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Thursday, May 18

So I dusted off the D700...

Don't worry. This isn't the beginning of the end. Nor, though, is it likely to be the end of the beginning. I had great fun doing some colour with the DSLR and am even learning to like a tripod since switching to a ball head on the recommendation of Phil Rogers. So I'll probably be repeating the process from time to time.

We've got workmen in the house just now doing the bathroom and after being forced to listen for hour after hour to non-stop 1980s music on Absolute Radio (more accurately, it should be called Absolute Bollocks), I was desperate to get out so took the first opportunity to disappear for an hour to a derelict transport office that I visit whenever I get the urge for some "grotography".

I knew there were some interesting, faded colours in the old transport office and the goal was to try to capture them with as little intervention at the "post processing" stage as possible. Another way of looking at it was pretending that I had colour print film in the camera.

The pictures posted here are fairly unmolested. A few are completely untouched bar a little sharpening. Others have had their levels tweaked and I cured the barrel distortion from the wide end of a Nikkor 28-105mm zoom on another couple.

At the taking stage, I was a little concerned as the colours on the LCD screen looked brighter and sharper than I was seeing with the old Mk. 1 eyeball. However, when I opened the files up in Lightroom they were more like what I remembered they should be.

The office isn't very big. There's a convenience room/toilet that's about 10x12 ft and what must have been a social area of sorts for the drivers with a sink and worktop and fridge that measures around 15x20 ft. It's within an old stone quarry that fell out of use in the 1980s (it's a pity Adam Ant, Boy George and the like from Absolute Radio hadn't suffered the same fate) and is slowly becoming more exposed to the elements.

The transport office in question.

The convenience area has a hole in the roof and debris is just beginning to fall through onto the floor. Many window panes are broken as well and once the wind and rain starts getting in it's only a matter of time before it becomes so far gone that there's nothing much left worth photographing.

Some of the pics here might look a little familiar to regular readers as I've taken similar shots over the years. I was determined to come away with something more original, though, and looked hard to find attractive colours and interesting shapes.

My favourite is the shot of the backlit wardrobe doors (below). I was using the D700's self timer in lieu of a cable release and had to hang around for the sun to put in an appearance. When it was shining, it cast nice shadows onto the floor beneath the wardrobe doors but it was coming and going from behind some clouds and trees. My first couple of attempts resulted in the sun disappearing before the shutter had time to fire but it came together on the third shot.

I also took the same shot on a Contax 137 MA fitted with the 50mm f1.4
Planar and Tmax 100 but I think this is one of those occasions when the
colour version will be nicer.

The camera was stopped down to f11 for most of the photographs which, at 400 ISO, was giving me shutter speeds of around 5-10s. The office is surrounded by trees and not a lot of light reaches it. All the scenes here were as I found them - even the photograph of a square yard of floor covered with all sorts of stuff including old make-up tubes, a hairbrush, toys, etc. I can offer no explanation as to how they ended up on the floor of a transport office.

Overall, I'm quite happy with the look of these photographs. From now on, I think I'll take the D700 with the Nikkor zoom with me on photographic excursions to see what the results are like on dull, misty days. I still have difficulty in thinking of digital files as serious photographs, however, and given the choice would rather have shot the transport office pics on my Rollei SL66. It might be worth a roll or two of 120 just to see how medium format would handle this subject.

Wednesday, May 17

Barry Thornton Articles

I've added a page to the Resources section in the right side bar which contains some of the articles that Barry used to have on his old website and which are now no longer available (as far as I know) except through the Wayback Machine.

They're a good read with your morning coffee.

Monday, May 15

Learning about the masters

I think most of you would be surprised at how truly ignorant I am of the work of some of the past masters of photography. Even well-known names are, to me, a largely unknown quantity. This might seem a bit weird when you consider that I've been taking photographs for just over 40 years. But the thing is that, never having studied photography in any formal way or spent much time in camera club circles, I've had little exposure to the photographers who are recognised as "the" names nor those who are on the next rung down, so to speak.

This has its good and bad points: I've been able to bash on without worrying too much about fashion or style but I've also missed out on a lot of inspirational photography. I suppose the negative point could be turned into a positive by saying that I've got years of enjoyable studying ahead of me whilst many of you will already be up to speed on the masters and have less to look forward to!

The recent TV shows about photography presented by Eamonn McCabe were a bit of an eye opener. He kept on dropping names that I suppose I should be familiar with but had never heard of. Some, of course, I had heard of but knew only a little about their photography. Here are a couple of examples for you: Bill Brandt and John Bulmer.

Obviously, I knew of Brandt although only in a very superficial way. I vaguely remembered his nudes and the odd gritty shot such as Top Withens and A Snicket in Halifax. Some of his other photographs revealed in the TV series just knocked me out. Take the one below, Hail Hell and Halifax. As Simon Cowell might say, OMG!

And then there's Shadow and Light. We've all seen plenty of stairwell shots - I've taken some myself - but I can't remember seeing a better one than this. It could be a giant's double helix.

Even Brandt's obviously contrived shots are excellent such as Eaton Square (top) and Belgravia 1951 below.

And here's a special treat courtesy of Vimeo - a short video showing Brandt's A Night in London page-by-page:

Now that I've whetted your interest, you might like to know that you can easily pick up a copy from Abe Books - providing you have four grand burning a hole in your pocket...

I smell the all pervasive whiff of Phil Rogers' algorithm here. Read his
comments on this post.

And now we turn to John Bulmer. OMG doesn't really do it for this photographer - he's right up there with the very best in my opinion. What about BHHG? Bloody hell, he's good! He catalogued the disappearance of much of the old industrial north of England in the 1960s and 1970s. Some of his images are stunning and just the sort of thing to which I aspire. Moody, sombre, poignant, touching - there are all sorts of emotions in his prints. A few really knock me out, such as these:

The interesting bit - for me, that is, you've probably all fallen asleep by now - is Bulmer's colour photography. I do as much colour as I do digital which is to say, none. But after seeing some of Bulmer's work I started getting an itch which I might have to scratch a little. It's not the garish sort of stuff a lot of DSLR users seem to like but very muted colour with a restricted palette. How much of that is just down to the film stock at the time is something I can't really speak about.

Bulmer only photographed in colour on days when the sun wasn't shining, hence the white, featureless skies in a lot of his shots. I tend to agree with that approach: skies can be a real distraction and a destroyer of composition. Bland skies let the viewer concentrate on the rest of the photograph. Bulmer was one of the first UK photographers to use colour for documentary work. I'm delighted to say that John Bulmer is still going strong at the age of 89. Here's his Wikipedia page which is an interesting read.

Here's a selection of his colour work, much of which was shot for the Sunday Times.

BUT! It begs the big question: If I were to have a go at colour after years of black and white would it be film or digital? I think I've said in the past on this blog that I think colour is better tackled these days with digital rather than film. I've got a DSLR so it would save quite a lot of money in terms of both film and developing.

Having just had a look at AG Photographic's website, it seems you can get basic Kodak film for under £3 for a 36 exposure roll but I think I'd prefer to use medium format since it scans better and that's around £5.50 a roll for Ektar 100. AG will also develop the film and make 18mb scans for £9 a roll, 35mm or 120. It soon adds up, doesn't it? £14.50 per film, not including postage. 

Since my only source of income is an early retirement pension and Cath plans on taking early retirement in October, we're not going to be awash with spare cash. £15 a film isn't really viable for two pensioners, even if they're as cool as we are. So it looks like it would have to be digital. The key to making it work would be to keep it as real as possible and avoid "post processing" a file to death as I was fond of doing in my Photoshop days. The whole idea needs some more thought.

But back to Brandt, Bulmer, et al. I've enjoyed researching these two so much that it's made me determined to find out more about all those photographers I should already be familiar with. It would be great if readers could recommend some names in the comments that I can chase up at my leisure.

Sunday, May 7

G.A.S. attack outflanked

The Autocord on offer at MW Classic Cameras.

Is camera equipment buying infectious, like yawning? I'd been doing rather well lately to keep myself from looking too closely at the various camera dealers whose websites I find overly attractive. Gear acquisition syndrome has no cure, as far as I'm aware, beyond simple cold turkey. Or, possibly, bankruptcy.

I'd even had another bout of "gear rationalisation" and was thinking of ways of reducing the stuff I have both to simplify life and maximise the amount of free space in what will be my new darkroom. Then up popped Phil Rogers with his new purchase of a 150mm Sonnar for his Hasselblad. This coincided with the fact that I, along with Cath and Freya, was laid low with a horrible viral infection, making me particularly vulnerable to some retail therapy.

On top of that, my old repetitive strain injury was back which sort of fed into the retail therapy loop. It's something that afflicts me whenever I spend too much time on a computer. It first flared up when I was a reporter. The action of using a mouse with my right hand for hours every working day gave me a real ache in my hand and wrist. Rather than complain on health and safety grounds or pop along to the dehumanised resources office, I simply trained myself to use the mouse with my left hand. Et voila! No more RSI in my right hand. A year later, however, I had RSI in my left hand so maybe not so clever after all! That's why I haven't posted anything lately: the only cure is time away from a keyboard.

Anyway, back to Phil as it was all his fault. His purchase started me wondering if any of the likely retail suspects might have a waist level finder for my Rollei SL66E. I've got the 45 degree prism for the camera but it's big and heavy and means the camera has to be held up to the face when it's not on a tripod. A WLF would make hand-holding much easier. I bought the SL66E outfit from MW Classic Cameras so I went to have a look on their website. No luck on the WLF front - but what a trio of supremely attractive Minolta Autocords they had! One was in collectible condition and the other two weren't far behind.

These TLRs date back to the 1950s and have cracking lenses. Their only weak spot is the focusing lever which protrudes from the bottom of the lower taking lens. The metal chosen for the lever seems vulnerable to metal fatigue - camera RSI, if you like - and can snap off in use. Presumably the grease on the focusing mechanism hardens over time and the lever becomes increasing difficult to operate. Other than that, though, they are fine picture-taking machines.

This would have been bad enough but making the need for G.A.S. almost intolerable was the fact that I've always wanted a camera from 1961 - the year I was born - and one of the three Autocords was made that year! Well, I did some web-based research, imagined myself using the Autocord and thought what a good value machine it was at £149. Worse was to come when Cath, who is supposed to be more like potassium bromide than hydroquinone, said I should get it if I really wanted it. Can you see all these malevolent forces aligning against my better anti-G.A.S. judgements? I was sorely tempted, I can tell you. A nice Autocord would have given me a wee boost and, feeling the way I was with the virus and RSI, I felt I needed something to keep me going.

But then I thought, "what would I do with it?" I'll tell you exactly what I would have done with it: shot a couple of rolls, marvelled at the results and then stuck it in a cupboard where it would have sat in the darkness apart from one or two outings per year.  I've done that with more than a few cameras. Perhaps we're all a bit guilty of it?

It made me think of my Rolleiflex Automat MVS, a very capable TLR from 1954. I looked the Rollei out for reappraisal and realised that the Autocord could never hold the same place in my affections that the Rollei does although it's the latter's equal - at least - in most respects. It must have been about 35 years ago when I bought the Rollei from an industrial photographer who worked with Timex. It was my first medium format camera. I haven't used the Rollei much lately either since its slow speeds are sticking but I've been thinking about making it my main night camera as B works OK and it's lighter - and less valuable - than the 2.8F.

So with considerable self-restraint, I decided not to buy the Autocord. £150 is too much to splash out on what would have become little more than an ornament. Is this a sign of maturity kicking in at last? Or just an indication that I'm now well into "middle age" and becoming increasingly afflicted by a "been there, done that" attitude? I no longer get the same buzz or inspiration from a new piece of camera gear. In some ways, that's not a good thing. I'm reminded of an old guy who was a member of Dundee Photographic Society and whose enthusiasm never dimmed in the slightest as he approached his 80s. He was still trading in his Canon DSLR for the latest model as soon as it hit the market.

But on the other hand, G.A.S. can be a pain in the ass. Instead of buying unnecessary items, I'd be much better off focusing on getting the darkroom up and running and on those wee projects I've got on the go. I've got more than enough gear to photograph everything short of wildlife safaris and downhill skiing and I'd rather leave a legacy of self-published photo books and mounted and framed prints than a bunch of camera bags stuffed full of largely obsolete equipment. And that's why the Autocord is still available at MW Classics...

Friday, April 21

Shedding light on the darkroom

Darkroom sink in need of a wash

If anyone out there still gives a toss, then you might not be surprised to learn that I'm no nearer getting my darkroom up and running - but it's not all my fault. In fact, I'm taking a step backwards to, hopefully, make a few giant leaps forwards. The last time I wrote about it, I'd fitted out the small room I'd created for a darkroom and just needed to find/build a sink and plumb it in to be operational.

Then there was a development. Our 18-year-old daughter, Freya, who occupies a bedroom that is about 25ftx12ft, got her first proper job at a bank and decided she wanted to move into her own flat. Freya and her two older brothers are very independent people and I knew there was little point in trying to talk her out of it despite my misgivings. In my opinion she's far too young. I suppose I'd naively thought she'd still be around to make me chicken soup when I was a gibbering, dribbling geriatric. It's not like it's too far off.

So I thought I'd make the best of it instead and divide her bedroom into two - one half would be a study and the other half a darkroom. No way was I going to leave a large room as a spare bedroom only inhabited once or twice a year. Then Freya exercised her prerogative and decided she would, after all, be staying.

However, she thought dividing the room up was a good idea even though it would mean her moving to a smaller bedroom. Her thinking was that I'd redecorate the spare room for her and she'd be able to furnish it as she fancied. I said to her, "So you only decided to remain at home because you would get a new bedroom?" She replied, "No, I'd miss the dogs as well." I now know my place. Freya has been safely decanted to the spare room upstairs (I wanted to send her to the dungeon but Cath said that was unduly cruel) although we've got so much going on in the house right now that she'll have to wait for redecoration.

When we moved into this house 18 months ago, it was in good decorative order but it was very dated.  We've slowly been doing it up but the downstairs bathroom and a wee en-suite shower room off our bedroom are now in the firing line and we have a plumber coming soon to start on them. I've got the great job now of knocking all the tiles off the bathroom wall. It's been made easier since I stuck pictures of Nicola Sturgeon onto each tile. For some reason battering that face with a heavy chisel is no great problem for me.

So the bad news is that my darkroom is further away than ever but the good news is that it will also be bigger than ever - around 12ftx10ft. And, since the bedroom already had a vanity unit with a sink, plumbing in a sink will be straightforward. AND, I picked up a fibreglass sink that the local art college was throwing out so I'll not have to build one. That's it above. We've had an estimate from a joiner for building a partition wall and that should hopefully be going ahead in the next few weeks.

The "wet side".

The "dry side".

Wet side with sink placed roughly in position.

A view of what will be the darkroom from the other half of the room that will
eventually become a study. A partition wall will be built along the line marked
by the end of the wardrobe seen on the left.

The darkroom sink is a monster - 2.84m long and 60cm wide. I'll be able to sit three trays, a print washer and a drying rack in there with room to spare. It's on the deep side, though, so I might have to cut away the front a little to make it easier to get at the trays or use some duck boards to raise them up. To be honest, I'd have preferred something smaller - around 6 ft long would have been ideal. As it is, the sink will occupy almost an entire wall of the darkroom. I think there will be two feet to spare.

There will be plenty of room for enlargers, a print dryer, lightbox and all my camera gear. Things like spotting and mounting prints will be done in the study. It should be a great space that's big enough without being too big. I was toying with the idea of setting up a webcam so that people could see me working in the darkroom. Then I realised that would mean me having to be on my best behaviour at all times in case I was caught on camera singing salty sea shanties or making up obscene limericks. 'Twas on the good ship Venus, etc.

I can't actually believe how long it's been since I last printed. For some people it doesn't make much difference how long they've been away: it's like riding a bike to them. Not with me, though. My last consistent, regular printing sessions were about 12 years ago. That's when I'd disappear into the darkroom for five or six hours at a time. I've printed a bit since then but getting a feel for it will be like relearning the craft. It's probably true - it is for me anyway - that it takes people longer to learn things with each passing year.

Still, no matter. I'm really looking forward to trying to make something of the negatives I've been accumulating beyond just scanning them for the blog.

Now, where did I put those chicken soup recipes?

Tuesday, April 11

Pimp my Pacemaker

A 1990s take on the classic Speed Graphic/flash set-up with
a Rolleiflex for scale.

As someone with a heart arrhythmia (but no pacemaker!), I did wonder if I was tempting fate with that headline but it was too good to pass up. I exchanged a few emails recently with a photographer who was exclusively contact printing. He explained his process and I was impressed with the way he had worked everything out and developed a very refined procedure for his printing.

Here's a flavour of his approach:
I guess you could say I just like the simplicity of the contact print. You can get ten 8 x 10 negatives exposed in a day - tray developed by inspection in pyro in the evening - hung up to dry over the sink and printfile sleeved on the lightbox the next morning. Then printing them up in a vacuum frame over a lightbulb with a metronome is easy - amidol / water bath developed. Air dried face down on screens and the trimmed and dry mounted on 13 x 15 inch alpha rag white boards.
It got me thinking again about contact printing, something I do from time to time. Thinking about it, that is, not actually doing it. I've been meaning to get the big half plate Kodak Specialist II out for ages and give it a whirl but my personal inertia in this regard seems difficult to shift. Half plate or 5x7 film (the Kodak takes both with the appropriate holders) is so expensive, x-ray film is cheaper but still a bit of an unknown quantity to me although there are plenty of photographers who use it and paper negatives seem such a carry on. I'll return to the theme of contact printing in future as I'm absolutely determined to have a bash.

The real McCoy

Anyway, one things leads to another and some research on the web into half plate contact printing led me eventually to a site about Pacemaker Speed Graphics, specifically about using them for hand-held photography - but with enlargements rather than contact prints in mind. I've got a lovely 1951 Speed Graphic gathering dust in a cupboard that I've used a few times but never with any great purpose in mind.

It comes down to inertia again and the need to stick the 5x4 on a tripod if I want to use the ground glass. Sometimes - most of the time actually - I can't be bothered. If you're getting the idea that there's a lazy streak in me then you're not far wrong. I'm happy to do the tripod thing with the Graflex if there's something I really want to photograph but I don't like going out into the countryside just on the off chance of stumbling across a picture opportunity with the Speed Graphic and its three-legged friend as my only tools.

But, having made the leap to hand-held photography with the SL66E, I thought I'd look into the possibility of using the Speed Graphic in the same way. There's not a huge difference in weight or ease of use between the two cameras so it seemed an idea worth pursuing. Plus, there's always the empirical evidence that it can be done in the countless news pictures taken over the decades on 5x4 press cameras. And I've got a box of Adox CHS 100 to get through as well.

I've been quite lucky with the Speed Graphic I bought five or six years ago. It came with the Kodak Ektar 127mm f4.7 lens, a favourite of the pressmen being the equivalent of around a 35mm lens on the small format. The lens is coupled to the side-mounted Kalart rangefinder. I haven't done any serious testing yet but the rangefinder seems accurate enough and they're easy to recalibrate by all accounts if anything is off.

I've also got the correct mask for the Ektar lens in the tube viewfinder. What this all means, of course, is that I can load a sheet of film, focus using the rangefinder and frame the shot through the viewfinder or by means of the pull up sports finder frame. Provided I don't compose right to the edges of the frame this should work fine. The Ektar's fairly fast (for a large format lens) f4.7 maximum aperture still leaves a gloomy ground glass image to work with but this won't matter to me if I'm using the viewfinder.

However, I'd forgotten just how scratched the front element is. If you look closely at the pic of my Speed Graphic you'll see that it's fitted with the 203mm Ektar. I looked out the 127mm and fitted that instead but noticed a lot of swirly marks on the glass. I know from the few sheets I've exposed with the lens that it's still sharp enough so definition isn't noticeably affected but it is a little on the flare-prone side. Never mind, though. I'll pop a lens hood on it and try to avoid flare-provoking scenes.

I fancied using the 203mm Ektar with the Kodak Specialist because it's apparently a very nice lens but there are a few too many obstacles to be overcome such as the need to calibrate the rangefinder for it, make or buy a correct viewfinder mask for the different field of view and cope with the reduced depth of field from the longer focal length.

My third and final large format lens is a 90mm Angulon which would be great in the tenement closes I like to photograph - provided I can find a suitable viewfinder. The Speed Graphic needs a rare adapter if you want to use a lens that wide and view through the tube viewfinder.

So the 127mm Ektar seems the way to go for hand-held work where its just adequate coverage of the 5x4 negative isn't likely to be stressed by lens movements. Provided the subject is reasonably centrally placed and not stuck out on the periphery then the results should be nice and sharp. In short, if I use it like the old press guys did then it should do the job very nicely.

Since I was seated in front of the TV for more than six hours on Sunday night watching The Masters golf, I thought I'd get the Speed Graphic out and give it a clean in preparation for some hand-held shooting. I had to take it apart a little to get at muck that had accumulated in difficult to reach places over the last 65 or so years.

It's now looking quite nice and working very smoothly. It gave me the opportunity to see how well made the Speed Graphic is. Not in a Linhof sort of way, which is probably over-engineered, but in a just-perfect-to-get-the-job done way. Everything on the camera just works well.


Yesterday, I was having a look to see which camera bag would be the right size for transporting the Speed Graphic and a few dark slides and picked up an old Camera Care Systems one that was bundled in with an auction lot I won a while back. I knew it had a Metz flash in it and some accessories but, since I never use flash, I'd never bothered to see what was there.

Anyway, out came the flash apparatus and after a few minutes footering I had a slightly modernised Metz version of Weegee's old rig - you can see it in the pic at the top of the post. It's almost tempting to do some street portraits with this set-up. If only I could overcome my natural shyness and pluck up the courage to make myself the centre of some very public attention.

Sunday, April 2

Clicking with the SL66E

Over the last few weeks, I've been looking at lots of Michael Kenna photographs and reading the interviews he's given which are posted on his website. Of all the various "genres" of photography there are, his moody images, along with the work that Bill Schwab produces, are what excite me. It's the sort of stuff to which I aspire.

Both men use medium format and usually print square images on 10x8 inch paper. They both seem to give the highlights a light toning in sepia to warm them up and selenium tone the shadows to give them more body and introduce a subtle duo tone effect. Beyond the technicalities, it's all about having an eye for a photograph. No change there, then.

We're always told to develop our own style - something that might have been easier half way through last century than it is today when those things one can pursue to achieve that end have already been pursued almost to death. Sometimes, in the case of Yosemite and Bryce Canyon, even beyond. As one who agrees that imitation is amongst the sincerest forms of flattery and not being in a mood to spend years attempting to make my photographs instantly recognisable, I have no qualms about following in Kenna's and Schwab's footsteps. Ripping them off, in other words.

It helps that I'm drawn to the same sort of subjects and like to give them a similar look. The obvious camera outfit to use for the medium format, square approach is my Rolleiflex SL66E but it's not one that's seen a lot of air time. It's heavy, not readily hand-holdable and just a bit quirky. At least, that was my view of it until I decided to give it an extended run. It also coincided with the purchase of a ball head for the Induro tripod I have - a support that's so much lighter and easier to use than the over-engineered Benbo.

It's fair to say that I'm now happier using the Rollei than at any time in the past six years of ownership. I've even started hand-holding it - and it's not as bad as I'd imagined it would be. It's still quite cumbersome and quirky, though!

The breakthrough has come just through repeated use. I've used it on and off in the past but, after a couple of films, I'd pick up a 35mm SLR for weeks or months on end so that the next time I reached for the Rollei it would seem unfamiliar again. I never put enough films through it for the camera functions to become second nature.

I went back to Grange Orchard a few days ago with the Rollei when there was a nice evening light and took a few shots showing the trees in a brighter mood than the misty atmosphere of my previous visit. The main reason for this was to take some photographs with the 40mm Distagon on the camera. With a small project like an orchard it can be difficult building some variety into the shots so different lighting and times of day, different seasons and different focal lengths have to be pressed into action.

The Distagon's a bit of monster with an angle of view that seems wider than the 24mm lens that is supposed to be its 35mm equivalent. It's ideal for capturing a different perspective. I'll no doubt take a few more with it in the orchard in future.

The first pic in this post is an old church across the River Tay in Fife. I stopped by to photograph its abandoned, roofless interior but it's been filled with old doors and fence posts which completely killed any atmosphere it might have had.

Wandering about with the SL66E around my neck, I noticed this view of it from behind that was quite nice. It seems to have an old-fashioned look to it but I'm not quite sure why. The film was Tmax 400 and the Planar is a nice sharp lens with good contrast that wouldn't normally be my first choice if I was trying to capture the olde worlde feel. Maybe it's just the ivy in the foreground that gives the scene a slightly gothic look?

I've also been snapping away with the 250mm lens on the Rollei - handheld as well which requires a steady hand. These films have still to be developed so I've yet to find out if I've managed to pull it off. Perhaps it's just as well the Induro is making my tripod work a good bit easier...

Thursday, March 23

It's a library, Joan, but not as I knew it...

Lochee Library in the years after its opening

My photographic education, such as it was, was almost entirely library-based. Throughout my life I've been self-taught when it comes to the things that appealed to me such as photography, golf and vintage racing bikes. When I needed help or information, it was only natural to nip along to the library to get some assistance in how to to do these things.

From about the age of 12, I'd become a regular stalker around the non-fiction shelves in my local Lochee Library. And what shelves they were. In the early 1970s, the bookcases were massive affairs, probably about 12 feet long, 7 feet tall and stacked in rows and rows. And all in a sombre, dark wood. Or at least that's how I remember the place.

There was a foot-stool that could be used to gain access to books on the top shelf and I had to use it on occasion even though I was an "early developer" and consequently quite tall for my age. The books spanned decades going back to the late 19th century and covered such a range of subjects that you were almost certain to get the information you needed even though it would have admittedly taken much longer than tapping a few words into Google. Many of the books had no dust jackets and, consequently, were a bit on the dusty side! If I close my eyes I can still smell them. There were some serious books in there as well. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that you could have earned yourself an engineering degree just based on the books available under that section.

The building itself was also impressive. It opened in 1896 and was a great success from the start, necessitating an extension about 15 years later. I remember it as being largely untouched from those early years, the type of building that had you whispering as soon as you entered.

My earliest recollection of self-teaching came shortly after I'd been given a bike by a friend's father. My own mum wouldn't let me have a bike as she feared I'd end up beneath a bus and wasn't too pleased when I turned up with a 1950's Freddie Grubb racer, a fine machine and a generous donation. It had lain in a shed for a long time and the Sturmey Archer hubs gears weren't working properly. My dad had been a keen cyclist in his youth so I asked him if he could fix things for me. He said he'd only ever ridden a fixed gear bike, didn't know anything about hub gears and suggested I take myself off to the library. So that's what I did. I was 12 at the time.

In those days, there was a reasonable cycling section in the library and I went home with a couple of books which promised to arm me with the knowledge necessary to put right the Sturmey glitch. Sure enough, after digesting a few chapters I was able to diagnose the problem and get the bike back on the road. When the photography bug bit, followed shortly afterwards by golf, it was the library that provided the knowledge I needed to gain enough proficiency for enjoyment from these pursuits.

There were books by the heroes of the day such as Nicklaus, Trevino and Johnny Miller; British pros including the recently-deceased John Jacobs and some of the all-time greats - the likes of Walter Hagan, Sam Snead and Bobby Locke. There were loads of photography books as well dating back to the 1940s/50s and I know they were regularly borrowed as I'd sometimes have to wait for a particular favourite to be returned before I could take it out again.

A few years later when school exams were coming round, a pal, Keith, and I would use the library for "swotting". I remember when an English exam was coming up and we had the great idea to dig out the oldest reference books we could find on the war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, unearth the most intelligent-sounding quotes from these learned tomes and divide them between ourselves by the entirely democratic method of drawing them from a hat.

Armed with these wee phrases we could then stun the examiners with our "original" criticism. That's why I can now say with some authority that Wilfred Owen was a master of subtle harmonies in rhyme and consonance. Funny how things stick in the mind. I wonder how many more of my schoolboy peers around Scotland would be able to say the same thing having also ripped off the words of earlier literary critics!

That, in a nutshell, is my library back-story. Fast forward now to today. When we moved into our present house just over a year ago, I found myself back in the same part of town in which I grew up. Lochee Library isn't the closest one to me but it's not much further away than its rival so I signed up for a library ticket on the local council website. That's why I was in the old building yesterday and why I'm writing this post. To say I was disappointed would be a huge understatement. I had to vent.

The old, massive book shelves have long since been replaced by light oak-coloured jobs that are about 6 feet tall and the same in length. They're full of brightly-coloured books none of which looked older than about 20 years. They seemed pretty lightweight "popular" looking books and nothing at all like the serious books that once populated the serious shelves of old. It's a small library but there were still six computer stations each with a "surfer" at the controls. There was also a talking books section and others for CDs and DVDs. It had been modernised and looks like a modern classroom.

Thinking about it, it was more like a children's library in a primary school, to be honest. I wandered up and down the bookcases - there were nowhere near as many as there used to be - and located the arts section. At the end of a row of watercolour master-classes were three photography books. THREE. Two were digital - a beginner's guide and some other God-awful publication - and the third an A4-sized book of photographs by Glaswegian photographer Oscar Marzaroli.

He was described in the introduction as "Scotland's most prestigious photographer of the 20th century". Laying bare my considerable ignorance, I have to admit that I'd never heard of the late Mr Marzaroli. Maybe Phil Rogers can chime in here but I'd have thought that Phil's old tutor Joseph McKenzie might have had a better claim to that title. Or celebrity photographer, Dundee-educated but Edinburgh-born Albert Watson, who took the iconic shot of Steve Jobs (below).

Here's Marzaroli's best-known photograph, The Castlemilk Lads, taken in Glasgow in 1963 (below). It's a cracker, for sure, but, having read the book, I don't think he can stand comparison with Joe McKenzie. Portraits aren't really my thing so I'd also drop Albert Watson in favour of Joe.

Marzaroli, according to the book, never cropped his negatives and yet The Castlemilk Lads is reduced to a square by the publishers. I guess artistic integrity doesn't survive the grave very well.

Above is a McKenzie photograph of my home town of Dundee as it was being rent asunder by the "planners" and "developers", a.k.a. ignorant, greedy arseholes (excuse the language), in the 1960s. Not only did Joe seem to have a better eye than Marzaroli but he was, from what I've seen, a much better printer as well.

But the object of this post wasn't to debate the merits of Scottish photographers. I got back home from the library trip feeling not a little dispirited. I know libraries have been on the slide for many years as people turned to the internet for their information and entertainment but this was yet another example of how we seem to be going backwards as a society. 

Yes, we're becoming ever more technologically advanced (and throwing people onto the dole in the process) but we're also demanding less and less of people in terms of making them think a bit, put in some effort and not expect everything to be dumbed down to the level of a children's library. I read the other day that the state of Idaho, within about 20 years, is forecast to lose half of its present jobs total to robots. That's just unsustainable.

It occurred to me that, such is the parochial mindset of local council officers and their SNP overlords, that the Marzaroli book was probably only there because he was Scottish. It's likely, in their view, that books about international photographers would go straight over the heads of their subjects. But, looking at the lending record of the book, it seems they might be right in a way as even a photography book about a Scot holds little attraction for today's public. The book was published in 2013 and the first lending stamp was January 14, 2014. The next was January 23, 2014. The next one was mine. Borrowed three times in three years. Says it all, really.

The only thing I remembered of the library from the "old days" that hadn't change much was Joan, the librarian. I couldn't believe she was still there. Her association with the place must be almost as long as mine. So will I be a regular visitor to the library? I fear not, especially if it leaves me in the same sort of mood as yesterday.

I'm probably feeling a trifle guilty as I haven't used libraries as much over the last 20 years either as I did when I was younger but I still popped in and out of the one in Carnoustie during our ten years there. There are a couple of old libraries in Dundee that I haven't visited for a long time and I'm hoping that they will have retained some of their character and charm. I'll keep my fingers crossed and give them a try - and maybe I'll become a regular again.