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Monday, March 13

The Fog

Lochee Road

What a pea-souper we had a week or so ago! Absolutely brilliant - if you like that sort of thing, which I obviously do. We'd just finished our evening meal when I happened to look out the kitchen window and saw just how thick the fog was. This was no normal fog, at least for this neck of the woods. Visibility must have been down to about 50 yards or so - maybe not the "I can't see my hand in front of my face" fog of Victorian London but impressive in its intensity nonetheless.

For ages now I've been planning to take a night photograph of Mills Observatory just five minutes away but was waiting for weather that was a bit special. This seemed like the ideal opportunity - or so I thought... The observatory is the oldest public one in the UK having opened in 1935. It sits atop an old volcanic plug called Balgay Hill and, praise be to God, has managed to avoid "modernisation" over its 82 years. I used to go there regularly with a couple of pals when I was a teenager. It has a The Day The Earth Stood Still vibe about it - the original with Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal and not the crappy remake with Canoe Reeves. Klaatu barada nikto!

The winding drive up Balgay Hill was scary to say the least. I was at walking pace and still could hardly see the edges of the road - no exaggeration - and there were some steep drops. Eventually, the drive from hell ended outside the observatory - and it was closed. It was a Saturday night but so what? Where better to go on a misty evening at the weekend? OK, maybe it's just me who thinks like that. I later discovered that it shuts at 4pm on Saturdays at this time of year - before it's even dark! So, back down the hill it was - very slowly - but what to do with the rest of this foggy evening?

I was packing my Rollei 2.8f bolted to an old Slik tripod that I've had for about 30 years, travelling light in other words. With no big bag to lug around I parked the car and went for a wander around some old streets not far from my home, the tripod over my shoulder as if I were one of the seven dwarves on the way to work. There was one scene that I'd been meaning to photograph for almost as long as the observatory but it's next to a busy junction. It's not that easy to get parked nearby and there was also the feeling that I'd look a bit of a tool setting up a camera on a tripod with all the traffic rushing by. I've always been overly self-conscious in that regard.

But, on this night, the fog was so thick that it largely masked the personae of those people daft enough to be out and about in it. Everyone had the look of the evil spirits who come for the bad guy in Ghost. Sorry for the film references - that's the last. This scene is a cobbled pathway leading up a hill and features in the two photographs immediately below. It would have been great to have had a figure in the pics but anybody walking through wouldn't have recorded as the exposure was around 20secs at f8.

I tried using myself as a model by clicking the shutter on B, running up the hill and posing by leaning against a railing with arms folded but all that was on the negative was a ghostly and busty-looking Mrs Doubtfire-type figure (aargh, I did it again). Folded arms on a side-on shot do not come out like folded arms in the dark and fog. The shot at the top of the page with the budding crocuses in the foreground was taken from the same spot but in the opposite direction.

My favourite shot is probably the one below. This was taken in a very old part of town much of which has sadly been razed to the ground over the years - or, in the obscene language of planners, "improved". There used to be lots of old mill buildings around here and cottages dating back 150 years or more. The last row of the old cottages was gutted in a fire that I remember watching when I was about 10 or 11. Word of the blaze spread faster than the fire itself and by the time I'd reached the scene half the youngsters in the neighbourhood were watching the firemen at work.

The Old Lodge House

The mills were knocked down and replaced by yards surrounded by steel fencing. In the '70s there was a permanent retail market in a now-demolished mill adjacent to the lodge house. The house, which may once have been occupied by a mill manager, is still lived in and in good condition but it does look slightly incongruous in the commercial/industrial setting.

The thing that attracted me to this shot was the floodlight just hidden by the left hand side of the lodge. It does a great job of throwing the building into some sort of relief. I wasn't sure whether or not to crop out the steel gate on the left hand side of the frame but figured, since it was a 6x6 neg, that I could always crop it out later on. On the one hand, it places the lodge in its proper context but it's a spookier shot without it.

Old Muirton Road

Finally, I ended up in Old Muirton Road which has just a few houses in it. A railway line used to run past this street and across the road is the old station, now a social club. I was a little surprised when I developed these negs that the scenes didn't look quite as misty on film as they did on the night. Perhaps it had lifted a little since my trip up Balgay Hill but I certainly didn't think so at the time.

The other thing I noticed (not for the first time) is how nice old design is. New stuff is just so ugly by comparison. There seems little effort to make anything the best way they can nowadays and there's hardly any adornment on buildings and "street furniture". I was checking out another potential scene a couple of nights ago to see what it looked like at night and when might be the best time of day to photograph it and was struck by the street lamps (thankfully, not literally).

I'm guessing they're from the 1930s and replaced the original gas lights. The first electric lamp in Dundee was lit in 1894 but the town council was still replacing gas ones as late as the late 1950s. These lampposts had been converted to newer bulbs so they weren't completely original. But they had a lovely, graceful swan neck extension supporting the light. All the newer ones are plain with just a sharp right-angled extension. Wee details like that can mean a lot. They show that designers are thinking of people and not just the bottom line. Anyway, for all the extra it would cost to do a nice job why settle for an ugly alternative?

The technical parts of these negs were simple enough. It was the usual Tmax 400 developed in D76 1+1. I took a meter reading from the ground in front of me in most of the pics coupled with a little ritual waving of the meter to see how my chosen exposure would fit in with the highlights and shadows.

The Rollei was in its element. Since replacing the standard focusing screen with a cut down one from a Mamiya RB67 the camera has become more usable in low light. In bright light, the stock screen is easier to focus but it suffers at night. The Mamiya screen may not be as easy to focus in good light but is a real boon in available darkness.

I'm beginning to get a taste for night photography again and will probably mix up some Barry Thornton two-bath to see how it handles the highlights from street lights. It was once my favourite developer but it began to produce negatives that were of too low a contrast when I started doing a lot of bad weather photography so I gave it up. Having since found my long-lost stash of raw chemicals, I'm able to give it another go. We shall see.


Richard Warom said...

Really enjoyed this blog Bruce and the photos my 2 favourites are the second one of the cobbles with No6 on the side and the Old Muirton Rd, lets hope you get more fog.

Herman Sheephouse said...

That's a lovely post there Bruce - your writing has matched the feel of the fog and I found myself wandering around the nighttime streets with you. The murk has really added to the atmosphere - keep going this route!
And, so that WAS you I saw at that roadside - I thought it was Mrs Doubtfire . . I'll say one thing though, your high heels didn't half make a racket on those cobbles . . . .