Sing in the Light to make a Harmony of Darkness

The more I practise wet-plate (collodion) photography, the more I realise how much has been lost from our culture due to the “convenience” of digital technology.

I have been thinking hard to put into words the reasons I prefer the restrictions and errors, the dust spots and chemical mistakes I have to accept with traditional photography. Why do I avoid the simple manipulations I could use with photoshop to “enhance” an image, decline to scan an image and print with expensive and time consuming chemistry, when for a fraction of the cost and the time I could shoot, modify and print digitally, with high quality inks, to a very high standard – generally cleaner and sharper than is possible with a mechanical camera, on an emulsion of chemistry on plastic or glass (or tin) and printed onto paper (or glass etc) coated with more expensive and fickle chemistry. Or not even make a print – simply send a digital image through the Internet to be seen instantly on any computer screen.

Well, the truth is I do this – here is a tintype I took this week…

5x4 tintype - 18 seconds f4 (ish)

5×4 tintype – 18 seconds f4 (ish)

This was a quick portrait I did of another photographer, it is to be used for the publicity material for an upcoming exhibition If you are reading this then you are seeing a hand-held snap I took of the tintype which was on our dining-room table, lit by a convenient table lamp – I took it with a 4/3 digital camera, so I am happy to use this equipment, there is no other way I would have been able to simply show it on this page (or Facebook or anywhere else).

But you are not looking at the original – you can have no idea of what the original represents. OK, it looks much the same – but it isn’t.

It occurred to me that the difference is, to me, the same as going to a live concert compared to hearing the same sounds on a digital (or even vinyl) player. Live music will probably have crappy acoustics in the venue, musicians will make mistakes and it may be uncomfortable and will certainly be more expensive than listening at home – but which is preferable – for me I would much prefer to hear something I loved at a live performance than to hear it from any recording. Live music has “soul”.

Possibly the most famous, probably the most important and certainly the oldest poetry we know is Homers’ Odyssey and Iliad (or Iliad and Odyssey, whichever way round you prefer) – This was made to be performed live – but – importantly, it was sung, not narrated or quoted, it was sung. It says so at the beginning of the Iliad.

Thanks to the need for companies to continue to make big returns for their shareholders, we are caught in a vortex of consumer evolution which is accelerating the redundancy of “goods” (or should some of this be called “bads”) so the marketing departments can use their skills to create in us a “need” to upgrade our possessions. For sure, but using technological innovation, many things can be made easier to use to get a result. Any digital camera today is much much cheaper to make due to the use of electronics and plastics and it can record and enhance an image very simply and at minimal cost (of the image) – but by not giving the user the need to understand what the hell is happening, the image taken has no need of any form or structure.

The image provided by a digital camera is a convenience and usually a compromise and will come from the programmed enhancements of the computers in the camera, not from the skills and training of the user.

In skilled and artistic hands the digital camera can be used as a tool to make images – David Hockney created with Polaroids, fax machines and now uses an iPad to paint with, he explores and embraces all tools which “enable” him. For me, he is a wonderful artist. So I am not saying that digital technology is in itself bad, but I am saying that a great deal has been lost by replacing the disciplines of traditional photographic procedures and processes with the simplicity of automatic “smart” cameras is a loss. It is a loss of perception and has enabled a tidal-wave of unconsidered images to engulf us.

I want to “sing” my pictures – to do this I have to learn my craft – I also want to make good images, to do this I have to learn to be a poet, a good poet.

Seeing the Light, Feeling the Darkness

My friend Barbara Heide is a photographer. She is a good photographer and shares her work through Internet sites, she has also made some books of her photographs about places and people she knows well.

Barbara is also one of a group of us who meet regularly to discuss things like poetry, images, philosophy and cricket (in truth we never discuss cricket, but it sounds less pretentious than the other stuff). We call it “The Odyssey” (allusions to Tennysons’ Ulysses), Carole calls it “The Nutters Club”

But, I have a problem. Barbara loves showing her work on the computer and, as she uses a digital camera she does a lot of exposures, so there are often up to 100 images to consider.

I believe it is very hard, even for a great photographer, to make one or two good images, images worth showing and sharing, in a month of work. Recently I was in Paris at the Cartier-Bresson exhibition. One of the greatest photographers ever with a creative career of over 60 years. But, the exhibition was too big – over 500 images far far far too many – and, in my opinion, many (most) were irrelevant and not worth putting on the wall for the exhibition. I am sure these were important if you want to study the life of the man, but I want to see and feel the images and, quite frankly, I don’t give a damn about the other stuff. It was the same at other exhibitions I saw this year, Brassai, Capa etc. It’s the same for all artists, luckily painting takes more time than pushing a shutter button, so usually an exhibition of paintings is less overloaded.

But with digital photography, I am often presented with scores and scores of snapshots all taken in a short time-frame. Many are simply the same shot from differing perspectives and perceptions, others are a multitude of landscapes, street scenes etc – each one perhaps has merit, but the visual overload of “yet another interesting door/window/wall/tree/field/hill/cloud, etc etc – completely defeats the purpose of sharing images. I am not saying they are all bad photographs or bad photography, they would be useful for the photographer to improve their perception – but please please please show me a few of the ones which tell me something – tell me a story – make me think as well as exciting me by the form and light I see and which was perceived by the photographer.

My other rant about digital photographs is that I know most, if not all, are electronically “enhanced” by both the cameras on-board computer and by other software by the photographer – so I know what I am seeing is something created and designed to be seen on a light emitting computer screen from a distance of 50 to 90 cm – not by reflected light on a wall from over a meter away – perhaps it is this that takes the “soul” away from digital work.

OK – all the technical stuff is (mostly) irrelevant if the image tells me something – if there is a story, if it creates in me a feeling – look at Capas’ “the falling soldier” often called the greatest photograph of the 20th century. Technically if is not good, but this is irrelevant, it is a very important and an extremely strong image and invokes deep feelings.

A photographer should (in my not so humble opinion) strive to show me something which makes me “see” and “feel” what they saw and felt at that moment of time – and then – only share with me the one single image which is relevant to that purpose. Less is more?

It was my son Jack’s birthday yesterday and he asked for a film camera. I gave him a simple Olympus OM1 outfit and one roll of film (Fomapan 100)- but – I only put enough film in the cassette for 10 exposures and suggested he looked for and took a picture of just one subject to share with me. He seems very keen to learn and I hope to carefully teach him to expose and develop to Zone System principles, so the sooner I can get him onto sheet film, the better (or collodion, but that is a different story). One image a month – a good goal.

Here is a picture from Barbaras’ “image poem” last week which did say something to me…

Collodion photography at Villa Roquette

Hands used for collodion photography – stains of silver nitrate

The purpose of this blog is to share our life at Villa Roquette and to tell you about our vacation accommodation there and the Photographic Workshops we are starting from Next January

I Would Like a Real Camera for my Birthday

My son Jacks’ birthday is on Sunday and he has asked me for a camera. He wants a camera which takes film, to take Black and White photographs which he will have to learn to print in the darkrooms.

For the last two years I have been building my darkrooms and labs here in Villa Roquette, so that we can offer photographic workshops and encourage other teachers and professors to come and have workshops here for “alternative photographic processes“.

I have also been “collecting” a big selection of classic equipment for students to borrow. Most of the items we need have not been made for many years some of the cameras I use are over 120 years old, some much older, although some of the best are from the 1930s to 1970s.

To be sure of getting good equipment I have, of course, bought far too much stuff, so Jack has been helping me to catalogue and sell it on ebay. This seems to has given him an appreciation of the magic we are working with, so he asked for camera.

So, what do I give him?

He is learning from scratch, he will need to make mistakes to learn. So taking and developing each film one at a time makes sense, he can then see the results of light reading, exposure and development of the negative. But this really means sheet film, so do I suggest the smallest I have, the 6×9 cm Mamiya with a sheet film back – or the 5×4 inch Speed Graphic?

Or perhaps a roll film camera – the Rolliflex 6x6cm?

The larger cameras I have are mostly for wet-plate collodion, although they can use film (or glass plates), I have them up to 10×12 inch, but this is not really practical for carrying around everywhere.

Small is beautiful, 35mm roll film is cheap(ish) (if you load it yourself), but you lose the ability to expose develop each frame as you wish (I teach Zone System photography) and shooting 36 frames at the same exposure rating and then having to develop them all the same defeats the object of the Zone System and makes learning difficult and slow (and expensive). But with 35mm film, the selection of cameras and lenses at low prices is (still) excellent.

So 35mm it is, but with the caveat that each roll has only ten exposures on, so it is for ONE visualised image and exposure and development is for that only.

OK – a 35mm film camera, so what format? The usual is 24mmx36mm, but there is also half-frame 18X24mm and square 24x24mm – I thought keep to 24×36, this gives a more latitude for composition while he is practising.

So what type of camera? Rangefinder, SLR or simple viewfinder? – With or without light meter? – Fixed or changeable lenses?

I decided, for now, a SLR system – they are better value for money as there are so many for sale still and he will need to understand different focal lengths of lenses, good rangefinders with interchangeable lenses are costly and generally more “fragile”, unless they are like my Nikon SP.

So which camera? I decided very quickly on this – the Olympus OM1 (without a battery 🙂 ). So no light meter (OK I have put a battery in it and will recalibrate the meter although for now he needs to set it at 320 asa for Fomapan 100, but I will not tell him, yet). I really don’t like cameras which are battery dependant the OM1 only uses the battery only for the lightmeter. I have checked, calibrated and cleaned his camera and changed all light seals, cushions etc and I have several spare working OM1 cameras.

This means an accurate light meter – he will need a spot-meter (Zone System again), but for now incident readings with a good, rebuilt and re-calibrated Weston 5 will teach him a lot (no battery). I will encourage him to “assess” the light (sunny 16 and all that) , but light meters are there to remind us not to be so sure of ourselves.

Which lenses? All Zuiko of course. To start, the 50mm 1.8 (standard), the 135mm 3.5, and the 28mm 2.8, hopefully he will then keep the 135mm in his camera bag, except for some tripod portrait work – why not one zoom lens – because he has feet and zooms are too slow, heavy and not as good as prime lenses. I have a 55mm 1.2 for him and a fast 24mm for him later (next birthday).
Olympus OM1 for Jacks' Birthday
Other stuff? – A good tripod is essential, so are lens hoods – filters I will give him as he learns what they do.

OK – this is my opinion, but now I can start to teach him how to expose and develop a negative, which can used to make a print which can then show people what he was “seeing” and “feeling”.

I could just as easily set him up with a Canon, Nikon, Minolta or several other camera systems from what I have in stock and all of which I respect and like. I surprised myself when I chose Olympus in preference to Nikon as I used Nikon all my professional working life as my miniature camera system. The Nikkormat, for example, would be a great starting (and lifetime) camera, but it is heavy.

His birthday tomorrow and I hope to help him develop his first exposure.

So come to Villa Roquette – stay a while – go to the sea – sample the wine and spend some time with me in the darkroom