Monday, December 19, 2016

Photography in the Twenty-First Century

I performed an impromptu social experiment recently.  I want ot share some of the details and a bit of analysis as I think it provides a useful answer to the question of what to do with one's photographs.

We recently hosted an informal holiday get-together of neighbors at our home, scheduled to begin at 10:00 am.  While straightening up the house that morning I decided on something of a whim to incorporate a slide show into the proceedings.  I selected a show that was already prepared and on line, a group of pictures made in our neighborhood over the past eight years.

Click image to view the Old Town folder at Google Photos.  To view the images there as a slide show, click the three-dot "More Options" icon in the upper right and select "Slide Show".

Before our guests arrived, I started the slide show running on my laptop, and then broadcast it via wifi to our flat-screen television located between the pellet stove and the piano in our living room.

The slideshow was running when the first guests arrived.  I made no announcement or reference to the show and there was no sound from the tv receiver -- just the fifty or so pictures being displayed with about a five second delay for each shot.  I don't think anyone gave much thought to the changing photo display initially; it just seemed a part of the decor.  Eventually, someone asked if those were my pictures (yes).  Later, I was asked about the location of a shot showing some empty planters in a garden (the courtyard behind the art museum).  Additional comments were made about the photography over the next three hours the gathering lasted, but the display did not interfere in any significant way with the group's ongoing conversation.  Some people looked at the changing pictures often and other only occasionally, but I think most people saw most of the pictures as they were displayed in a continuous loop.

One of the salient features of my experiment was the contrast it provided to countless slideshows I sat through in my youth.  Most people whose personal history extends back into the era of film photography will have similar memories of sitting in the dark with a wheezing slide projector throwing images on a white screen, often accompanied by some narration about a recent vacation trip.  Sometimes the shows were entertaining; more often they were stoically endured.  If the audience was composed of family members or close friends, there might be some talk and banter about the pictures, but there were not many opportunities for deviations from the script.

The things that most distinguished the old-style slide shows was that they had a very linear character, and they demanded the undivided attention of the participants.  The same can be said, in fact, about most other ways in which still images are offered up for observation.  It takes some willful preparation, some time commitment, and possibly some money to go to a photography exhibit, to read a book or to watch a program about a photographer's work.  The informal exhibit I mounted in our living room required none of those things.  Rather, it allowed for multi-tasking and gave the choice for participation to each individual member of the assembled group.  In other words, it was a photography exhibit that was consistent with behavioral norms and expectations of the digital age, a Twenty-First Century slide show.

Although the slide show I presented was informal, it nevertheless required some preparation.  The subject or theme in this case was easy to relate to for the guests -- they all lived in the area and had at least some familiarity with the places depicted.  That contributed to the viability of the continuous, non-linear presentation; it really did not matter much if their attention strayed at times away from the flow of images.  I could have chosen other subjects for such an exhibit from among my collection of photos which includes thousands of images.  It would have been fairly easy to assemble forty or fifty portraits; pictures of cats, cars, color shots, black and white images, what-have-you.  I think the thing to keep in mind is that you are a photographer, but you can also choose in this streaming digital age to be an archivist, a curator, and an exhibitor.

I have used several photo sharing services over the years and some of them provided a way to assemble and display slide-show presentations on line.  I use as a place to display what I consider my best photos, but I don't like it as a general purpose image management tool.  For that reason, I chose in this instance to use Google Photos for assembling and presenting my on line exhibit.

I accessed my Google Photos slide-show with my laptop running the Chrome browser which can "cast" anything displayed in the browser via my home wifi network to my television receiver to which I have attached the little Google chromecast device.  The chromecast gadget plugs into one of the HDMI ports on the back of the receiver.  On mine, there is a button on the back of the set with allows changing the tv output to HDMI from the cable or antenna.  Some other sets will allow that change to be made through the setup menu.  At the moment, you can pick up one of these digital streaming devices for about $25.  All of this can be accomplished quite quickly and easily these days.  Large flat-screen tv receivers and home wifi networks are everywhere, and you can even do it all on the fly with a tablet, or even just a cell phone and a portable wifi hotspot.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016


This box of camera gear arrived at my house recently.  It is a kit that belonged to the father of a friend.  Most of my old cameras have no personal history attached beyond sometimes having a name written on a camera back or case.  So, it is fun to see a whole kit accompanied by some details about its original owner and his use of the equipment.

The camera is a Kodak Vigilant Six-20 with a nice 3-element f4.5 lens and a No.1 Kodamatic shutter with a 1/200 top speed.  That makes the camera quite a practical shooter even today.

Before pictures can be made again with the Vigilant, however, some attention will have to be given to the bellows which have pinholes in the corners.  This is the case with about any of the post-war Kodak folders as the bellows were made of cloth with a rubber-like coating which inevitably deteriorates over time.  It is still possible to find replacement bellows on ebay, but it is also feasible to just cover the pinholes with a couple layers of black fabric paint, even when the damage is quite extensive as in this example.

The kit also includes three very interesting old selenium exposure meters, all in working condition.  The most unusual is the Sekonic 21b.  An on line search showed the meter to be rather rare, but I did find an excellent revue of it at by Rick Drawbridge.

The Weston Master II by its weight and carefully crafted scales is clearly meant for serious work.  I used several Weston meters early in my photo career, but those tiny numerals make it a challenging tool to use now with old eyes.

The Gossen pilot meter is a truly extraordinary example, complete with the box, all of the documentation and even a receipt for purchase from Kurt's Camera Corral in Albuquerque dated 9-1-73.  The tiny selenium meter closely resembles a modern Sekonic Twinmate which I recently purchased, and it performs very similarly.

The Ideal Rangefinder, the Series 6 Kodak Lens Hood, and the K2 Yellow filter are all very practical and appropriate accessories for the Vigilant camera.

I have always felt collectors have given insufficient recognition to the excellence of the graphic design embodied in the handy Kodak manuals and  exposure guides.  The examples in this kit are in pristine condition and could be used productively even today.

One of the exposure guides entitled "How to Make Pictures at Night" had some notations on the back in which the photographer recorded the details of several photo sessions, with dates between August and December of 1946.  They show that he was using Ansco Plenachrome and Kodak Verichrome 620 roll films.  The notes also point to the fact that this photographer was a meticulous, skilled craftsman who valued good tools.

And, finally, a bit of photographic whimsy, the tiny Star-Lite camera.  I recall seeing these cameras advertised in comic books and novelty catalogs.  Today, they are popular items on ebay and are usually referred to a "hit-style cameras" or "spy cameras" and sometimes they are accompanied by tiny rolls of foil-wrapped film.  While the "spy" reference may have been used in advertising at times, the real appeal, of course, was to the miniaturist aesthetic which was perfected over a period of many centuries in China and Japan.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Pushing the Boundary

I have mostly shot 100 speed film in my simple cameras.  With fixed focus, aperture and shutter speed, the box cameras and the point-and-shoots like the Vivitar Ultra Wide and Slim confine the possibilities to a fairly narrow range of lighting.  The 100 speed films like Tmax and Kodak Gold have given me good results as long as I stick to something close to sunny day shooting.  Recently, I decided to try some faster Fuji Superia X-tra 400 color in my little ultra wide to allow the exploration of a broader range of lighting.

What I found was that I could make exposures two or three stops below what my meter recommended and still get good color.  However, the images resulting from such low light conditions allowed very limited enlargement.  Beyond about a 600-pixel width the grain starts to resemble baseballs.  Going in the other direction, though, both the color and the grain structure held up well past the film's rated sunny day limit.

Part of my inspiration to use the Fuji 400 film came from seeing some recent work in the Flickr vuws group by a fellow who calls himself UkrainianSensation.. His picture of the Golden Gate is really an extraordianary example of the capabilities of the little ultra wide.

Thursday, December 08, 2016


Margaret took advantage of a visit to her brother's home to go through some old family pictures.  She brought home this one because she knows I am always interested in such photo artifacts.

A masking tape label on the back of the framed photo identify the subject by name as "Capt. A.C. Thompson, father of Mrs. T.S. Johnson".  Margaret did not recognize the specific names, though I thought they were likely ancestors of Margaret's mother whose maiden name was Johnson.

The subject's features are much easier to make out in the scanned image than in the actual photograph which is under glass in a thin, embossed metal frame which measures 2.75 inches by 3.25 inches.  I thought at first that the picture might be a tintype.  However, the surface damage apparent in the scan is not typical of other old tintypes I have seen.  I am guessing from the condition, the framing, the dress and the pose that the picture dates to the mid-to-late 19th Century.

It turns out that I jumped to some wrong conclusions about family connections to The Captain.  We got to talking about him with my daughter and granddaughter who is doing a school project on genealogy.  Margaret said there were Johnsons and Smiths on both sides of her family.  Sure enough, when we dug out the family tree, there was The Captain, four generations back on the paternal side.

Later in the evening I got an email from my daughter who had discovered some records and pictures on line of an A.C. Thompson who was a Captain of the Confederacy.  There was a family connection to Georgia which fit.  My daughter asked me what I thought the chances were that our A.C. was the Confederate officer.  I was skeptical on two counts.

The fellow in the old photo we have has a nose which resembles that worn by the two generations of Smiths that I have known personally.  The Confederate face has some superficial similarities, but I don't see that nose.  Additionally, the family history notes accompanying the picture of the Civil War officer lists a wife whose name does not match that associated with the A.C Johnson in the copy of the genealogy we have.

Later yet, my daughter wrote again that she had found a discrepancy regarding the name of the Confederate's wife in another document which indicated that the name ascribed to the wife was actually that of a mother-in-law.  Then, again, we don't at this point know the details of the process by which a name, a rank and a family connection was made to the picture we have.  My daughter is still hot on the trail.

I have to confess my interest in the identity of the fellow in our pictures is quickly reaching its limit.  There is no doubt that a photographic portrait can instantaneously record a moment in the life of the subject.  How one interprets that record is, however, a slippery process.  The circumstances of the moment may  or may not be faithfully recorded at the time by another person, or they may be later pieced together by several or many people, each with their own perspectives and prejudices.  Still, there remains the possibility that somewhat firm connections to past lives and events can be revealed by the photographic record, and it is interesting to see how people chose to have themselves portrayed at a distant time in the past for history's sake.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Ultra Wide Sunday

Becky and Shane Ramotowski
I enjoyed a long stroll through Albuquerque's Old Town on Sunday morning with Becky and Shane Ramotowski.  Becky had suggested a walkabout with the little Vivitar Ultra Wide and Slim camera.  Seemed like a good excuse to dust off the vuws which has long been one of my top favorite shooters.  I loaded one vuws with TMAX 100 and the other with some Fuji 400 Ultra.  I figured that would cover about any lighting situation we were likely to run into. 

In addition to her well-worn ultra wide, Becky was also toting a new Instax camera which spits out small prints as fast as you can push the release.  She gave both cameras a good workout.

Becky, an astronomer by vocation, can also be fairly described as a multimedia artist.  She is at home with both words and pictures as a former weekly columnist with a San Antonio newspaper.  Her work with fabrics is in evidence in those cool knit caps the two are wearing in the picture.  Her pinhole photographs are produced with wood, tin and cardboard cameras which she crafts herself.  Pictures from those cameras are featured in her blog, Palomino Pinhole.  Becky's work is also a regular feature at the Filmwasters' Forum.

Shane is also an astronomer and has a background which includes newspaper photo work.  He showed up for our stroll packing a Mamiya 645.  It seems Shane's real passion these days, however, is digital.  The digital realm he inhabits is not the point-and-shoot variety most of us are familiar with.  Rather, he uses ultra-sensitive sensors, along with sophisticated tracking and computing technology to sort out the light from distant stars to produce masterpieces of astrophotography which can take weeks or months to assemble. The products of all that meticulous work can be seen at Shane's Astrophotos web site.

Truth be told, I'm not much of a multi-tasker.  Walking around with other photographers and trying to take pictures at the same time seldom produces images of much interest from my cameras.  The upside on this occasion, of course, was that I had the opportunity to watch two extremely talented people at work and to talk to them at length about all kinds of photography-related subjects.

While I did not bring home any photo trophies from Old Town other than the shot of the Ramotowskis, I did manage to get out on my own later in the day to finish off the roll of TMAX in my vuws.  The pictures I like best from that part of the day show the interesting melding of trees and their shadows produced by the low New Mexico sun against adobe walls.

I still have a full unexposed roll of color in the other camera, so hope to have some more to show from my favorite point-and-shoot sometime soon.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Stretching the Felica

The Vredeborch Felica looks like a box camera, but it has a full compliment of controls.  I decided to give them some exercise by loading the little camera with some Tri-X.  A 400 speed film is a bit of a stretch for a simple camera with a 1/50 top shutter speed, but I thought the use of the built-in yellow filter would get me close enough to the right exposure on a slightly hazy day.  I think that was a correct assumption; the shots I got were within the film's wide latitude.  Still, I think I prefer my previous results with 100 speed film.