Monday, 12 November 2018

Rereading Christian Metz

MPP Micro-Technical Mk VI with Ilford FP4 Plus
Rereading Christian Metz’s ‘Photography and Fetish’ (1984), which can be seen as part of the ongoing ontological project of conceptualising photography in the way Metz sets out the differences between film and photography, it is striking how historically situated his readings are. Possibly, at the time Metz wrote, the respective realms of photography and cinema may have seemed settled within the short history of photography and film. This appears to have been overturned, or at least greatly complicated since: a decisive shift occurred at the end of the twentieth century with the emergence of digital imaging technologies and their distribution. I first read ‘Photography and Fetish’ twenty-two years ago, while researching my undergraduate dissertation on ‘Photography and the Uncanny’. Then, digital cameras did exist, but they were thousands of pounds, and it would be many years before I even held one in my hands. Electronic moving images in the form of videotape existed, but generally as a poor copy of images originating in another medium - as indeed would be any digital images that I then worked with; in its linear construction, one can think of videotape as being a physical but non-indexical medium. Having retrieved Metz's essay online earlier this year, I subsequently found the original photocopy that I had made in 1996. I was initially surprised to find it printed in a landscape format, reduced from being reprinted in a larger volume, no doubt for reasons of economy. The juvenile appearance of my own handwriting also surprised me: at the time, writing by hand was an everyday occurrence: indeed, the first draft of my dissertation had been written by hand.

In ‘Photography and Fetish’ Metz discusses the medium of film largely in relation to the experience of such images within the cinema; television and, importantly perhaps, home video recorders must have been changing the relationship to the moving image at the time he was writing, but this is but lightly touched upon. Rather, a classical sense of ‘the cinema’ - coherent, discrete, but also with its attendant social practices - is used for the purposes of his argument (Metz does acknowledge that he is relying on generalisations). The differences between the experience of photographs and of film that Metz enumerates are now collapsing, or at least becoming less marked, with the access of digital technology and a few aspects of this collapse may be worth exploring.

There are several distinctions in ‘Photography and Fetish’ between photography and film that are not quite so clear today. Encountered more readily through a screen, a photograph in many people’s experience may no longer be understood as “a silent rectangle of paper”, changing its place in the “socialized unit of reading, of reception”, while, as a result of digital technology, film (or the moving image) is rather more equal in terms of its production, no longer “less accessible to ‘ordinary’ people than that of photography.” With the platforms of social media, Metz’s claim for photography having “a high degree of social recognition” in the domain of private, family life (“birthplace of the Freudian fetish”) feels diluted and complicated by uses which may have once seemed to properly belong to the private being turned inside out to a new kind of public face. As technology allows for ever-easier production of moving images, their consumption - and, importantly, access to their internal structures.
“Film subjected to repetition and return, when viewed on new technologies, suffers from the violence caused by extracting a fragment from the whole that, as in a body, ‘wounds’ its integrity. But in another metaphor, this process ‘unlocks’ the film fragment and opens it up to new kinds of relations and revelations.”
Laura Mulvey, Death 24x A Second
It no longer feels true to say, as Metz claims, that film is immersed in “a stream of temporality where nothing can be kept, nothing stopped. The emergence of a fetish is thus made more difficult.” Now film can be kept (stored) digitally, easily stopped, edited, re-edited, looped and fragmented. The easy availability of the digital image, its devices (and the attendant social media) put both photography and film more than ever in the hands of practically everyone, and allow far more control over the production, dissemination and consumption of images - of pictures - so much more than at any previous time in history. Yet what these images can be - the choices that inform how these images are made - must surely be determined by other structures: as well as how such technologies are designed, their use is formed by other pressures, social, political, and the idea of what possibilities can be imagined.

With the widespread adoption of the practices of digital imaging technology and its dissemination, one could argue that there has been something of a collapse between the moving image and the still image, even at the simple level of the devices that can accomplish both, embodied in the smartphone. (Intriguingly, some cameras produced early in the twentieth century after the invention of cinema were also designed to accomplish both: the Debrie Sept camera, for example, or the Bolsey 8, could record short sequences of moving images on film as well as shoot single frames; In Painting Photography Film, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy describes the ‘domestic pinacotheca’ which essentially embodies many functions of the smartphone: “‘domestic picture galleries […] brought out only when they are really needed.”) Indeed, in its most recent version, the ever present iPhone’s ‘live photo’ mode records 1.5 seconds of moving image before and after pressing the camera’s simulated ‘button’ on its interface. Early photography was always to some extant concerned with duration. Before the ‘instant’ photograph (which essentially emerged with the invention of the dry photographic plate) exposure times were counted in minutes, or at the very least, seconds, intervals of time that were within human perception, not outside of it, or perhaps more accurately, beneath its threshold, like the fractions of a second that photography became.

Perhaps one key relationship between the forms of photography and film as outlined in ‘Photography and Fetish’ that may remain largely unchanged is in the links that Metz makes between photography’s “immobility and silence” as signs of death, set against film’s signs of “livingness”; however some recent commentators (Garrett Stewart, Between Film and Screen: Modernism’s Photo Synthesis; Laura Mulvey, Death 24x A Second) have found less simplistic oppositions more fruitful, especially as film’s history lengthens. Film’s signs of “livingness” implicitly includes film’s incorporation of recorded sound as against the “silence” of the photograph; but this ‘silence’ can also now be seen in iterations of the moving image in current online practices. The animated GIF returns the moving image to a space where sound is no longer important. One might perhaps think of the moving image with synchronised sound as having always been a hybrid, although perhaps a ‘natural’ seeming one, its sound having such affinity with the moving image that it is easy not separate the two as being distinct while experienced simultaneously. However early cinema existed for thirty years without recorded synchronised sound: Rudolf Arnheim asserted that “No one who went unprejudiced to watch a silent film missed the noises which could have been heard if the same events had been taking place in real life […] People took the silence of the movies for granted because they never quite lost the feeling that what they saw was after all only pictures.” For much of the twentieth century, many people’s home movies before the advent of consumer video cameras would have been mostly without sound. Would this be seen as seen as a lack? Or would silent home movies be seen as more akin to photographs, albeit photographs that move. The occasions of the use of home movies are generally identical to that of the domesticated photograph - holidays, celebrations, and newness: a new baby, a new house, a new car, other new significant purchases.

However, when using the iPhone’s live photo feature the user is still intending to make something understood as a photograph - hence the name ‘live photo’ - and not necessarily a short film as such. A medium can be defined by its use, its practice, and the user’s intentions, as well as its constituent material. In ‘Against Post-cinema’, Ted Nannicelli and Malcolm Turvey argue against the conception of a digital 'monomedium' - with all that implies. 'Post-cinema' can briefly be summarised as the effect that digital technology has had on cinema - the divorce of the moving image from a physical strip of film (and for many commentators, this separates the moving image form the index) - meaning that with many practices being reduced or subsumed into digital technology, emulated by the interfaces of software (and these emulations becoming increasingly opaque), and that in so doing, cinema loses its distinctive qualities: Nannicelli and Turvey take issue with the "post-cinema thesis" which argues "not just that the cinema has been radically altered by digital technology, but that it is no longer a distinct medium because it has been subsumed by another medium. It has been dissolved into a broader medium in the digital era. Indeed, some proponents of this view intimate that digital technology has rendered the concept of a distinct medium obsolete..." Instead, Nannicelli and Turvey state that two senses of the term 'medium' are being confused; (quoting from Joseph Margolis) the medium is both “‘at one and the same time’” the physical material used and the "emergent work" being created. This emergent work is situated within a set of social practices that also define the medium (for example, the medium of paint can both be used to decorate or protect surfaces, or used to create something understood as a painting; one can imagine instances when making a discrete work of art through painting could possibly be confused with painting a wall, but this can be seen as an outlying use of practice); therefore the medium of 'cinema' can mean a distinct set of practices - production, distribution, exhibition and audience expectation (after all, audiences still physically travel in their millions to places called cinemas to watch productions - whether digital or not - called films). That there are crossovers between photography and film in the area of visual arts could be seen to be due to a sense of awareness of the historical practices bound up together with the medium's material characteristics (at the outset, each new medium tends to take on the forms or roles of those pre-existing historically, before an awareness of its own distinct qualities - which include distinct limitations - becomes consciously explored).

In a not dissimilar fashion, in his claims for film as art, Rudolf Arnheim's use of the term 'medium' is distinct from 'art' despite making categorical statements from a formalist position that recognises the properties of the medium as being its defining characteristics: “At about that time [the 1920s] I started to make copious notes on what I called Materialtheorie. It was a theory meant to show that artistic and scientific descriptions of reality are cast in moulds that derive not so much from the subject matter itself as from the properties of the medium - or Material - employed.” Thus, while anxious to place film as art, Arnheim was also aware that the medium of film could be used for other purposes which were 'not art': within the material constitutes of a medium, that medium can produce something outside of the realm of art. He lists: "coloured picture postcards [...] a military march, a true confession story, or a strip tease" as all being uses of mediums that can create art, yet these are not art, which implicitly recognises the social practices around the different mediums these examples conjure up (of course, one can now probably think of examples of all of these forms that are now firmly defined as art).
“Film is much more difficult to characterize as a fetish. It is too big, it lasts too long, and it addresses too many sensorial channels at the same time to offer a credible unconscious equivalent of a part object […] whereas a fetish has to be kept, mastered, held, like the photograph in the pocket. […] Most of all, a film cannot be touched, cannot be carried and handled: although the actual reels can, the projected film cannot.”
Christian Metz, 'Photography and Fetish'
With the touchscreen and its handling, animated by its swipes and other gestures, film is closer than ever to being ‘touched’. Experienced through digital technology, most of the qualities Metz ascribes to the photograph in ‘Photography and Fetish’ can now be applied to film: seen on a small portable screen, with internal access to its content, film can now possess “smallness, [the] possibility of a lingering look.” That a single device can contain both photographs and films, and can make both, opens the possibility that film can take on those qualities that Metz concludes as to how photography, rather than film (which plays on fetishism), is “more capable of itself becoming a fetish.” Metz places photographs in belonging to both “the ordinary sense of the word” fetish, as well as developing its relation to the Freudian meaning. Thus: “The familiar photographs that many people carry with them always obviously belong to the order of fetishes in the ordinary sense of the word”: now, in Freudian terms, the smartphone and all that it contains could be seen as a metaphoric phallus, cut off and kept in a pocket.


Bibilography

Rudolf Arnheim, Film as Art, Faber and Faber, London 1958. First published as Film als Kunst, 1933
Lewis K. Bush, 'The GIF of Life: Vestigial Film Formats as Documentary, http://www.disphotic.com/the-gif-of-life-vestigial-file-formats-as-documentary/ 10/10/16 retrieved 12/2/18 See also: https://www.360.agency/en/blog/the-return-of-the-animated-gif/
Christian Metz, 'Photography and Fetish', October, Vol. 34. (Autumn, 1985), pp. 81-90.
Laura Mulvey, Death 24x A Second: Stillness and the Moving Image, Reaktion, London 2005
Moholy-Nagy, Laszlo, Painting, photography, film, translated by Janet Seligman (Originally published as Malerei, Fotografie, Film, 1927) Lund Humphries, London 1969. Ted Nannicelli and Malcolm Turvey, 'Against Post-Cinema', Cinema & Cie, vol. XVI, no.26-27, Spring/Summer 2016
Garrett Stewart,Between Film and Screen: Modernism’s Photo Synthesis

Monday, 29 October 2018

October's #ShittyCameraChallenge

V. P. Twin with Ilford XP2 Super
With October being announced as the second month this year for the #ShittyCameraChallenge, I wanted to use a different camera from June's contest, the Micro 110, and my first thought was to choose the Elliott V. P. Twin. The V. P. Twin seems perfect for the challenge - no user controls other than the shutter lever, a fixed-focus meniscus lens, a virtually obsolete format, a body made from Bakelite (or a Bakelite-type brittle plastic), and it was once sold in three parts for six old pence each. In my original post on the V. P. Twin, I calculated this to be £3.73 at 2016 prices - and the camera is probably worth hardly any more now; my model of the camera is the post-war version, which was once sold for 7/6, or 37.5 new pence, which would be £6.32 at 2016 prices. This was around the price I paid on a well-known auction site including postage. A handy definition of a 'shitty camera' is one where the camera is worth less than a roll of film: the V. P. Twin takes 127 format rollfilm, and certainly any new 127 film would cost more than the camera. There seems to be a small resurgence of interest in the 127 format, and a new Rerapan 400-speed black and white film is currently available, as well as Rera Chrome and Rollei Crossbird.

Elliott V. P. Twin
However, I didn't use any of these films over the week I was shooting with the V. P. Twin. Instead, I had some cut down medium format Ilford XP2 Super, HP5 and FP4 Plus, rolled with 127 backing paper, as well as some 35mm Kentmere 400. As the V. P. Twin is a snapshot camera and has no aperture or shutter speed controls, whatever film I was using - and these were mostly fast films - the films' latitude was important in order to provide results in a variety of lighting conditions (I did develop the XP2 Super in RO9; C41 process would have been better in terms of latitude for the film). Originally, the camera was recommended to be used for subjects in broad sunlight, of which there was some this October - obviously not as bright as summer sunlight - but I shot with whatever light was available, with mostly acceptable results.

V. P. Twin with Ilford HP5 Plus
V. P. Twin with Ilford HP5 Plus
I did attempt a few shots of well-lit interiors, where HP5 gave good results. The photographs I took all demonstrated the shortcomings of the V. P. Twin: the meniscus lens has very visible vignetting and distortion in all images; there was also some camera shake in a few shots (using the camera this month, I noticed that the shutter appears to trip slower in one direction as opposed to the other); film flatness was an issue in some images (most notably with the 35mm film, as this wasn't supported at the sides of the frame); and the framing in a number of the photographs was clearly off - the curved metal viewinder frame of the V. P. Twin is rudimentary at best. All these factors help to qualify the V. P. Twin to be a 'shitty camera'.

V. P. Twin with HP5 Plus showing camera shake
V. P. Twin with Kentmere 400 - out of focus areas caused by lack of film flatness
V. P. Twin with Ilford XP2 Super - poorly framed subject
And yet these factors are part of the charm of using the V. P. Twin - other than the problems with accurate framing, which rarely provides a more interesting composition than the one I was trying to frame. Ideally, I would have probably shot everything on HP5 Plus, as this would have been the most sympathetic (or C41-processed XP2), but I was just shooting with what I had - what was already cut down and/or rolled with 127 format backing paper for use. Doing this - shooting with what I had - using a simple snapshot camera, over the course of a week, and the results that come out of those restrictions, are one of the chief attractions for taking part in such a thematic 'challenge', and, by doing so, engaging in part of a larger online community of film photographers.

V. P. Twin with Ilford HP5 Plus
V. P. Twin with Ilford XP2 Super
V. P. Twin with Ilford FP4 Plus
V. P. Twin with Kentmere 400
V. P. Twin with Ilford XP2 Super

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Ilford XP2 Super - Part Two

First roll of Ilford XP2, shot with Praktica BCA, July 1994
In my previous post, part one of Ilford XP2 Super, I revisited a film that I had used more than any other for a few years when I didn't have access to a darkroom, and had my interest rekindled by buying a cheap batch of just-out-of-date film. The current version of Ilford's chromogenic film, Ilford XP2 Super, is twenty years old this year; I had first used the previous named iteration of the film, XP2, in 1994 (it was 'updated' in 1996 with no name change to indicate this); in the course of my research for writing about the film, I scanned some of the negatives and prints from the first photographs I'd taken with Ilford XP2, but decided that some of that material would be better as a  separate post, with a more personal reflection on using the film; at the same time, in the interval, I also had the chance to make some prints in the darkroom from some of the tests I had shot for the first post.

In part one, I made two sets of latitude tests, and compared Ilford XP2 Super processed as C41 to that using a traditional black and white film developer. Those comparisons were made from assessing the contact sheets and scans from negatives, but I did feel that I should also make a comparison with printing from the negatives. This confirmed my first results, but perhaps the differences were even more marked. All the prints I made used Kentmere VC Select paper without using Multigrade contrast filters, thereby rendering the paper at a grade 2 contrast: this appeared to be ideal for neither set of negatives - too low in contrast for the C41 negatives, too high for the black and white developed ones.

Ilford XP2 Super, rated EI 400, C41 process
Ilford XP2 Super, rated EI 400, developed in Fomadon RO9
The comparisons when rating the film as low as 50 varied even more. As Ilford suggest with XP2 Super, it can be rated at EI 50 for 'finest grain'; this also reduces the contrast further. Developed in RO9, essentially the opposite effect is achieved: the appearance of grain is more prominent and the highlights start losing detail, adding to contrast.

Ilford XP2 Super, rated EI 50, C41 process 
Ilford XP2 Super, rated EI 50, developed in Fomadon RO9
As the scans from the negatives seemed to indicate, from making prints in the darkroom, the practice of rating the film at EI 50 for 'finest grain' does also appear to reduce sharpness; there is nothing to be gained in rating the film at EI 50 if developing it in black and white chemicals - the best results I achieved were at exposure indexes of 200-400. The grain with black and white chemicals was fairly consistent, perhaps even a little more apparent grain than one might expect with a 400 ISO film, but this might be more prominent due to the relatively high contrast of the images, which in itself exaggerates grain.

As I wrote in the previous post, one of the chief advantages of using XP2 is that, as it is designed for the C41 process, it can be developed at any lab that processes colour negative film, and so it would be possible to produce proof prints for a whole roll of film in an hour. However, in my experience from using XP2 over many years, relying on the standard C41 lab prints, the results would often vary widely. When I first used XP2, I would take it to Boots for developing; generally, they used to provide very warm sepia prints, at least in the 1990s. Later, using Kodak processing via a big supermarket chain, I would often receive prints with much cooler colours in a blue-tinted monochrome. Sometimes though, the prints from a lab would come back with a colour cast varying from orange to green to magenta across a single print as in the example below; sometimes shop prints might have as good as no detail in the highlight areas, or, more commonly in my experience, the midtones and shadows might be compressed.

Ilford XP2 Super - scan from lab print
Ilford XP2 Super - scan from negative
At the time that I was using Ilford XP2 regularly, I often used the resulting lab prints as reference material to make paintings from. To begin with, these were often from enlarged photocopies, then from scans of the prints, which at times became quite elaborate, sometimes numerous photographs joined together in a seamless fashion digitally as a basis for the more complicated paintings that I was doing. As can be appreciated from the comparison above, the variations in the prints do make a large difference - the print has very little shadow detail, and the colour cast also affects tonal relationships - and as such, this could be a problem when working from lab prints. Scanning from the negative above has pulled out all the available shadow detail, while retaining the modelling in the sky, producing a much more usable image.

First roll of Ilford XP2, shot with Praktica BCA, July 1994
In the summer of 1994, I bought a secondhand Praktica camera body - a BCA for £26, my second 35mm SLR camera, which would be my main camera until I replaced it with a Canon A-1 in 2001 (it was my only SLR, which was later supplemented by a Zeiss Ikoflex Ic, an Olympus Pen EE3 and a Kodak No.2 Brownie). The reason for buying a Praktica BCA was, as well as being cheap, that I already had a lens from my previous 35mm SLR, a Praktica BC1, as written about in the post Twenty Years Since. That summer, with my new-to-me Praktica BCA, between college courses and without access to a darkroom, I could get XP2 developed for the same price as colour film and with the same turnover time, in comparison to normal black and white film, which I'd just started to use over the previous few months. Ilford XP2's other distinct characteristics - its fine grain for a fast film, its latitude - were not considerations at the time: cost and convenience were the main reasons for choosing it. There were two photographs on XP2 from that summer which I still have as both the original lab prints, and as prints I'd made myself in the darkroom a year later; from the negatives, I made scans of  these as a point of comparison to the two very different prints.

Praktica BCA with Ilford XP2, scan from lab print
Scan from print on Jessops VC paper
Scan from negative
In the original lab prints, the low contrast of the XP2 negatives appears to be a little problematic: detail in the highlights is retained, while compromising the relationship of the mid-tones to the shadow areas. However, I do remember that I liked the sepia effect of the monochrome prints on colour paper, and this was something I used in a number of collages I made at the time, incorporating these prints. These were from the first rolls of XP2 that I shot, and I didn't experience the variability that was possible in lab prints of the film until some years later.

I had used significantly more contrast in the darkroom prints made in 1995, and, although I was probably happy with the results then, I am less keen on the blank skies now, and would probably try to retain detail through burning or split grade printing, or a combination of both. I had also made my own negative carrier in order to show the edges of the negative and a part of the perforations at the bottom edge of the image, something I now think of as an affectation - no doubt I had seen this effect in a book and had wanted to emulate it. The darkroom print from the photograph below is squared up with a grid to use the image as reference for a painting - and subsequently used for a second painting, too. Coincidentally, this location with the gasholder was photographed for the cover of the Tyrrel Corporation's single 'You're Not Here' with the two band members sitting on the low wall in front of the arch. The single was released in 1994 and I remember flyposters advertising it on hoardings in Ilford town centre around the time I took my photograph below: also, coincidentally, the cover of the single and the images on the posters happened to be in sepia.

Praktica BCA with Ilford XP2, scan from lab print
Scan from print on Jessops VC paper
Scan from negative
After scanning the original negatives of these two photographs alongside the two different prints, I had the idea to revisit these two locations this summer, to photograph them again on Ilford XP2 Super, twenty-four years to the day. I had thought that these images had come from my first roll of Ilford XP2, but, on closer inspection of the dates and diary entries, these turned out to be from my second roll of the film. The first had been shot over the preceding two weeks, including the shot at the top of this post, but I did get both rolls processed at the same time - at Boots in Ilford, of all places - I had handed in the first roll beforehand, to Jessops I believe, but they returned the film undeveloped, telling me that they couldn't process it (perhaps they had been thinking of XP1, which had its own developer), at which point I took the two rolls to Boots: Ilford XP2 provided them without any difficulties, and I had Boots process a few more rolls of film after that.

As I no longer have my Praktica BCA, I used a Zenit 11 in order to shoot with a screw-mount 50mm f1.8 Prakticar lens - the same lens as used on the BCA (which would have been a Praktica bayonet mount of course, but the lens design would be the same; at the time I only had the standard 50mm lens; later I would get a 28mm and a 70-210mm zoom). The weather twenty-four years ago had been overcast (my darkroom prints made a year later simply omitted the cloud detail in the negative through using high contrast filters); shooting the same subjects this summer, at the tail end of the longest heatwave for forty-two years in England, the weather was unfailingly sunny.

Rotherhithe, August 2018; Zenit 11 with Ilford XP2 Super
Rotherhithe, August 2018; Zenit 11 with Ilford XP2 Super
The subjects of the two photographs from 1994 which appear in the lab and darkroom prints are only a few metres apart, on the south of the river Thames in Rotherhithe; the first shows the southern ventilation shaft to the Rotherhithe Tunnel. The shaft building itself remains, although this now has a roof; the gate and gateposts are the same, but the outbuildings have been replaced by a newer residential block since, a process that has changed the view of the gasholder in the second photograph even more radically. By 1994 most of the operations of the London docks had moved miles further east to Tilbury, and this area alongside the Thames was in between cycles of speculative building: the boom of 'Docklands', largely on the Isle of Dogs on the other side of the river, had slowed in the wake of the recession of the early 1990s. Redevelopment of the area was restarted towards the end of the decade and into the 2000s, with the impetus of the Millennium Dome and improved transport links, as well as the general economic climate of the time.

Rotherhithe, August 1994; Praktica BCA with Ilford XP2
Rotherhithe, August 2018; Zenit 11 with Ilford XP2 Super
Discovering photography and exploring London went hand in hand, and I would return to these areas a number of times in subsequent years, shooting in medium format when I bought my Ikoflex Ic a couple of years later. This was an area relatively close to where I had been attending college in east London earlier in 1994, a couple of stops down on the old East London line on the Underground from Whitechapel. Its proximity was one attraction; the other was the sense of abandonment - that there were still second world war bomb sites in London that hadn't been built on, fifty years after the end of the war - and the mild illicit thrill of climbing through holes in fences or over walls to take some of these photographs. One particular location that I photographed on Ilford XP2 in 1994, on the other side of the river from Rotherhithe, in Wapping, was that of Watson's Wharf on Hermitage Wall. This had been derelict since the war; it had been the site of a large air raid shelter which had also been the base of the 'Dead End Kids', local teenagers organised into a group of unofficial air raid wardens and firefighters, some of whom had been killed while on duty. Local residents had wanted to turn the whole site into a memorial garden to commemorate Londoners who had died in the Blitz; around the time I had photographed it, the site had then been recently sold to the London Docklands Development Corporation and there were notices from a group called Civilians Remembered along the railings and fences around the site. The building seen side on in the photograph from 1994 below marks what would have been the boundary of the proposed memorial garden. In the photograph from this year, it can been seen face on, behind the tree, just to the left of centre: the foreground of the first photograph is now built over with the large block of apartments that takes up the whole left hand side of the second photograph.

Watson's Wharf, Wapping, August 1994; Praktica BCA with Ilford XP2
View of Wapping, August 2018; Zenit 11 with Ilford XP2 Super

Thursday, 27 September 2018

Ilford XP2 Super - Part One

Ilford XP2 Super, shot on XP2 Super, 35mm and medium format 
WHY XP2 SUPER IS DIFFERENT 
XP2 SUPER is a chromogenic film. This means that the dyes which make up the image are formed during development rather than being present in the film or added later. The extremely wide exposure latitude of XP2 SUPER is the result of the unique relationship between exposure and grain in chromogenic films. The best balance of sharpness and grain is obtained when XP2 SUPER is exposed at EI 400/27. However, down-rated or overexposed XP2 SUPER negatives have finer grain, the opposite of that expected and obtained with conventional films. Up-rated or underexposed XP2 SUPER negatives have only a slight loss in quality. Furthermore, standard C41 processing is recommended for the whole of the exposure range.
Ilford XP2 Super data sheet
At some point over the last four decades, all the big four film manufacturers marketed chromogenic black and white films: Agfapan Vario XL was the first such film, followed by Ilford with XP1; Kodak produced BW400CN and Fuji had Neopan 400CN (although this film itself is made in Europe with  Ilford being involved in its manufacture). The reasons that chromogenic black and white films were developed surround the simple logistics of standardised C41 negative processing: once this infrastructure was established - the typical high street one hour photo - the rationale for a black and white film which could be processed in this way was clear. Chromogenic films had an appeal to two distinct types of customers: for the amateur, wanting to use black and white but unwilling to either pay the premium for black and white processing or endure the wait while the film to sent to a specialist lab; for professionals, the film could be developed alongside colour negative film and lab prints from chromogenic film could be treated as proofs for later bespoke printing by hand in a darkroom. In some respects, XP2 Super's distinct features - C41 processing and wide latitude - make it an ideal choice for someone wanting to shoot black and white film for the first time. Ilford XP1 400 was announced at Photokina in 1980, a year after Agfapan Vario XL, and a year after Ilford's centenary. The first version had its own chemistry as well as being able to be processed in standard C41 chemicals. XP2 succeeded XP1 in 1991; the film was "updated" with no name change in 1996; and it reached the current iteration of Ilford XP2 Super twenty years ago this year in 1998. The Super suffix for XP2 would appear to be the equivalent of the 'Plus' versions of HP5 and FP4.

Although of any particular film stock HP5 Plus is almost certainly the film I've used more than any other, Ilford XP2 Super may be the one film I used most intensely, for a number of years when I didn't have access to a darkroom and did not develop at home: I used it as my standard black and white film, mostly through the early 2000s. Since returning to developing negatives myself, I've not used XP2 very much, but, at the end of last year, I bought a brick of 10 24-exposure rolls of 35mm XP2 Super at a clearance price due to being out-dated. The films were dated September 2016 - and as it was then only a year out of date, I've made no adjustments in exposure to compensate for age - and these films were priced at £1.50 per roll, and even though this was closer to £2 each with postage, this was still very economical, and I had no doubt that the age of the film would be as close as negligible in terms of its results.

Ilford XP2 Super latitude test contact sheet (C41 process)
One of Ilford's claims for XP2 Super is that it has exceptional latitude and can be exposed at a range of exposure indexes with no adjustment in processing times:
XP2 SUPER film has a speed rating of ISO 400/27° (400ASA, 27DIN, EI 400/27) to daylight. [...] Although rated at ISO 400/27°, XP2 SUPER can be exposed over the range EI 50/18–800/30. When higher speed is needed, XP2 SUPER can be rated at up to EI 800/30. For finer grain, when speed is less important, rate the film at EI 200/24, although for finest grain it can be rated as low as EI 50/18 if required.
Although I had used XP2 Super a great deal in the past, I hadn't made any kind of systematic tests at the time. Like other films written about on this blog, for this post, I wanted to make some tests as to the film's capabilities, and I began with a latitude test. I shot a roll of XP2 Super with two sequences of six frames rated at exposure indexes rated 50/100/200/400/800/1600. The rest of the roll was rated at 200 and this was processed professionally with C41 development. The results of the tests on this post were scanned; a more comprehensive set of tests would include darkroom printing, but the scanned negatives should provide some relatively comparable results.

Ilford XP2 Super rated EI 50
The suggestion from Ilford's data sheet with regards to the relationship of density to fineness of grain does appear to hold true: I've never had a reason to rate XP2 as low as EI 50 before, but the frames so rated have a smoothness to them that might seem surprising for a 400 ISO film. This is apparently due to the way that the dye clouds which replace the silver in processing overlap. In practice, however XP2 Super is rated, this does have the effect that the grain is finer in overexposed areas, while the grain is more pronounced in the shadow areas, the opposite effect to the case with traditional black and white negative film, where denser areas provide more visible grain. One aspect of this unique peculiarity makes XP2 Super particularly good at rendering skies in landscapes with much smoother tones than one might achieve with a similar speed conventional black and white film, for example. However, when rated at an exposure index of 50 or 100 it appears there is some compression of the tonal range; the date sheet has a curve with a very shallow shoulder. In addition, it would appear that rating the film for 'finest grain' is at the expense of sharpness; this may seem counter-intuitive, but, on consideration, a denser negative would logically be less sharp than a thinner one, though how great a difference one might perceive in a print or scan is not something I've tested for here.

Ilford XP2 Super rated EI 800
At the other end of the exposure scale, grain appears to become apparent in the mid-tones through to the shadows when rated at EI 800, but squeezing an extra stop from the film in low light conditions without any change to processing - and on the same roll as frames exposed at different ratings - is potentially very useful. Ilford do not recommend push processing with Ilford XP2 Super, and I have not test the feasibility of this with C41 processing. However the frames rated EI 1600 displayed quite a pronounced grain, which my tests, looks quite visually unappealing - unlike some traditional black and white films, where the visual texture of the film grain adds something to the image, rather than detracts.

Ilford XP2 Super rated EI 1600
The remainder of this test roll I shot at EI 200, and this became my standard practice when available light allowed while shooting a number of rolls of XP2 Super subsequent to making the latitude test.

Ilford XP2 Super, rated EI 200
One aspect of the film that I was keen to test for this post was the difference between processing XP2 Super as intended by C41, and compare this to XP2 Super developed using traditional black and white chemicals. For this second latitude test, I used the same camera (a Canon A-1) and the same ratings of 50/100/200/400/800/1600 for two successive series of six shots. Again, the remainder of the roll was shot at a rating of EI 200. Ilford does not recommend using black and white chemicals to process XP2, but, like any film, it's based on a silver negative: as with a colour negative film, the developed silver is then bleached and replaced by dyes; unlike a colour negative, of course, there's only one layer. Therefore, there's no reason that it cannot be developed as a black and white negative, but it is not intended for this and so it may not necessarily give the best results - which was something I wanted to test (and unless otherwise stated all the images on this post were from C41 processed negatives). I have previously used stand development with Rodinal with XP2, a good all-round method for developing almost any film, but there are listings on the Massive Dev Chart for a standard small tank development routine with intermittent agitation. The listing for Rodinal is given as 18 minutes at 20ºC at a dilution of 1+25.

Ilford XP2 Super latitude test contact sheet (developed in RO9)
In the event, for the test roll in black and white chemicals, I developed the film for two minutes longer at a degree cooler in temperature. With the two latitude tests, I printed contact sheets on variable contrast paper without a contrast filter, with the result that these would be the equivalent of using grade 2 paper. The difference between the use of black and white chemicals and C41 processing was immediately clear: with black and white chemicals the film's contrast is notably greater, and its latitude appears less. In both tests, the frames rated 1600, two stops underexposed, shadow detail appears to dramatically drop off, but this was even more marked with the film developed in RO9. One final note on the differences, interestingly, is that there appears to be less base fog with black and white chemicals, which may increase the overall contrast. Further, I did not try push-processing in black and white chemicals (as with C41 development) due in part to the already long development times.

Ilford XP2 Super, rated EI 50, developed with RO9
Scanning the negatives developed in RO9, one issue I had was that the density in the highlight areas resulted in noise, which, while distinct from the grain itself, made it difficult to assess the appearance of grain when developed in traditional black and white chemicals. It was immediately obvious that the particular characteristics of XP2 Super are as a direct result of being developed by the C41 process: in black and white chemicals the results are fairly unremarkable. However, some of the images that were rated at EI 200 rather than box speed still had a relatively smooth, fine-grained appearance, and possibly, if not developing XP2 Super as colour negative, this procedure might give the best results.

Ilford XP2 Super, rated EI 200, developed with RO9
Other black and white developers will also work with XP2 Super: the Massive Dev Chart has a limited list. One developer that I use frequently not on the list is Ilfotec LC29; I've only used this for one roll of Ilford XP2 (not Super, it had a 'develop before' date of Nov 1996) and made a calculated guess of a dilution of 1+29 with a time of 14 minutes at 18ºC. This worked well enough but I would want to make more tests with Ilfotec LC29 before recommending it with these times and dilutions.

Voigtländer Avus with Ilford XP2 (6x9 medium format) developed in Ilfotec LC29
In terms of XP2 Super's specific characteristics with C41 processing, its latitude can sometimes produce images which appear 'flat' with a fairly straight print or scan, that is without increasing the contrast - or other manipulation such as dodging and burning. The contact sheet of the C41-processed  latitude test film above shows this, especially when compared to the black and white processed film. This latitude is a benefit when shooting scenes with a wide range subject brightness range: it's especially good for maintaining detail in skies for example. The image below has fairly good modelling in the clouds, which, although obscuring the sun, were brightly lit against the overcast landscape of burnt grass, and, with a small amount of digital burning in (only useful if the detail is there to begin with), has the sort of effect one might perhaps achieve with a light yellow filter. In low-light scenes like night time urban settings, which often have isolated highlights and deep shadow areas, XP2 Super does seem to be quite good at managing these wide variations in illumination (it does suffer reciprocity law failure, but the night shots on this post were taken handheld, without long exposures; also, I haven't made accurate comparisons between C41 and RO9 processing for such subjects).

Voigtländer Bessa RF (6x9 medium format) with Ilford XP2 Super
Zenit 11 with Ilford XP2 Super
When Kodak announced that BW400CN was to be discontinued in 2014, Ilford took the opportunity to produce a comparison sheet. One of the obvious advantages of Ilford's chromogenic film over Kodak's always was that it was available in medium format as well as 35mm (it is also now available in single use cameras; XP2 was once available in sheet film but this was one format I have neither seen or used). The other notable points of comparison are XP2 Super's wide exposure range: the sheet gives BW400CN as "400 – Not specified in technical data". In addition, BW400CN was coated onto a standard colour negative orange base, which one might imagine to be less than ideal for printing on black and white variable contrast paper, as well as for scanning. Ilford's film has a pink base, which varies in intensity depending on wash times - some of my negatives look almost clear or at least a light grey without much discernible colour, while others are quite pink. Ilford XP2 Super has a fairly distinct place in the film market now, a niche which it shares with Fuji Neopan 400CN (which, although not confirmed by Ilford, is, according to some, the same emulsion). One would hope that its distinct characteristics should mean that XP2 Super has a place in Ilford's range of films for the foreseeable future.

Belomo Agat 18K with Ilford XP2 Super
Praktica nova I with Ilford XP2 Super developed in RO9 One Shot
Lomo LCA with Ilford XP2 Super
Zenit 11 with Ilford XP2 Super
Kiev-4 with Ilford XP2 Super
Kiev-4 with Ilford XP2 Super developed in Fomadon RO9
Canon A-1 with Ilford XP2 Super (scan from lab print)
Canon A-1 with Ilford XP2 Super
Canon A-1 with Ilford XP2 Super developed in Fomadon RO9
Wallace Heaton Zodel camera (rollfilm back with 6x4.5 mask), Ilford XP2 Super
Voigtländer Bessa RF (6x9 medium format) with Ilford XP2 Super
Ilford XP2 Super - part two

Sources/further reading
Ilford XP2 Super data sheet
XP2 Super/BW400CN comparison sheet
In Praise of XP2 Super - Richard Pickup
Ilford XP2 - an under-appreciated film - The Web Darkroom
How to shoot Ilford XP2 Super - The Online Photographer
Ilford XP2 Super in Black & White Chemistry - Christopher Moss