Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Don't Panic!

This, ironically, is from a Kodak blog.  They just announced the other day that what is left of the company is trying to sell of its still film products division.  This makes me sad.

It makes me sad in a bunch of ways.  For one thing, there's the obvious loss of another lovely thing in the world.  The tragic but inevitable demise of Kodachrome was bad enough, but that stuff was grossly expensive to make and especially to process.  Yeah, the color was wonderful, but it was a 1920s solution to the problem, rich and glorious but antiquated and, in the end, impractical.

So why, you're now asking with a predatory gleam in your eye, am I calling for the preservation of Tri-X?  Isn't that a 1950s solution to a problem that no longer exists?  (How does one get pictures for half-tone reproduction in newspapers in normal room light?)  Well, yeah.  But it was a helluva' solution, one that was so good that it ended up solving a bunch of other questions too, like how does one get nice candid pictures quickly and easily with simple equipment and exposure by eye?  I mean, TX is incredibly generous in its tonal range, and really dependable once you get used to it.  Depending on how you treat it, and the quality of the light, it can be almost as smooth as lower ISO films or as grainy and gritty as you want.

And it's really simple and relatively cheap to process.  All you need is couple of cans and reels, some D-76 and fixer, temperatures somewhere in the relatively comfortable range, and a dark room (preferably a darkroom, but anything from a bathroom at night to a closet will do) and some running water.  Okay, there are a few items on that list, but compared to other films (like the notoriously difficult to process Kodachrome), this is like saying: "Take stick, bang on stone.  You're done!"

Also, there's this whole question of my having shelves full of film cameras.  Once Kodak goes -- and I guess this might be inevitable in some way; look at GAF's film operation now* -- one's left with the feeling that it's a rapidly accelerating decline into oblivion for 35mm acetate-backed roll film.  Then what?  All my precious Leica Ms become, well, beautiful doorstops.

And I really like film.  It's something that's there.  You can hold it up to a window, and review the negatives without any further technical devices required.  (See above rant on simplicity)  And, with reasonable care, it won't go anywhere.  Open the file drawer, the barrister's box, and there they are, the black and white captures of life, a thousandth of a second from 20 or 40 or however many years ago.  Still there, vibrant and frozen in a moment of life.  How cool is that?  One slip of the wrong key, one hard drive crash, and where are your digital pictures?  Don't get me started on the subject of proof sheets ...

So, I guess I have to remember that almost every past form of photography is still practiced somewhere within reason.  There was a Daguerreotype of the Obama inauguration, for God's sake.  Surely someone will still make roll film. 

But what of my beloved Tri-X?

* That link's not a mistake.  GAF, the successor to, in reverse chronological order, Ansco and Scovil and the E. & H. T. Anthony Company, the place where Mathew Brady first learned to make pictures, now makes ... roof tiles.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Our Lady of Street Photography

I sometimes wonder if Vivian Maier isn't some sort of an elaborate hoax perpetrated on the gullible ... like me.  After all, it is generally said if something is too good to be true, it probably is.  Is she really the exception to the rule?

If you don't feel like following the hotlink (your loss; the pictures are absolutely amazing), I'll quickly summarize.  Maier was a nanny who, on her off days, pursued an interest in photography, generally using a twin-lens Rolleiflex and black and white film.  She shot thousands of rolls of film, but apparently the photography was a reward in itself.  The general public knew nothing of this until a large number of her negatives were purchased when a storage bin was auctioned.  The buyer, discovering the quality of her work, began to research who she was.  He located her ... just months after her death.  Here's the long version.

Her stuff stands up with Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank ... and coming from me, that's saying something.  It's revealing and stunningly beautiful, deep and full.  She clearly had a quick, perhaps anticipatory eye, and a really fast hand.  Focusing the Rollei, I've discovered, is far more difficult than you'd think.  The thing has a surprisingly narrow depth of field -- useful in making the picture interesting, but devilishly hard to anticipate without a lot of experience.  It would be interesting to see some proof sheets ...

On top of all that, the pictures are amazingly revelatory.  Of course, that's the purpose with "street photography" in general -- to capture life unawares -- but in many images, her subjects seem blissfully unaware of the woman with the magic box.  How is this?  My days are bracketed with people ponderously announcing, as if they were senators on the way to a meeting of the Trilateral Commission, that they don't want their picture taken.  Fine, pal, whatever.

This usually happens to me while heaving a 28-pound, AJ-SPC700P Panasonic television camera onto my shoulder, so I am a less-than subtle figure.  And this got me thinking: Was it the Rollei that helped her?  The waist-level finder, the cognac leather case, comfortably slung around the neck of that plain woman?  "What on earth," the subject might for a moment think, "is that odd lady taking a picture of?  There's nothing here but a street."  It's worked for me -- the quickly deployed Leica, a la the immortal HCB, or the Rollei casually slung over the shoulder -- but more often than not, I get busted.  My more candid stuff almost always happens when I'm around people who have become accustomed to me, to the point of dismissing the camera as part of the background.

But I have begun to think of late that it wasn't just the creative cauldron of the 1950s that caused all those people -- HCB, Frank and Maier -- to do great work then.  I'm wondering if the inability to get, or perhaps rarity of, pictures like that is because we're all so media aware now.  A DSLR for example is a great, huge, unsubtle weapon of potential personal destruction in the age of the cellphone.  Everyone can make digital pictures, and the very thing I selfishly treasure about my gear (the fact that it announces that I am a professional*) is what kills my chances of candid shots.  "Why is that pro taking my picture?  Where is he going to sell it?"  That is what now goes through the subject's mind.

For Maier, photography was still an unusual, complicated and infrequent hobby.  Sure, families had cameras, but they were hauled out for special occasions and trips to the Grand Canyon.  A single roll of film in the Kodak (yes, children, once upon a time the fabulous Kodak made cameras too) could last six months or a year.  When it was finally shot out, the canister was ceremonially delivered to the local camera shop, where solicitous but elite professionals would carefully swath it in a special envelope for delivery to Rochester, from whence it might return in a week or so.

To walk the streets with a Rollei was the province of a newspaperman -- someone rarely seen, and then only at news events.  His usually came with a massive flash gun, and was about as unsubtle as artillery.  For that thin, drably dressed, common woman to be walking about with one was ... well, you just didn't see that a lot.  Far from being a curiosity, I wonder if it just didn't register.  The brain didn't expect it, and in the demands of daily life -- a life in which cameras had little presence, let alone import -- the sight was dismissed as unthreatening and therefore unimportant.  As part of the background, Maier was able to approach closer, catch moments more honestly.

Or maybe I'm just jealous.

*I admit a certain amount of ego, as well as professional pride, in being known as someone who is a photographer.  When working as a photojournalist, this carries through in the mentality that I deserve to be able to go where others can't (eg: the sidelines at a football game) because that is my job, and I am not beyond holding a camera very prominently, like a shield, to bully people out of my way.  Surprising how often that works ...

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A Short Cri de Coeur

I find my world
is boundaried by things I am denied to do,
and filled with
things I must do.