I have to toot my own horn a little today – my spring session of Introduction to Large Format Photography is sold out! I’m even adding three additional seats today to accommodate the folks who contacted me yesterday about registering. The class will cover the basics of how to use a large format camera. We’ll get an understanding of the camera itself – the various types of large format camera, the components of the camera, how to use it, and especially in this digital day and age, WHY to use it. To paraphrase Edward Weston’s comment about color photography: “There are things you can say in large format that you can’t say in anything smaller”. We’ll have specific lessons on film handling and processing for large format, portraiture, studio/tabletop photography, and architecture.
I teach at Photoworks Glen Echo, a non-profit photography education center in Glen Echo Park, which is operated by the National Park Service. Glen Echo Park is a former amusement park a few miles away from downtown DC in Glen Echo, Maryland on the banks of the Potomac River. Originally envisioned as a suburban housing development for the elite of Washington at the end of the 19th century, the only resident to ever build and take up residence was Clara Barton. It became a Chataqua meeting center, and then in the early years of the 20th century, an amusement park. It rose to its peak by being at the terminus of a street car line running out from Georgetown (a neighborhood in DC and formerly a separate incorporated city in itself). The park endured changing demographics and evolving tastes, but closed up shop in 1970. The US Park Service took over and converted it into a community art center where people can come to learn pottery, glassblowing, cast and fused glass, stone carving, photography, painting. There is a children’s dance theater and puppet theater, and the 1902 Spanish Ballroom has square, contra, ballroom, and swing dancing events practically every night of the week. The centerpiece of the park is now and has been since its installation in the 1920s, the Dentzel Carousel which is freshly restored and fully operational. The carousel offers rides daily from May to October.
Photoworks is the photography center, located in the Main Arcade building. This year marks their 40th anniversary. They offer a full range of classes from introductory photography for children and teens to advanced classes on topics such as The Long-Term Photo Project, iPhone Fun (getting the most of mobile device photography), Photographic Editing and Presentation, and Platinum/Palladium Printing. Photoworks has a full wet darkroom for film processing and black-and-white printing up to 16×20 inches, a fully equipped digital darkroom with Macintosh workstations, Epson flatbed scanner and Nikon 35mm dedicated film scanner, and Epson printers for up to 24″ wide prints.
I had stopped in this wine and beer shop on my way home from work yesterday to pick up a six-pack of Mahou, a Spanish beer I have been dying to find since I had one on a very hot afternoon in Salamanca years ago, and as usual, I had the Rolleiflex around my neck. The owner’s eyes lit up when he saw it and we had a long chat about photography in between his customers. I mentioned that I do all my own darkroom work, both black-and-white and color. He remarked that he never did get into color, but was very much in love with black-and-white. This brought to mind the old Edward Weston quote, “there are things you can say in color that you can’t say in black-and-white”. Very true- the two media have different emotional resonance frequencies. This photo is a great example of the difference.
It’s a cute scooter that when photographed in color, is white with a medium-blue splash on the rear fender, and reads as cheerful and fun. In black-and-white, it has a much more serious edge to it, and it reads almost macho, for a scooter. Like a member of the Sons of Anarchy wouldn’t feel compelled to commit suicide if forced to ride it. Thus the semi-ironic caption – “badass scooter”. No scooter ever really is menacing, but in black-and-white, this one is respectable at least. I’m sure some of my motorcycle enthusiast friends will disagree with me on this and tell me in no uncertain terms that it is impossible for a scooter to be butch.
This was also a lens test of sorts for my new-to-me 1959 Tele-Rolleiflex. I wanted to see not only how smooth the out-of-focus areas are with it, but how much telephoto perspective compression it gives – the “3-D effect”, in other words. I’d say it pops more than the standard, but it’s still subtle as the lens is not even twice the focal length of the Standard lens (135mm vs 80mm for the standard).
I shot this as another test of the Tele-Rolleiflex, to see what it could do as far as separating the background and foreground. This cast-iron bollard with the dual lions’ heads is on the sidewalk outside ProPhoto, one of the last remaining real camera stores in DC now that Penn Camera/Calumet is gone.
ProPhoto is tiny. They relocated from their old store location on I Street to new digs on Pennsylvania Avenue, and cut their space by 2/3rds. But the important thing is that they’re still in business, and now at least the photo paper stock they do carry is all in-date. The most critical thing for me is that they have a repair service on-site, and their repair tech is qualified to work on Rolleiflexes.
The latest acquisition in my collection – an unnamed Corporal in the US Army, photographed by Alexander Gardner.
If you look carefully you can see the service stripe on his sleeve. This designates three years of service, so in all likelihood this was taken in 1864, as Gardner was working for Mathew Brady until late 1862, and opened his own Washington DC studio in 1863. Soldiers with the three year service stripe would have been quite rare before 1864 due to the politics of enlistment in the first years of the war and the relatively small size of the army prior to 1861. I’m not sure how long after the War ended he continued to use the “Photographer to the Army of the Potomac” logo, but it most likely ceased within a year or two after the war, as the civilian population quickly tired of reminders of the irrepressible bloody conflict.
I just discovered one reason why Gardner studio imprint CDVs are so much less common than Brady studio imprint CDVs – Gardner ceased photographing in 1871 and opened an insurance firm, whereas Brady continued working as a photographer until his death three decades after the war.
First and foremost this was a test of my new toy, my Tele-Rolleiflex. I wanted to see what it could do in terms of depth-of-field compression and the look of out-of-focus areas. Then I noticed something in the photo itself – the repetition of a gesture. There are three hands holding cellphones in this scene, all in the middle of the same activity.
This inspired the title for this piece – The Cacophony of the Modern World – because it’s somewhat ironic. There is an entire civilization living vicariously through their smartphones, wandering through beautiful spring days staring and pecking at screens not much bigger than a business card, never stopping to look up, never engaging the people around them, staggering zombie-style through life. Except for cars and machinery, the world is becoming eerily silent.
Outside the WHO building, there is a series of flagpoles, most in bronze, with a few at the far end that appear to be bronze-ish aluminum (probably modern replacements). I wanted to capture something of the receding-to-infinity effect of the line of them. All winter they’ve been barren, but yesterday for the first time I’ve seen them flying flags of all the American nations (from the US and Canada through the Caribbean nations to Argentina). I will have color images of that coming soon.
I think I need to go back and re-shoot the handrail, as the near end seems a touch out-of-focus when it should be totally sharp. Part of the reason for this is that I’m still getting used to my new-to-me Tele-Rolleiflex (it has a 135mm Zeiss Sonnar f4 lens on it, as opposed to the normal 80mm Planar f2.8 on my standard Rolleiflex). The Tele has a shallower depth-of-field, and it also has a relatively far minimum focus of about 7.5 feet.
Perhaps my favorite shot of this series- I love the repetition of the columns and the arc of the building with the related but contrasting vertical stripes.
A different view of the columns, from behind.
As a side note, I keep short-handing the name of the building to the World Health Organization, but in reality it is the World Health Organization/Pan-American Health Organization building, but WHO/PAHO is a bit unwieldy, and the full name even moreso.