Diana & Lomo surprises

By | photography

To many people nowadays who have discovered the enchanting possibilities of film photography with what is essentially a plastic “toy” camera, the following will come as a surprise. What they think is a sympathetic hype and reaction to all the perfection and manipulability brought on by the sweep of digital imaging and high-tech camera’s, has started in the mid-1960’s at Ohio University in the photography classes and has never been away since!

In those days it was the Diana, a basically all-plastic toy camera from Hong Kong, which came in cases of 144 at a price of little more than a dollar a piece… a nice handout for educational purposes. The blur, flares, wrong exposures, light leaks and scores of unexpected effects were so exciting to the young and rebellious art students already used to the near-perfection of the materials of the day. I myself for instance used Kodak Tri-X with my Leica’s and Nikons (still do, what more can you wish for, actually…). The Diana grew more and more popular, and many (also very serious) photographers used one at some time as a sort of underground activity. I have shortly played around with a toy camera that took a fast sequence of 4 shots, but after some time the plastic lenses came out, if I remember well.

There were competitions and photobooks of exclusively Diana photographs; “Iowa” by Nancy Rexroth ©1977, distr. by Light Impressions, New York, is a remarkable book I bought in those days. Beautifully done, and the subject (childhood dreams) wonderfully fits the imagery that the Diana camera delivers. There have been other plastic camera’s since, like the Lomo of today, and there is another generation of photographers, fed up with the predictability of the “perfect” camera that “thinks for you” and instantly delivers the sharpest picture possible, without nasty surprises. Point is, however, lots of people love surprises. There’s a kick to be found in the unexpected, and sometimes you’ll find a gem…

the unhipshot

By | photography, street photography

It had to happen. We had already seen the mirror, disguised as a long lens, to put in front of your normal lens. I had tried it on one of my Nikons, back in the 80’s. It was a metal tube that looked like a tele, but it had a big round hole in the side, through which the lens could look at an angle by means of a mirror. Awkward construction. It took ages to point right and you had to use a long lens to avoid vignetting! No good for me, it was not quick and made me feel sneaky and frankly, like an idiot. This disguise was for scared people (as is the hipshot, so popular with certain so-called “street photographers”) and far from being invisible, it attracted the attention.

Now we have the same kind of construction for the camera in your cell phone etc. A snap-on with a tiny mirror which enables you to take photographs without “pointing” (i.e. holding it up in the usual vertical position) which is signalling “you are being photographed”. Now you can pretend to use your phone for anything but taking pictures, while you are doing exactly that, because you can hold it horizontally, the lens looking forward by means of the tiny mirror underneath. Sneaky indeed. I can tell you I don’t like it. I’d rather just point, put the camera to my eye as I have always practised, be able to compose the image, give people a fair chance to indicate they object, if they feel that way. It’s o.k., gives me a more honest and self-confident feeling about street photography.

special delivery mystery film

By | photography

When I was in Egypt, in 1989, towards the end of my 5 weeks journey I ran out of film. No problem, I thought, after all I was in Luxor which is a tourist center with a lot of shops. I went to a local photographer, who said that black and white was a long gone item in Egypt, no one had asked for it for years!  I noticed that he cast a quick glance at my Nikons too see if maybe they were antique too… To my surprise none of the photographing tourists I had spoken to that day used Tri-X, let alone had some spare stuff to sell to me. The friendly Egyptian saw my disappointment, and said he could phone a family member who took official photographs for passports, and was bound to have some black and white film left. The only problem was that he lived in another town, I forget which, but if I paid a little extra for the trip if he could deliver them before tomorrow. At first I thought this was a clever con trick, but since he did not ask for a prepayment of the amount of money he asked – which was indeed reasonable – I agreed.

As promised I was contacted late that night at my hotel by the good man who proudly produced 5 or 6 refilled plastic cartridges with black and white film of mysterious origin. I was both glad that he had gone through all the hassle for me (for the little extra money) and disappointed by the fact that it was not sealed and packaged film (and so little of it) with no proper name and a date on it. After thanking and paying the man I inspected the material closer. The cassettes had probably had a long and fulfilling life of endless refilling because the felt entrance looked as worn, flattened and dirty as the hotel entrance carpet. After all I did not dare put them in the one Nikon body that had survived the desert sand storm of a few days back. So I rationed the few remaining Tri-X’s I had left…

refill (still can)

By | photography

Yesterday, when photographing in a crowded street, I noticed some youngsters’ curious looks when I opened the back of my Contax, took out the cassette by the film end sticking out and put in an undeveloped film from my pocket stock. Is this already becoming an exotic sight in this digital world, I thought. And would they consider it old school, nerdy, maybe cool… Anyway I love working with these Leica, Contax or Nikon cameras and hope that film will stay around, so I can keep doing my photography the way I like.

As my film was nearing the number of 36 exposures I always hoped that I would not be running out of film at the very moment it “got interesting”. I also remember the horror of a camera malfunctioning or a film breaking inside because of the winter temperatures once. Good thing I often take a lot, and it happens very fast, so that I do not remember every lost picture. Those are the risks of analog photography, but I love working on film. Sometimes, when you want to make sure you don’t miss any opportunities, it helps to work with 2 cameras. It gives more certainty and you have another 36 to go before you have to reload. Winogrand’s remark “There’s nothing happening when I’m reloading” may sound silly but the fact is that the photograph you haven’t made does not exist, except maybe in your imagination. Better to concentrate on what must be done, i.e. reloading! To every other photographer who likes analog, I’d like to say, keep pushing that film.

f…. was a dirty word

By | photography

When I started taking photographs, ages ago, Henri Cartier-Bresson was the photographers’ pope so to speak. He had three dogmas for the believers, I had understood from reading the photo magazines and his own books (fortunately my French was not too bad):

first, there is a “decisive moment” for the photograph to be taken. Up to a point, there is certainly some truth in it, but some indecisive moments will do very well, I have meanwhile discovered. And it’s so irritating that every nitwit art critic with some general interest, preoccupied with knowledge but not even looking, comes up with this term to show he “knows about photography too”, even if there is no use for it.

second, you always used the whole negative, and sometimes even proudly showed you did so by including a subtle black border around the image on the paper print. There were even “styles” in the shaping of the outside of the border – some photographers used hand-torn carton frames to replace the narrow and sharp-edged metal frames that went with the enlarger. I even understood that Diane Arbus photographs (mostly posthumous prints) can be categorized and dated by their treatment of the image edge, soft without black border, narrow black border, uneven borders etc. 

third, and here comes the f….word, you should never use flash, Cartier-Bresson said, since it was “intolerably aggressive”, destroying the atmosphere, making the presence of the intruding photographer very obvious, and in fact, changing the whole action. That’s what he said and I was not unhappy to have an excuse not to use it for I did not have a lot of experience with it.

Then came house parties. I had done little work with flash and felt insecure about it. I had an electronic flash unit that was basic, but clumsy. Its head turned when I brushed against somebody’s shoulder and people froze like wild animals caught in car lights because it was blinding. This had to change. I bought two identical dedicated Nikon speedlights, since I worked with two identical cameras as well. Using also identical settings was the ideal solution. I soon found out after experimenting on a few films what the best combination of depth of field/stepped down lighting was. I had given up the idea of using the room lights, as there were unworkable extremes and strobes and lots of darkness, which did not go well with the detail that I strived for; I wanted to fill the frame with relevant information till it almost burst.  Flash made it all possible.That is how I overcame my initial fear of flashlight. I know I can use it for my kind of photography whenever I feel the need for it. Certainly in a house club with all its moving and pulsating lights no one will object either.

party war zone

By | photography

When I started taking photographs of house parties I had to choose the right camera for the job. I had a long time experience with several Nikon models, so that’s what I took along. They were strong, easy to operate (I had practised changing films in complete darkness, which came in handy!). I used 2 identical FE’s with 28mm’s (the old type, which has a wider spaced and therefore more precise indication of close range on the distance ring). For use in the dark I later even added white paint markers on some close range distances that I used a lot.  The 2 identical flashlights were preset for the same expected range. I also took care not to use the blinding full blast to spare my subjects. Not that many of them noticed the flash at all amongst the room lights and the occasional strobe…

I tried to use the viewfinder as much as I could for composing, but sometimes it was so dark that I saw nothing. In that case I put my eye as close to the finder as possible, and looked alongside it, using my experience in aiming to get the “framing” as precise as possible. Surprisingly, this worked most of the time. What I liked a lot was the extra grip provided by the motordrives, making up for their – considerable – added weight.

One time when the 2 cameras+speedlights+motordrives around my neck worked against me was the unlucky night when I slipped on the steep perforated steel stairs that lead up to the dj, causing their combined weight to make me loose my balance. In falling the stairs made a long cut in my forehead, causing a lot of bleeding. Fortunately that was all, but nevertheless I was rushed to a hospital, leaving my cameras at the club. When I collected them later, there was blood all over and I had to take them to the official Nikon repair department. They looked at me and then at the cameras, inquiring what war zone I came from… By the way, both Nikons were o.k. after cleaning, just a small scratch. Good camera for a war zone.

performance tonight

By | photography

I just got an email from Jeffrey Shurdut, who will perform tonight with the equally gifted Joe McPhee at The Stone, New York. He must have overlooked that I’m not “in town” so I won’t be able to make it I need not add, in spite of the invitation, but what a pity. I would love to photograph a jazz concert again after a long time, love to hold those sturdy Nikons, use the speedlights and the motordrives, feel the weight around my neck and count the exposed films in my pocket. The game of photography, as Garry Winogrand called it, offers a lot more than just pictures, it is the excitement, being a master of timing, the tactile, the response of mechanical high-end material and being involved in (or at least very close to) the action…