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Friday, September 7

The Robbins Files

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to do something about my non-existent negative filing system. It was getting beyond the ridiculous stage making it impossible to find anything without riffling through piles of see-through sheets.

In the course of this effort, I started unearthing negatives I hadn't seen since the days when I could also see my feet when standing up. Yes, some of them were that old! I scanned a few of them and pinged them to Phil Rogers as, for some reason, he likes looking at my old negatives, particularly if they're 6x9, as some of them were.

Phil urged me to do a post up about them for the blog so here it is. The oldest one is the shot above, from the days when I was young (about 21), free and single and could take off up Scotland's north-west coast and the Isles at the drop of a hat. The only problem with this neg is I can't remember if I took it on Mull or Skye. In those days I cut medium format negs up individually mainly because that's the only way I could get them to fit in the carrier of the enlarger I was using at the time. With no notes to fall back on, I can't even look at negs from the same roll to see if I can work out the location.

"Dan" (the van), the under-noted caravanette.

It was taken in the early morning not far from where I'd spent the night in my first caravanette - the first vehicle I ever owned - a charming 1960s Bedford CA. Red leather seats, tartan carpets and red and white bodywork - what a wee beauty. The camera was my 1954 Rollei Automat with a 75mm f3.5 Tessar, my first MF camera and one which I still have although it needs a service to sort out one or two issues. It's a wee beauty as well.

It's cropped in the landscape format because I was shooting over a wall and there's some out-of-focus stonework at the bottom of the frame. Sometimes the light and atmosphere on the islands can be magical and this was one such occasion. It's a pity that my photographic abilities at that time were limited (translation: I was crap) because I don't have many noteworthy negatives to show for my travels but I've always like this photograph.

Here's another quiet wee shot but now we've been beamed over to Scotland's east coast. It's some ruined old farm buildings at a place called Usan just up the coast from Montrose. A gentle light, courtesy of one of our common low pressure North Sea troughs, was kind to the buildings and the lazy cows which had nothing better to do but sit and stare.

I had my first Mamiya Press on a tripod for this one. Photography under these conditions can be very relaxing. The weather was doing nothing at all and my bovine models were acting as if they were on strike. I could have gone away somewhere for a cup of coffee and found the same scene waiting to be captured when I returned. As a pic it's nothing special but I can clearly remember taking it - some 25 years ago - and it's a nice memory.

The shot above was made at the same time at Usan but from the other side of farm buildings. I think this one was handheld on the Mamiya which was just as well as it was tricky capturing the cows in this configuration. A slight movement left or right would end up with cows over-lapping or being chopped in half by the edge of the frame.

Here's an old haunt of mine, Craigowl hill with its communications towers at the summit. Not such an old shot, though, having been taken on the Zeiss Super Ikonta IV I picked up at a local auction a couple of years ago.

Looking out of the livingroom window.

That's Craigowl on the horizon - a 20 minute drive away.

As the crow flies, it's only about five miles from where I live - in fact, I've got a good view of it from my livingroom window (see above). I've been up there in all weathers but, as usual, bad weather is better with snow the best. There must have been quite a few farm vehicles up the narrow, private road on that day as the snow was badly churned up.

The Ikonta's 75mm Tessar has done a good job of recording the gritty nature of the scene although, if I'm being honest, grittiness was about all that any camera could have captured on that day.

The final shot is another oldie, taken about 25 years ago on the Mamiya Press at a farm not far from where I once lived in the country. It was another old farm which wasn't too prosperous and which subsequently never really got the maintenance it needed. Still, if everything was spick and span I'd have hardly any subjects.

The lens used for this was the 65mm Sekor (equivalent to about 28mm in 35mm terms) and my copy had a tendency to flare. This was one of those occasions where this "defect" has actually given the photograph more atmosphere and also helped lift the shadows. A high contrast, multi-coated lens would have left the shadows, particularly the roof trusses, quite a bit darker given the same exposure. The second Usan shot above also shows a little bit of the 65mm's flare.

I've not been too active on the photography front lately but I'll hopefully have something fresh to post about in a week or two.


John Carter said...

I love the van, nothing cool like that ever here in USA. I put my negatives in print files and then in a notebook by year. But I'm in the same mess as you. I go back to 1963 so if I want to locate a negative it is just as impossible as having them in a pile. For me digital is worse I date what little I do and tags never have worked for me. I still have CDs that I have transferred to an external drive. I've given up with organization. Good luck with yours.

right-writes said...

Here's the thing though Bruce,if you had a comprehensive filing system, you would likely only ever read the titles of the files. As it is now, you are obliged to sift through the whole lot looking for the needle that you so cunningly hid. I don't have anything like as serious as a system as "filed negatives", rather a suitcase full of a mixture of orphaned negs and dogeared shots of my youthful years and then kids and family, many processed by the likes of that Grunwick chap.

Serious old man stuff with sturdy boots and one or two of a selection from the half dozen old mechanical cameras that I have found irresistible, is a more recent pursuit.

I am currently debating whether to venture more into MF than hitherto, currently I use it for pinholio, and I appreciate the larger negative. However, I can't decide whether to dive in and look for a Hasselblad "V" with Zeiss Planar 80 f2.8 (sublime), or look for a similar used Planar/Sonnar ZM 50 for the M4 and stick to that? I know that I like the look of Zeiss or 1950's Nikon rangefinder l39 designs, over the digital look offered by more modern Leica computerised designs, so expensive, and so chocolate boxy.

And here was me, looking at the title and imagining that you might have gone all political and were about to launch into a tirade about your Downing Street namesake and his famous file.


Bruce Robbins said...

You're kidding me, John! I thought California was full of beautiful old VW buses from the 1960s. The old Bedford CA is really quite rare now. I saw one on a classic car site sell for £10k although it had been restored. One of the cutest, most characterful vehicles I'd seen for a long while.

Bruce Robbins said...


That's a good point, actually, about only looking at the titles of filed negatives. On the MF v 35mm question, let your normal print size guide you. You have to be making quite big prints before you see a worthwhile difference between the two formats. You've piqued my curiosity about my Downing Street namesake. I thought all we Robbinses were pure as the driven snow. Or was that just your imagination running away from you?

right-writes said...

Hi Bruce, many thanks for the MF advice, it all adds to the mix, I rarely print negatives, I tend to scan them, I have one of those PlusTek thingies that handles 35mm and 120. I have done a few darkroom courses and have access to a decent public darkroom at Photofusion in Brixton, Sarf London. I am always intending to make more proper prints since I have enjoyed my experiences so far.

Oliver Robbins is the author of the "Chequers Deal".

Bruce Robbins said...

Yes, the name rings a bell now. To be honest, in the interests of my blood pressure, I don't allow myself to read much at all about the dodgy Chequers deal these days. I can't believe the way the PM and her cronies continue to give the two fingers to the referendum result.

On a brighter note, you should give printing a good go. For a complete change, get the Hasselblad and start printing big. Life might never be the same again.

Martynl said...

The last photo is a beauty.

Bruce Robbins said...

Thanks, Marty.

DavidM said...

A new lens for the Leica will give slightly improved 35mm negs. You may not notice the difference unless you regularly shoot telegraph wires, although it will give you a nice warm feeling when you meet another Leica-bearer.
A Hasselblad is a real step up, but it's also a different way of working.

Nick Davis said...

Probably the best and most easy way to file negatives I know (at least for me) came from the late, great, David Vestal. He suggested writing the year and then a slash or dash and the number of that film as you develop them on the negative file. I augment that with individual locations related to frame numbers on the paper margin of the Kenro sleeve. Bit difficult when I'm using Kodak XX though!

DavidM said...

Some people file a contact sheet with their negs. I once did it, but nobody asked for repeat prints so I lapsed.

Bruce Robbins said...

I was thinking of doing the same, David. It’s definitely quicker looking through contact sheets than pages of negs.

Herman Sheephouse said...

Your older negatives will be a bit of a trail, and maybe just relying on memory and having a yearly dumpster folder for each would be best . . . but for current stuff?
Well for myself, I've really felt the need to be totally organised - it is simple and once started easy to keep going, hope you don't mind me sharing it:

I've taken pics across 5 different formats, so:


I use those box spring clip files you get from Silverprint as they are very sturdy, and nowadays also, clear archival neg sleeves.
Every film is contact printed, and those prints stored in old paper boxes for the appropriate format . . hope you're not bored yet.

Say you are looking for a 35mm film you made ooooh, how long ago? With that picture on it . . what was it now? Simple - go to the contacts, check the image . . you've noted the film number on the back of the print, in this case it's a 35mm one, and the 32nd one you processed since you started taking 35mm images. You find negative sheet #35/32. Film and processing and place and date are all noted on the neg sleeve and contact. I also back these up with a notebook with more detail . .f'rinstance:

"#35/32 . . . 2/10/1996 . . . Aunty Henry's party! Had a great day lots of drinking etc etc . . . oh and I used the old Olympus XA with Tri-X"

Or say you're looking for an image of a horse in hat - that happens to be #54/14.
Not only do you have the image you also have the comment:

"54/14 . . . .1/4/2016. Horse in a hat. Difficulty persuading it to pose. It nearly ate the Sinar. Owner most miffed!“

It is easy now to locate and print.

Sorry to have gone on at length. It does take time to set something like this up, but is super-convenient when it is done. Time is the most precious thing we have - I'd rather spend it printing or taking more pictures than hunting for them.
If you think this is organised you should seem my pants drawer ‘;0)

BTW Bruce - those are sterling pictures - more please. And the van . . what a total beauty!

DavidM said...

Although it might not be specifically photographic, I hope you'll be publishing something on the new V&A. There might be some original Hill and Adamson.
Captain Lambshed might have a view too.
And according to the website, they serve a bap with a fried egg on top and chicken inside. Something new every day.

Bruce Robbins said...

I love the V&A building, David, but I can't get excited about what's going to be on show. As you know, the museum has a great photography collection but I've seen no sign that any of the photographs will make their way up to Dundee. I would love it if that turned out not to be the case. As it is, with the design exhibits that will mostly be on show I think I'll spend more time outside the building photographing it than inside.