Archive for February, 2011

Sunday, February 27th, 2011

As I mentioned, recently, I’m gearing up to work on a 4×5 project that’s going to involve some moderate close-up work. The project in question starts with a subject I’ve worked with before — on digital, on film, on multiple occasions, never to my real satisfaction.

Here’s the latest version — still not providing that aforementioned satisfaction, but hopefully a step in the right direction:


The subject is a tree that is growing around a metal sign pole. It fascinates me greatly, and I’m collecting similar subjects — trees growing over or around pieces of human infrastructure, and other such things — for a project that I refer to as “engulf.”

By the way, an anecdote from the “things people ask me while I’m using a view camera” file: While I was working on this photograph, a guy passed by with his wife or girlfriend and their kid in a stroller. The guy was perplexed — to the point of offense — by my activity. He asked what I was doing, and I explained that I was photographing the tree.

He demanded to know _why_ I would want to photograph a tree, using all the gear and effort I was using. I was debating between trying to explain the whole project or telling the guy to fuck off, when he noticed the pole for the first time. It was awesome to see, because a cartoon light bulb practically went off over his head — and then he went on to tell me a story about how, at his job, they’d had to cut down a tree, and found one an old support line for a telephone pole that the tree had grown around and which had been left inside it.

I took this, overall, as a pretty positive sign regarding the project. While I do not underestimate the importance of being able to explain, in words, what one is trying to do with a photograph, it is good when a subject is also able to speak for itself, and elicit intense visual memories from a viewer. (Of course, the fact that the real subject is able to do so does not necessarily mean that my photographs of it will necessarily succeed so well.)

The reason I’m using 4×5 for this is that it allows me to work with perspective. This subject (like many others in the series of which this is the representative) is near ground level and fairly small in scope; as a result, working on them with any of my medium or small-format cameras creates problems in terms of perspective. In fact, this series was the primary reason I bought a 4×5 in the first place — although that is not to say that it will necessarily turn out to be the reason I choose to continue working in 4×5, if I in fact do so.

In this round of attempts, I will (at least some of the time) be bringing artificial lighting to the task. This is contrary to my basic instinct and orientation as a photographer, which is to always keep the manipulations behind the camera, not in front of it. However, I think it is a necessity, here; many of the subjects are persistently in extremely flat light, and the flatness of that light obscures significant aspects of the subjects.

To that end, I’ve somewhat beefed up my “strobist” kit, and am currently trying to find a way to integrate it all with my 4×5 kit while maintaining the level of portability I generally insist on — what I refer to as “commutable,” meaning I can take it with me to work on a daily basis if need be, so that I can use it during my lunch break or on my way home.

I did a quick check yesterday to see how things work; the polaroid above is one of the results — although not necessarily representative of the results I’ll get with the HP5 I shot at the same time, since both depth of field and contrast should less dramatic/gloomy on the film.

Still, I expect I will have to return to this scene I try different approaches. (Cross lighting and working closer in with a shorter focal length being next on the checklist.)

If setup photos are something you care to say, I did snap a few with the GRD:




The test run took quite a long time — maybe a couple of hours in total. (Of course, once the kinks are worked out, I should be able to cut that down substantially.) Most of that time I was kneeling, squatting, or sitting on the ground, as a result of which today the muscles on the front of my thighs are exceedingly unhappy.

In terms of functionality, the gear worked well enough. I’ll need to figure out something in lieu of sandbags for the stands, if I’m going to be using umbrellas in the breeze. Or I could just carry sandbags, but that sounds too masochistic.

My main concern is about power. Even working fairly close, using these umbrellas, I was limited to f/16-f/22 when shooting at ISO 400-800. That may turn out to be enough (we’ll see when I’ve got the HP5 developed), or it may not.

If I need to work at f/32 or f/45, I’m going to need to make a change — maybe opaque umbrellas would be sufficient, but I may need to either use the flashes without them (in which case the light may be problematically hard) or I may need to replace my flash units with something more powerful, which would be a huge PITA, not so much because of the cost and having to go shopping again, as because of size constraints. Going more powerful is likely to mean a physically larger unit, like my big Sunpak, or more units — either of which will seriously compromise my efforts at maintaining a portable kit. If I wind up having to put all this crap in a rolling case, I’m going to be pissed at myself, since a big part of going with a field camera in the first place instead of a more economical, functional monorail camera, was to permit me to carry a full kit on my back.

Still, despite the hiccups and caveats, my thigh muscles, and the slightly emo polaroid that I came away with, I’m still pretty happy with the result. I’m happy with the perspective, and happy with the improved texture and three-dimensionality provided by the lighting. It’s certainly a start.

Format and Magnification

Sunday, February 27th, 2011

_Cross-posted from Tumblr_.

I’m gearing up to work on a large format project that will require some close-up work. I’ve been out of practice for a while on the Shen Hao, and I’ve never used it all that intensively for close work, so I did a quick test run in the kitchen with a couple sheets of Fuji instant film.

Here’s the scene at normal magnification:


Here’s the scene at 1:1 magnification:


Here’s the same 1:1 photo next to the subject (yay instant):

Onions and Onions

For those who are used to working with 35mm cameras or crop sensor digital bodies, these results will not _feel_ like 1:1 photographs. They would be looking for something more like this 1:1 photograph of tea leaves made on 35mm film:

Upton Ti Quan Yin

In reality, both examples are at 1:1 magnification; the difference is in the format size. The 4×5 positive is the same size as the negative area (of course), but people do not generally view a 35mm or crop sensor 1:1 image at the size of the negative/sensor area, unless they work with contact sheets or slide film.

Doing close-up work on 4×5 is something of a PITA. As you can see, even working at life size, the results don’t “feel” all that close, and to get to life size, you have to have lens extension that is twice the focal length of your lens. My camera is a field camera with 300mm or so of maximum extension, so I can’t achieve 1:1 with my 210mm Schneider, and doing so with my 150mm Nikkor presents problems if I need to apply any movements. My 135mm Nikkor is fine, but I still have to extend the bed almost all the way out, which makes the whole setup less rigid.

Luckily, the project I’m actually gearing up for is unlikely to actually require 1:1 work, or else I’d probably have to start shopping for either extension boards or a new (monorail) camera. : )

Deep Assignments

Monday, February 21st, 2011

> Spielberg returned to Shanghai for _Empire of the Sun_, an eerie sensation for me — even more so were the scenes shot near Shepperton, using extras recruited from among my neighbors, many of whom have part-time jobs at the studios. I can almost believe that I came to Shepperton 30 years ago knowing unconsciously that one day I would write a novel about my wartime experiences in Shanghai, and that it might well be filmed in these studios. Deep assignments run through all our lives; there are no coincidences. (_The Atrocity Exhibition_, p. 11)

The mind is in large part bibliographic. (Biography recapitulates bibliography?)

It is not precisely that we are what we read, but there is a nontrivial relationship between what we read (or, more specifically, what we will subsequently be ready to admit having read) and our basic interests, dispositions, methodologies, etc. So, there is a certain correspondence between the sources of our personal bibliographies and the sources of ourselves. Assigned reading is part of one’s intellectual origin story.

I am sometimes surprised or disconcerted when I am recalled to the earlier parts of my own bibliography — not because I read horrible trash (although of course I did) but because sometimes the foreshadowing seems obnoxiously heavy-handed.

One of the more extreme examples is Nancy Frankenberry’s _Religion and Radical Empiricism_, a book which brings together James and Nagarjuna, among others, not to mention Quine’s “Two Dogmas.” I read it in high school after buying it on a whim because I happened to see it on a local bookstore’s shelf at a time when I was thinking a lot about the word, “empiricism.” (The reason I was thinking about “empiricism” is that I had been embarrassed not long before because I had not known the word’s definition.)

I flipped through it, was briefly turned onto William James as a result, and then subsequently forgot all about it. In subsequent years, I became deeply interested in pragmatism — as an extension of problems in philosophy of education — and in some of the more skeptical variants of Buddhism — as an extension of internal consistency problems in my new-age upbringing. Later, when I once again flipped through a copy of Frankenberry’s book, I felt…horribly presaged, I suppose.

It is impossible, of course, to say what precisely the chain of causality here is. Some of the underlying concerns and approaches are fairly fundamental; it may have been inevitable, given interests and concerns that go back far deeper than my high school years, that I should be drawn later to thinkers like James and Nagarjuna, or the glee with which I took to, especially, Nagarjuna and Quine, may have been a direct result of the subconscious memory of some of those connections I’d seen in Frankenberry’s book.

More likely the truth is somewhere in between, but in any case, I find it acutely unnerving to feel that such interests–which are closely tied to very fundamental aspects of my intellectual process and disposition are in some way fated.

I’m having a similar feeling now as I read through Ballard’s _The Atrocity Exhibition_. This is another book that I read when I was of high school age. In this case, it was loaned to me by the only person I had met (up to that point) who was not only better-informed than me about the things I was interested in, but manifestly (and significantly) smarter than me in ways I valued. I read it and enjoyed it, up to a point, but I was (and largely am) too literal-minded to fully appreciate that kind of work. Certainly I did not anticipate that, after setting it largely aside, I would later find it directly useful in approaching an intellectual problem (ruin porn, to be specific) in photography.

In fact, there’s quite a lot of juicy photographic thinking in The Atrocity Exhibition. I just never made the connection before, because when I first read it, I had zero interest whatsoever in photography. This is worrisome, because my _photographic_ origin story is so absurd (it involves my previous hobby of knitting, and my long-undiagnosed poor eyesight, among other factors), that I had pretty much taken for granted that it was entirely discontinuous with my previous intellectual history.

That being said, Ballard’s photographic interests are largely confined to areas of photography that — well, it’s not that I don’t approve of them, or don’t like them, so much that I think of them as someone else’s problem or task. I think no causative element can be found here, just a reminder that…while the world appears to become a more complicated and information-rich place as we mature, it is actually just that we (all too slowly) acquire the ability to perceive and appreciate the complexity that was always there, even in our own experiences, even in those experiences to which we may have given our full attention.