Old cars, old camera and old people

Image

Maybe it’s because I’m getting on in years, but I like to surround myself with things that are much older than I am. It sort of makes me feel young when I look at a 1930 Ford Model A, or an early 30’s RB Graphic camera. It also reminds me that we don’t build things like that anymore, but that is a separate rant.

These things have been preserved better than I have been, mind you, and if they suffer from stiff joints or broken down seats, they do so with more dignity than I can usually muster. Of course I don’t have somebody polishing me and spiffing up my upholstery either or at least not as often as I would like (yet another rant coming…don’t get me started).

These machines just seem to exude dignity. They are both stately and sexy at the same time, as only things like old cars, old cameras and  wooden boats seem to be. So what better way to spend some time than to follow these guys around for the day and take some pictures?Image

I thought the camera to take would be one that had some of the same qualities: It should be made in America, well crafted and still working as it did when it was new. It would have to be fun to look at and fun to use. It wouldn’t hurt of it stopped traffic a bit when I used it either. I couldn’t let the car guys get all the stares and questions.

ImageI picked an RB Graphic Camera from the Folmer Schwing division of Eastman Kodak. This camera is part of a storied line of press cameras used by just about every famous photographer of the 20th century, or at least those who used large format and traveled with their gear. Here’s Dorothea Lange using one while traveling for the government in the thirties.D-Langeand another, in the hands of  photographer far more daring than I…
hanging-photographerand then there is the pair who seem to be dueling on the rooftop3b43800rOne man is using the RB Graphic, a single lens reflex camera that uses a mirror to show the image as it will appear on the film, and another holds a Speed Graphic; lighter, smaller when closed, more flexible when it came to changing lenses and stashing the camera in the trunk of a car.

The Speed Graphic is the camera that all but replaced the RB in common use by press men; the camera of Jimmy Olsen (of Superman fame) and the familiar prop for reporters in all the old movies, often accompanied by large flash attachments. Weegee-International_Center_of_PhotographyI have a couple of them, in various sizes, and love them dearly. Here is a picture of Arthur Fellig himself, better known as Weegee, posing with one. The man often got to crime scenes before the police and, for my money, he is the soul of NY noir after the war.

But for this day, I wanted to stay with the thirties theme, and the Speed Graphic really belongs to the next decade, at least in our imagination. I chose the Model D RB Graphic; big, boxy and perfect for hand-held shooting. Add the 4 x 5 film, a simple wooden tripod and you’re ready for anything, as long as anything isn’t too quick…

As this reference drawing from a Navy training booklet shows, graflex4the Model D uses a mirror to allow viewing from the top. This simplifies the use of large apertures, allowing the photographer to focus and fire without having to stop, insert a film holder, hope the subject doesn’t move and then fire.  It also establishes a waist-high point of view for the camera, creating a subtle but effective difference in the photo when compared with images that are taken from eye level. Somehow, the photographer seems less threatening when he or she is looking at you with both eyes open and holding a box than when the camera is hiding at least part of his face. It kind of removes the “Gotcha!” quality of the moment. The makers of box cameras in the late nineteenth century called them Detective Cameras for just this reason. It was far easier to sneak up on someone when you didn’t seem to be aiming at them.

Still the need to take more than one photo with sheet film requires some sort of changing, and the apparatus that allows for that most effectively on an RB Graphic is the Film Magazine, known to users as the “Bag-Mag.” This is a wood, leather and metal box attached to the back of the camera that holds a number of metal sheaths, each containing one sheet of film. When the first image has been captured, the photographer replaces the dark slide, pulls up on a sliding rod along the side of the magazine, effectively ejecting the exposed film in its sheath into a leather bag. He then grabs the sheath, tilts the bottom toward the back of the pile and reinserts the sheet. It is easier than it sounds, believe me, but the holder, and especially its leather bag, need to be in good repair. I have had the rod jamb, the sheath bend, the leather rip and the film fall out of its holder. Any of these things stops you dead in your tracks, making excuses for your failure to all of those people you attracted in the first place by using this big, stately, sexy camera. Not a good scene. Take a few trial runs before you do it in public.

Anyway, the group of Model A enthusiasts toured southern RI for a long morning’s ramble and my intrepid digital photographer (my wife Lena) and I went along to see what we could capture of the experience. All of the color images here are from her work, not mine. Mine are still in the darkroom… another one of those old things.

P1020057Thanks to all you RI car guys. You’re great! Keep it up.

Renewal and Metamorphosis in Groton

Image

 Untitled,  Sergei Leontiev 1991, –courtesy of the de Menil Galley

At a time when Mr. Putin is doing his best to remind the world of a Russian desire for political and social domination we haven’t seen since the Cold War, the deMenil Gallery at Groton School is showing us another side of the Russian cultural soul in a brilliant show of photographs taken in the time between WW II the 1990’s. This timespan allows this exhibit to give us glimpses of work done during periods of popular patriotism and periods of cultural repression; in war and in the bright, wide open yearning of the late 1980’s.  Most importantly, I think, it gives us a glimpse of the Russian people without political overtones at all.

There are war pictures, stark and dynamic; images of the cold and barren steppes we might think of when asked to picture the hinterlands of Siberia; workers, miners, factories and city streets. There are peasants and children, dogs and still-life fish. There are montaged images, formal studies, experimental ideas, alternative processes, wide-angle, close-up, landscape, portrait…you name it.

Most of all, there is a whole lot of really great work. See it.

The deMenil Gallery web page is here.

 

Worth, Value, Price and the differences therein

We ended up yesterday, after all the hoopla was over at the 81st Photographica Show, with a table full of stuff that had no economic value to anyone. This we knew because it was offered free of charge to anyone who wanted it- for hours, and yet it was still here–unloved and untaken–at the end of the day. All of it and much more had been there for two days, but with a price attached which, though a small price, still involved someone trading hard cash for the doo-dad of their dreams. This stuff that was left was worthless.

Really? Worthless or simply no longer valued or able to be priced?

Take one class of thing among many: a camcorder set-up, complete with case, battery, charger, cords, etc., complete with instruction manual. It could be a Sony, a JVC, a Sharp… they were all here, in number. Probably most of them still worked as they had a few years ago, when they were brought home from the store, the latest installment on a plan to make life more interesting, more fulfilling, more complete for whomever bought them. There was, no doubt, great joy in the sight of them to each of their owners. But times changed, and the VHS, Mini-VHS, 8mm, Hi-8, Mini-DV world that they represent became yesterday’s news. Now they had come out of the back closet to be “donated” to PHSNE and the dollar table, and, times now being what they are, nobody wants them. The old formats just don’t make it, and the turnover of styles, formats, sizes is relentless and ongoing.

Whatever you buy is already the stuff of yesterday, you just don’t think about that when you want it.

Surely these objects still have intrinsic value. They are functional, for the most part, and even appear to be new. What they don’t have is currency. On the materials level, they are often recyclable, or partly so, but that requires work. Metals, plastics, rechargeable batteries can all be brought to the proper places and sent back on the great wheel of use and re-use, but most won’t be going that way.

If they were ever used at all, they had value as tools of family history, of artistic expression, of communication, of documentation. They were worth the price paid for them, or so we thought. Each one of these things may well have been worth quite a lot to the people who owned and used them. And now, squirreled away in that same closets that served as homes for these machines, there  may be piles of cassettes, repositories of the images and stories collected. Data, information, memory, history, art…all waiting to be transferred to another format, another repository; perhaps one less physical, even less present in space if not in time- the cloud. Or not. Perhaps, realizing too late that these tapes are not viable anymore, the owners will simply dump them (and their contained information) as unimportant; without value.

I am no less guilty of this wholesale buying and dumping than anyone else, but the sight of all this stuff did give me pause. Are we valuing the wrong things or have we simply been caught on the bleeding edge of technology issue, in that the pace of change means that we are always going to be behind the times and trading up to stay current in the tools we use and the way we communicate? As price goes down (think of the cost of computer memory over the last ten years) and the availability of options for capture and storage of memories becomes ever broader, shouldn’t we be just a bit more discerning? Shouldn’t we find a simpler way to keep what is worth keeping, what we value, regardless of the price?

I happen to like silver gelatin photographic prints on paper for many of my memories, but I know that this is a limited solution. They certainly stand the test of time, and have no need for translation or format shift (though I do scan and save for easy sharing of the images), but they are often inconveniently located (not on my phone) and they take up lots of room and have to be stored. Maybe it’s true that for much of the stuff we like to keep, paper images won’t cut it, but while I can, I’m making use of that old school technology to make memories, and having fun doing it.

 

Camera with no name

Image

You folks who know Russian cameras well, here’s a chance to smile a small, superior smile, but I bet you can sympathize with my enthusiasm in finding out what the heck this thing is. I didn’t even know it was Russian, since the lens was at the bottom of a bag filled with all manner of photo left-overs but I guessed it, given the circumstance of it’s coming into my hands.

Isn’t it fun to have a mystery to solve once in awhile? I don’t mean a problem to solve, we all have too many of those, but a genuine whodunnit, complete with clues and evidence. To start at the beginning. A very nice woman contacted me and said that her late husband had had “a number” of cameras and that she would like to sell them through PHSNE. I pictured 20 or 30 cameras, neatly arrayed on shelves or perhaps already packed away in bubble wrap. I was partly right, for there were two boxes of bubble-wrapped cameras in her living room when we arrived, among ten boxes, six bags and assorted crates of cameras, lenses, bags, gear, broken glass vases, batteries without chargers, chargers without batteries and the assorted stuff of a hobby rudely interrupted by death. Her husband had been doing a lot of buying and not much organizing in his later years, and she had little energy to do much with the detritus. Here it was for us to cart away and sell. Cart we did. Before we could sell, however, we had to sort and label, price, fiddle with and (sometimes) clean. Much was straightforward, for though the cameras were often worse for having been unloved for a long time, we are people who like to do this stuff, right? And the naming and wiping and fixing and massaging of old gear is a way to honor the man who collected it, in a way. A worthwhile task.

Image

Halfway through a large bag of camera bodies, most disconnected form their lenses, I came upon this, relatively clean and still in its original case, but without any lens. The usual search for a label got me nowhere. Outside, no badge; inside, no label, no exhortation to use a particular film (as there is in many German cameras); no indication at all of where, or when it was made. Only the serial number engraved on the cold-shoe at the top of the body.

A more experienced camera buff would immediately recognize the shape and style of the body, or at least be able to name the lens-mount – Contax, Zeiss’s answer to the Leica. A rangefinder Contax is a fine machine; balanced, well made and usually still very good decades after its manufacture, but Zeiss labeled everything, and this was certainly not labeled. OK, so we move to the Russian copies, built, often with genuine Zeiss parts or with parts made from the original dies that had been transferred to Kiev after WWII. Cameras with the name of that city on the front are sometimes as good as the models they copied. Sometime…, not so much. Still, they labeled those too, and though my experience with cyrillic script is almost nil, I can usually make out the name, “Kiev” on the front of a camera. I picked up one of the other Kiev camera bodies from the bag to compare. Similar, not quite the same. He had a lot of Russian cameras. I dug some more… . Here was one that looked just like our mystery body

Image

Now is the time for you to be asking “Why didn’t you just Google it?” Well, first it helps to know what you want to Google, and I didn’t have a name. Second, the warehouse we use has no internet access–it’s old-school all the way. Out came the 2006 reference books, and a search through the Kiev section. It turns out that the one with the label is a Kiev 4a, made during the early 1960’s, at the Arsenal factory in Kiev (surprise, surprise!). Time to bring the thing home and see Mr Google.

Image

Now the foremost authority on Contax and Kiev cameras, or so the web will tell you, is a Mr. Peter Hennig, who writes about them here. His take on this particular model is interesting, and I have no reason to dispute him. I would urge anyone who is interested in the entire story (what there is of it) to follow the link and read his words. In effect, this is a relatively rare and un-acknowledged step-child in the Kiev line. Sometimes found with genuine Zeiss Sonnar lenses, they are also found with the famous Jupiter 8, fine lenses in their own right when the workers cared to make them so, but inconsistent if my sources are to be believed. I have never shot with one. Deep down in the bag that held the no-name body was a Jupiter 8, which I have re-united with the camera. Now found almost exclusively in the USA, this version of the 4a sometimes carries the engraved legend on its back of being made in the “USSR occupied Germany,” a claim Mr. Hennig disputes.  Again, I have no reason to argue with him.

So the real mystery remains. I now know what the camera is, I have a good idea when and were it was made. We even have a lens for it. What I don’t know is the larger why. Why did the Zavod Arsenal manufacture a line of these cameras without any label? Why are they here? Cold-war plot to fool the stupid capitalists into buying a Russian camera? Business plan to make cameras for re-badging? (This was a common strategy then as it is now, used by many companies–think Sears branding.) A major screw-up, shipped overseas to get them out of sight? The last is unlikely, no matter what you think of the quality standards of the Russian factories during the 60’s, they continued this line for quite awhile, perhaps two years or more (Hennig guesses fewer than 5000, but hey, that’s a lot of cameras), and the quality of this camera is as good as any Kiev I have seen–quite good, in fact. Maybe they just did it to screw with us, to make me ask questions.

Yup, that’s it. It’s all a plot to get me thinking. They simply wanted people to have a little mystery in their lives. Nice of them.

That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.

ArtWeek Boston and…

As Art Week Boston nears, some of us start to think about the state of the art of photography these days, at least what they call “Fine Art” photography, though low art photography, like Lomo and Holga often blur the distinctions by being more artsy than most image-making these days. Europe has a strong history of appreciation for the fine-ness of photography, especially France, as can be seen at the wonderful Paris Night & Day exhibit I wrote about here. Now we have a prominent international gallery setting up shop at the Burlington Mall (high art in low places?). YellowKorner started in Paris–they have nine separate locations in that city alone–but they are truly an international presence, with storefronts in twenty countries and lots of pizzaz in their online site. The local incarnation may be in a mall, but they seem determines to put their best social foot forward with the thing we just can’t resist about French culture, the food. This just came across my desk from the in basket of another PHSNE member:

As part of ArtWeek Boston 2014, Parisian-based YellowKorner Photography Gallery is flying in world-renowned urban landscape photographer, Franck Bohbot, to Boston for an artist feature and French prix fixe dinner at Society on High in Boston’s Financial District on Tuesday, April 29th
 
YellowKorner very recently opened its first New England area gallery in Burlington, MA, and we wanted to extend an invite to our event to those interested from the PHSNE.
 
Bohbot’s collection features extraordinary works capturing some of France’s monumental architectural structures and he agreed to travel from his native France for ArtWeek for he is in the process of finalizing an urban landscape collection to be shot here in Boston. 

Please see event information here on ArtWeek Boston’s event page: YellowKorner Society Introduces the Art of Paris. There is also an eventbrite link on that page for tickets which are only $25 and include dinner. Please contact me at jake@dpacommunications.comor 617-997-2134 with questions on the dinner or anything concerning YellowKorner. Thanks!

 

YELLOWKWEBFranck Bohbot’s work courtesy of YellowKorner. All rights reserved 

Franck Bohbot is labeled a “landscape photographer” here, but his work is far more varied than that might suggest. His website has a great deal of top quality and arresting work, in color and in black and white. The promise that his next project will be shot in Boston is pretty exciting (personally, of course… this is, after all, my blog) and I have to say I might even travel to the wilds of Burlington to check out their storefront…but not likely. I do hate malls. The dinner, however, sounds great, even understanding that it will probably include a side dish of sales and a good ration of hype.  

Stay on the bus.

armor_140406-9009

Photos © 2014 Randall Armor / New England School of Photography

Using the metaphor of the bus lines

in his home city of Helsinki, which can confuse newcomers since all of the lines seem at first blush to be going in the same direction, Arno urged his listeners to stay on the bus; to stick with their artistic efforts, even if these seem to be going nowhere, for it is only through perseverance that the true direction of your efforts can be perceived. He used not only his own work, which has been mining the rich pictorial ground of the body in context for over four decades, but also the work of his teachers, Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan, and images by Jacques Henri Lartigue and others in bringing home the point.

If you want to get anywhere, you have to stay on the bus.

As an artist who has walked away, jumped and fallen from the bus many times over the years, I found myself asking the same old question,

“But how do I know I’m going anywhere?”

I think the answer is not going to come to me in words, any more than the meaning of Arno’s photographs is ever going to be straightforward. Sometimes I guess we just have to have faith…

keep faith and carry on.

The process of creating artwork is never easy, and it’s always easier to jump off the bus and ask questions. I think Arno was going beyond counseling patience, he was asking us to trust ourselves more; to hang out over that canyon with him, confident only in our own strength and in our own vision. He doesn’t fake the poses in his photos: no photoshop and no troop of assistants to pull him out of danger. He commits to a picture, putting himself on the line with every shot.

armor_140406-9025
But isn’t that what art is all about?

Need a Darkroom?

Image

I don’t want to start advertising things here, but I can’t stop myself from giving a shout-out to a really helpful and convenient service for those of us who still shoot film. You take the pictures, but then what? Scan them? It’s OK, and allows for lots of options, but a good old silver print is often what we want from these precious negatives, and the best way for getting the right stuff from your negatives is to do it yourself (with help, anyway). Best place to do that for you space-challenged city dwellers? Or you folks with bigger negatives than your enlarger can handle (8 x10 anyone?) 

LaPete Labs in the Fort Point District.

Bill LaPete has been doing this for a long time and has a great place for you to work, learn and connect. He can help you get the most from every negative you have, if you need the help, or he can just leave you alone to work in what are some of the best equipped labs I’ve seen in a long time.  He suffered for a long time without a proper elevator in the building, but that’s a thing of the past and his facilities are now as easy to get to as if they were on the first floor.  Check him out, and tell him that PHSNE sent you!