Monday, August 30, 2010

Portraits of a lost Russia

Emir Mir Mohammed Alim Khan 1910
In one of the photographs below there's a well dressed man sitting by a stream. He's clutching a walking stick and gazing into the distance. The photograph looks like it could have been taken recently. However it was taken over 100 years ago, 25 years before Kodak introduced its first popular colour film in 1935.

Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky, the man sitting next to the stream was one of the early pioneers of colour photography. It is believed that Russia's first colour portrait was taken by Sergei in 1908, it's a picture of Leo Tolstoy. The Tsar was so impressed that he gave him permission to travel across the Empire, and now 100 years later we can see his results. These beautiful images were bought by the Library of Congress in 1948. Now 100 years after Sergei travelled across Russia his 1,900 photographs have been digitised and brought back to life.

There's a wonderful exhibition at the Library of Congress web site called "The Empire That Was Russia". Go and have a look, see how the photographs were taken.
Self Portrait of Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky 1910
Russian Settlers 1907
Prisoners with Guard 1907

Thursday, August 26, 2010

An Obsession with Slides

Slide Viewer. Photograph by Tim Irving
A Thing of Beauty!
I fully support the Impossible Project with its goal of manufacturing instant film for old cameras, good luck to them! There's another endangered species on the 'at risk' register, it's slide film. At the time of writing my supplier stocks 12 types of 35mm colour transparency film, 7 made by Fuji and 5 by Kodak. 12 types of slide film doesn't sound too bad, but there's another problem; more and more labs are no longer processing these films because the demand isn't there. While slide - or if you prefer, transparency film is still being made it can be saved, so let's save it!

Who Cares?
Well I care. I enjoy the diversity of traditional photography. If I had the money I'd make Daguerreotypes but the cost is prohibitive, but not so with slides. I love slides because like a Daguerreotype, each one is a totally unique original framed picture. They are luminous and are true modern icons (windows to heaven). Slides can't be made digitally, if they disappear - then they disappear for ever, unless the Impossible Project steps in to create a slide film. Part of the charm of 35mm slides is their size, they are miniatures and have a long distinguished history in art, they are produced today by some very talented artists, have a look at some examples from a modern miniature painter, Diane Meyboom.

Miniature art gets your attention and draws you in, you get the same experience looking into a slide viewer, it's totally absorbing. It's art for the selfish who don't want to share the experience. Enlarged photographs (which I also love), are like wide screen TV, whereas slides are like a small book with tiny pages.

Who uses Slide Film?
Slide film is used by professional photographers and elitist amateurs. Until very recently,  professionals used it because it produces the best reproduction in print, it was demanded by editors and publishers. Amateurs used it with projectors and created slide shows on screens or made beautiful colour saturated prints called Cibachromes. Truth is slide film still outshines digital by a long way, but more of this later.
Radio Slide Viewer. Photograph by Tim Irving
Arrow, Cream Plastic and Gold, Radio/Slide Viewer
The pros and cons of slides 
When a slide film is developed in chemicals it produces a positive original, unlike film for prints which produce a negative. With negative film there is a lot of room for exposure error, in fact it's difficult to get wrong. Use any old camera with any old negative film and 99% of your photographs will be printable.

But slide film has a low tolerance to exposure error, your exposure has to be spot on to get a good image. For my entire career as a photographer, I've always bracketed (taking 3 or 4 shots at different settings), when using slide film just to make sure I've got one useable slide. Experience helps, using the same type of film and same camera over a long peried of time gives you a good feel for getting the correct exposure, but to be honest, slide film is difficult. 

The secret weapon
Until about 4 years ago I would always use a professional camera with tried and trusted metering systems to shoot slides, Leica, Contax and Nikon were my trusted brands. Then one day my neighbour bought his first digital camera and asked me for a quick run through of the controls. When we'd finished the lesson he gave me 6 bottles of Alhambra beer, a bag of oranges and his old film camera, an Olympus µ Mju 1 (also called Olympus Stylus in the US). The µ is a Greek letter used as a symbol for micro (Mju rhymes with spew), the camera is very small. It's very basic, it has a f/3.5 lens, no zoom, and  it's completely automatic except for turning the flash on or off.

The only film I had available to me at the time was a roll of Fuji Provia 100 slide film which I loaded in the camera. It was summer in Spain and I photographed morning, noon and evening. I had very low expectations of the camera getting the exposure right, but was hoping for the odd surprise. I dropped the film off at a camera shop and had to wait 5 days to see the results. When I did collect the film and saw the results, well, you could have knocked me off my perch. Every exposure was on the nail. From that day I've used an Olympus Mju 1 exclusively for slides and it has never let me down. It produces punchy, colour saturated transparencies every time. It has a good contrasty lens with no distortion I can see. It actually gets 39, perfect exposures from a roll of slide film, it's a modern miracle!

I've since discovered that there are dozens of point and shoot cameras from Canon, Nikon and Minolta that like the Olympus have accuate meters and will produce well exposed slides.These little cameras have been abandoned all over the world, nobody wants them, nobody loves them. You can pick them up for $5-10 at boot sales, charity stores or Ebay.

Olympus Mju 1
Viewing slides
Unless you have the eyesight of superman, slides have to be viewed using one of two gadgets, a projector or a slide viewer like the ones on this page. Projectors take time to set up and you need a screen. When stored, a projector and screen take up valuable space, although not too much, these are the down sides to a slide projector. The up side of a projector is that if you enjoy looking at photographs at near life size, the traditional slide projector is by far the best way to see them. The modern alternative is the digital projector. The digital projector doesn't even come close to the quality of traditional slide projectors, in fact the quality of all but the most expensive digital projectors is laughable, ha ha! You can read a comparison between traditional and digital projectors on Ken Rockwells site.

The other method of viewing slides is the simple slide viewer. I find slide viewers lurverly. They come from a golden age when plastic was playful and colour was used with flair. I have a considerable collection of viewers, some I chose for the colour and others for their features like my Arrow radio/viewer. As I write this the Arrow is glowing in front of me with a recent slide from Paris, the AM radio, tuned to a French station that fades in and out, accompanied by static.

Marbled plastic viewer
Except for the Arrow and a few cigarette lighter models, most viewers are very simple. I think it's the simplicity of form that encouraged designers to show a bit of style. During the 60's and 70's a few British slide viewers were chosen for display at the Design Centre in London, these chosen ones have a small stamp on the packaging and are truly great modernist designs.
Slide viewer box with the Design Centre Logo
So come on, let's make some miniature masterpieces. There has never been a better time to start using slides. Cameras, viewers, even projectors are available at rock bottom prices. Film is dirt cheap and E-6 processing (while it lasts), costs next to nothing or you could even do it yourself. You could probably set your self up with everything you need for the price of an English breakfast.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Perfect Video

I thought I'd share this video with you. It's off topic but has references to things I think you'll find interesting, all analogue. A band formed around an Optigan, which is a home keyboard made by Mattel in the 70's. There's a lot in this video that I like, not least the music.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Bicycles and Robert Mapplethorpe

Good news, the car is still outside, in one piece!

I've spent the morning preparing my bike, which is a big job. It hasn't been ridden in 9 years, it's rusty and in a generally poor state. The last time I rode it was Christmas morning 2001 when I cycled 3 or 4 miles to the pub for a pre lunch boozing session. In 2002 I carefully wrapped the bike in cardboard and placed it in a van to be taken to our new house in Spain. It was mountainous where we lived in Andalucia, so the bike had an easy life in Spain and was never ridden. Now it's back in England.

I bought the bike because my memory tells me that I once enjoyed a bike ride when I was 9 years old. It's a hazy memory of me and my friend David Pritchard, cycling from Chester, all the way to Birkenhead where we crossed the River Mersey on the ferry. We pushed our bikes around Liverpool for an hour, then cycled back home. That's a round trip of 36 miles which is 30 more miles than I've ever done since and sounds, even to me, like a lie. Maybe it's a false memory, or a lucid dream, but it's kept an idea alive that I might actually enjoy riding a bike.

This morning I thoroughly cleaned the frame and wheels, oiled the all moving parts and repaired one puncture. After I've written this post I'll give the metal parts a final polish and I'll be set to go. Where? Nowhere today, it looks like it might rain, besides, I have a book to start.

I'm looking forward to reading Just Kids, which is the tale of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe on their journey from rags to riches and in the case of Mapplethorpe, a very public death. I've long been an admirer of Mapplethorpe - he was a great artist. I attended the first London exhibition after his death, but apart from his excessive lifestyle, I know very little about the man.

I've never been to a Patti Smith exhibition, or a concert for that matter, but I think I'd like Patti. If she took the photographs here she's got a fine eye for a picture.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Great Weekend

Ha Ha. Photograph by Tim Irving
Where the bed once was - Tim Irving
I remember when I was a child and the TV stopped working. There was immediate disbelief and every member of the house took turns to switch it on and off. It took the repair man 3 days to fix it. For the first day we were all in shock, our internal clocks still tuned to the programmes we wouldn't see. The following days were a little better, things settled down and we strarted listening to the radio, reading and doing things, but it was edgy and tense. When the TV was repaired peace returned to our house and we settled back into a routine dictated by the TV schedules. I'm re-living the nightmare of those 3 days this weekend although it's not a TV that's the problem.

I should be relaxing this weekend. Visiting relatives, a little gentle shopping and a drive into London to see an exhibition. However, yesterday I did a lot of walking and today I'm involved in electrical work, moving beds and repairing my bike. Tomorrow will be the same with a backgroud of rain. All because my car's passenger door locked itself while the door was open. It's such a clever, German car, that it remembers to lock the doors even if I forget. On Thursday it locked the door while I was unloading and I can't unlock it. Neither can the mechanic or his friend the locksmith.The mechanic has ordered a new lock which will arrive on Monday, but until then the car is sitting outside my house with the door held closed with a length of rope.

If the car, with an open door, survives and is still here on Monday, we'll return to our routine. I'll get to the exhibition (The Surrealist House), next week and tell you about it here. In the meantime it's tense and edgy.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Nikon F2 Style Icon - Yeah Baby

Nikon F2. Photograph by Tim Irving
My Nikon F2

Imagine you only have one camera and you had to use it for the rest of your life. What camera would you choose?

Until quite recently that's how you had to chose your camera, unless you were wealthy enough to indulge yourself. Not long ago, just before digital cameras took off, camera manufacturers had production runs that lasted several years. In relative terms cameras were a lot more expensive than today, and you bought your camera knowing it would be a long term investment.

My first big investment in a camera was a Bronica that I used for social photography, weddings and portraits. My second big investment was a used Nikon F2. Both purchases required me to attend an interview at Lloyds bank, where I was lectured in the importance of regular repayments of the loan before putting my signature across a penny stamp with the Queen's head on it.
Eiffel Tower with out-dated film. Photograph by Tim Irving
 Paris with a Nikon F2 using outdated (1998),  film - Photograph by Tim Irving

That was over 25 years ago, the Bronica was sold when I couldn't stomach another wedding, but the Nikon and I are still together, in fact I used it in Paris last week. And after 25 years and countless other cameras passing through my hands, I see no reason to abandon my Nikon.

The Nikon F2 is without doubt a design classic! It's evolutionary path can be traced back to 1957 and Nikon's SP rangefinder camera, which then evolved into the Nikon F in 1959, before finally evolving into the F2 - which was launched in 1971.

The Nikon F and F2 cameras became popular at a time of historic social change throughout the world. It was the chosen camera of photographers covering the Vietnam war and in particular Don McCullin. You can see Nikon F's being used at Woodstock. Dennis Hopper photographed the civil rights marches with one. Paul Simon put one in the lyrics of a song, and the icing on the cake, a Nikon F co-starred in the movie "Blow up" -the film that inspired Mike Myers to create Austin Powers! For a young man in the 60's and 70's owning an F or F2 was like owning a Fender Stratocaster, it made you attractive to women, a leader of men and it cured acne. I had to have one.

Austin Powers with his Nikon F2

The F2 is a totally mechanical camera. The meter requires a battery, but the camera itself will take photographs requiring only the power of your thumb to wind on the film. I don't know how many thousand films I've used over the years. In all conditions from dusty and hot to wet and cold, all over the world, the F2 has never missed a beat and it's never had a service apart from changing the foam light seals every 10 years, which takes 10 minutes to do youself.

As  a professional system camera, Nikon over-engineered the F2 and built it for life. As a system camera it can be modified to perform anything asked of it. The system comprises thousands of accessories and lenses. It was used by architecs, archiologists and astronauts (I could go on), in locations from the ocean floor to outer space. There's even an accessory called an endoscope that lets you take photographs inside the human body. Can you imagine your doctor asking "please touch your toes and relax, I'm just going to insert this Nikon F2 up your anus".

From an aesthetic point, the Nikon F2 is a fine looking camera, it's design was the product of gradual improvements over its 9 year lifespan and the end result is a handsome, workmanlike machine. It looks serious and has always received respectful glances, today it's considered cool and very trendy. It's the perfect accessory for the game of One-upmanship.
The camera that followed the F2 (the F3), was designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro, the designer of De Lorean and Alfa Romeo cars. The F3 was a total re-design and Giugiaro added, for no good reason, a red stripe that runs down the handgrip. I'm not a design snob, but if I owned a Nikon F3 I'd have to cover up the red line.

I don't think you could improve the F2 without compromising some of its many qualities. A titanium lightweight version would be nice. My camera with a standard lens weighs 2lb 13oz and after a long day swinging from my neck I do sag, I wish it were lighter, but the Nikon F2 is what it is, I live with the weight. Austin Powers would argue that the weight of the camera makes it a good weapon, and he'd be right.

 David Hemmings in Blow-up

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Free Photos

I've just read that Getty Images have forged an agreement with Flickr to allow any Flickr member to sell their photos via Getty. Flickr members can now choose to "Request a licence" link to their photo, and if someone wants to buy it, the link will put them in touch with a Getty representative who will negotiate a price. I can imagine millions of flickr members jumping on what looks like a gravy train and I think it will kill off a lot of working photographers.Getty will sell the Flickr images for anything from $5 to $400, but the photographer will receive only 30% from each sale.

I keep my eye on a few of the major agencies (Alami, Getty, Corbis), and I can tell you they are stuffed with very similar looking photographs. The price of photos is falling to a laughable level, some agencies are even offering free images.This is the consequence of digital technology which changes things, usually for the worse. Like MP3 music downloads everyone enjoys the products but there's no money to pay the artists.

Untitled Photograph

Untitled Portrait by Tim Irving

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Night Photography in Paris

Paris Cinema in the Rain. Photograph by Tim Irving
Cinema Reflections - Tim Irving

The rain is the photographer's friend, especially at night!
I didn't go to Paris with the intention of walking the streets at night, in the rain, but that's what I did on my first night.

I was drawn to the neon cinema signs in the residential streets away from the city centre. The French love their movies and in one area of the Latin Quarter I found three beautiful small cinemas on three parallel streets, no more than 100 metres from each other. Very traditional and very French.

Night photography without a tripod isn't easy, but it's possible. It involves looking for somewhere or something to balance the camera on. This is where the rain helps, with reflections, like the one above where I balanced the camera on the roof of a car. And as I've said before, the rain keeps people off the streets which is a big help when you're using parked cars as tripods.

Paris in Pink. Photograph by Tim Irving

As you can see each cinema is an explosion of neon and each one appears to be unique and independent. Do other cities have cinemas like those in Paris? I can only think or 3 or 4 neon signs in London that would be worth photographing.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Paris Photographs

Parisian Dancer. Photograh by Tim Irving

Parisian Dancer - Photograph by Tim Irving

Paris was excellent. Lots of adventures and lots of photographs. It's been a few years since I last visited the city, from memory not much has changed, except that there's more tourists. The art scene is bigger than ever with too many exhibitions for anyone to see in a month let alone a long weekend.

We covered part of the city on the Velib (public bicycle rental), part on foot and long journeys on the metro. I had an ambitious schedule and a list of places to photograph, I managed to cover about 85% of the list which means another visit later in the year for a mopping up operation.

I've got a lot of film in the lab and I'll be sharing some of the photos with you over the coming weeks. But for the time being I'll leave you with the Parisian Dancer, I hope you like him.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Paris Weekend

Young Swimmer. Photograph by Tim IrvingYoung Swimmer - Tim Irving

I'm off to Paris this Saturday for a few days, leaving at lunch time tomorrow. I've checked the weather forcast and it's heavy rain when I arrive. This is good news for me, photography in the wet is uncomfortable but it keeps the crowds off the streets and can produce the odd unique image, which is rare in Paris.

My (un-paid), assistant for the trip is a party animal who drinks hard and sleeps late. To avoid hostilities and sulks, I've decided it would be more productive to work sans assistance from 7am to 10am, then return to the hotel to wake the assistant and have breakfast together before allowing her to assist me for the rest of the day.

In preparing for the trip I had to hold off tidying the shed this week plus I've had a few other tasks to complete, one of which is messing around with the template of this blog to make it look a little more photo friendly - with the aim of showing the photographs larger. It's all down to changing the code of the stylesheet, I used to be good at this sort of thing but now I find it tedious and tidying the shed looks more appealing.

The photograph of the swimmer is from an on-going project that I hope conveys human joy in the form of motion. It's one of those projects where I'm waiting (sometimes for years), for the perfect, enthusiastic model. I hope you like the picture as I'll be using it and a few others to help me arrange the layout of this page. In the process if you see it aligned strangely or very large, or very small, or if the blog disapears, then you'll know what I'm trying to do.

As always, I wish you a happy and peaceful weekend. I'll be back on Tuesday.


Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Chaos That Is My Shed

Like beach huts, sheds are very trendy this summer. Magazines have glossy articles illustraded with quaint shed interiors. There are shed blogs and web sites aplenty. Illustrious writers of the past and present have turned  sheds into studies, Roald Dhal and George Bernard Shaw to name drop two shed lovers.

It doesn't stop with writers. Small businesses are springing up in sheds around the world,  sheds are turning into breweries and pubs recording studios and machine shops. Whatever you can think of, someone is doing it in a shed as I write this. I personally know people who have immaculate, comfortable, cosy sheds, these shed people all have one thing in common, neatness.

Neatness is one of the many traits I wasn't blessed with. I surround myself in clutter and I find it difficult to organise even the smallest space, like my desk drawer, so shed life is not for me. In truth all I want a shed for is to store things like lawn mowers, ladders, paint, tools and the TV, and I'd like easy access to those items. This became an issue today when I was asked to store 4 paint tins.

The job of finding space for the tins turned into a farce as I balanced the 4 tins on larger tins, which were balancing themselves. Normally I would have left things and backed out (very carefully), but the next phase of the house starts soon and I'll need to get access to tools and materials reasonably quickly, so I spent an hour organising the shed interior.

It's a horrible job that I'm not fit for. The photos above of the shed after one hours effort. Tomorrow I'm going back in there, to clear the work bench and by the end of the week I hope to show you a shed to be proud of.


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