Saturday, December 31, 2011

Why Old Film Cameras?

When I'm out and about with one of my old cameras people often comment on them and ask if I use them because they make superior photographs. The answer is no. For me it is just a rather arbitrary choice to stick with a set of tools and traditions, much as a painter would choose to work with oils or watercolors rather than acrylics. There is a great body of work by past and present film photographers which I can easily access in the process of perfecting my own art, and I am happy also to admit a bias toward the accomplishments of photography's distant past.
   Photo aesthetics aside, I am entranced with artifacts of the mechanical age, which happens to overlap a considerable portion of my own life span. Evidence of this will be found in the photos I share on line, many of which are of old cars, planes and trains.   It is no coincidence that I get around Albuquerque on a twenty-five-year-old motorcycle.
   While there are formidable economic constraints on the the number of old vehicles I can personally own, there is much less a deterrent to the acquisition of old photographic equipment. One of the benefits of the dawning of the digital age was that it left stranded a great quantity of precision cameras which one could pick up for a small fraction of their original value. Of course, that is a situation which is changing over time much as was the case with the old cars which I bought and discarded with abandon in my youth. Bargains in on line auctions seem to me to be less frequently encountered as old cameras flow into the hands of collectors and the dealers who cater to them.
   One of the benefits of film camera technology that persists is the access it provides for the individual to the entire photographic process.  It remains possible today to build your own camera, to create your own photo-sensitive materials, and to process them into images which you can show to the world.  To put this in simple, concrete terms,  a light-tight box with a pinhole can be put together by anyone, and applying some commonly available chemical substances to a paper or glass surface will make it ready for image recording.
   With somewhat more commitment to craftsmanship it is also possible to construct rather sophisticated medium- and large-format cameras.  I cannot think of anyone offhand that goes to the extreme of grinding their own photographic lenses, but the knowledge and materials to do so are certainly out there.  Such endeavors will hold little attraction to those whose main focus is efficiently illustrating a story or earning a living at image making, but for the process-oriented photographer the barriers are surmountable and the results satisfying.
   So, those are some of my reasons for sticking to photography with film; I'm sure there are a great many more.

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Friday, December 30, 2011

Family Photo

All my Kodak Retina folders date from the 1940s and '50s, and all produce excellent images. The Retina I in the rear has an Ektar lens made in the U.S. The IA model in the back-left has the Xenar lens, which I believe is a Tessar clone. The three to the front have the six-element Xenon lens.
  Kodak acquired the Nagel Camerawerk in Stuttgart in 1931. The first Retina model was brought out there in 1934, along with the 35mm cassette which popularized the format. The last folding models of the Retina line were produced in 1960, but the line continued with fixed-lens models until 1969.

There is a good description of the whole Retina line and its history at Wikipedia.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Shooting the Kodak Retina II

My 1949 Retina II was made for the European market as evidenced by the distance scale in meters. The leather camera covering is perfect, with none of the Zeiss bumps which have appeared under the skin of many of my other old cameras. When I got the camera the bellows was detached at the rear, but that was easily repaired with a bit of glue. It did take me quite a few tries, however, to get the shutter cleaned and operating properly. The f2 Xenon lens is faultless and perhaps the sharpest I have on any of my Retinas.

The pictures here were shot recently on Fomapan 100. I really like the film's grain and tonalities, and the cost is less than $2 per roll. Unfortunately, quite a few frames are marred by some squiggles that span the image's width which appear to be a manufacturing fault.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Words and Photography

NYC, 2005                        Mike Connealy
Useful critical thoughts about photographs are a fairly rare commodity.  In general, one does not expect to find them in on line forums or at photo sharing sites like Flickr. Visitors to such sites typically dispense brief assessments of the displayed work, in the process telling us more about the viewer than the work in question.

What generally goes unrecognized is that real critical thinking and expression regarding photography or any other art form is a craft that can be exercised proficiently only with practiced dedication.  One good place to start the study of the craft is a book by Terry Barrett, Criticizing Photographs: An Introduction to Understanding Images.  Here is something I wrote on the subject about eight years ago at PHOTO.NET:

Making meaningful and substantial statements about visual art including photography is a very difficult undertaking. Our brains seem to be organized to jump from immediate visual impressions directly to judgment without conscious analysis. That is probably a good strategy for survival under primitive conditions, but it doesn't form a solid basis of dialogue about art.  A book that has been very helpful to me on the art of criticism is Terry Barrett's Criticizing Photographs: An Introduction to Understanding Images. In this small text Barrett lays out the elements of good criticism and provides many well-executed examples. As he says in the introduction: "...the four activities of criticism -- describing, interpreting, evaluating, and theorizing -- can be thought of as seeking answers to four basic questions: What is here? What is it about? How good is it? Is it art?" He goes on to convincingly show that the element of evaluation (including judgments and ratings) is the least important of the basic critical tasks, and it may not be necessary at all.  I have found an effort to first just systematically describe what I see in a photo is extremely helpful, both to my own understanding and to communicating meaningfully about a visual experience. Only after the descriptive step has been taken am I able to begin real critical interpretation and evaluation.

Rick Poynor published a fine example of photo criticism this week on the Design Observer blog.  The subject was the work of Saul Leiter, with specific reference to Leiter's incorporation into his street work of fragments of lettering.  Poynor illuminates the subject with his own experience in design and typography, but he also recognizes the specifically photographic aspects of Leiter's techniques and vision.  In addition to his sensitivity to the appearance of lettering in our day-to-day existence, as Poynor shows, Leiter was also very expert at incorporating the typographic fragments into his compositions using selective focus and muted colors to weave very complex patterns in a mere instant.  Poynor's analysis incorporates all the basic principles of useful criticism laid out by Barrett, and is well worth study.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Mesa del Sol

Albuquerque architect Antoine Predock incorporated an energy-conserving glass facade  in the Mesa del Sol Town Center building which can also serve as a public theater backdrop for video projection.  The building was meant to be the center-piece of a large community with an integrated business park and housing development on Albuquerque's south mesa.  Given the state of the economy, however, it seems unlikely that the city will support the construction of hundreds of newly-built homes any time soon.

These pictures were made with one of my two Kodak Retina IIa cameras.  I recently adjusted the rangefinder and it seems to be working well.  That is an easy repair on the camera, but reassembling the advance and counter mechanisms is a little tricky.  I'm also going to take a close look at the other and, if I can get both cameras working equally well, I'll put one up for sale here.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Holiday Picture

Margaret wanted to send along a picture of the grandchildren with her yearly holiday letter. I scanned a copy of a recently-made studio portrait she liked, but I found that nobody local currently sells ink cartridges for my old Epson Stylus Photo R2400. So, I bought the ones I needed on line. Mostly, the printing went ok, but a couple prints got big dollops of extra ink, producing this interesting effect. Some additional texturing was added by Richard the cat when he walked over the still-wet print the next day.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011


Some cold northern air slipped south into New Mexico and brought snow to most of the state. Albuquerque was hardly touched, but the Sandia mountains to the east showed us what it looks like. I walked about a mile up the Pino Trail into the Wilderness area. There were only a couple inches of snow near the trailhead, but I got into some foot-deep drifts further on, and the only tracks on the trail were bunnies and coyotes.

The Diomatic shutter on my No.1 Kodak Series III performed well in spite of the cold. I'm still getting a few negative scratches from the beat-up frame mask, but nothing photoshop can't handle easily.