Friday, April 11, 2014

Wheels Spinning

My recent post about the premature death of my Instax camera (it's actually alive and well) provoked a few interesting responses. The most spectacular anecdote was from Hernan Zenteno, whose camera death made mine look like small potatoes. Not only did Hernan destroy his camera and gear kit, the collateral damage included his car.



Somewhere in that fire was Hernan's Fuji X-Pro along with a few lenses and accessories. Sorry, camera. You do not get to die peacefully in your sleep. It's a fiery explosion for you! Wouldn't it feel nice to do that occasionally? There are times I'd love to dynamite my computer. Or my stupid iPod which never seems to work right. Or my car, which has been having, let's say, issues lately. 

As you can see, the attached lens fared slightly better than the body. It almost looks like a photo-installation piece you'd find in one of those New Photography shows. 


OK, Hernan. You win the dead-camera-story prize. I'm pulling out of the race. 

But while we're on the topic, my 40 mm Summicron lens has died once again. This has been an ongoing issue ever since I bought it used in 2007. The lens dies. I get it fixed. It dies again. And so on. But this time I think it's really dead. The last time I brought it in, my camera guy George threatened to send it to Leica. Screw that. 

Other than being broken the lens is perfect. It's small and quick. The image quality is outstanding. It deserves better. A fiery explosion would be more dignified. But alas, it's going out like a weary old body. Fixed, broken, fixed, broken, dead. 

It's always the same problem. The outside barrel comes loose from the lens body and leans into the aperture ring. I don't mind a tilted lens. I actually think it looks cool. But it rubs against the aperture ring making it very sticky to turn. Right now I can only shoot above f/4. If I try to open wider, the entire barrel spins freely. Not really a problem with summer coming up. I'm usually at f/8 or less. But yeah, actually it's a problem. 


Having a broken lens defeats the point of a Summicron. They're supposed to be tanks, top of the line, indestructible. That's why the 35 mm version is so expensive. The 40 mm has the same elements and the same glass. It's solid and heavy. But the outer barrel is attached with glue, not screws, which is perhaps why the 40 mm Summicron is not so expensive. What was that I was saying about obsolete tools?

Oh well. I've gotten plenty of mileage from this lens. I've beaten it to shit, lost the filter, shredded the hood, broken the focus knob off, ground the writing off and the rim to bare metal, and put a few thousand rolls behind it in the process. I can't complain that it's finally given out. But it still sucks.

So I've been using the Hexar and scouring eBay over the past few weeks seeing what's out there. As you probably know the Leica second-hand market is silly. If it says Leica it's automatically worth three times normal value. That's the typical seller's mindset anyway. So I've been leaning away from the lenses which say Leica and toward the nearly identical lenses which say Minolta. But I haven't found the right one yet. 

Some other things have turned up though. A nice rubber lens hood. A set of Leica lapel pins. A custom-made wooden lens cap for Leica Zeiss Olympus Pentax Nikon. A custom focus tab, which I would dismiss as useless if didn't know from experience that those things can break off. 

But the weirdest thing so far is this box for $30 plus shipping.


1.     GENUINE SUMMICRON-C40mm f2.0 LENS BOX  Catalog #11542.  Mechanically:  Styrofoam inserts included.  Cosmetics:  Excellent, see photo. 

Note that it doesn't actually come with a lens. It contains just air. It's genuine air from, let's see...Vacaville, California, which I think has pretty good air. The listing doesn't mention the dimensions, but I'm guessing they're smallish. I'm not even sure if the box says Leica. But you could put a Leica lens in it. Or some other lens. Or you could store pretty pebbles in there, or perhaps some old cassettes. I bet it even comes shipped in its own box. Two boxes for the price of one!

Every time I shop for something I'm reminded why I hate shopping for something. I just want the new lens and to be done with it. Then I can move on. But first I might stage a big explosion to give the old one a proper send off. On a nice sunny day I can probably use the lens as a magnifying glass to start the fire. I think I could do that at f/4.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Chumps

I'm not too picky about film. I usually buy whatever's cheapest. For the past few years that's been Arista Premium 400, $2.69 per roll from Freestyle. I don't know much about this film except that it behaves like Tri-X (it's rumored to have identical emulsion) and it is consistently the cheapest stuff out there by a wide margin. I go through a fair amount of film so cheap is important. Within reason. I mean, Fomapan and Arista EDU are also cheap but they're lame. So there's a balance. And Arista Premium hits the sweet spot. It's cheap and good. 

Make that was. Because Arista Premium is no longer available. Sure, you can still buy the 24 exposure version but I'm not sure why you'd want to. I've never understood 24-exp film. To me it's like a pint glass filled to the 2/3 mark. What's the point? You've poured most of the glass. You're there by the tap. Why not fill it to the rim? Does anyone out there understand 24-exp film?

That's probably why Freestyle still has plenty of 24-exposure Arista Premium in inventory. But the 36-exposure version, my bread and butter since 2009, has apparently gone out of stock forever. I guess the rumors were true. They made 10,000 rolls of it or something, then stopped. Now the film has moved up to that great eBay second-hand store in the sky.

Most of it anyway. Actually a good chunk of what's left is in Troy Holden's closet. He was smart. He saw the end coming and he even tried to warn me, but it fell on deaf ears. So he shrugged it off and bought 2,000 rolls for himself. Don't bother asking if he'll sell you a few rolls. He plans to use all of it. Here's some of his stash.


Of course there are other films, just as there were other ones before 2009. I've tried just about all of them at one point or another. I lived for a few years on grey-market Tri-X: $2.19 per roll. I'm still not sure what grey-market is, but it was cheap. Anyway that was discontinued. Then came a few years of wandering in the film desert, trying first this film then that one, whatever I could find. Tri-X, TMax, Delta, HP5, Neopan, Kentmere, Fomapan, Agfa. I can't remember them all. As I said I'm not too picky, and it didn't matter much. They were all fairly inexpensive.

In the late 2000s prices began to climb, and they haven't stopped. Yes, demand was falling during that period, which normally would've led to lower prices. But so was supply as companies exited the film business. The price point crept up, and up and up. But amidst the upheaval Arista Premium was like a film oasis, holding steady for years at $2.69. Until now.

The cheapest decent film is now Kentmere, $3.50 per roll. But that's been out of stock for several weeks. Maybe they've stopped making it. Next cheapest, HP5, $4.80 per roll. I've just ordered enough for a few months, but I can't help wondering where does it end? $6 per roll? $10? $20? I know bulk film is an option but I'm lazy, and that stuff is creeping up in price too. All roads lead in one direction. At some future point the price of film will become a factor in shooting decisions. You're going to look through your viewfinder and say to yourself, "that has potential, but is it worth 45 cents to find out?"  I think that when we reach that point, you can kiss 35 mm film photography goodbye. 

We're not there yet but it's coming. Every time a film is discontinued that day is a bit closer. We can move on to some other film and use that until it's depleted or too expensive, but it's just deferring the inevitable. We all know the endgame here —most of us have already reached it— and it's digital.

OK, big whoop. The writing's been on the wall for a while. Color shooters have already made the switch. They've been forced to because color film has become ridiculously expensive, and there are very few darkrooms for printing. Black and white is next in line

No surprise there. In fact this is a fairly minor blip in the context of photo history. Obsolescence is integral to photography. Every photo tool becomes obsolete eventually. It was true in 1839. It's true today. It's just that the pace has quickened of late. It took daguerreotypes 25 years to become obsolete. Now the rate is measured in months. If you are a photographer now, every tool in your photo bag will be obsolete by 2020. Probably sooner. I'm not saying those tools will be useless. But they will be hopelessly outdated and unserviceable in the very near future.

So what's a photographer to do? One option is to keep changing with the times. Stay current with new devices and updates. Option two is grab something that works and hang on.


41 Rue Broca, 1912. Photo: Eugène Atget.
This was Atget's strategy 120 years ago. Well, I'm not sure if was a conscious plan. Probably more the result of him being set in his ways. He was in his mid-30s by the time he became serious about photography, an old dog learning new tricks. It was the tail-end of the glass plate era, so that was the technique he learned. Over the next few decades glass plate photography became obsolete. But Atget knew what worked for him. He shot them until he died in 1927, long past the time when everyone else had switched to film. Sometimes when I worry about the world passing me by I think of Atget. Poor chump stuck with his old-timey methods. All of the other photographers were running laps around him. Surely he knew he was a dinosaur. Did it bother him?

A few weeks ago in San Francisco I stumbled on John Chiara's photos. Chiara drives a large camera-van to various parts of the city, using as a mobile camera obscura. He records images on large sheets of Cibachrome. Talk about a dinosaur. No one makes Cibachrome anymore, but Chiara planned ahead. He bought a large supply while it was still being produced, possibly enough for the rest of his life. So he's committed to option two.


167 Somerset at Felton, 2013, John Chiara

Last week I met a couple in the darkroom developing photograms. They'd exposed them underwater at night in the Columbia. That would be complicated enough, but what really set them apart was the size of the prints. Each one used an entire roll of silver gelatin fiber paper, maybe 5 feet by 7 feet. Actually 7 feet is just a guess. The prints were rolled up and I never saw them opened up. But they were huge. The couple had it down to a science. They'd built special holding tanks and darkboxes and drying racks. Watching them work all I could think was, I sure hope you bought good supply of that paper. Because I don't know how long Ilford is going to keep making it. 

My friend Bobby Abrahamson has been working on borrowed time for a while. For the past few years he's been making portraits using Polaroid Type 55 film. That film has been out of production long enough for eBay prices to climb through the roof. So he mostly uses donated stock. I think he has enough for now. But how much longer?

These folks are out there. Poor chumps. But happy chumps. More importantly they are chumps making good work what will probably be around a while. The alt-process revival has been well documented in other places. It seems natural to conclude that it's a reaction to technology. As the pace of innovation increases and it becomes harder to keep up, older techniques look more inviting. They may be outdated but at least they're static. They're not moving targets. 

Or maybe they are? I think part of the alt-process attraction may be rooted in the end game. It's exciting to work with a finite supply. The hammer might come down at any time. You might look for more and find that it's out of stock forever. So you'd better make it count.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Ill Conceived Selfies

James Nachtwey
Edward Burtynsky


Robert Capa

Uta Barth

Susan Meiselas
Sabastiao Salgado

Hiroshi Sugimoto

Jeff Mermelstein

Mary Ellen Mark

Jeff Wall