Thursday, November 29, 2018

Getting Closer

I needed some fixer, so I went to Albuquerque's one remaining camera store, Camera & Darkroom, to pick up a bottle.  While there I pawed through some boxes of junk and turned up a +3 close-up lens that I could put into a screw-in adapter for my Retina Reflex.

I have these little close-up accessory lenses for each of my slr cameras.  They are not as seamless in operation as a genuine macro lens, but they are cheap, effective, and they work even with fixed lens cameras like the Retina Reflex.  When I'm not using the Retina Reflex for macro work I mount the little rubber Kodak lens hood to help reduce lens flare.  The hood can also be used on my Retina rangefinders which have the same Xenon lens.
(click to view images at full size)

The leaf shutter of Retina Reflex sits between the front and rear lens groups, so that gives the camera a very narrow front-to-back profile which makes the camera nice to carry on a neck strap.  And, like the similarly equipped Contaflex, the Retina Reflex can be stuffed into a jacket pocket when necessary. That compactness and enhanced portability more than make up for the absence of an instant-return mirror, which just takes a little getting used to.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

The Production

The Costars

The Producer
The Diva
The Executive Producer
The Director
Stray Dog on the Set
Life as a screen play.
Our after-Thanksgiving breakfast with visiting family found us seated in the darkest part of Weck's restaurant on 4th Street.  I guessed at the proper camera settings to suit the low light levels, but missed the mark a few times.  No matter.  I liked everyone's picture anyway.  But, I may have to look for a new location scout.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

photographers are crazy

I decided I needed to get back to shooting my plate cameras.  I got out my Kodak Recomar 18 and patched a pinhole I had overlooked.  Then, I got up early and headed out to the riverside bosque with some HP5 in the camera.  I thought I was well prepared for the low 30s temperature with a vest and winter jacket, but I didn't think about gloves.  By the time I had hiked to a place where I wanted to make some pictures my hands were so stiff from the cold that I couldn't wind the film or set the shutter.  I stuffed my hands in my pockets to restore some manual function and managed to adjust the camera, but the light was so dim under the trees that I had to set the aperture nearly wide open.

I headed home to thaw out, and then took a walk around Old Town when the temperature had gotten up into the comfortable 50s.  The Rada roll film back for the Recomar gets in the way of using the flip up wire-frame view finder on the camera, so I am experimenting with a little open frame viewfinder which I salvaged from an old folder and taped to the top of the Rada.  I got better results from the afternoon outing, but still am clearly in need of some more practice with the plate cameras.

exhibit graphic

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

holding on

Some of the cameras I need to get back to:

The little dancing robot has been an effective guardian of my collection.  I have never lost a camera to theft.  I do manage, however, to lose small parts and accessories without any help.  Little screws and springs regularly reach escape velocity and enter low earth orbit.  About a year ago I lost a pricey pocketable light meter only a couple months after buying it.  More recently, I rummaged around in my parts boxes and found a very nice accessory push-on close-up lens for my Retina Reflex which I promptly lost before I could put it to use.

I should probably look for a small anti-loss talisman I could carry with me at all times.  I do seem to recall having a dancing companion for the pink robot.  If only I could remember where I put it...

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Morning Walk

New Mexico is having some great weather lately - cool nights, warm days, blue skies.  If you live somewhere else, I'm sorry.
    I took a long walk down by the river on Monday morning with my Kodak Retina Reflex and its newly installed prism.  I thought it turned in a stellar performance.  Of course, it is a little hard to be completely objective when you bring a camera back to life.  The fact that it makes pictures at all seems somewhat miraculous, particularly when you are a rather clumsy repairman like me.  On the other hand, I have a Retina II, a Retina IIa and a Retina IIc that have the same Xenon lens as the Reflex, and they also make excellent images.  So, I think I'm on safe ground to claim that the Retina Reflex performs equally well in that respect.  The other thing those Retinas have in common are extraordinarily quiet shutters.  Even more surprising in the Reflex model is the fact that the mirror and aperture stop-down mechanism do not seem to add any noise to the exposure process.  Below are some pictures of the recent outing.  The camera out-performed the photographer by a substantial margin, but I'm working to catch up.

Monday, November 19, 2018

The last of the XA2

These are likely the last pictures that I will make from the Olympus XA2.  The lens is good and I like the zone focus on this camera, but the meter just doesn't work right.  I may try taking it apart some time, but I think I'm more likely to look for another example of this camera.  I can't really complain too much; it cost me just four bucks, and I think it has earned its retirement.

Even if I don't decide to try repairing this camera, I'll hold onto it as a source of spare parts.  When I got it from the thrift store it was missing the pressure plate.  I was able to take one from an XA with a mouldy lens and put it in this XA2.  The XA also donated the little ballbearing that holds the front open to another XA.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

a rant

Web sites and blogs about using old film cameras are getting harder to find as the years roll by.  So, I'm always pleased to stumble on a site featuring classic film cameras that I have not visited before.  As often as not, however, I am disappointed in the contents of the sites.  Quite a few enthusiasts talk endlessly about camera features, providing endless details about the operation of the cameras which put the original manuals to shame.  Very often one plods through all of that only to arrive at the article's end without seeing a single picture made with the camera.  When photos are offered they very often feature light-leak flares or dust spots resembling snow storms.  That would not be particularly objectionable if a second set showed the results of fixing the small problems which underlie such blemishes, but the next article in line is usually one devoted to a different old camera which, unsurprisingly, shows the same performance issues as the previous one.  It seems people who operate in this mode are setting out to prove, perhaps unconsciously, that old cameras can make photographs.  Really?  How many times does that point need to be made?  There is also - especially galling to me - an underlying implication that the pathetic pictures on display are the best the cameras can produce.

So, here are some observations and tips to get better results from old cameras:

None of the big camera manufacturers and few of the small ones made any cameras incapable of making technically superb photographs.  The folding cameras, box cameras and plastic point-and-shoots - even with the simplest lenses and no options for shutter, aperture or focus adjustments - were and remain capable of producing sharp pictures with pleasing tonalities.  To be sure, there are real differences in features and capabilities among different types and formats, but that only means that the photographer needs to work with the camera long enough to learn to operate within the parameters of any given camera. Claims which denigrate quality control in the factories of Kodak, Ansco or Argus can be safely ignored as they are always without evidence or documentation.

Old mechanical shutters, even in very high quality cameras will become sluggish with a build up of dust and congealed lubricants.  Often, a couple drops of a solvent such as Ronsonal is enough to get them working more smoothly.  What if you try that and the one-second or half-second speeds still do not work perfectly?  Don't let perfection become the enemy of good enough.

Box cameras often have simple shutters which remain reliably consistent for years, but a speed as low as 1/25 second is common and can easily lead to blurry pictures if the camera is not securely braced at the time of exposure.  The fixed apertures in such cameras are quite small in order to insure sharp focus over a wide range of distances.  However, the focal length of the majority is close to 90mm, so with a camera like the popular Brownie Hawkeye Flash the photographer should not get closer to the subject than eight feet.  There are a few exceptions like my little Ansco Panda which let me get sharp results at six feet.  Simple push-on accessory lenses such as the No.13 for the Hawkeye Flash allow close-up portraits at 3.5 feet.

Old folding cameras with accordion-like bellows are very likely to have tiny pinholes that will ruin pictures.  Such pinholes are usually easily repaired with a dab of black fabric paint, but first they must be found.  Take the back off of your folder, point it at a very strong light source like the Sun and wiggle it around to spot the pinholes in the creases and corners of the bellows.  Then, take the camera into your bathroom, turn out the lights and run a small LED flashlight along each fold and crease inside and out to find any remaining holes.  The other common source of light leaks in the old folders and box cameras are the ruby windows in the back which allow viewing of the frame numbers on the film backing.  Keep the ruby windows covered with a bit of black tape except when winding on the film, and do not allow illumination of the window by direct sunlight.  Some modern roll films like Kodak's otherwise marvelous TMAX have very low contrast numerals on the backing paper which render them nearly invisible through ruby windows.  Save those films for use in cameras with automatic frame advances like the Yashica-Mat or the Mamiya C330.

American and German camera makers relied on good-fitting, baffled backs to avoid light leaks from that source.  However, they often needed to add a strip of light seal fabric in the hinge area to keep light from getting into places it should not go.  Worn hinge seals are easily replaced in such cameras.  The Japanese made extraordinarily well-crafted 35mm cameras in the post-war years in which they perversely installed foam light seal strips all around the perimeter of the camera backs which inevitably turns to awful goo in a decade or so.  Luckily, it is not difficult to cut replacement light seal strips from cheap foam sheets which cost only a buck or two at you local big box store.  Another good source of foam-like material for light seals is a thin computer mouse pad; I just bought one from Staples that my mouse is comfortably resting on, but will likely end up in a couple of my old cameras one day.

So, get out there and make some pictures with those old film cameras!  And, cultivate the thought that whatever camera you are using, be it ever so humble, is fully capable of making stupendous images.  You will get what you expect.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Photographers' Stories

I have always enjoyed reading biographies of photographers I admire, but my approach has been haphazard, depending on chance finds in local used bookstores.  I am aiming at taking a more deliberate course to such reading.  There are some great stories, and I also find that such study leads to a much better understanding of  the photographic work.

Here is what I've been reading recently:

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: the epic life and immortal photographs of Edward Curtis
by Timothy Egan.

Early in the Twentieth Century Curtis undertook a project to photograph representatives of nearly every surviving North American Indian tribe.  He systematically made portraits, portrayed scenes   of daily life and presented details of ceremonies not normally accessible to outsiders.  In addition to the photographs, Curtis made sound recordings using the primitive Edison equipment of the time, assembled dictionaries of the spoken languages, and even produced a feature-length film in the infancy of that technology.  Curtis was without academic credentials, yet his accomplishments surpassed those of most of the recognized ethnographers of the time.  During the decades-long undertaking Curtis documented over eighty tribes.  He had some prominent supporters and backers like Teddy Roosevelt and J. P. Morgan, but never included a salary for himself in the budgets for the production of his twenty-volume opus.
   I have been familiar with Curtis' work for some time, but I did not realize that it was essentially lost from view until two decades after the photographer's death when a huge cache  of it was discovered in the basement of a Boston bookstore.  Since then, of course, many new publications of the work have appeared such as Taschen's The North American Indian.  Egan reports that ".... the value of all work by Curtis has steadily risen.  A single photogravure of Chief Joseph, for example sold for $169,000 in 2010."

by Sonja Bullaty

I have been an admirer of the Czech photographer, Josef Sudek, for a long time.  My familiarity with his work has mostly been through the fine compilation of his work in the 1990 Aperture monograph, Joseph Sudek, Poet of Prague: A Photographer's Life.  Much like his contemporary, Alfred Stieglitz, Sudek started his photographic career with romantic pictorialist work.  Then, for a time, he  made still lifes with obvious references to Cubism.  He is best known, perhaps, for his lyrical portrayals of Prague and its surroundings.  Sudek lugged his large format equipment all around Prague, seemingly unhindered by the loss of his right arm in WWI.  He was, however, often restricted in his movements during the German and Russian occupations.  The result was a long series of especially fine work done in his home and garden.  In part of that intimate phase, Sudek was assisted by Sonja Bullaty, a survivor of German concentration camps whose whole family had been swallowed by the Holocaust.  I was pleased recently to find a copy of  Bullaty's book on Sudek at an estate sale.  She worked for Sudek for a relatively short time, but was a lifetime friend, and instrumental in introducing his work to the West after her emigration to the U.S.

Brassaï: letters to my parents

I approach collections of letters with some trepidation, but Brassaï's letters written to his parents during his time in the 'Twenties in Germany and France are tremendously entertaining.  Brassaï (real name: Gyula Halász) initially aspired to be a painter and a journalist and made a living of a sort from those activities in Berlin and Paris for a decade before he took up photography.  During much of those early years his parents provided some regular support, but he was reduced at times to stealing food and was often at the precipice of homelessness, the iconic starving artist in pre-war Paris.  What kept him going was supreme confidence in his talent and abilities, and an ego of a size that rivaled that of the Eiffel Tower.   Brassaï seemed to know everyone in the art world of any consequence.  Once Brassaï took up photography Henry Miller named him "the Eye of Paris".
   Brassaï's social skills served him well throughout his career, but his photographs made at night on the streets of Paris and in dimly lit interiors show him also to be a skillful and innovative technician.  He seems to have done most of that work with a Voigtländer plate camera and whatever slow film was available at the time.  He talks in the letters about planning to get a Leica, but I don't know if that was accomplished.  He also talks of a darkroom and it seems likely he did his own processing and printing.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Fingers Crossed

I'm still hoping to hit on a method of keeping my Olympus XA2 in the game.  I have had some inconsistent results from the camera which seem to be attributable to the light meter.  My impression was that the meter was reading too much light in bright conditions, resulting in under exposure.  I decided to test that idea by setting the camera's ASA index to the box speed of the Kodak Gold 200 which I had loaded, and shoot the whole roll that way.  Sure enough, the negatives were all very thin, even those exposed in low light situations.  So, the next roll will be shot at a stop slower.

These shot don't look bad, but they required additional exposure compensation in scanning.  Others on the roll did not have recoverable detail in the shadows.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Jim Grey's New Book, Textures of Ireland

Our mail usually arrives around the cocktail hour, providing an opportunity to sit back and leisurely concentrate on seeing what has been delivered.  Unfortunately, our mailbox is most often stuffed with junk mail which gets tossed without opening.  Then, I will sit down in front of the tv and the drink I have made will help a little bit to dull the jagged edges of the daily news.
Tuesday was a different story.  The mailman left a package on our front steps too big for the box.  I could tell immediately by the size and flat shape that it was a book I had been looking forward to: Jim Grey's latest, entitled Textures of Ireland.

So, there being no Guinness in the refrigerator, I mixed myself a Manhattan and sat down to enjoy Jim's new book, this one a travelogue of a journey to Ireland by Jim and his wife, Margaret.  The book's cover offers the perfect entry point to the narrative, a lusciously textured and toned image of the open front doors of Kylemore Abbey in Galway.  Jim's first book focused on a favorite camera, the images it makes and extensive explanations of the process of using the Pentax ME.  This new book about the Emerald Isle mostly lets the pictures speak for themselves.  There is an introduction in which the technical considerations are given their proper due.  Jim says he made a very large number of color images with his digital camera on the trip, but all the pictures in the book were produced by his Nikon N2000 loaded with Kodak's black and white T-MAX 400 film.  That seems an excellent combination to portray the rugged cliff-bordered coasts, quiet bays, quaint towns and ancient abbeys encountered on the tour which went through Portrush, Letterkenny, Donegal, Ardara, Killybegs, Sligo, Ballinrobe, Clifden, Oughterard and Barna.

One thing I have particularly enjoyed about both of Jim's books is the fact that they closely resemble the style and content of his photography blog, Down the Road.  The difference, of course, being that one can enjoy the high quality images on paper without the size limitations and unpredictable variability of any on line presentation.  Whether displayed on paper or on a screen, however, Jim's stories are always first rate, reflecting his dedication to achieving ever more mastery of image making and narration. Especially appreciated by me is that every blog post in Down the Road is fashioned by Jim to contribute to creating and sustaining a community of peers with a passion for photography.

The book, Textures of Ireland, is available on the Blurb publishing site where there is also a generous on line preview available.  Jim, himself, also distributes the book directly in pdf format at a reduced price.  He can be contacted through the email form in the About Page of his blog.

Monday, November 12, 2018

From one extreme to another

I spent time this week shooting two very different cameras.  I have made more pictures with my Vivitar Ultra-Wide and Slim than with the others in my camera collection with only a couple exceptions.  The little plastic point-and-shoot probably doesn't weigh an ounce.  It has no adjustments for speed or aperture, and a sharp two-element lens with a 22mm focal length that catches a finger a couple times in each roll of film.  The exposure latitude of modern color films like Fuji 200 makes the camera a lot more versatile in regard to varying light conditions than might at first be imagined.

The Kodak Monitor Six-20 was the end of the line for the company's medium format folding cameras that lasted over half a century.  It is the most capable of its type with auto frame advance, double-exposure prevention and a parallax correcting view finder.  My example has a very reliable Supermatic shutter with a 1/400 top speed and a coated four-element f4.5 Anastigmat Special lens.

100% at 1200 dpi