The Belair and its Russian Lens

For those curious what the heck I’ve been talking about when I mention my Lomo Belair X/6-12, and the Russian glass lens for it, here you go. The Belair is an odd little beast – collapsible folding strut camera, takes 6×6, 6×9 or 6×12 centimeter negatives depending on which insert you use, is manual focus, scale focusing (you guess the distance and set it on the lens, and compose through an un-coupled viewfinder), has only two aperture options – f/8 or f/16, has manual film advance via red window, yet has an automatic shutter over which the only control you have is changing the ISO dial. Bulb exposures are an option.

The camera out of the box comes with some plastic fantastic lenses (a 90mm and a 58mm). The 90 has perceptible but not egregious distortion, reasonable contrast, and acceptable sharpness. The 58 is, well, not so good. The viewfinder for the 58 has less distortion than the lens does! After the Belair had been out for maybe 6 months or a year, they introduced a limited run of Russian-made all-glass optics for it – a 90mm and a 114mm. I got into the Belair game too late to be able to buy the glass lenses from Lomography, as they were sold out. The lenses were also quite expensive from Lomography, the Belair vendor. I believe they were something on the order of $300 apiece.

The Belair with the 114mm lens
The Belair with the 114mm lens

After having used the Belair with the plastic lens for a while, I got the itch to try and find the glass lenses. That’s when I discovered that they had all been sold, and nobody had any old stock sitting around. They didn’t show up with any frequency on Ebay either. I had particularly wanted to find the 90mm, but no dice. Then along came someone selling their 114mm. The price was good, so I jumped on it rather than take a chance on missing out.

Front view, the Belair with the 114mm lens
Front view, the Belair with the 114mm lens

In addition to the primary reason for getting the glass lens – the glass in the lens with its exceptional sharpness and flare resistance – the ability to precisely control focus is another benefit. The plastic lenses have four distances marked on the barrel – infinity, 3 meters, 1.5 meters and 1 meter (infinity, 9 feet, 4.5 feet and 3 feet for the metrically challenged). If you wanted to focus in between, you had to guess at the distance and hope the depth of field would carry the day. The Zenit-made 114mm and 90mm lenses have many intermediate distances marked on the focusing ring, which is silky smooth without being loose. The ability to much more precisely place your focus means that you can intentionally place objects in or out of focus. This is a major artistic control and a very welcome addition.

The Zenit Belairgon 114mm, and its controls
The Zenit Belairgon 114mm, and its controls

I’m including this scan of a negative made by the 114 so you can see the sharpness and particularly the flare resistance – I’ve had more flare on my Rolleiflex with the lens hood attached with the sun NOT in the picture. While Russian camera bodies may have been shall we say quality-control challenged (particularly in the Soviet era), their optics are truly outstanding. This should be proof enough to put doubt to rest that Russian lenses are up to par with their German and Japanese peers.

Hampton House, Towson, Maryland
Hampton House, Towson, Maryland

The image was shot on ten year out of date Ilford FP4+, and developed in Pyrocat HD.

Sinister Idyll: Historical Slavery in the Modern Pastoral Landscape – Hampton Estate

Here are the first two from my visit to Hampton National Historic Site, in Towson, Maryland (just north of Baltimore). More will be forthcoming, but I wanted to get these two posted right away. Hampton was at its peak, a several thousand acre estate. It was built as the country home for the Ridgely family, who made their early wealth through ironworks. One Ridgely would be governor of Maryland. The house itself was famous for being a centerpiece of entertainment and gracious living, having greenhouses and a subterranean icehouse on the property, providing the Ridgelys and their guests with seasonal fruits, ice water and chilled beverages year-round, an extreme rarity in 1790 when the house was built. The main house has thirteen bedrooms on three floors, a sitting room, great hall, dining room, parlor, library/music room, kitchen and laundry.

House Slave Quarters
House Slave Quarters

This octagonal garden, roughly 8 feet on a side, is built inside the foundations of the house slave quarters. It was a two-story structure, and some three families of house servants shared it. While the US Park Service guides (who give outstanding tours of the property) tell you explicitly about the structure and its purpose, no marker in the garden indicates its history.

Park Road, Hampton
Park Road, Hampton

Today, Hampton Lane divides the Hampton historical site. What is remarkable about the property is that so many of the farm structures remain – the dairy with its spring-water-fed cold water bath for the milk and butter, the horse stables (the Ridgelys were big horse racing fans, and kept the stables within eyesight of the mansion, another unusual feature, as well as a no-longer-surviving racetrack of their own), the overseer’s house and slave quarters for the skilled labor (stable hands, dairy workers, etc).

You can see the overseer’s house inside the white picket fence to the right of the scene. Hampton is open as a public park, and many people come there to ride their bikes and exercise their dogs. Today it is a beautifully maintained pastoral landscape in suburban Baltimore. While again, the Park Service does yeoman’s work in interpreting the space, and has provided outstanding documentation on the website for Hampton, the interpretation of the site requires you to actually go inside the structures and talk to the park service guides. It is possible to visit, and if you don’t engage, be completely oblivious to the fact that the parkland you are walking through exists by and for slave labor.

Palladium Printing- developing an exposed print

​​

​ 
Just a real quick video of an exposed print being developed. This is what a develop-out print looks like, and how quickly the developer works. The print is almost fully realized in the first twenty seconds of the development cycle, but you still need to give the full two minutes to let the highlights fully develop. 

This is what the raw, unexposed double-coated emulsion looks like. I double-coat to get better shadow depth and highlight separation. You can see the two coatings on the lower left. The reason I’m willing to double-coat is that I’m making such small prints that the extra cost isn’t prohibitive. 


And the finished print. I think the end result justifies the added labor and expense. 

SINISTER IDYLL – HISTORICAL SLAVERY AND THE MODERN PASTORAL LANDSCAPE – Sully Plantation

Sully Plantation is another historic homestead in the Washington DC suburbs. Today, sited across the road from the Udvar-Hazy Annex of the Air and Space Museum and the runways for Dulles International Airport, it is a tiny oasis of parkland in the middle of major development. This is one of the older properties I’ve been to, with the current house begun in 1793 and completed in 1799. It was built by Richard Bland Lee, Robert E. Lee’s uncle and the first Virginia representative to Congress. The property covered some 3,100 acres. It had been in the Lee family since the 1740s.

Kitchen at Sully
Kitchen at Sully

This is the kitchen at Sully. On the other side of the massive fireplace is the laundry. While it gives the appearance of bustling domesticity and comfort, it is still the site of slave labor that would have been conducted from before dawn to well after sundown seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year. The comfort and ease of life of the Lee family and their guests would have been the product of this room.

Recreated Slave Cabin, Sully
Recreated Slave Cabin, Sully

It bears minding that this one-room cabin with no glass in the windows, no insulation in the floor, walls or ceiling, a single stone fireplace for warmth in winter, and a long walk to the well, would have been luxurious by the standards of the field slaves. They most likely lived in large barracks-style buildings at considerable remove from the Sully house, with less privacy and fewer conveniences. Contrast this with the big house, with glass pane windows, carpets, fireplaces in every room, imported mirrors to brighten the parlor when the sun went down, feather beds, and a kitchen outside of the house to keep cooking odors and the risk of fire away.

Sully House and Dependencies
Sully House and Dependencies

A view of Sully from the slave residence’s perspective. On the left you can see the stone dairy house – a structure with spring-fed pools to keep milk, butter, and other perishables cool year-round. Next is the smoke house where they would have smoked meats to preserve them, and then the laundry and kitchen, connected to the big house by a covered walkway. All this would have seemed like an alien world to the field slave, and still a strange place they worked in but did not belong to for the house slaves living in the cabin with this view.

Walkway from Kitchen to House
Walkway from Kitchen to House

I’ve subtitled this one “Fifty Feet is a Thousand Miles” – although that covered walkway from the kitchen to the house is a short distance, walking it with breakfast, lunch and dinner made for someone else’s consumption every day of your life must have produced some significant cognitive dissonance for the women who worked the kitchen.

I remember hearing from a friend whose wife was a docent at Sully that Mrs. Lee remained friends with and corresponded with her personal maid for the rest of her life, even after her maid was freed from slavery and she had returned to Philadelphia where she was from. These kinds of friendships, and they did happen, certainly complicate the narrative of slaveowners and the enslaved, but it is still no excuse or balm for the absolute moral failure that was slavery. The friendship of a woman and her maid is not compensation for the remaining hundred-plus men, women and children who worked twelve hours a day in heat and cold, rain and snow, planting, tending and harvesting crops all for the profit and comfort of someone else without compensation or even decent living conditions.

Sinister Idyll – Image Accepted to Size Matters at Medium Festival of Photography

My image “Bachelors’ Quarters, L’Hermitage” from the Sinister Idyll series has been selected as a finalist in the Size Matters exhibition at the Medium Festival of Photography in San Diego.

To quote the prospectus for Size Matters:

Size Matters is the signature exhibition of the Medium Festival of Photography and San Diego’s month of photography: PHOTOLAB. We’re proud to partner with Lensculture and Low Gallery to host Size Matters from Oct. 22 – Nov. 12, 2016. We’re excited to welcome Allie Haeusslein, the Associate Director of Pier 24 Photography in San Francisco, as the 2016 Size Matters juror.

Size Matters celebrates photographs that offer an intimate viewing experience by showcasing the power of photographic prints less than 10” in the widest dimension. Medium will host an opening reception with the exhibiting artists on Saturday, Oct. 22 from 7-10pm.

Allie Haeusslein is the Associate Director at Pier 24 Photography in San Francisco, one of the largest spaces dedicated to photography in the United States.

We’re honored to have Allie as the juror for Size Matters, selecting the exhibition content and purchase award. Her background as a photography curator, writer, and historian promises an unforgettable exhibition.

I will try to attend, and I hope to see some of you there!

Bachelors House, Best Farm
Bachelors House, Best Farm

2 1/4″ x 4 1/4″ palladium print on Hahnemuhle Platinum Rag 100% cotton 320gsm fine art paper. Edition of 10.

The Boathouse Dock, Georgetown

I was up on the old abutment for the C&O Canal viaduct that connected the canal from Georgetown to Alexandria over the Potomac River and looked down to the boat dock for the Georgetown Boat House and caught this composition. I had been photographing Key Bridge with my 5×12 (previously described here) when I looked down and saw this scene which cried out to be shot in the format.

Boathouse Dock, Georgetown
Boathouse Dock, Georgetown

The simple geometry and the contrast between the rigid lines of the dock broken up by the deck chair contrasted with the smooth water of the river really makes the image. Without the deck chair, it would actually be pretty boring. But adding that one small compositional element makes it go from so what to interesting.

Sinister Idyll – Historical Slavery and the Modern Pastoral Landscape – Best Farm

This series of images are what inspired my current project – Sinister Idyll. Sinister Idyll as a title came about from standing on the Best Farm property at the Monocacy National Battlefield monument outside Frederick, Maryland, and seeing the beautiful summertime landscape of rolling hills covered with cornfields, knowing the horrors of American slavery that were practiced on the property. At the end of the 18th century, the Vincendieres, a French Creole family fled to Maryland from Haiti to escape the slave revolts.

Headed by a woman, Victoire, they re-established their plantation life outside Frederick, Maryland, on a 750-plus acre property they called L’Hermitage. At their peak, they owned some 90 slaves. This was an extraordinary number – across the Potomac River, Oatlands plantation had 120 to work 3500 acres. It is not known why they had so many slaves as records of their business do not survive, and they may have been trying to cultivate labor-intensive crops such as tobacco. What is known, however, is that they were also operating a stud service – slave breeding for hire – and that their own methods for treating their slaves were harsh enough that the sheriff was called to their property multiple times by neighbors on complaints about cruelty and mistreatment of the enslaved population.

Bachelors House, Best Farm
Bachelors House, Best Farm

This building is the Bachelors’ House, a secondary dwelling for the young men of the family to live outside the main house until they married and started their own property and family. Today it presents an idyllic scene, but on the ridge behind it and to the right was the location of three slave cabins, each not much different in size to the Bachelors’ House, but housing roughly thirty people per structure.

Corn Crib, Best Farm
Corn Crib, Best Farm

This is the corn crib on the Best Farm. It is called the Best Farm today, rather than L’Hermitage, because the last family to operate the farm was the Best family – they leased the land from 1863 into the 1990s. The corn crib is another site of slave labor in an otherwise bucolic landscape. The stone barn you can see in the background would have housed farm animals and machinery. It is a far better, more sound and protective structure than the cabins where the slaves would have lived. You can see the shadow of the big house intruding on the foreground, much as it would have loomed over the lives of all the enslaved population.

Stone Barn, Best Farm
Stone Barn, Best Farm

If the stone barn gives you echoes of northern France, you’d be correct – architecturally it is styled after the structures of the homeland of the Vincendiere family. It is one of the oldest stone barns in Maryland, if not in the US. There is a tremendous sense of irony that a structure styled after the home of freedom of thought and equality of mankind would be the site of barbaric enslavement. There is also a tremendous irony in such a property being operated in such a way by a woman in the first decades of the 19th century, when such things were highly anomalous at best.

Corn Field, Best Farm
Corn Field, Best Farm

Today this field grows rich with corn. Clear blue skies and puffy white clouds cap the scene. In 1862, in this cornfield, a turning-point of the Civil War almost happened. Robert E. Lee’s army had camped here, on the march to Antietam. Left behind was a copy of General Orders #191, which detailed Lee’s plans. It was found wrapped around three cigars, abandoned in the camp. Delivered to General MacLellan, they practically handed him Lee’s army on a platter. As usual, MacLellan failed to follow up completely on this intelligence coup, and the end result was the single deadliest day in U.S. military history with some 22,000 dead, wounded or missing, and a war that would drag on for three more long, bloody years.

I have chosen to photograph these scenes in panoramic format because the wide aspect ratio emphasizes the landscape surroundings and provides a context for the structures and places. I purposefully chose to print them as very small contact prints to force intimacy with the subject – to view them you can’t hold yourself at a remove and distance yourself from the context – the echoes of slavery on this landscape are very much still with us if we stop for a moment to look and listen. I am printing them in palladium because the warm tone of the image evokes a certain historicity of the scene, reminding you that these hidden scars upon the landscape and the soul of the country are eternal.

My plans are to continue this project on locations throughout the Washington DC metropolitan area and expanding beyond as time and budget permit. Next up, Sully Plantation.

Photography, Alternative Processes, Really Big Cameras, and other cool stuff

%d bloggers like this: