Thursday, September 12, 2019

Tunnel Vision

Well folks, a mercifully short one today!

Y'know, there I was farting around with digital colour stuff recently, and I would enthusiastically go out and make a few photos and come home and view them on screen and they looked nice and that was that.
None of them have ever been printed.
Same with holiday things too - see my recent posts about holiday cameras for all the boring detail . . .
You know, since acquiring a 'digital holiday compact' about 11 years ago we've only printed ONE set of photos whereas when we used to send the film off, despite the groans, we always had something to file away!

Anyway at the same time I was thinking about upgrading digitally, I was also reading a book by William Boyd called 'Sweet Caress', whose main character, Amory Clay, is a female photographer (! I know, who'd a thunk it !) . . and there was one bit in it, that hit me like an ice-pick between the eyebrows . . 
She said (semi-retired and photographing her growing family) that when colour processing and colour film started to become more readily available and cheaper to use, she couldn't see things in colour, only black and white.

"Amongst the few pictures I did take some were in colour - Kodachrome slides, expensive but becoming the norm. However even as I could see my pictures reflected the world as it was I somehow wanted the world as it wasn't - in monochrome. That was my medium, I knew, and in fact I came to feel it so strongly I wondered if, as the world turned to colour photography, something vital was being lost. The black and white image was, in some essential way, photography's defining feature - that was where its power lay and colour diminished its artfulness: paradoxically, monochrome - because it was so evidently unnatural - was what made a photograph work best.
  I would carefully rewrap my cameras    - my Leica, my Rollei, my Voigtlander - and place them back on their shelf in the cupboard and, as I locked the door on them, I wondered if I'd ever be a proper photographer again."

© William Boyd, Sweet Caress, Pub. Bloomsbury, 2015

And like a seagull coming down and crapping all over your bag of chips, there it was . . ME DEFINED.

I am a monochrome photographer.

Suddenly the fartiness and cobwebs blew away and I thought, what on earth was the point in chasing a digital dream in colour, when I only, trulydream like early Ai - they were making them back in the 1960's y'know - that is comprehensively and completely in BLACK AND WHITE.

Boyd (not a photographer, though he'll often jemmie in a Leica or Nikon into his books) has somehow managed to nail something so firmly and perfectly that I (as someone who takes a fair number of photographs) has had to stand back and think.

Thank you William.

I've enjoyed the majority of his writing over the years since discovering Armadillo back in the 1990's,  but since Lorimer Black (of Armadillo fame) I've never empathised with a character of his like I did with Amory Clay - even though we are of different sexes (well, we were last time I looked) . .

It's funny recommending books - does anyone actually read any more???

All I can say, is if you don't mind a bit of swearing and sauciness, and enjoy the living of other lives that good writing can bring, give it a shot.

Chinese Gentleman Plays Tale Of Tale's Game "The Graveyard"
V&A Dundee, June 2019
Leica M2, 35mm f3.5 Summaron, Ilford FP4+

The above was shot on FP4 at f3.5 on the Leica. I think I was braced against a wall - exposure was about a half a second. It was pretty much dark darkness, and I thought:

Bollocks, I'll have a go with the Summaron wide open and see what comes out. 

It was one of those Noctilux moments with not a £3000+ piece of glass in sight!

There's a lovely quality to the f3.5 Summaron that isn't as contrasty as the f2.8 version - it somehow lets light breath.

It was processed in my new mix of Pyrocat from Wet Plate Supplies. I am standardising down a few minutes from my usual, so now I agitate everything to 14 mins (Constant first 30 secs, then 4 gentle inversions every minute) then let it stand to 17 mins. Seems to work fine.

It was printed on some really really old Kentmere fibre - I'll tell you how old it is, it was made in Cumbria before Ilford took them over!
The paper is fine and still fast and gives super blacks - the print will outlast me and somewhere down the road if it doesn't get skipped someone will wonder what on earth was going on in 2019 (I always write printing details and dates on the back of my prints in 2B pencil).

Were I of a different bent I'd have said:

"Well the camera was stopping me taking the picture because it thought I was wrong, but I hunted through a few menus and managed to over-ride it. What you are seeing is a RAW file on a screen. The bloody lens was hunting all over the place though and the Chinese man, concentrating on leading the old lady around the graveyard, started to get really annoyed when my focus assist light kept going off."

And where's the charm in that?

Anyway, trousers firmly nailed to the flagpole.
Never say die.
Black and White tattooed on my bum.
That's me.


  1. I read the book referred to at the beginning of this piece. My major qualm with it was that the apparently good idea of illustrating it with "real" photographs was ruined for me by the total artlessness of the images.

    My old man said something similar in a letter I found when clearing out his stuff - words to the effect that his colour work just felt like snapshots, whereas the monochrome carried a certain gravitas.

    And yes. Nothing like a camera which does exactly what you tell it! Your paragraph on the perils ant-brained automatics really hit the spot.

    1. Thanks Julian - I think the thing with the book is that they were all 'found' photos from car boots etc and he constructed a story around them. Still I enjoyed the book.

      Always lovely to hear your comments - fair does a pile 'o' good!

      Anton-Le Moose

  2. Never say never, Phil. I liked your colour stuff. Maybe you should have another go but with colour print film? I feel like you about digital: I don’t value digital files at all. But if I had some nice prints from colour negs then I’d cherish them as much as the black and white stuff.

    That’s an interesting black and white pic. I thought it was a man looking out of his shed window at first. Great atmosphere and a nice bit of “glow”. Well spotted.

    1. Hi Bruce - thanks for commenting as usual - nice to know there is someone out there!

      I actually have a C41 kit in the darkroom . . .just have to get round to it - got a lot of old colour films to process actually - even if only to scan and put up here.

      Trouble Trunks

  3. You're making me think again. Can it be that we value black and white prints because we know about all the labour that goes into producing them? Colour prints go to Boots and back again, at the same time as the sliced white and the teabags. I suspect that the colour pictures were made with a camera that did most of the work too. Digital files are even more removed from the taint of the artisan.
    And now I think of Polaroid. Much the same effort for both black and white and colour. Do we value the colour ones less and the monochrome ones more? I examine my conscience and I think not.
    What if WHFT had invented colour photography (he was a very clever man) first? What might the history of photography have been then? Would there be monochrome at all? Perhaps it would be like the Big Stopper, a special effect for nerds. I don't really know, which is why I ask.
    But I make black and white photographs too, even though I carry an iPhone.

    [And ...I've just discovered the little triangle at the bottom right of this window, so I can see more than three lines of what I'm writing.]

  4. An interesting thought David - I really don't know.
    Certainly the work involved imparts some sort of gravitas these days whereas a few decades ago it was the norm! Interesting how times change.
    This being said, I've still got Black and White tattooed on my bum.


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