Thursday, September 1, 2016

Memories of a Seagull (not the bird)

I’m still printing old negatives and will be for quite a while.  It’s been a lot of fun rummaging through old contact sheets and once in a while finding a “Why didn’t I print this a long time ago?” negative.  Here’s one of them from 1990:

I like a lot about this photograph.  It’s certainly surreal (the great Brassai once said: “There is nothing more surreal than reality itself.”).  It is totally out-of-place and out-of-time:  there are no clues about where or when it was taken.  My more formally-oriented friend, Doug, tells me that the composition is excellent.  The shallow depth of field pops the main subject out of the background.  The out-of-focus area is lovely.
I consulted my loosely-kept film log and found that it was taken in May 1990 and that the place was Fort Worden a retired coast artillery fort in Port Townsend, now a state park and home to the NFP Centrum Foundation.  Ah for several years I taught a spring-break workshop for high school students there.  The gentleman in the photograph was (likely still is) a professor of music at Evergreen State College.  He and his students had discovered that singing exactly the right tone into this pipe would make it resonate like an organ pipe.
Next question.  Was I really using a 2¼ camera in 1990?  I certainly do now, both a vintage Rolleiflex TLR and a Mamiya 6.  I consulted my loosely-kept journal and it reminded me of a nearly forgotten camera.  Enter the Seagull.  In 1989 I decided to give medium format a try.  Not wanting to spend a lot of money, I bought (as I dimly recall through Maine Photographic Workshop) for $110 a Chinese-made copy of the Rolleiflex, the Seagull.  Checking Amazon a few minutes ago I found that they are still available for a bit shy of $500. which is nearly exactly on the dot adjusted for inflation.  I really liked 2¼ and the Seagull.  A year later a friend offered to sell me a 1955 Rolleiflex in excellent condition and I jumped at it.  I sold the Seagull to a friend who, like me, wanted to try medium format at a modest entry cost.
Why?  Well, the Seagull seemed to work just fine.  The viewfinder was bright I had to put a third-party screen in the Rollei to make it as bright.  The negatives that I was getting from the Seagull were certainly pretty (see the above evidence).  That said, everything else about it was not so satisfying.  The film wind and focus were very stiff and made a grinding noise.  The aperture and shutter speed adjustments were stiff.  The imitation leather covering on the outside started to peel off.  The lens was annoyingly subject to flair (see right edge of the print above).  When you opened the camera to load film it looked like they started with a block of aluminum, adzed out everything that didn’t belong in the inside of a camera, but didn’t bother to finish the edges.  Perhaps they have improved their manufacturing standards in the intervening 26 years (but since the price has only kept up with inflation, perhaps not).

But still the negative of the print above is really pretty and it kind of has the look of the 1930’s that I like very much.  Maybe just luck on that roll of film?  Maybe a simpler, less modern lens design?  Maybe my imagination?  I should email the friend to whom I sold the Seagull and see how it worked for him.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Sometimes it is Just Too Easy

I spent most of yesterday slaving over a hot tray of developer (metaphorically speaking since it was at room temperature).  I made two prints.  One was, well, difficult – not quite at the level of “Note to Self” (January 19 blog post).  I am happy with the result and I suspect that the person who bought the print will be, also.

The other print, this one, was a different story.  I went to the Pride Parade in Seattle last Sunday.  As always there was a monster crowd gathering along 4th Avenue well before the parade was scheduled to begin.  I was early enough to be able to score a place to stand in the shade near Lenora Street.  Immediately to my left were three young women – obviously friends – who were bantering, laughing, and generally having a good time.  After the parade started I couldn’t resist – the conversation with one of them went like this:

Me:  May I take your photograph?
Laughing girl:  Sure!  Do you want me to look at the camera?
Me: No, just go back to watching the parade.

She did.  I did -- I took three frames.  My reflection is in her mirrored sunglasses – they are purple, by the way.  I gave her my card.  I hope she emails me so I can send her a print.

< July 4:  Yay!  She did -- I have  print ready to send to her.>

This is a full-frame, straight print with a #2 filter (well, I did burn the upper right corner a bit), 50mm lens.

Sometimes it is just too easy.

Friday, June 3, 2016


A couple of weeks back we went to a very funny musical play (that I shall not name) showing at an excellent theater (that I shall not name).  Its original setting had been changed to take place in a cowboy bar.  The theater was configured with a flat floor and audience on three sides.  We had first row seats (our favorite) so our feet were nearly on the edge of the stage.  When the house opened and the audience trooped in, the costumed actors were already on stage playing guitars, etc., singing, and chatting up the audience – that was invited to come on stage.  In fact there was ad hoc seating on stage and members of the audience were invited to stay on stage – or come and go – during the play and the actors were prepared to shoo them out of the way when needed.  There was also an open bar at one side of the set and the audience was invited to visit the bar at any time during the play.  With one thing and another it was a goofy, unconventional approach to theater that promised to be a lot of fun – and it was.
There was not the “Welcome to …” nor was there the customary “Recording devices and photography are not permitted.” announcement.  

Which brings me to PWCs – people with cellphones.  As cheerful audience members swarmed over the stage there was the inevitable quick draw of smart phones (some with selfie sticks) and even a couple of tablets.  Sitting in my front row seat I thought “Well, they are ok with photographs; at least until the performance begins.”  I had been out photographing earlier in the day so my 35mm film camera was in my shoulder bag.  I got it out and got exactly four frames before an usher, also in costume, rushed over saying “No photographs!  No photographs!”  I lowered my camera and said “What about all the people photographing with their cell phones.  Are you going to stop them, too?”  He looked embarrassed, said “No photographs.” (rather sheepishly) once more and walked back to his post.  

The cell phone barrage continued throughout the show.  (sigh)

Monday, May 23, 2016

On Reading -- Stealing from the best.

Nearly all of my photographs organize themselves into loosely-defined, open-ended projects that are never finished but often stop at an interesting place for a portfolio, show, or hand-made book. 
People often ask; “Where do you get ideas for your projects?”  British photographer and educator, David Hurn says; “Our advice to photographers is best expressed by Calvin Trilling: ‘The immature artist borrows; the mature artist steals.’  So steal from the best.”

I’m certainly stealing from the best for this one.  In the 1970s the great Andre Kertesz published a charming book titled “On Reading”.  Quite a few years later I stumbled upon it in the public library and not too long after that my wonderful wife (at the time a used book dealer) found me a copy of my own.  It has since been reprinted in paper cover but my vintage hardback is way cooler.

The Seattle area (where we live) is more than a bit bookish so it isn’t at all hard to find raw material for my own “On Reading” project.  In fact, I sorted through my negatives and found quite a few already there and I’ve added to the project from time to time ever since.  People who are reading are easy marks lost in their book the rest of the world kind of fades away.  Here’s one from Honolulu:

I put this photograph up on my website and some months later received an email from an author/educator who was writing a textbook for aspiring primary grade teachers.  She wanted to use it as the cover photograph on her book.  Here’s the good part: She teaches at the University of Silesia in PolandIsn’t the internet wonderful sometimes?

Closer to home is this vendor at a farmers’ market in Portland, Oregon.  She was definitely paying more attention to the latest Barbara Kingsolver novel than to her baked goods.  Books are a good conversation starter we talked current novels for a few minutes before she sold me a chocolate croissant and went back to reading.

And the most recent.  If I just go out to take photographs I usually come back empty handed.  If I go out to photograph with the agenda of working on a given project I will usually come back with something I like but not necessarily what I expected.  I suspect that this has to do with looking for something instead of just looking.  This day I started out looking for photographs of street musicians and came back with this.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Note to self: "Self, never print this negative again."

I’m not very keen on juried shows.  Most of them seem to me to be cash cows for the sponsoring gallery or organization.  However, I do occasionally submit prints to shows at LightBox Gallery in Astoria, Oregon.  It is a very nice gallery and rental darkroom/studio and their shows are plenty good enough that I am pleased when I get a print in one of them.  I submitted this print and four others to their upcoming “Photographic Nude” show.  This one was accepted and that will be the third time I have had a print in one of their shows.

I took this photograph at the Fremont solstice parade a few years back.  It is one of my favorites from the solstice parade and I had printed it three times – each time getting a print that was more successful but still not quite what I wanted.  After looking back at the existing prints, I decided to give it one more try before putting a print in a frame for LightBox.

Why, you may well ask, did I need to print it again?  It is what could be understatedly called a ‘difficult’ negative.   It was taken on a very sunny day but I was standing on the shadowed side of the street and the shadow extended a few feet into the street in front of me.  My manual exposure camera was set to photograph the parade as it went down the brightly lit street.  

The girl in this photograph, one of the naked bicyclist posse, was tearing down the parade route close to the curb – in the shadow – where I was standing.  I saw her coming just in time to focus close and tag the shutter button.  She was very close to me – this photograph was taken with a 50mm lens so she was very close. Result: a seriously backlit negative.  The negative image of her body is very thin and the street behind her is very dense.  Problem: how to lift her out of the background without leaving the busy background washed out – and how to make her image contrasty enough to obviously be the most interesting item in the print.

So I said to myself: “Self, you are a better printer now than you were a few years ago.  Have another pop at it.”  And I am.  And I did; with two filters, three exposures and a windmill of dodging and burning.  And I did make a better print than the previous versions; a print that I am pleased to send off to a show where there will be a lot of fine prints.

And I’m done.  The next time I feel the urge to make a better print from this negative I’m going to go drink a cup of tea and wait for the urge to go away.  Or maybe scan the negative and beat on it with Photoshop.


Sunday, January 17, 2016

The case of the vanishing craftsman.

While looking for a negative I happened to see this one as it went by.   

A few years ago (well, actually 13) Photographic Center Northwest announced that they were sponsoring a workshop led by Bruce Davidson.  I’m not that keen on workshops and a cheapskate to boot but I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to spend a weekend with one of my heroes, the photographer who did “East 100th Street”.  I was in Seattle for something else so I dropped in to PCNW to register for it.  

Erin-at-the-counter signed me up and gave me the prospectus for the workshop, scheduled for three weeks hence.  She told me to look at the prospectus right away since there was some homework assigned before the time of the workshop.  The advance homework ran like this:

Find a potentially interesting situation involving a person or people that you have never met.  Introduce yourself and chat them up, explain what you are doing, and shoot a couple of rolls of film.  Make work prints of the best few of your negatives and bring them to the first day of the workshop.  Make extra copies to give to the person or people you photographed.

OK, I can do that.  In fact that’s not so far from what I do anyway.

I walked down 12th from PCNW towards Madison to catch a downtown bus.  At the corner of 12th and Madison there stood (it has subsequently been demolished and replaced with an upscale retail/condo building) a commercial building that had once housed some kind of light-industrial manufacturer.  The street level windows on 12th and on Madison had been painted white and there was only one door onto the street – I had never seen it open or seen any lights on inside.  That day the lights were on, visible through the upper panes of glass in the high window frames, and the door was open.  Naturally, I peeked in.

The large, high-ceilinged room was filled with a mixture of some kind of industrial machinery towards the back and a whole lot of old but expensive looking furniture towards the door – tables, sideboards, bookcases, chairs, and chests of drawers.  One man was removing old varnish from a piece of furniture with the air of a person who very clearly knew what he was doing.  He saw me, put down his tools, and came over to say hello.  Well, said I to myself, I have a camera on my neck, he looks friendly, and this looks promising.  And it was.

He introduced himself as Silas; I introduced myself and we shook hands.  He told me that the machinery at the back was industrial sewing machines – that’s what was manufactured there at one time.  The owner of the business still bought and sold such machinery and that was his stock.  He had an employee who repaired and refurbished the sewing machines.  As a sideline, the owner also bought and sold high-quality antique furniture and his job was doing needed repairs and refinishing the pieces.  They had recently acquired a huge lot of furniture and he had a couple of months work ahead of him to get it ready for sale – working there by himself, he was glad to have somebody to talk to a bit.  He showed me a few of the pieces that he had refinished and they looked like something out of a museum.  

We chatted for a while longer while I photographed and then he went back to work while I photographed some more.  I told him I would bring him some prints and he assured me that he would be there every weekday for several weeks.  I left feeling that my homework was ready to develop and print and all was well.

A few days later I got an announcement from PCNW that they had cancelled the Bruce Davidson workshop for lack of enough registration.  Damn!  But I developed the film and made work prints to take back to Silas.  

Problem was – he wasn’t there.  Over the following couple of weeks I went by several times at several different times of day.  The lights were off and the door was locked.  Finally I scrambled up on a wide windowsill to peek through a bare spot on the lower window and saw nothing but an empty room – no machines, no furniture, no tools.  There was no sign on the door saying “call this number for….”.  Damn, again!

I have no idea what happened nor could I find any information about the business that he described to me.  My fantasy is that it only existed because I needed it and that when the workshop was cancelled so was it.