Thursday, 28 February 2013

Take Your Box Camera To Work Day 2013

Today, 28th February, was this year's 'Take Your Box Camera To Work Day'. Like last year, I took my Lumière Scout Box with some Fomapan 400 and Rollei RPX 400 film. I shot two rolls of RPX 400, and a roll of Fomapan 400. One consideration about taking such cameras to work is the fact the most people work inside, and box cameras were designed for taking photographs outside, in daylight. Like many box cameras, the Lumière Scout Box has no controls to change apertures or shutter speeds; however, the shutter can be set to 'Instant' or 'Pneumatique' (bulb). To take photographs inside my place of work, I relied on either finding sufficient natural light (first image below), or finding somewhere to balance or rest the camera for long exposures (second image below, about 2 seconds). I did also take a few shots outside moving between the two sites where I work, and as my place of work includes the darkroom where I processed the film, I took the last shots there, just prior to developing.

Lumiere Scout Box with RPX 400
Lumiere Scout Box with RPX 400
Lumiere Scout Box with Fomapan 400

See the whole set of photographs on Flickr.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Two Years On

It's been two years since I started this blog, partly through a desire to document my renewed interest in film photography, partly to act as a place to collate research into slightly obscure or obsolete technologies and techniques, and as a space to share my results. However, the deciding factor in starting the blog was actually buying my first digital camera in February 2011. This facilitated all the shots of cameras and equipment I'd been doing for Camera-Wiki (and before that, Camerapedia) but, other than for a few specific purposes, I still prefer to shoot film. I haven't posted as much as I'd have liked, as real life frequently gets in the way: to me, photography sits somewhere between a hobby and a sketchbook for what feels like my 'real' work, which is painting.

Two years into this blog it seemed like a good moment to take stock of the state of the raw material: film. In terms of production, the biggest shock has been the demise of Fotokemika and its Efke brand of films (and Emaks paper), and what this has meant for the 127 format. This has also affected Adox, as Fotokemika's factory used to handle much of Adox's production (although some Adox films are made in-house and are still available). Despite Kodak's well publicised problems, the company looks like it'll keep going for some time yet if it concentrates on its film business. Personally, I've never been keen on Kodak films, the only one I've used recently is the long discontinued Tech Pan - a film I would buy if they still made it. I also rarely shoot colour, but Kodak, along with Fuji, are the only real contenders in the colour film market. As well as colour, including their instant film, Fuji are still producing their Acros and Neopan black and white films.

The problems at Kodak have some echoes of what happened to Ilford; however since the management buyout in 2005, as well as continuing their existing film product lines, Ilford/Harman have been in a strong enough position to develop and market new products, notably the Harman Direct Positive Paper and their first camera in decades: the Titan pinhole camera. Harman also released budget 100 and 400 ISO films under the Kentmere name which they had acquired - and have a hand in the ongoing Impossible Project.

For the frugal photographer, as well as the Kentmere films mentioned, Foma reintroduced their 200 speed film to complement their Fomapan 100 and 400 ISO films. I have found Foma's quality control to be erratic at times, and I don't think that the latitude claimed for their 400 speed film stands up to scrutiny, but it does have a nice tonality and grittiness when exposed properly, and it's cheap.

As well as provding a number of competitively priced films, the prize for broadest product range must surely go to Maco: under the Rollei/Agfa brands Maco appear to be continually expanding a bewildering array of films. Maco is not a manufacturer of films however: the company repackages and distributes films and emulsions from other manufacturers. For example, their Rollei Retro 100 was the original Agfa APX 100, several million feet of which Maco bought up after AgfaPhoto ceased trading, while other products are made from aerial/surveillance films manufactured by Agfa-Gevaert (a separate company from AgfaPhoto since 2004). There's also a lot of online debate as to whether the RPX 100 & 400 films are the same emulsion as Kentmere 100 and 400, although I haven't been able to find a definitive answer other than that they are coated on the Harman production line, but the RPX films are available in medium format, unlike the Kentmere.

One of the factors that may be helping film production is Lomography. I have my issues with it on a number of levels: for example, at time of writing their online shop is offering expired XP2 for £7.96; new XP2 is £6.52 from Harmanexpress, and just £4.80 from Total Blank Media (incidentally, this last website is the cheapest place to buy Ilford films I've found); but if a by-product of the Lomo phenomenon - which essentially has created a market for selling over-priced and substandard products (I have nothing against using cheap plastic cameras, but these should at least be priced to reflect their cheap, plastic qualities) because of some perceived retro lifestyle 'coolness' to using film - adds to demand, then everyone benefits.

In some respects the catastrophe has already happened: the consumer market for photography is essentially digital. Using film is now a concern for amateurs, in the original sense of the word. Inevitably, more products will be discontinued, always frustrating when a particular film or format one loves goes, but in the main, while there is sufficient demand for film itself, one can confidently hope there will be a supply to meet it.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Edward Steichen, Self-Portrait, 1915

In 2007 I saw the exhibition Edward Steichen: Lives In Photography at the Jeu de Paume in Paris. I've recently been looking at the exhibition catalogue again. The exhibition was an overview of Steichen's life's work, from his earliest photographs from the 1890s to the celebrated exhibition designs of the 1950s and 60s. The Self-Portrait of 19151 comes at the end of Steichen's Pictorialist phase, in a transitional period which continued through to the 1920s, where Steichen began relearning his art. It's also from a period of exile, when, due to the war, Steichen was forced to abandon his house in France (where he had begun to devote a large part of his time to plant breeding) and return to America.

What do we see in the photograph? Steichen, confident in a dark suit with a bow tie and white shirt, apparently engages the viewer with his direct gaze. I describe this engagement with the viewer as apparent, for reasons I'll return to. Alongside the figure of Steichen, and level with his gaze is a large plate camera, the tripod of which can be seen in the shadows below. Of the mechanics of the camera, the lens is the most prominent: the wooden framework can be discerned, indeed there is a small plaque with some writing on, presumably with details of the camera's manufacturer or dealer. There is what looks to be a diaphragm aperture apparently in front of the lens (it may conceivably be an elaborate lens hood), that this is not between the lens elements as part of a leaf shutter arrangement suggests this is what's known as a barrel lens. If this is a barrel lens, then in all probability there is a Packard shutter, a focal plane type, between the lens and the plate. The shutter release curls down below the camera and leads the eye to Steichen's obscured right hand resting on his hip. It's probably a pneumatic bulb release for the date of the photograph. There's a small amount of blur due to movement at the end of the cable as the bulb was squeezed. Steichen's right hand, held folded against his body with the arm's elbow resting on a prop that can be dimly seen (this is echoed by a shape above Steichen's right shoulder that may be the edge of an easel). This hand is apparently relaxed, but, between the forefinger we cannot see and the thumb, this is may be holding a lens cap in the shadows. The top left hand corner of the image is cut off with a light-toned out of focus arc. The reflection on the surface of the lens appears to confirm that this is the edge of a circular or at least arched mirror, the surface to which the camera lens was pointing. The upside-down reflection in the lens shows the top of the mirror silhouetted against a window, providing the strong, frontal yet diffuse lighting for the self-portrait.

Returning to Edward Steichen's gaze, what the camera recorded and the photograph's effect are two separate things. The gaze is not at us, the viewer, of course, nor is Steichen looking at his own reflection - because this would not produce the effect of his image looking directly at us from the photograph. At the moment when he squeezed the bulb to release the shutter, Steichen must have been looking into the camera's lens. The glass plate that the image was recorded on cannot be seen in the photograph, although we know it must be there: in the shadow of the mirror's reflection on the lens, the darkness we see is an open aperture that leads directly to the photographic emulsion on the glass plate at the very moment that the latent image is being formed. In some sense, all photographs are an indexical link to their moment of creation by their very nature (this may still be true, but muddied, in the digital age), but the tradition of photographers' self-portraits in mirrors which include the camera that is taking the picture turn this into an open dialogue: by necessity, the camera's lens faces the subject, and the shutter must be open, the dark chamber of the camera being filled with light to record the image on the plate, film or sensor.2
Thinking about the Self-Portrait of 1915, the idea that, theoretically at least, the mirror allows one to see the surface of the photograph as it is being formed, for me, has an aspect of the uncanny. Many years ago, for my BA dissertation, I wrote an oblique investigation into why I found photography fascinating. I began my research by looking at photographers and photographs that embodied something of the Freudian Uncanny, but very quickly the essay abandoned any reference to particular works and became purely concerned with theory. I joined the dots from Sigmund Freud to Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida, and my conclusion was that the uncanny was located in the photograph's relation to death, that the photograph was a symbolic but disguised (and therefore uncanny) memento mori.3
Although overstated for purposes of making my argument, this still holds. We can see Edward Steichen looking (present tense) into the lens of the camera at the moment light is causing a reaction on the surface of the photographic emulsion; at the time of writing Edward Steichen died (past tense) forty years ago. That we understand these two tenses coexisting is uncomfortable. Steichen, to a degree, understood this too, in as much as the construction of the photograph needs a future viewer for his speculative gaze to engage with. However, it is the thought that through the blank eye of the camera we know that, potentially, it is possible to see the fundamental moment of creation as it is occurring that is to me uncanny here.

1. The best reproduction online of the Self-Portrait of 1915 is here:
2. Jeff Wall's Picture For Women (1979) is perhaps the best example of this; David Campany wrote a whole book on the photograph.
3. "For Death must be somewhere in a society; if it is no longer (or less intently) in religion, it must be elsewhere; perhaps in this image which produces Death while trying to preserve life." Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida.

Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Jonathon Cape, London,1982
Todd Brandow and William A Ewing, Edward Steichen: Lives In Photography, FEP Editions, Minneapolis, 2007
Sigmund Freud, The 'Uncanny', Penguin, London, 1985
Alfred Stieglitz, Camera Work The Complete Photographs 1903-1917, Taschen, Koln, 2008

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Ica Icarette L

Ica Icarette L
Ica was a relatively short-lived Dresden-based camera manufacturer, formed in 1909 by the merger of four companies: Hüttig AG; Kamerawerk Dr. Krügener; Wünsche AG; and Carl Zeiss Palmos AG. Its name is derived from Internationale Camera A.-G. and it's often written ICA, however as written on the cameras themselves, in advertisements and other documentation, the company's name appears as Ica. Ica was one of the 'name-giving' partners when it merged with Ernemann, Goerz and Contessa-Nettel to create Zeiss-Ikon in 1926.

Ica continued many camera models from its constituent companies, but the Icarette line of elegant folding cameras was an entirely new range, using a number of different rollfilm formats, from 127 to 116. The Ica Icarette L model takes 6x9cm size images on 120 film, but it's a dual format camera (as are some of the other Icarette models), meaning that it also takes plates. The camera back has a section with the orange window and a separate pressure plate that can be removed and replaced with a ground glass screen and plateholders for 6.5x9cm (or 2 1/2x3 1/2 inch) glass plates (my first post on glass plates discusses the differences between metric and imperial sizes). When loading rollfilm, the camera back removes entirely, and the spool holders on each side are hinged to swing out for ease of loading. The focus scale has to be adjusted to either 'P' for plates or 'F' for film as the focal plane changes depending on which format used. This has a notch for infinity, which the lensboard pulls out to, the Icarette being non-self-erecting, as self-erecting designs for folding cameras only became common in the 1930s. There's also a handwritten focus scale on the other side of the bed for the Distar lens attachment.

Ground-glass back removed, and plateholder inserted.
The first Icarettes were produced in 1919, with the L model appearing c.1925. My camera is from early in the Icarette L's production. The serial number on its lens dates it to 1924; interestingly the shutter's serial number appears to be from before 1920. As was common with many folding cameras, the Icarette was offered with a range of lenses depending on price. My example has the top-of-the-range Carl Zeiss Jena f4.5 105mm Tessar lens.

Icarette L lens detail
The above detail shows the Tessar lens in a dial-set Compur shutter; the shutter settings of T for 'Time', B for 'Bulb' and 'I' for 'Instant' suggest the camera was produced for export; I have a contemporaneous Voigtländer Avus with a Compur shutter with 'Z' 'D' 'M' marked on it, for 'Zeit', 'Moment', and 'Dauer' (duration). Unlike the later rim-set Compur shutters, the exposure mode is selected on the small wheel to the left of the lens in the picture above and the shutter speeds are set independently on the dial at the top.

The camera also features double extension bellows, and a rising front. I have found the double extension bellows can cause a problem when focused from infinity to any moderate distance, as most of the length of the bellows remain in the camera's body unless drawn out manually, otherwise they tend to occlude the edges of the frame widthways, blurring them. For a viewfinder, there's the brilliant finder adjacent to the lens, a wire frame sportsfinder, which has an unusual profile to fit around the shutter and permit access to its controls, and the ground glass screen when using plates.

One of the curious features of my Icarette is it has "The Westminster" impressed into the leather on the back of the ground glass screen hood, the rollfilm back and inscribed between the knobs of the lensboard base. This could be The Westminster Photographic Exchange: much like my Baldalux camera rebadged by Wallace Heaton, presumably the Icarette was sold in the UK by The Westminster Photographic Exchange. There's a camera very like the Icarette L in one of the company's advertisments, 'The Westminster' can be discerned on leather on the camera, although on closer inspection, I believe the camera depicted in the illustrations is actually a Contessa Nettel Cocarette (identifiable by the shape of the wireframe finder, catch on the camera body, and the vertical stand).

Although I also have a Wallace Heaton plate camera in 6.5x9cm size, I've only used the Icarette L to shoot my glass plates in this size. Fortunately, my Icarette still had both the ground glass screen and the rollfilm back and pressure plate, as well as a leather wallet with four Ica plate holders and a case. As well as plates, I've also shot a few rolls of film; the Icarette L is not the most convenient of my medium format folding cameras - but possibly has the best lens. The Tessar lens, nearly ninety years old, performs very well. In the examples below, the photograph of the London 2012 Olympic Village in particular shows the good edge-to-edge sharpness of the lens.

Hackney Downs, Rollei RPX 400 developed in R09 One Shot (Rodinal) 1:25 for 11m15s at 18˚C
London 2012 Olympic Village,  Fomapan 200, developed in Rodinal 1:50; 8mins at 20 degrees C.
Ilford R10 glass plate, stand developed in Rodinal 1:100
Kodak O.250 glass plate, stand developed in Rodinal 1:100
The Icarette L was continued by Zeiss Ikon long after Ica's merger into the new conglomerate. This advert shows that it was produced until at least 1937, while none of the other Icarette models appear: perhaps as a dual format camera, the Icarette L filled a unique niche in Zeiss Ikon's range.

Sources/further reading
Icarette models & Ica pages on Camera-Wiki
Ica chronology (in French)
Ica pages on Early Photography