I’ve been engaging in series of work in response to triggers from my environment – there was that moment of eureka that started the six year journey resulting in the Sinister Idyll series and the gallery show at Gallery O on H. Now, with the COVID-19 crisis, I’ve been trying to work on a series coping with being in a near-quarantine situation, and how do we respond to/deal with the stress and anxiety of walking around every day in a public space that could kill you. After barely leaving my house for the last four months, I noticed that certain things were turning into patterns, most specifically, delivery food. I was cooking at home more, but I was also getting delivery from places I hadn’t in the past, and due to “contactless” delivery those delivery items and their remnants looked different.
Since I’m not leaving the house, and now I had all this accumulated subject matter, I decided that my response would be in the form of still life images. I brought out my 8×10 view camera and set up a small studio on my patio where I could work.
These are just two preliminary images from the series. I’m continuing to work on ideas and presentation, but it’s a planted seed that will grow into something. Working on a series like this is very different from my documentary series Sinister Idyll because there, I had to go out and photograph my subjects in the places where I found them, in the circumstances they existed in (it might be rainy, or crowded, or the wrong time of day). Inspiration came from what I found when I found it, and I just had to interpret. Here, with doing still life, it’s a very different discipline because you’re creating something entirely de novo – yes, the delivery bags and food containers and beverage bottles are what they are, but I have to arrange them in a cohesive and aesthetic manner, I have to choose the juxtapositions, the backdrop, the lighting, the depth of field… everything. There’s nobody to blame for a shot not working but myself. I like the discipline of it, but it’s a big challenge.
As is customary for me, these are all going to be palladium prints. I love working in a hand-made medium, and the tactile nature of the photographs is so pleasing to me. The entire process of making them, from setting up the studio through using the large view camera, to developing the film and making the print, really, means that I put so much of my soul into the practice of making the photograph.
Here’s the little studio set up, if you want to see it. It serves as proof that you don’t need much to work with to make images- just a will to do something and a vision to make it happen.
Here are three recent additions to my optical glass arsenal. First is the perhaps most interesting of them – an R. Beard Daguerrian lens made by T. Slater, London, Ca. 1855. It’s the oldest lens I have, and probably the rarest, most exotic one. The back story is that when Daguerre announced his invention to the world in 1839, he got the French government to buy the license and pay him a lifetime pension. A similar offer was made to the English government but they refused, so Daguerre entered into negotiations with a private citizen in the UK to license the Daguerreotype. The first licensee sat on his rear about it, and in short order, a more enterprising individual, Mr. Beard, bought out his interests. Due to a quirk in English patent law, Beard was entitled to represent himself (as you can see in the inscription on the lens) as the sole patentee of the Daguerreotype (when in reality he held an exclusive license, and the right to sub-license to others). Beard insisted that anyone buying a license to the Daguerreotype process from him had to mark EVERYTHING with “R. Beard, Sole Patentee”, including things like frames and cases for images, and as we can see here on the lens, lenses and cameras too! This one is made by T. Slater, Optician. Mr. Slater was an optician in London, today better known for his telescopes than for his camera optics. This lens is probably a Petzval design, and from what I can tell, it just about illuminates a 5×7 inch plate. Useable coverage is probably quite a bit less than that.
This next piece is my Voigtlander Petzval. If you pay any attention to such things, you’ll probably have heard people geeking out about Petzval lenses, especially in wet plate collodion circles. Petzval lenses are named after their inventor, and are famous for providing a relatively fast lens (very important when working with wet plate where the approximate ISO hovers around 1). They’re also coveted today for their notable defect, a pronounced curvature of the plane of focus. This gives the “swirlies” that you see in many wet plate images today.
Voigtlander was an Austrian/German lens manufacturer and an early pioneer in photographic optics. This lens is from approximately 1864, and is an 11 inch f3.4. To give you an idea of the size of this thing, the front element is 80mm in diameter, the barrel is 6.5″ long, 8″ if you include the lens hood. It weighs in around 2kg (4.5 lbs). The funny looking tab sticking out the side is a Waterhouse stop – an early mechanism for aperture control that relied on flat slips of brass with varying diameter holes cut in the center.
Last but certainly not least, is my Taylor, Taylor & Hobson Cooke Series II 10.5″ f4.5 lens. This one is not nearly so old as the other two, dating from approximately 1914-15. This one came to me in rather rough form, but it will live again to make more pictures after the thorough cleaning I gave it.
Lurking in the background behind the Cooke is my Hermagis Eidoscope #3 – it’s an 11 inch f5 lens, and most specifically a soft-focus lens. You control the soft focus effect by changing the aperture. The larger the aperture, the softer the effect, the smaller, the sharper. It’s actually a Rapid Rectilinear design, not a Petzval, which some people think that it is because they think that all brass lenses are Petzvals. The Cooke is neither a Petzval nor a Rapid Rectilinear, but rather an Anastigmat, but it too has a reputation as a soft-focus lens, the soft focus being controlled by the aperture, and also by adjusting the spacing on the front element. On the small Cooke lenses like mine, there is no official soft-focus mechanism, but on the bigger, longer portrait lenses, they had a ring that you could turn to adjust the soft-focus effect. Some enterprising individual took it upon themselves to engrave some marks around the front of the barrel to indicate where to turn the front element for soft focus effect. Once I have this lens mounted, I’ll give their markings a try and see what it does.
This is all about using selective focus to emphasize a subject, and use of exaggerated perspective to draw the eye into and through the image. This is one of the things I like extreme wide-angles for – the exaggerated foreground-background relationships that happen when you put them very close to something give you a new non-eye-like point of view on your subject that really forces you to consider it formally, abstractly and within its context.
I happened to look down, and then saw this admonition to “Look Right ->”. I found it mildly amusing that traffic flow was considered so confusing that it was necessary to tell people which direction to look before crossing the street. And I love the crunchy texture of the pavement and sidewalk. This is at the corner of Finsbury Square where it abuts City Road in central London.
This is another image from the Lomo LC-A 120. The only real reason I ever mention the cameras I use nowadays is to prove a point about there being little to no correlation between the “quality” of camera you use and the quality of the images you make. I have very little control over the LC-A beyond what I point it at, when I choose to trip the shutter, the film I load in it, and the rough guesstimate of the distance between me and the subject. Everything else is really out of my control. But the decisions that are most important are the ones I do have control over – what to point it at and when to trip the shutter.
Knowing my camera and how it records images is also helpful to getting what I want out of the image, of course. But this image above would have not been any more successful if I shot it with a Hasselblad Superwide, a Rolleiflex TLR, or my Fuji XT-1, each of which offer far more control and precision than the LC-A.
I’m entranced by the range of things happening in this photo. The geometry of the space (especially the grid on the floor) leading your eye back toward a vanishing point, the contrast between the stark modernity of the room structure and the gnarled, organic forms of the ancient Greek temple, the static, permanent nature of the architecture (all the moreso thanks to the twenty-five hundred year old temple in the room) providing backdrop for the hustle-bustle of people circulating the room, and the movement around the people stopped stock still to contemplate the temple. This was probably another 1/2 second exposure, maybe 1/4, hand-held with the Lomo LC-A.
A moment of serendipity as I was photographing the red granite pharaoh’s head in the British Museum caught the face of a passer-by in the lower right corner breaking through a beam of light, an equally enigmatic expression on their face as on the Pharaoh’s. In the far background, a second Pharaoh looks on.
As many of you who have been following my blog for any period of time are now aware, I’m a camera-toy junkie. My latest foray in camera toy land has been into the world of “toy” cameras. I’ve been working for several years on my Sinister Idyll series using my Lomo Belair X-6/12. Many would call it a “toy” camera because it is a plastic fantastic body, with aperture-preferred automatic exposure only, only two aperture choices, and manual guesstimate focusing only. It’s upgradeable (as I have done) with two Russian-made glass lenses (which are absolutely superb), but beyond that, it’s a glorified point-n-shoot that takes panoramic images on 120 roll film.
Well, I just acquired its spiritual cousin, the Lomo LC-A 120. The LC-A has a super-wide lens, also a Russian glass lens, and a fully automatic shutter and aperture (you have no say whatever in the exposure other than if you game the system by changing the ISO, and no idea which aperture it’s using because there is no indicator in the viewfinder, just a slow-shutter warning light). Focusing is achieved by selecting one of four focus zones via a lever on the side of the body. I’ve been plinking around with it here around Washington DC, and just gave it its first serious workout on the road when I took it with me to London.
One of the most obvious characteristics of the lens is a noticeable vignette in the corners. Applied properly, this is a very effective tool. Thanks to the automatic aperture, it’s not always predictable how much you’re going to get (see comment above about the aperture – with wider apertures and infinity focus, you get more vignetting. With smaller apertures and closer focus, you get little or no vignetting).
As you can see from the people moving around in this scene, the camera is quite sharp even at a larger aperture, and the extreme wide-angle (the same field of view as a Hasselblad Superwide) lets you hand-hold at speeds that would be very difficult with a normal lens on a reflex camera. I’m guessing this was somewhere between 1/8th and 1/2 second.
Even with the lens being so wide, you can achieve selective focus effects with it if you get in close. I highly recommend getting in close!
An extreme example of hand-holding (yes, I know – I have supernaturally steady hands). This was at least a one-second exposure.
The LC-A is a great travel camera because it’s so wide, it allows you to include a near-human-eye field of view, and the extreme light-weight and compact form factor make it very easy to take anywhere and carry all day. Ditto for the minimalist operation technique – you really just point, set focus range, and shoot.
Back here in DC, you can see another example of the vignette effect. I did tweak this a little to amplify it, but this is not a significant manipulation beyond what the camera did.
I like getting multi-layered images with partial reflections in glass. And it’s a bit of a self-portrait too, with my shadow falling in the image. I love how the construction workers have the microwave set up and working in the middle of a kitchen remodel – you have to have your priorities straight and keep the coffee warm!
A demonstration of not only the extreme field of view, but the color rendering of the lens. The camera has a reputation for deep, saturated colors. This was taken with 10+ years out-of-date Fuji Pro 400 H.
Again, you can never really get too close. This was a test of the close-focus/selective focus capability (the minimum focus setting is 1.5 feet).
Nice saturated colors even on decade-old film.
One of the things I’ve been enjoying about these “toy” cameras that give you very little control over your photograph is the way that they in many ways demonstrate the lack of need for that level of control to make good images. The extreme wide-angle of not only the LC-A but also the Belair force you to think very seriously about your composition, use of perspective, and manipulation of forced perspective to emphasize/de-emphasize compositional elements. With the Belair, I do have a “B” setting for the shutter to do long exposures and intentionally play with time, something I don’t have on the LC-A (but wish I did). Time is the one other critical component to a photograph that we do and simultaneously do not have control over – I can control when I open the shutter, and to some extent when I close the shutter (if I want a “correctly” exposed image, I must close it when it needs to be closed, not when I want it to be closed), but beyond that we have no real control over what happens WHILE the shutter is open. Things happen on their own. Movement is never fully predictable. Moving subjects speed up, slow down, change direction, or stop without warning.
I’ve started thinking of these cameras that I’ve been using – the Belair and the LC-A – as “serendipity boxes” because to use them successfully, they require an acceptance of serendipity, chance, and fortune. They’re life-metaphors in a way – just like in my own life, I can point them a certain direction, look at specific things, get closer, and turn away. But if I don’t learn how to see through them, to take in the periphery, work within the uniquely skewed perspectives that they offer, I’ll miss out on things that are presented to me because they didn’t fit in the tightly-controlled box I wanted them to fit into.
Having a little fun with the panoramic function on my iPhone in class today. Took this picture of two of my Large Format students doing studio portraits with a 4×5. I dug into the vaults and found some of my remaining stash of Polaroid Type 55 and let the students burn a couple sheets. I was more than pleasantly surprised with how well it worked- my Type 55 has to be a decade out of date by now, but the pods still processed nicely. I’d post some results but my students ran off with the negatives before I could copy any of them.
This was also my first test of my PocketWizard wireless flash sync setup on large format, and it worked very well. I got a little clamp from B&H photo that locks onto the front standard of my camera, and attached a hot shoe to PC adapter to the clamp. The PC cord connected the shoe to the sync on the shutter, and the PocketWizard sat in the shoe.
The other PW unit was connected to my Calumet Travelite monolight. This setup let me use my Sekonic L358 meter which has a PocketWizard trigger module, so I could meter wirelessly. That’s a big boon even when doing still life, and an even bigger one when shooting portraits, because that’s one less wire for you OR your sitter to trip over. If you look carefully at the front standard of the camera, you can see the PocketWizard module sticking out of the side in the photo.
I’ve walked past this mural for years, and they re-do it every so often. The primary change from visit to visit is the color palette, but over time, major compositional elements change as well. I’m showing the previous version (circa 2013) and now both in black and white just to keep the comparison visually fair.
The bird’s head on the right is a mosaic, originally including mirror fragments, now painted. I think the fisheye treatment in the first image works well because the mural already has a bit of a fisheye perspective to begin with.