This is the home of Lilian Evanti, a pioneering African-American opera singer. She was a soprano, perhaps the equal of Marian Anderson (they actually performed together in 1926) but did not have the fame or success in the United States that Marian would go on to have, so she mainly performed on European and South American stages where audiences (and management!) were more open to black women in operatic leading roles. She was born in Washington DC and resided here for much of her life. You can tell from the ironwork on the outside of her house that this was a musical home.
These were all seen on the street, at and around the U Street/Cardozo Metro station. There’s no real connection other than geographic proximity.
I took a stroll through the riverfront park in Georgetown this weekend. There are some steps down to the water that are a popular hang-out spot for people of all ages. This young couple was enjoying the view together, and the little boy was fishing a few steps down from them.
In the same park there is a large fountain just made for people (mostly kids, but I do see some young-at-heart adults occasionally venture into it too) to run under and get wet to relieve themselves from the heat of a scorching summer day. It’s almost as refreshing to watch them running in and out of the fountain as it is to do it yourself! (not that I’m going to do it while wearing a Rolleiflex around my neck)
And just for your curiosity, no, I’m not lurking in the shrubbery to take this photo – there are two planters, one at each end of the fountain, and photographing down the length of the fountain makes shooting through them a natural point of view. Plus the branches of the rose bush provide some nice framing for the shot.
Public drinking fountains are becoming rare creatures. Even rarer are ones that work. They’re kind of like frogs – their disappearance heralds a collapse of public infrastructure the way frogs disappearing are a sign of ecological collapse. When we are no longer willing to provide safe, clean, free drinking water to the public, I think it says something about us as a society, and it’s not complimentary.
To get photo-geeky for a moment, this was shot with my usual Rolleiflex 2.8E, and to ensure I was getting the extremely narrow depth-of-field I wanted, I used Ilford PanF film, which is a very slow ISO 50, and rated it at ISO 25 for good measure. I like PanF for the extremely fine grain it provides, and it allows me to use large apertures in bright daylight, however it does get very contrasty, more than I normally would like, so processing it is tricky to keep the contrast under control.
Here are two images of the same scene, one in color, one in black and white. I’m sharing them together to demonstrate how the change from one to the other totally changes the way we feel about the image.
First, the black and white:
Notice the visual emphasis – how the tones draw your eye to specific parts of the scene. What do you find yourself looking at, and relating to? What compels you? What emotions does this evoke?
Now the color:
This has a very different balance. The colors change the emotional timbre of the image, as well as the focus point for the viewer, even though both photos were taken from essentially the same vantage point. I think it’s fair to say that in the black and white version, your eye and attention keep coming back to the boy. The image has a more stark, somber feel to it whereas the color image is much more lively, and balanced – it’s easier to view both sides equally. To be entirely fair, some of the impact of the black and white version is due to the way in which it was exposed and processed. This version is fairly high contrast, which makes the dark areas very rich and the whites very pure white. Were it done differently, there would be a greater balance between the boy and the garuda in terms of tones, and it would have a different resonance.
For wont of anything better to do on Sunday afternoon, I went out for a stroll in the 90+ degree heat (what was I thinking!!!) with the Rolleis for company. I wanted to do a little film and development test to see how well my results would come out. I’d say I nailed it based on these shots. The film I was testing is Ilford PanF, a very slow, fine-grained emulsion. The film speed Ilford recommends for this film is ISO 50. Quite a few folks I know recommend giving it a more generous exposure and rating it at EI 12. I shot some before at EI 25 and got good but not knock-your-socks-off results, so I thought I’d try the 12 and see what difference it makes. I took a risk and changed two variables at once – film speed and development technique. Normally I use Rodinal at a 1:50 dilution and develop for 14 minutes, agitating the chemistry for five seconds out of every 30 seconds. This time, I used Pyrocat HD for my developer, gave it twice the normal dilution (I usually use it diluted 1:1:100, but this time I used 1:1:200) for 45 minutes, with 5 seconds of agitation every 15 minutes.
This development technique is known as semi-stand development. Semi-stand uses highly dilute developers for greatly extended periods of time, with minimal agitation. What this does is it allows micro-contrast areas to form on the film where byproducts of the development process accumulate on the edges of light and shadow. These byproducts serve as a mask and lead to a boost in contrast at that edge, increasing the appearance of sharpness. If you look at the emulsion side of a negative that was developed using semi-stand, stand, or extreme minimal agitation technique (variations on a theme), the emulsion will actually appear in relief as if it had been etched.
This technique is also useful for managing high contrast situations because it allows for greater adjustment of the length of development to manage highlights. When you develop a roll of film, the shadow areas develop first, and once they have reached their maximum recorded density, they stop. Highlights will continue to develop long after the shadows have finished. This is one of the primary means for controlling contrast in an image- if the highlights are known to be too bright before developing the film, you can simply reduce total development time to keep the highlights from becoming unprintable.
These first two images are of the Capitol Bikeshare rental rack near my house. I’ve photographed the Bikeshare racks before, with full racks of bikes, to capture the receding perspective of the bike wheels. This time, I shot the bike rack with only one bike in it, to work with the late afternoon shadows created by the rack itself, and also to demonstrate the popularity of the Bikeshare, at least in my neighborhood. As you can see, on a Sunday afternoon, with the heat rising to over 90 degrees F, all but one of the bikes from this rack are in use.
Very much in the same stretch of 11th Street as the bike rack is where these two scenes can be found. The stone house is a bit of a neighborhood landmark – there are maybe half a dozen or less in the neighborhood with similar facades, and the rest (hundreds of houses) are varying types of brick or stucco over brick. The basement door photo was taken as part of this exercise, not only because I like wrought iron, but because the scene had extremes of contrast that I wanted to see if I could tame with the semi-stand development.
These two photos are of neighborhood icons – you’ve seen my color photo of Cavalier Liquor at night before. It has been the subject of many a photograph by fans of urban texture, neon, and Deco architecture. Hellers Bakery has been in their current location for many many years, and if you saw the movie “State of Play” starring Russell Crowe as Cal McAffery, a hard-luck, hard-boiled reporter who uncovers a Washington conspiracy, you’ll recognize their neon sign from below his apartment window. I’m very annoyed with Hellers that they don’t illuminate their sign very often, so it makes it very hard to get a good photo of it after dark!
And last but not least, an appropriate sign to end the post with:
I was determined to avoid crowds and public gatherings on July 4th. Post 9/11 I get nervous in large crowds, especially when ingress and egress are difficult, and when large numbers of them are drunk. Not that my PTSD* gets triggered and I feel like the walls are closing in or anything (although I did get near-panic at Obama’s first inauguration- that was just WAY too many people and it was hard to move- even if something rather pedestrian happened like someone fell and got hurt, or a bottle of carbonated beverage froze and burst and people panicked THINKING it was a gunshot, you could have gotten trampled to death in the stampede!). Anyway, back to the real story – so I wanted to avoid the National Mall, because it’s just a filthy zoo of humanity on the 4th, so I called up a friend who had expressed an interest in posing for me, and we went out along the Potomac to some spots I know that are fairly private and make for good shooting. These are the first few images from the shoot (we’re still negotiating the use of the rest of them).
These first two portraits I particularly like. The profile shot was taken with a Rolleinar close-up adapter on my Rolleiflex. The Rolleiflex by itself has a minimum focus distance of 3 feet, which is fine for general subjects, but for flowers, bugs, macro photography in general, and even tight portraits, 3 feet is not close enough. So Rollei in their infinite wisdom invented the Rolleinar close-up filter sets. They come in four strengths – 1,2,3 and 4. The 4 is extremely rare and you almost never see one on the market in any size. The #1 cuts the minimum focus down to 1.5 feet, the #2, to .75 feet, and so on. I have a #1 and a #2. At some point I MAY get a #3. Some people complain that the Rolleinars add too much “distortion” to portraits and as such are bad for doing them. I say shots like this disagree with that notion. If you need more proof, check out the work of Richard Avedon, as well as my friend Sanders McNew (the book cover for “Triptych: Sixteen Months” looks like a good example).
The backlit portrait was shot normally, no close-up filter required. I was figuring out the exposure for this shot and used my meter in incident reading mode. I had a brief doubt when taking the shot because the meter was suggesting only 1 stop different from what would have used for a non-backlit subject, but I went ahead and used the setting anyway. My doubts were renewed when I looked at the raw negative – reading a negative is a skill any serious film photographer should develop, and I’m pretty good at it now, having looked at literally thousands of negatives I’ve produced over the years, but I’m still, always, getting better at it. This was a case in point.
Then we got into playing with props, specifically, an ostrich egg and some leather masks I got at the Maryland Renaissance Festival.
I’ve been carrying around this ostrich egg shell for a while – I got it as a prop to use for another shot in my Tarot Cards: Re-imagined series. But getting the model who is supposed to use it to show up and sit for me has been a challenge, so it has been lingering, unloved, in my prop bag for some time. Well, it earned its keep with this shot. This is just a straight scan of the negative, so I’m still playing around with how to render the ostrich egg better – I want to preserve detail in the shell without it looking gray, or getting too blown out. Just as I got the shot composed, clouds kept drifting in and out of the sun’s path, changing the nature of the shot. I watched and noticed that the blown-out brilliant highlight caused by the direct sun on the shell’s smooth surface was greatly reduced by the cloud cover. By the time I got the meter reading for the cloud-diffused light, though, the clouds had moved on and it was back to full sun. So a waiting game ensued. I took this shot with partial, thin cloud diffusion because it was getting too hot for either of us to keep standing there waiting for a big cloud to drift back over again!
Here are the mask shots. Not much to say about these really – they’re fairly self-explanatory with the masks doing the talking. The masks were also bought for use in the Tarot Cards: Re-imagined series, and this is giving me new impetus to take up the series again and try to finish the Major Arcana.
I shot these all with Ilford PanF because it is such a slow film, and I wanted to try and shoot a lot of these wide open to get the blown-out, swirly background the lens is capable of producing. On the Rollei this can be a challenge with faster films because the fastest shutter speed is 1/500th of a second, which still isn’t fast enough in bright daylight to let me shoot the way I was looking to if I used even FP4+.
I don’t know if it was because I had been bottling up my human figure creative juices for so long, or the fact that I had a good model who understood how to pose and move, or having the right tool in my hands for the job, or what, but I got a crazy amount of successful images from this shoot- fully 24 out of 36 were ones I wanted to work with. That’s an amazing hit ratio, especially when you consider that of the 12 I didn’t pick, probably 1/2 were variations on a theme of ones I DID pick. So an 80% +/- hit rate? WOW.
* I was working in the Pentagon on 9/11, when the plane hit. Low-flying aircraft still make me jittery, but 12 years on, that’s about it. I have it pretty good all things considered.