You don't get the full measure from the screen, but there's suitable detail in the shadowed trouser area, from correct exposure, and there's also flare, but skillful processing and printing have rendered that a pleasing part of the whole - it's pure craftsmanship - the contrast is provided by the light and the processing, not the lens.
I wish I could make something as powerful

This by Mr. W.Eugene Smith, this is perfection too:

NYC Harbour. July 1956. Nun waiting for survivors of SS Andrea Doria

To me this is up there as one of the finest 35mm photographs ever made.
Look at is closely - it isn't sharp at all, anywhere, and yet, Oh Goodness - WHO CARES?!
It speaks to the soul in a way that is hard to define - pure genius.

Imperfections besiege us as photographers, and that is part of the fun to my mind. As I've said many times before, developing a film is like paraphrasing Forrest Gump 'you don't know whatcha gonna git', because your technique can be down pat and perfect, but for all that, there is still room for mistakes and wonder, for happenstance and joy. For surprise. For humanity and glitches and weirdness (like the reflections that I wasn't aware of in the third print below).

And so, sorry to say, it is on to me and my stuff, after all that's the whole point of these exercises isn't it . . me, me, ME!
These were grab shots off of two different films made whilst away in Edinburgh for a bit. Film was TMX 400, developed in 1:25 Rodinal. I reckon I was shooting at about 1/125th at f11 or f8 with the tiny Canon 28mm and the M2 combo.
Strange to say, I think they almost look made up, set up and contrived and yet these were as they happened and totally disassociated from each other. The only parameters being time and walking around in different places.
See what you think.




I might be marking my card here and putting myself up for criticism, but to my eye, they sort of have that look. Again, you are hard pushed to get it off the screen, but in real life handling the prints, the highs sparkle a bit, the mids are creamy and dreamy and the blacks contrasty, but not overtly so. I am happy with them, which I suppose is the main thing.
They were printed on some ancient 10x8" Adox Vario Classic - a variable contrast, museum weight paper that hasn't been made for a few years now - and developed in Fotospeed print developer and then toned in Selenium for archival purposes. It's a nice combo, and I've filed them away as a sequence in some archival print sleeves. I am a happy bunny.

Here's another print from the same films, this time made in (if I remember rightly) St Andrews - can't remember what the occasion was though . . . 


Again, this is filed away archivally - I am chuffed, and do you see what I mean about the look from the lens? I am delighted with it and how it has interacted with Kodak TMX 400 (a bloody fine film) and with 1:25 Rodinal. This is a seriously good combo - grain is remarkably well controlled and (with some judicious gentle agitation) very unobtrusive to my eyes.
What I like about this photograph and print is the silveriness of everything and also that the machine by the door of the 'van, looks like an abandoned robot from the 1960's. It was probably made at 1/125th at around f16 (the exposure you fool . . not the robot). Detail is great too so I am asking myself why am I not using this lens more?
Well, I suppose the 90mm Elmar supplanted it (having been bought in haste at a bargain price) and I have really enjoyed using that, but for now and maybe into the Summer, I am heading out with the Canon. It's a testimony to the quality of Japanese engineering.
Happy days!

And that's it, so till next time, take care and get yourself out and take some photographs, and if you can, if you truly truly can . . please make some prints on real 'wet' photographic paper
You might well get a surprise.