The Cooke in action on the Sinar Norma. Starting today off with some chrome/stainless steel, then moving to glass.
While not a requirement for doing still life (you can shoot still life with ANY camera – a point & shoot or a pinhole will work just as well as a DSLR or a view camera, if you understand the operating parameters of the camera), I love using a view camera because it lets me place my plane of focus and depth of field exactly where I want them, and I can have a razor thin zone of focus or I can have it be total, and I can control the shape of the image.
Coming in March, I’ll be teaching a still life photography class online through Glen Echo Photoworks (check their website later for details on schedule and sign-up). We’ll look at the history of still life and have weekly shooting assignments. I’ll show you how still life isn’t just bowls of fruit or flowers, and how it can be every bit as exciting and dramatic a story-telling genre as street photography, plus you can do it in your home with minimal space and equipment (all you really need is a camera, a table and a window!). Of course, I get fancier, but you don’t have to!
I got the mounted flange back from the machinists shop this week, so yesterday I got a chance to put the big Voigtlander on my 8×10 and shoot it. I set up my little outdoor studio with some quick still lifes using Coke bottles. I like my lighting simple and dramatic so I used a single 1000w fresnel. I wanted that longer duration from the light because the Voigtlander, being from 1863, has no shutter. I would need exposures long enough that I could use a spare dark slide as a manual shutter.
Here’s the lens mounted on the camera- it uses Waterhouse stops for apertures. I have one with it currently, that’s probably the equivalent of f/8.
One of the cool things about working in a studio setting like this is that the ambient light is so low that you don’t even need a dark cloth to focus and compose! I will be developing my film from last night’s shoot today, but it was nice that I could give a preview of my results right off the ground glass.
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.
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.
For those who haven’t seen the palladium printing process end-to-end, I thought I’d share a moment from the process to let you see the magic happen. It’s a much faster process than silver printing, in the development stage. The image, when exposed but not yet developed, is a “ghost” image. You can generally see the form, but not the fine details, nor the overall tonality. Depending on the overall image tonality, you may see very little at all inside the exposed borders of your print. This is why it is a good idea to coat outside the borders of your image (but not too much- every drop of emulsion costs money!) – you can judge proper exposure by looking at your borders if you’re not used to printing.
Then, pour on the developer, and WHOOSH! Magic!
And the finished print:
This was from a 35mm infrared shot, scanned and enlarged on Pictorico transparency media.
If you’re curious what a digital negative even is, or what it looks like, here’s the negative for that shot:
I have two upcoming classes this spring at Glen Echo Photoworks, Introduction to Large Format Photography, and Introduction to Platinum/Palladium Printing. I’ve scheduled them so that students of Intro to Large Format can have somewhere to go with their new camera skills. Intro to Large Format runs March 11th – April 22. The course covers what you need to know to take advantage of the medium – we start with the basics of the cameras themselves – different camera types, their parts and how they work, why to choose one type over another, lenses and lens selection. We move on to film selection and film handling, loading film and developing it. There are modules on portraiture, still life/tabletop, landscape and architecture. For the Architecture module we’ll do a field trip down to the National Cathedral.
Due to student interest, I’ve acquired several cameras for student use in-class. If the popularity continues, I’ll look into getting one or two more and setting up a rental program to allow students to check out cameras for the duration of the class.
The next class is Introduction to Platinum/Palladium Printing. I will be including a module on making and using digitally enlarged negatives for platinum/palladium printing with this course. This class runs May 5th and May 12th. This course covers the history of the medium, materials and techniques. We discuss the various tools for making prints – brushes vs coating rods, UV light sources (the sun, black-light fixtures, other options). We go over paper selection and paper handling. In this intro class we will make palladium prints because palladium is the easier medium to work with, but we will discuss and demonstrate the differences between platinum and palladium. Contrast control techniques will also be covered, and developer chemistry as well. We will work from both in-camera negatives that we make that weekend, and from digital files students bring and/or create from scans.
To register for the classes, click on the links below:
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.
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.
Another print I made this weekend – Key Bridge, in palladium. This is a 5×12 negative from my Canham. For the technically minded, I used a circa 1949 Kodak Commercial Ektar 12″ lens for the shot. It’s a very sharp lens with pleasant rendering, and a good match for the subject matter. I also want to talk for a second about the printing – this is a pure palladium print, with a touch of NA2 added for contrast. Sodium Platinum (NA2 for short) is a contrast agent you can add to a palladium print to boost the contrast if required. NA2 is very powerful stuff – a tiny bit goes a long way. In this case, I needed just one drop of 2.5% NA2 added to the 12 drops of Palladium and 12 drops of Ferric Oxalate sensitizer. NA2 comes from the manufacturer in a 5% strength solution, so you can see how little was needed to give the print some snap.
If you are using blended platinum and palladium, or trying to do a pure platinum print, and are in need of a contrast boost, you cannot use NA2 as a contrast agent – the platinum in it binds with platinum in your paper and what ends up happening is you reduce your highlights, blowing out detail, without actually increasing contrast. If you are using a blend, or pure platinum, you have several options – you can boost the contrast with a different additive, such as gold chloride, you can pre-coat your paper with fumed silica, or you can use a dichromate infused developer. I prefer adding a contrast agent into the emulsion rather than in the developer, because to do the infused developer route, you’ll need to have six or eight bottles of developers with different concentrations of contrast agent, and then you’ll have to play with chemistry to mix up replenisher for each developer concentration as it gets used. That realistically means keeping twelve to sixteen bottles of developer around. The downside to additives to the emulsion is that most of them will alter the color of the print. Gold Chloride will do anything from slightly cooler gray tones to eggplant/aubergine tones, depending on how much of it you use. Sodium Tungstate will actually reduce contrast in the print, and give you reddish brown tones. You can use dichromate in the emulsion as an alternative to the developer, but you must be careful in handling the undeveloped print as dichromate is toxic.
Don’t worry- I’m not abandoning lensed photography with high-acutance, high-precision cameras. I love my Rolleiflex! What I am doing, though, is exploring pinhole photography and other forms of lo-fi photography (my previous post with the Lomo Belair triptychs for example). I find it quite liberating in many ways – you have to quit worrying about precision, and just make images. Live with the serendipitous. Like this first image. I’m absolutely blown away by what I pulled off with it – it’s actually a double-exposure. I’m going to play around more with the idea of multiple exposures on pinhole.
Pinholes, although they are very slow in many ways, have some major advantages – because there is no glass to distort the image, they are absolutely rectilinear. Straight lines will always be straight lines. There’s no shutter or aperture to set with one – the pinhole is the aperture, and in the case of my pinhole camera, it’s f/208, which means that even in full sunlight I’m getting roughly 1 second – 2 seconds for exposure times. The shutter in this case is just the body cap – take it off, count one one thousand, put it back on. It doesn’t get simpler than that. Of course, this has a different downside – hand-holding exposures is not realistic, ever, unless you really really really love motion blur.
I like motion blur well enough, but I like it applied selectively – I like the contrast between sharp, static and moving, blurred. I like how using long time exposures captures a third dimension to a photograph, time, that we perceive as non-existent in “typical” photography where time is condensed/extracted to 1/500th of a second. Playing with time in a camera really does in a way turn the camera into a time machine. It also shows us that our concept of time is artificial. Things exist not IN time but rather THROUGH time.
Here’s a video of my friend Tracy Storer talking about the 20×24 polaroid camera. Tracy is the manager of the San Francisco 20×24 studio, and has been working with the cameras since the late 1980s in Boston and New York when Polaroid owned and operated their own studios.
Among the cool little nuggets from the video:
the Polaroid 20×24 operates in vertical only orientation
Chuck Close used one to take portraits of President Clinton in the Oval Office. Getting the camera in and out of the White House was quite the undertaking, as the camera and stand combined weigh over 240 lbs.
When you rent the Polaroid 20×24, it includes a staffer to operate the camera for you.