Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Amateur Hour

Morning folks and greetings from the land of night.
Tayside has, for nearly a week now, been caught in a repeat system of low pressure and the sun hasn't really shone at all - in fact it has been a week of unrelenting rain and dreichness the like of which I can't ever remember. So on that note, I thought I'd cheer us all up with a trip back in time!

About 30-odd years ago, after my father had died and I had moved away to the all too distant environs of Dundee, my Mother (a woman of great resources and proper Blitz Spirit) battled on valiantly in our little cottage in the middle of nowhere.
I've written a lot about that place because it still means so much to me, however for her it was a rural solitude too far. She did try, but eventually succumbed to the intense loneliness, and, typical of her nature, decided she had to do something about it. So, aided and abetted by my Sister she decided she would like to move back to my Father's birthplace, Lincolnshire. She got a map, stuck a pin in it (literally) and looked at properties in the environs of the pin, ending up in a wonderful wee village about 20 miles from Boston, called South Kyme.
At the time I thought she was mad, truly barking, but after I visited her I realised that she'd made exactly the right choice. South Kyme had (at the time) a pub and a shop/post office and one of the strongest community spirits one could ever wish for. Community spirit isn't for everyone mind, but for Mum is was perfect and exactly the sort of elixir a sorrow and silence-hardened spirit could wish for. They welcomed her with open arms and she, in her typically ebullient nature, made friends quickly.
Her cottage was a semi-detached farm worker's cottage, it was small, cosy, had no front door (because of the prevailing winds), had an inside and outside toilet, an old pig-shed and a wonderfully overgrown garden that needed licking into shape. For Mum it was a panacea. The wonderful sandy soils of Lincolnshire meant she could grow wonderful veg, and everything she touched seemed to turn to green abundance. It was a little oasis of peace and happiness and very much a place of her making.
Ali and I visited it together before we were married (obviously I'd visited it before that too) and then at semi-regular intervals thereafter. When Alex Turnips came along we took him too and he loved the garden, my Mum's cooking and her slightly dotty happiness. The cottage only had two bedrooms - Mum's was at the front, and the guest room was at the rear. This initially had 2 single beds in it, but eventually this was changed to an enormous double on the bottom, double on the top, bunk affair, which took up the majority of the room, but was fun and comfortable.

Yes OK Sheepy, very interesting, but wot has it got to do with us?

OK - nothing actually, but it sort of does, because whilst staying in South Kyme I was fortunate enough to have several really good photographic adventures, so I am going to detail one of them and explain why I have decided to re-print the negatives.
At the time life was photographically very simple for me - I had a couple of cameras, but really all I ever used was my 1965 Rolleiflex T (called Ollie) and a rather spindly but functional Slik tabletop tripod. Metering was done by the ever-present Gossen Lunasix 3S, and apart from a cable release, that as they say was shallot. Incredibly simple really - I had a 16-on conversion kit for Ollie, but I rarely used it. Obviously though, as is so typical of our hobby, I hungered for better gear.
It is so typical isn't it - you always think the grass is greener and the better image is over the next horizon/new camera and life goes onwards till there really isn't much further to go and I've done that.
LF? Yep - TWO 5x4 cameras . . . no 10x8 though, that always seemed a bridge too far from the lugging around point of view. 
Good 35mm? Yep - got a Leica, got a full range of Nikon F stuff too. 
120? Well, yeah apart from the aforementioned Ollie, I also have a really nice old Minolta Autocord with an astonishingly good lens; I've also got the Koni-Omega rapid with the 90mm Super Omegon - again a truly wonderful lens, and really I have taken my 120 leanings to their nadir with the Hasselblad and the 60mm Distagon which is without doubt worthy of its reputation and the best lens I own . . . so where do I go now?
Well it's kind of perverse and in rather the same way that purchasing a Paul Reed Smith customised Custom 24 back in the early 90's (ordered from the factory no less) made me feel that I didn't ever need to struggle with guitar playing and subsequently meant I virtually never played another note on a guitar, so, buying the Hasselblad has all but deflated my photographic sails for the moment. 
I haven't wanted to buy a single thing since buying it, because where do you go? 
And more importantly WHY?
I love using the Hasselblad so much I feel that maybe I should cut-out everything else and just use it but then I know that won't do and I'll want to move into other formats at other points of time . . . and although this is an aside, it was this feeling about using my old cameras that made me think about my friend Ollie The Rollei again and realise that what I had with him was a very special relationship. 
So I started re-examining the several hundred rolls of film I'd taken with him and that led me to remembering photographic journeys and that led me to thinking about my Mum's hoose and hence this blog! 
You see, being a Sheephouse isn't all random stuff - there are sometimes thought processes involved and sometimes they work out fine!
So you've got the setting and the camera - how about film?
At the time I was using a combination of TMAX 100 and HP5+, but what I had forgotten from the notes was that I used Ilford's incredible Perceptol exclusively. 
I think that was Barry Thornton’s influence - I seem to remember him going on about it in "Edge of Darkness" - a great book by the way and well worth reading. In my notes I have written that I used it at a Dilution of 1:3 and at around 24° Centigrade, which seems way too hot, but that's what I have written.

Oh yeah, here's another aside:
Speaking to Bruce and people at Scottish Photographers meetings it seems like organisation of photographic media is something virtually non-existent
It is easy and about a billion-times worth doing in that you can find things easily. For this blog, I went to my notebooks (which I have kept since film number 28) had a quick trawl through to 2004, scanned the notes, got the film numbers, found the negatives (all numerically organised per format) got the contact prints, again numerically organised and stored in boxes per format and went to the darkroom. The whole exercise took under 5 minutes. 
There was no 
"Oh schhhhhit, where the feck are those fecking negs? I knew I had them here, but they've gone OH SCCCCCHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHIT!" 
Nope, I tra-la-la'd and skipped all the way to the darkroom from my study (a skip of albeit two skips, but all the same). I did the printing and filed everything back where it belongs. 
A Piece of Piddle.
So all I can say to you, is that, if you haven't got your negatives and contacts organised, please spend some time and do so - doesn't take long, can be as simple or not as you like (I like 66/1, 66/2, 66/3 . . or 35/1, 35/2, 35/3, or 54/1 . . . get my drift?) but is so worth doing I shouldn't even be telling you.

Right, onwards with the printing (at last they cry, at last) and here to welcome you to her lovely hoose is my old Mum, Lillian Mary Ellen Rogers - be sure to get some fresh welshcakes and butter too whilst you're on your tenth cup of tea!

Lillian Rogers

Actually, this is from the same bunch of films the prints for the article are from. That one was made on Kodak TMX 100 and developed in dilute Perceptol.
It was made on Ollie the Rollei at f5.6. No idea of the shutter speed though. It was handheld too and demonstrates why Rolleis are probably the ultimate portrait-making tools.
It has captured my Mum perfectly and of a lifetime of photos, I think this is my favourite.
The print of Mum is an older print, on Ilford Grade 2 Galerie - it is untoned, and I made it about 4 years ago. I haven't needed to change any contrast or brightness whilst scanning - it is, as is.

Right, the prints below are all reprints.
I had had a go printing them all back in 2004 when the negatives were made but I always felt the prints made then lacked that certain something and were a bit heavy-handed as it were - you'll know what I mean if you print much - things were either too contrasty or too dark or the balance was off a bit, or I'd just not got things spot on . . . you know the sort of thing.
These reprints were all printed on that ancient Agfa MCC fibre I have been trying to use up, and because of base-fog, they've all been printed at the equivalent of Grade 4 (I dialled in 100 units of Magenta on the DeVere's colour head).
Despite its obvious age, the Agfa is still an extraordinary paper and I fell whilst the scans below are OK, they haven't done any justice to the prints physical qualities - there's an air of the wonderful fenland liquid light visible in the paper which doesn't translate very well to the screen. Och well, that's life I suppose - you could maybe pop over some time and have a cup o' tea and I'll show them to you . . .
The prints are all developed in Fotospeed developer, stopped in Kodak Indicator and fixed in Ilford Rapid and then toned in Kodak Selenium and air dried by hanging from a line in my darkroom using plastic clothes pegs - why plastic? Wooden ones actually transfer splinters to the print! I had to use a little PotFerry on print 3 just to aid the atmosphere, this was thoroughly washed under running water before the selenium - if you don't you end up with mysterious staining.
Oh, and that curious curve to the rebate at the top of every frame? It's the curve of the film as the photographs were taken - these negatives were held in the glass carrier on my DeVere (and were thus utterly flatter than a piece of paper, steam-rollered and then placed under a 20 ton weight - in other words FLAT) and whilst I always do that old photo-journalist trick of braking the feeder spool (with my thumb - thus increasing film tension) as I am loading the take-up spool on Ollie (and indeed any camera that uses 120 film) it has done nothing to take away the horizontal curve across the film's horizontality (as it were) . . . see me afterwards for a more thorough explanation!
See what you think though and I'll detail the wee adventure after . . . just going to go and put the kettle on.

Kyme Fen 1

Kyme Fen 2

Kyme Fen 3

Kyme Fen 4 

The adventure unfolds:

Now, if you can imagine . . . it doesn't happen very often in this world these days, but I was awoken by a cock crowing! I guess a lot of people would call it annoying, but I think my farm boy genetic roots didn't mind at all - a new day was dawning, so it was up and at 'em!
The light was just greying into life and I left Ali and Joe soundly asleep in the bunks, hauled my 'outdoor' clothes on, grabbed the camera and tripod and crept downstairs and out into the mild and mystical dawn. Dawn, especially in Spring and Summer is my favourite time of day - the air just smells right and there's no noisy cars around, though this being rural Lincolnshire there was a fair bit of haulage going on - farm produce and livestock - that sort of thing.
The Kyme Eau (which is what it is called) will give you an idea of the areas deep roots, and though that is a Norman name, in reality this little piece of heaven was undrained Fenland occupied by fishers and farmers right back into the Neolithic.
There was a fantastic book about SK by Margaret Newton - it was called "South Kyme - The History Of A Fenland Village" (ISBN 0952481804) . . . good luck finding a copy if you're interested!
Anyway, luckily for me, even though the area is 'proper' working farmland and has been worked and worked for centuries, somehow the light which must have shone over those olden Fens has been retained and there is an air of stepping back in time (despite the telegraph poles in KF 2 and rubbish like the MacDonald’s carton in KF 4).
On that morning that light existed.
It is watery and soft and translates beautifully into silvery greys in prints. Honest, it is so transaparent and fresh and quite unlike anywhere else. The skies are big too around that part of the world due to the flatness of the land and this lends a vast airiness to the overall scene.
As I stepped out along The High Street (actually just a road through the village - if you want to see it - Google Maps - put in the postcode LN4 4AD) I could feel an atmosphere gathering. As I often do when setting out to seriously make photographs, the combined weight of all the old 'tog ghosts lands upon my shoulders willing me on to make the most of it.
I turned left and heading towards the Church following the metalled road and then climbed a gate to access the path that runs along the river. The Church is beautiful and was visited a number of times by Henry VIII - it still retains that air of a place cut-off from the world and it really was like stepping back in time.
The fields shimmered with a really heavy dew and my feet and trousers were utterly soaked in a few steps, but what did that matter to me! The dawn chorus was full-on, spiders webs dripped with dew and light and I can truly say that life doesn't really get much better.
Aware of just how fleeting the dawn was, I shot quickly with the Rollei T mounted on my trusty, Bambi-legged Slik tripod and an old Prontor cable release pressed into action.
I surprised myself, getting more soaked as I strode boldly across wet fields. No wellies for me - pah!
Here are the notes I made at the time:

Please excuse the scrawl, but I can read it . . .
And then the sun arose properly bathing me in warmth and light and making my trousers steam! I knew that that was it, I could take no more, but with a little luck I had got what I wanted to get.
The proof though would be in the developing.
I slowly wandered back to Mum's house breathing the fresh air and listening to the sounds of a world awakening.
I let myself in, quietly climbed the incredibly narrow and steep staircase, snecked the latch on the bedroom door, got undressed and slipped back into bed beside a warm wife and (despite the cock still crowing) went back to sleep for another couple of hours.
We got up to my Mum's clatter and her usual "just-to-get-you-going" mega-feast of breakfast and another day of our holiday.

Now that Mum is dead I can look back on those holidays we had there with great fondness for all the laughter and fun and talk.
Ansel Adams once said someone described Edward Weston's Carmel house as "the little house with the big mood" . . . I think I can say the same about South Kyme.

And on a final note:
I know most of you probably think it is a faff, however time and again I've found making notes about every film you expose to be revelatory and totally useful at later dates! My original notes were made in a small Tesco notebook, however these days, my notebook of preference is a nice little ruled Moleskine - they're well-made, have acid free paper and the little band to hold the pages together lasts and lasts. I usually detail everything like exposure, lighting conditions, film, film number, developer, temperature, agitation as well as small details of the trip - here's a recent trip:

They really do come to life, especially after a few months have gone and you've forgotten everything you did to make a certain picture. As far as I am concerned, make notes - it's a no-brainer.

TTFN and remember to phone your Mum.