Friday, November 13, 2009

The Baker's Wife.

Every so often I buy a piece of bread for the sole purpose of photographing it, and bring the result to the backer’s wife to show her how it turned out. I know for a fact that she will be a stern critic, a demanding public, and only what she and her husband like will end up briefly on the wall of the shop. Furthermore, while I freely give her a complimentary print of the shot, she always charges me for the loaf, brötchen or croissant in question, implicitly stating that my photographing bread may be an interesting pass time occupation, but her baking it is dead serious business.

My wife mused that, had these bakers lived in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century, they wouldn’t have built up a collection of modern art exchanging pieces (made by starving masters) for meals, as they value the latter far above any creations of their clients. Or maybe the baker’s wife keeps the issues of aesthetics and those of making a living totally separated, and in this she may have quite a strong point. Be it as it may, I know her judgement to be totally unbiased either by profit or by personal sympathy. Were she not to like a picture, it wouldn’t come to hang. For sure.

So I take particular pride in showing you the last shot to have passed her scrutiny.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Unavailable Light Photography.

Given the new possibilities of last generation digital bodies, the ISO values have rocketed up to 25000 and more, a whole new range of subjects is now within easy reach. Before embarking on yet another costly purchase, I wanted to try my hand at old-fashioned reportage work on film one last time. So I took three analogue cameras from the seventies for a last spin in the dark, loaded with 3200 ASA Ilford Delta, to see how they and I would perform in the punishing environment of a scarcely lit church interior at night. Subject matter was to be amply provided by a happy and dynamic group of teenagers, all cadets of the local youth circus Elleboog, who use the place – emptied and decommissioned – as their rehearsal studio.

We are talking moving subjects in a large dark hall, lit with four 500 ws floodlights shining from the four corners of the ample floor in merciless direct light, contrast through the roof and very low light output when measured at the centre. Three cameras, two FEs and a F2 photomic, and the following lenses respectively: 50/1.4, 85/1.8, 180/2.8. My plan was to use the FEs on auto exposure, and was worried about the Photomic light meter needle being unreadable, as its window is lit from the top of the photomic by ambient light. One little gadget took care of this problem, a little lamp that fits right on top of the finder making it even more cumbersome looking but doing a perfect job at making the meter readable.

In practice it was immediately evident that even 3200 asa wouldn’t suffice, and after a painstaking read of the dimly and very tiny processing instructions printed on the inside of the film box I chose to push both my luck and my film to 6400 on the faster lenses and 12500 on the 180, so as to shoot at 125/1.8 and 125/2.8. Light reading was also not necessary, given the situation to be fairly constant throughout the floor, if dim, the same setting applied to all the photographs. Next problem was the viewfinder being quite dark on the F2, slightly better in the FE’s. We are talking manual focus here, at full opening, and it proved quite tricky (as in next to impossible).

The kids were running and bouncing all over the place, meaningful patterns and funny expressions flashing by in constant unpredictable chaos, noise and confusion, no time at all to shoot as they instantly dissolved. As I couldn’t interfere with the rehearsals, it made sense to stay out of the way and use a long lens, so the 180 did practically all the 100 of so shots of the session. By the third film I called it a night, my trousers drenched by a heavy squall that caught me on the way in, unheated church with leaking roof adding to the discomfort and ominous shivers going down my spine in the tell tale symptoms of an upcoming cold.

The films were processed in DDX, 15 minutes at 24 degrees for the 12500 and 9 minutes at the same temperature for the 6400 and they were fine, with a fairly acceptable grain that makes it thinkable to try a push to 25000 asa on another occasion. As for the pictures, they were slightly better than my gloomy expectations of total failure. I did get some funny expressions, a little of the atmosphere, some of the emotion and most of the shots were reasonably in focus and not too motion blurred. But if you are a professional you need better than that, with guaranteed results.

In the old days photographers were very good, very quick, and also probably allowed themselves a lot of time to do reportage. Think LIFE magazine, with photo reporters being embedded in a situation for weeks or months on end, and a ferocious editing that boiled the story down to a few exceptional pages, or non at all if the story was scrapped for other editorial priorities. Now the cameras are very good, which maybe raises the stakes higher and higher for pictures to stand out in a climate of improved standards and over saturated media exposure. They really are impressive tools – fast, reliable, good – these latest cameras. They come at a price though, with the added drawback maybe of their weight and bulk. A reflex with a long lens and a flashgun requires arms of steel to be hand held all day long. (I wonder, will this account for the fact that modern reportage is more butch than sundance? Mark my words, there is a future for digital hi end range finder slim bodies).

All in all you’d be mad to face a reportage job in difficult light with anything less than the best, state of the art modern gizmos. As a hobby – when competition and standards are not factors – it is quite exciting to go about it on film. To paraphrase JFK’s famous speech on the moon exploration, you do it not because it is easy but because it is hard. And as it is hard, it gives quite a buzz to get the odd picture almost right.