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Friday, August 29

Is Vivian Maier over-rated?

The story of the shy nanny who spent her spare time chronicling the streets of Chicago and further afield on her Rolleiflex but who died under sad circumstances before anyone could appreciate her ability touched me as much as anyone else.

You can't listen to her story without being moved and the thousands of photographs she left behind are a fitting testament to her life and work. BUT, switching from heart to head, did Vivian deserve to be fast-tracked onto the list of near-mythical photographers?

Setting aside the undoubted charm and compelling appeal of her life, are her photographs really so good? Or have we been swept along by the pathos of the whole Vivian Maier back story?  I've visited the websites dealing with Vivian's work and seen the TV documentaries (haven't seen John Maloof's film yet) and really enjoy her photographs.

However, my tentative opinion is that there is a gulf between Vivian's best work and that of the acknowledged masters such as Cartier-Bresson, Kertesz, and Doisneau who worked in the same genre and who were her contemporaries.

I can close my eyes and bring to mind many photographs from HCB and his ilk but there are few Maier images that have the same effect on me and most of those that do are her "selfies". This isn't just a familiarity thing, either. Obviously, I've spent longer looking at classic street photography than Maier's work but my study of her photography has been more recent.

Probably my favourite Vivian photograph.

Vivian's photography is of a standard that I imagine I or most readers could have produced given the same opportunity - and let's not forget that her opportunities were considerable. Vivian seems to have had lots and lots of spare time in between dropping off her young charges at school and, presumably, picking them up again at home time along with her free weekends.

She also seems to have had a reasonable disposable income based on the number of films she shot and the fact that she was able to afford a Rolleiflex, a camera outwith the reach of most working class people in the 1950s.

Putting Vivian's output into some perspective, the 150,000 negatives she exposed during her photographic life-time is the equivalent of eight rolls of 120 film every week for 30 years. That's prodigious. Me? I'm lucky if I get through around 40 to 50 films a year. Sometimes I'll shoot four rolls in a week - half of Vivian's work rate - but then will go two or three weeks without doing much at all.

But maybe burning huge amounts of celluloid (or polyester, or whatever) is what all truly dedicated photographers do. Then there's the fact that, to us, the scenes of Chicago and New York are just so photogenic as were the characters that frequented the mean streets in those days. Put all of that together and, as Columbo might have said, you have means, motive and opportunity for street photography.

Classic HCB.

Which of us, spending all of that time on the streets with a great camera and plenty of film, couldn't have produced a similar body of work? But match HCB? No way. I think there's a spark of genius in the fabled Frenchman.

My favourite Kertesz photograph and probably, in fact,
one of my favourite pics of all time!

This post isn't meant to disparage Vivian or her photography because I'm a great admirer, not just of her  pictures but of the fact that she had the dedication to so comprehensively chronicle an interesting period in history along with some compelling city backdrops. But I do wonder if she hasn't been elevated to that pantheon of great photographers just a little too quickly, based more on her back story than purely on her abilities as a photographer.

Wednesday, August 27

Stormy skies

Above and below: Contax 137 MA, 50mm f1.4 Planar, Adox Silvermax

Unlike a previous post where I was struggling for a foreground to go with a stormy sky, these foregrounds just sort of suggested themselves. Having said that, I still had to drive around a bit to find them.

I spend far too much time in the car looking for subjects, a strategy that nowadays costs a small fortune with petrol the price it is. But what else is there to do? Unless you like taking flower shots in your back garden then you either have to drive to a particular location, park the car and get out and hike or just trawl the highways and byways until something catches the attention.

The problem with the hiking approach is that you can spend and hour or two crawling around the countryside and end up with nothing to show for it. I've done that often enough that I no longer favour that approach - especially with a hungry blog to feed!

So it's the car for me. I know the land within about a 30 mile radius of my home quite well and I can normally think of a few locations depending on the type of weather we're having and the time of day. Stormy skies go well with water so it's my usual practice to drop by a local beach or reservoir. Such was the case with these two photographs.

What I'd really like to do is take off for the day and drive further afield but our three demanding bichon frise dogs would probably not speak to me for a fortnight if I did that. That means I'm seldom away for more than a couple of hours and that limits me to excursions nearer home.

Today was a typical example. I dropped Cath off at work and headed for Newtyle Quarry but this time, as threatened, with the Speed Graphic in my bag for some ten minute indoor exposures. It was fun going out with just four sheets of 5x4 loaded in the DDSs and only exposing three.

There's no doubt that large format makes me far, far more selective. It's not just the cost of film but the time involved in setting up and tearing down the Speed Graphic so if I don't think there's a good chance it will be a keeper, forget it!

Monday, August 25

Another few from the quarry

All pics shot on an Olympus OM2 on Adox Silvermax developed in Spur HRX.
This one was taken with the 50mm f1.8 Zuiko, probably the best tenner you'll
spend on a lens.

I really have to go back and photograph this old, derelict place in 5x4. When photographs are all about texture and light and shade, there's nothing better than a good, big negative to capture it all. The pics here are some more scans from the roll I shot recently at Newtyle Quarry.

I've often marvelled at the way some rural settlements in the American Mid West have been abandoned but remained largely untouched but I suppose most countries have something similar and they just take on a different appearance depending in which part of the world you are.

35mm f2.8 Zuiko

The building in question here is a single-storey affair that is situated near the entrance to the quarry. The petrol pump, where the quarry vehicles presumably filled up before transporting their goods, is in an adjacent wooden shack. I've photographed it a couple of times now and still not got an image I'm happy with so if I return with the Speed Graphic I'll need to give it some more thought. Maybe I should lose the shack and just concentrate on the pump itself?

24mm f2.8 Zuiko

The set of kitchen scales in the first photograph can be seen in their general setting in the one above. What a weird-looking room with a sink, clothing scattered about, a wardrobe and chest of drawers, an old fridge, etc. Not sure what it's function would have been in a quarry setting!

Friday, August 22

Singular Image: Delta Sky

Sorry for the pretentious title. It could have been worse: Signpost to God, anyone? I'm absolutely hopeless at coming up with titles for photographs. I've got a desktop littered with stairs1, stairs2, sky3, etc. I tend to make them purely descriptive so I can identify them from their names.

The only one I've been entirely happy with was this one:

Thursday, August 21

Kodak BW400CN no more

Will Ilford be the last man standing? It's certainly looking increasingly that way. Kodak Alaris's coat seems to be on a shoogly peg, as we say in Scotland, following their announcement earlier this week that they are discontinuing BW400CN, their chromogenic film. I can see one Kodak film after another ending production - and, let's face it, there aren't many left now. I don't know if Fuji is doing much better although their 400CN chromogenic film is still around.

Ilford were quickly out of the gates to confirm that rival film XP2 Super will not be sharing a similar fate as BW400CN - at least for the "foreseeable future". They have "no plans" to stop production. Of course, it's anyone's guess what "foreseeable" means in this context. A month? Six months? Two years? Longer?

Wednesday, August 20

Large Format: Tenement Stairwells

Here's an embarrassing confession to kick this post off: I exposed these sheets of 5x4 on January 2 and just developed them on Monday. In fact, I wrote about the process of taking these photographs in this post here on January 3. They've been sitting in their dark slides wrapped in a black plastic print bag all that time. What can I say? Not a lot really. Sometimes I have so much inertia that I can give the immovable object a run for its money.

Monday, August 18

Quarry Office Revisited

A while back I published some aged HDR pics I'd taken, including one of an office at an old, disused quarry near the Perthshire village of Newtyle. That's the abomination in question below. The response in some quarters was quite brutal (only teasing) with a few readers leaving me in no doubt of what they thought of this digital carry on.

Friday, August 15

OT: Barn Find Bicycle

If you're a vintage vehicle enthusiast, whether bicycles, motor bikes or cars, the "barn find" is the holy grail. A machine not widely known, not on the market and in danger of being lost forever without your intervention. There are plenty of Youtube videos where cars left to languish at the back of a barn for more than 30 years have suddenly come to light, usually when the owner who left it there dies.

Such a barn find was this 1948 Hobbs of Barbican bike, the pinnacle of post-war racing machines. Happily, the owner is still very much alive and kicking although now approaching 90. As a vintage racing bike enthusiast, I found out about this particular bike when I bought a 1936 lightweight from the owner's older - and now deceased - brother. The older brother told me his younger sibling had a pre-war Hobbs so I got the phone number and gave the chap a ring. That was about 12 years ago.

Wednesday, August 13

Large Format: Enlarging v Contact Printing

Is a contact print from a 10x8 large format neg better than a 10x8 enlargement from a sheet of 5x4 film? Well, it seems that the answer depends on who you're asking. I've been reading up on this subject for the last couple of days and I don't believe there's anything really definitive out there one way or the other.

Last week I posted a video about the art of large format photography which elicited some excellent comments. It was these that got me thinking. David M wrote, "The only thing missing from this film is a demonstration of the astonishing texture and detail which is one of the glories of LF photography, particularly in contact prints.

"Alas, this is not possible on even the finest screen (enlarged details don't have the same impact) and we must seek out and view physical examples. Many LF photographers speak of the shock of a face-to-face encounter with an actual print and their immediate conversion to the art of Inconvenient Image Making."

Monday, August 11

A Poem in the Shadow of the Grand Mosque

By Omar Ozenir

Having found refuge from the searing heat in the small tea garden beneath the wall of the Grand Mosque in Adana, we got into conversation with the neighbouring table. Once he felt comfortable of his new found company he opened up and told us about his difficult past. He talked, we listened.

I started photographing when he recited a poem he had written for a woman a long time ago. As he remembered - who knows, maybe the life that had slipped past him - tears welled up in his eyes...

Back at home in the darkroom, I decided to print the frame where he had looked away for a moment and his eyes had caught the light.

The picture was taken with a Bronica RF645 rangefinder camera and a 65mm lens. I developed the film, llford HP5+, in ID-11 diluted 1+1.

The main difficulty with this photo is that the background is rather messy (as can be seen in the neg or the top left frame in the contact print). In spontaneous situations like this, we can't always move people around to a more pleasing setting, so we've just got to live with what we have and try to make the most of it.

In the darkroom I worked towards calming down the background as much as I could, which also helped focus attention on the man. Lowering the filtration to grade 1 after the main exposure, I gradually burned in the background, first using my hands, then moving around a piece of cardboard with a large hole in it, slowly building up density in the highlights.

This is the wet selenium toned print on fibre based Ilford MG IV:

In the print there was a greyness in the whites of the eyes, which I removed with a few touches of bleach (PotFerri) on a cotton swab. I very much like how Nathalie Loparelli uses local bleaching towards the end of this video, which I’m sure many of you have already seen. She makes it look too easy! She also seems to be using local bleaching as a matter of course; quite the contrary to my way of printing, where I rarely feel that a print would benefit from it. But that could well be due to my own poor judgement!