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All things must pass

March 21, 2011 2 comments

Stan C. Reade Photo here in London has gone out of business. I spent many hours there, and many dollars also. But the film business isn’t what it used to be, people buy their cameras at Future Shop, and e-Bay killed the used market and its economics of scarcity.

Let me say to Progress the same words with which I intend to greet the Apocalypse: fuck you, and the horses you rode in on.

Rows of lenses beneath the glass top of a display cabinet: a couple of well-used 50/1.8s for less than nothing, two slow midrange zooms, an old 24 mm f/2 going cheap, a battered 300 mm f/4.5, an 85, a 20-35 zoom, some crappy third-party teleconverters. In short, nothing exciting. No good lens going cheap, no cheapie worth using as a beater, nothing worth playing with for its own sake. Nothing holds its value anymore. Returning from El Salvador, you sold those two battered F3s for three times what a mint F3 high-eyepoint will fetch now. Photography today is nothing but a game of technology. In the computer age, the philosopher’s stone is merely a serviceable paperweight.

Poring over the used gear cabinet became unpleasantly like looking at Lucas Zane preserved in a museum. He had gone down to the ROM that summer, wanted to see the dinosaurs, felt he could deal with all those bones. But the place was closed for renovation. You want to see a dinosaur, look for your reflection in the glass.

Charlie, run-down, slightly stooped, thinning grey hair, asked if he wanted to take a closer look at anything. Charlie had worked there as long as Zane could remember. Longer than that, in fact. Charlie had worked there since the Nikon F, knew every good camera made since 1959. Tell him you needed to rig a remote trigger for an arcane motor drive that hadn’t been made since 1983, and he’d drag a dusty box up from the basement and find the connector you needed. With a wink: you can have that free because I’m pissed off at the boss today. Charlie liked anyone who wanted things obscure and obsolete.

“Those prices are breaking my heart,” said Zane.

“Used prices are way down. Great deals in there.”

“That’s what’s breaking my heart.”

Zane wandered away from the used cabinets to the back corner  of the shop. On the back wall he found a shelf where assorted used developing tanks lay jumbled. Yard sale junk; no-one uses this stuff anymore. The shelf bore three lonely bottles of liquid black-and-white developer, Kodak HC-110. Zane picked one up and inspected it, taking note of the colour change at the top of the bottle, where the developer had reacted to the air. Easy to work with, has a long shelf life, but like any liquid developer it’s heavy to carry. It was Zane’s favourite, in the days when he still shot a lot of black and white. In El Salvador.

He set the bottle aside. The chemicals on the shelf were jumbled together in no particular order but he found bottles of rapid fixer and glacial acetic acid without difficulty. He still had his old tanks back at the apartment, in one of the boxes. He had all he needed. He deposited the chemicals on the counter and Charlie looked at him dubiously. He rarely used Zane’s name, probably couldn’t remember it without reading it off his credit card. But he could tell you that the difference between an AI-S Nikkor and an AI Nikkor only matters if you own the Nikon FA. And who owns a Nikon FA, anyway?

“I always preferred D-76.”

Which was exactly what Zane might have expected from Charlie.

“That’s what Saint Ansel used?”

“It is indeed.”

“Europe is in flames, and Ansel Adams is photographing rocks and trees. Cartier-Bresson said that.”

“Did he?”

“But no doubt, someplace else was in flames when Cartier-Bresson was shooting guys jumping over puddles.”

“No doubt.”

Charlie put the chemicals in a plastic bag. Zane knew he was far more interested in the merits of HC-110 as compared to D-76, and could cheerfully have discussed contrast curves and push processing characteristics all afternoon. What a dead Frenchman had once said about a dead American, he couldn’t have cared less.

“Thing is, someplace or other is always in flames,” said Zane.Now that he had the chemicals, he felt no real desire to take any pictures worth developing.

“And there are always rocks and trees.”

“True, that.”

Rocks and trees. Who cares? No doubt Charlie will shake his head sadly after you leave: what a pity that Zane guy hit the bottle. Used to be good, you know, a real pro. In any case, Cartier-Bresson had taken to painting by the time Capa got himself killed in Indochina. Zane was more or less sure of that. If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough. Then Capa stepped on a mine. Cartier-Bresson was better off painting.

from Combat Camera

Categories: combat camera, photography

Pushing my luck

October 12, 2010 Leave a comment

I don’t know what it is with Windsor. All my photos this fall look nice and smooth and creamy, but as soon as I get to Windsor they turn dark and gritty, with grain the size of baseballs. Is it the Alexander MacLeod effect? Do the gritty stories actually take over the entire atmosphere of the town?

Alexander MacLeod reads from Light Lifting at Windsor's Phog Lounge, 28 Sept 2010

It might be that those pictures were shot on Delta 3200 at EI 12,500. And the tech data sheet for Delta 3200 does say, “when using meter settings of EI 12500/42 and above, it is important to make test exposures first to ensure the results will be suitable for the intended purpose,” which anyone knows is actually tech data sheet lingo for, “What? Are you frigging stupid? Yer gonna get grain the size of baseballs.”

But I was able to hand-hold an 85 mm lens in the dark, so what the heck. And then you get really bold, and try hand-holding the 180….

Alexander MacLeod at Phog Lounge, 28 Sept 2010. 180 mm f/2.8 AF Nikkor

Infidel

October 6, 2010 Leave a comment

Tim Hetherington’s new book, Infidel, which I haven’t yet seen, is gathering lots of attention. It’s on the NYT lens blog, with 19 pictures, and to put it simply, I want it.

I’m fascinated by some of the comments it has gathered there:

I’ve looked through this book, its pretty anodyne.

“The great war photographs are usually taken during the 1 percent of the time when fighting is happening”…
or they are of the non-combatants.

Where are the photos of the people living at the bottom of the valley?

Or,

Hetherington’s work seems little more than a mindless, locker room portrait of some very dangerous boys playing lethal games. Their glorification serves no purpose journalistically or otherwise.

And best of all,

… duty and sacrifice become revenge and sadism out of boredom by young men who sign up for money so they can kill, and when not killing, their violence turns on each other.

How very unfortunate.

Good work, whether it’s writing or photography, should open us to new perspectives. Prior to the Vietnam War, war photography tended to focus on “our boys.” David Douglas Duncan’s sympathetic treatment of American soldiers in WWII and in Korea is perhaps the leading example.

But all that changed with a new generation of photographers, in Vietnam, led by the likes of Philip Jones Griffiths and Don McCullin. Their view of the war was anything but sympathetic; the soldiers, rather than being “our boys,” were men caught up in a brutal and deadly conflict. The photographers’ sympathies now lay increasingly with the victims.

(It helped, perhaps, that Griffiths and McCullin were British; they had no horse in that race. And furthermore, British photojournalism seems to me, even today, to be far more progressive in its ethics than American photojournalism. But that’s a topic for another post.)

The photography of the Vietnam War created a template for war photography that continues to dominate today. We are to be concerned with victims and with the problems of everyday life, not with the dramatic moments of battle. And we are to see casualties.

Hetherington is coming under fire here because he discards that template. We do not see the other side. We do not see the civilians caught in the crossfire. Yet at the same time, he is not returning to the pre-Vietnam school, which was concerned with capturing the action of battle. Hetherington is bringing us everyday life, and when there is action, we see a soldier grinning at his mates in apparent unconcern; it hardly looks like action at all. This is very much a portrait of “our boys,” so Hetherington takes it on the chin.

But what does this portrait actually show us? This is not patriotic boosterism. It’s a portrait of a group of men trapped in a mountain firebase and isolated from the local population, bored out of their skulls most of the time. I particularly like the fifth frame at Lens, of the soldier playing golf, which alludes to Hunter S. Thompson’s early tale of a British expatriate in South America, hitting golf balls off his roof into the slums below.

We don’t see the enemy because they don’t see the enemy; we don’t see the civilian casualties of the airstrikes they call in because they don’t see those civilian casualties. This is a portrait of the experience of war for those men, a portrait that allows us to understand how limited their view is, just as it is a sympathetic portrait of the men themselves. This is far more complex than those simplistic criticisms allow, and it’s a pity that some people are not open to that understanding.

Steve McCurry on Kodachrome

October 4, 2010 1 comment

How about a post that’s not all about me? Just for, ya know, a change of pace.

Here’s an interview with Steve McCurry (part 1 — hear the rest at Youtube) on using the last roll of Kodachrome. I agree with him, to an extent, on films; I never really was a fan of Fuji’s Velvia, with its toxic pop, and was dismayed that some magazines actually demanded that you shoot on Velvia. But I always found Kodachrome muted, and preferred Fuji’s more neutral film, Astia. Anyway, the interview:

Categories: photography, steve mccurry

On your own time, rapid, fire

September 17, 2010 Leave a comment

A shortage of time prevents me from saying much these days, but a few quick points need to be pointed:

  1. Sunday morning will find me up at an ungodly hour so that I can get a bout of dog training in before heading up to Eden Mills for the rest of the day, where I plan to catch Alexander Macleod, Leon Rooke, and whoever else.
  2. The discovery, via Nigel Beale, that the Governor General doesn’t keep a collection of the books that win the Governor General’s Award is just plain depressing. I guess that’s how much Canada prizes its literary culture.
  3. Here’s some bitching about author photos from someone who evidently knows jack-shit about portrait photography. Three of the cliches that post supposes are unique to writers are, of course, staples of portrait photography in general. And if you were going to make an environmental portrait of a writer, what environment to choose other than that where the writing gets done? But don’t mind me; if photographic cliches irritate you, by all means blame the writer.
  4. I like this Globe piece on “the death of do-it-yourself” because, while I have no interest in fixing cars, it applies to all kinds of other things. We shall soon become a nation of people who have no idea how things work. I like stuff I can figure out how to fix. Every year, there’s less of that stuff around.
  5. Ashley Gilbertson’s photos of military rations from around the world brings back memories both pleasant and less so. Thankfully, the Canadian Forces have discontinued the most unpopular menu selection, Ham Omelette, affectionately known as “lung in a bag.”
  6. Oh, look. Seems PTSD is going to be the flavour of the day for a while.
  7. As evidence of just how far behind I am, I will now comment on Samantha Haywood’s 16-day-old piece on preparing the perfect manuscript. Well, what to do? The economics of publishing resemble an inverted pyramid, where the point is demand, the whole thing wobbling precariously under the pressure of a zillion people convinced their story must be told. Nothing we can do about that. So apparently, Peter Cheney in the Globe is wrong, and do-it-yourself isn’t dead at all. Except that we still can’t do it our fucking selves, can we?

And that’s all I have to say about that, as Forrest Gump liked to say. Or at least, that’s all I’m willing to say about that at this time.

Larry Towell

August 18, 2010 Leave a comment

I’m surprised to find I didn’t blog this before, but here are two videos on/by the Canadian photographer Larry Towell. He lives in southwestern Ontario, so I’ve always thought of him as a kind of local hero.

Towell works exclusively in black and white, and says he isn’t interested in digital photography, a luxury you can afford when you’re Larry Towell. I’ve always been drawn to the wonderful, luminous quality of his photos, which is apparent in the second video.

I am saddened…

August 11, 2010 Leave a comment

… to read of the passing of Fuji Sensia, via the British Journal of Photography.

I haven’t actually shot a roll of Sensia in five years, which helps to explain why it’s being discontinued. If digital cameras made the demise of colour print film inevitable, colour slide would follow as the professional market turned digital. And Sensia, as a consumer film, would be the first to go.

It seems like the end of an era. I shot a lot of that film. Sensia (RA) was the same stuff as Fuji’s Astia Professional (RAP): same colour rendition, same granularity, and just as reliable. The only difference was the careful lot control on the professional product, and the price. It was good, it was reliable, and it kept costs down. I know I wasn’t alone in using it in place of the more expensive professional films.

It’s silly to lament the loss of a film, I suppose, but there you go.

Categories: photography

Kevin Frayer: Afghan National Army

July 29, 2010 Leave a comment

More interesting work from Kevin Frayer cropped up yesterday at The Guardian: a series of 10 frank black-and-white portraits of Afghan National Army soldiers based in the southwest.

What’s significant about these soldiers is that none of them are actually from the southwest, a detail that has MSNBC (where the same photos are shown, in smaller scale) calling them “foreigners.” It’s jarring to consider that, in ethnically divided Afghanistan, you can be an Afghan and yet a foreigner in your own country.

For some, these photos will serve as further proof that the war in Afghanistan is hopeless, that the West can never win. But the truth, I think, is more complex. Neither the existing government nor the Taliban actually enjoys much support in the south-west, at least according to the only opinion polls available. The Taliban never controlled the country, either. In fact, Afghanistan has been continually at war with itself for thirty years, for reasons that have, for the most part, absolutely nothing to do with the lives of most of the people caught up in the war zone. This war was on before we got there, and it will continue after we leave. It’s not that the West can never win; no one can, least of all the Afghan people.

Among Frayer’s portraits, I like the two soldiers hiding behind their sunglasses best of all. Those sunglasses, both as barrier between the soldier and his environment, and a symbol of Western cool, make explicit the gulf that lies between Afghanistan’s warlords and the bulk of the people they claim to represent.

From the time capsule

April 24, 2010 Leave a comment

Anyone working in the photographic field who appreciates the need for moving out of the nineteenth into the twentieth century … out of the craft approach and into technology … should read, master, and keep this book in his personal library. Any serious photographer who does not know the essentials of at least the first five chapters of Photographic Sensitometry is working in the dark and risks obsolescence by not utilizing the capabilities of his medium.

Flap copy to Photographic Sensitometry by Hollis N. Todd and Richard D. Zakia, 2nd edition, March, 1974.

That the tone reproduction methods of Chapters V and XIII are thus incomplete (although sound in principle) indicates that a great amount of theoretical and experimental work is yet to be done. That the methods have been explored even to this extent only for pictorial photography suggests the need for applying them to other photographic imaging situations. Photographic sensitometry is, like other technologies, in the process of rapid change. Far as we have come in a century, the next century will surely take us unimaginably farther yet.

Final paragraph of the same.

Categories: photography

Full of sound and fury

April 23, 2010 Leave a comment

Criticism of Marco Vernaschi’s Ugandan child sacrifice story continues, regardless of the Pulitzer Center’s apology. Some of it, I think, is simply piling on; not all of the accusations hold water. But some of the criticism is valid. It’s disturbing to learn, for example, that the Pulitzer Center went ahead and published the story, and the questionable photos, despite having been warned of serious problems with the work.

But there’s another serious problem with the work that no one has discussed in detail: the photos themselves. Not the three photographs at the centre of the ethical debate—those have been retracted. I mean the remaining 65 photographs through which Vernaschi attempts to enlighten us concerning child sacrifice in Uganda. The photography itself is good; the photojournalism, less so.

I will not be the first to complain that these photos play on stereotype to show us a Uganda pulled straight from Heart of Darkness. They’re highly stylized photos evoking darkness and fear, which consistently present superstition and poverty. Most seem to have been shot at night, and many of them reveal little of their subjects, thanks to blur; they’re often more concerned with a mood of crazed dread than with a frank portrayal of their subjects. They’re full of sound and fury, but signify nothing.

These 65 photos revolve around four main subjects: the ritual activities of faith healers (or “witch doctors”), the plight of street kids, the imprisonment of street kids, and ostracized war veterans. Captions attempt to illustrate the linkages between these elements and the main subject, child sacrifice, without much success.

I don’t subscribe to the school of thought that demands you shoot not that subject, but this subject, or that insists that “negative” portrayals of Africa be replaced with “positive” ones. The story is the story, and you shoot the story.

But here, there is no story. What we have is an emphasis on individual photographs rather than on using photography as a means of visual storytelling. The photography overwhelms the photojournalism, and the understanding that emerges is incomplete.

Pieces are missing. We know, for example, that Vernaschi was in contact with Moses Binoga, the head of the Anti-Human Sacrifice unit of the Ugandan police, but we don’t see him, or officers who work for him, or gain any understanding of their work. In fact, the only hint of police activity in Vernaschi’s archive comes in the form of captions advising us that the police clean up the streets by throwing street kids in jail.

Surely, this is an incomplete portrayal of the police role.

We also know that Vernaschi was working with Paul Odida, head of an NGO called RACHO, but we don’t see him, either, or see any of the activities of his organization. Captions inform us that there are two NGOs to every street kid in Kampala, but we see none of the NGO activity.

Surely, this is an incomplete portrayal of the part played by NGOs.

There’s no denying that this is a difficult story to photograph. You can’t photograph sacrifices in progress, for obvious reasons. And so Vernaschi was left to photograph the various elements surrounding the main subject: the faith healers, the street kids at risk, reminders of the civil war that created a generation of orphans. Photography is a limited medium, and this story is a real challenge for a photographer.

But the limitations of photography are exacerbated by incomplete coverage. I can’t help thinking that the missing pieces would do much to aid in understanding the linkages between Vernaschi’s various subjects, and to the practice of child sacrifice. It’s unfortunate that, for whatever reason, Vernaschi chose to leave parts of the story untold.

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