Paris, 25th of February 2017 (in Bergger Pancro400)

Paris, 25th of February 2017 (in Bergger Pancro400)

Yesterday, the weak winter sun came out for a few hours and I went for a walk around town. Always the same places, but always something different to see. I was curious also to try a new film that I had just received, Bergger’s “Pancro400”. Like a lot of people I have been following closely the slow re-awakening of analogue photography and the film industry. In the last few months, several new films have been announced, and I am anxious to support any such initiative to bring new emulsions to the market.

Before Bergger, there was “Guilleminot” a French photographic company which was founded in… 1858. When they closed operations in 1995, the technical director of operations, Guy Gérard, decided to start Bergger. I guess this is like the Ferrania story, but twenty years before! Bergger have created a solid reputation for themselves as producers of high quality photographic papers and chemistry. Recently, the photographer-owner of a photographic supply firm and development laboratory, Aurélien le Duc, bought a controlling stock in Bergger. Realising that fewer and fewer people were printing in the darkroom, and more and more people were scanning, he decided that it would be interesting to provide some new emulsions (I am taking this information from a few articles in French I found and this nice interview with A. Le Duc).

Bergger don’t have their own production facilities, they are renting time on a German coating factory, which obviously makes sense given the small volumes involved. I think it is the famous Orwo Filmotech company (isn’t it Orwo film that Josef Koudelka shot on all those years ago?). However, Pancro400 is a new formula, unlike Bellamy Hunt’s “Street Pan” and Ferrania’s “P30”.

Well, I have only shot one roll. Nevertheless, I am posting my thoughts here as I think a few people might be interested. Physically, the film is reassuringly solid and thick, and I had no trouble loading it. I developed in good old HC110 using the times on the Bergger website. As is claimed, it does have nice tones and nice shadows. Yes, there is a certain ambience in the photographs for sure, probably accentuated by the fact that I am using one of my older Leica lenses which has less contrast. I would have to develop my other four rolls to really decide how this film is compared to Tri-X or HP5+, but this first roll seems very promising indeed. It does seem less contrasty that Tri-X in HC110. Here are a few photographs:

In parc Montsouris (where else)

Now on the quais and near Notre-Dame. Since the berges rive droite have been closed to traffic a few months ago, it always feels either post-apocalyptic or eternal summer, depending on your point of view.

That’s all! As a rule, there is only one or zero good photographs per roll, and I have put three here, so that is asking for trouble. Thanks to Bergger and friends for providing us with another choice for film…

Thinking about photography, once more: my article on EMULSIVE

Thinking about photography, once more: my article on EMULSIVE

Over Christmas I had some time to walk around Paris, which I never tire of doing, and to think once again about photography and film photography. In 2016 I had decided to try the project of shooting (at least) one roll of film each week and posting the best photographs from each roll on the 52 rolls web site. I quite enjoyed this, and I got to thinking, as I did when I started film photography in 2015, what the origin of this attraction for film photography really was. As a scientist, of course, I want to understand! I tried writing about this on Leicaphilia a year ago, but I learned a lot about photography in 2016.

So I started to read more books with the idea of eventually perhaps writing an article for EMULSIVE, because after all that was where I found out about 52 rolls. Early on, I came across on a quote from John Szarkowski, writing in the 1960s, which I thought was great:

“Photography had become easy. In 1893 an English writer complained that the new situation had “created an army of photographers who run rampant over the globe, photographing objects of all sorts, sizes and shapes, under almost every condition, without ever pausing to ask themselves, is this or that artistic? …They spy a view, it seems to please, the camera is focused, the shot taken! There is no pause, why should there be? For art may err but nature cannot miss, says the poet, and they listen to the dictum. To them, composition, light, shade, form and texture are so many catch phrases…” (John Szarkowski, from “the Photographer’s Eye”).

Szarkowski’s introduction is one of the most interesting things I have read about photography. He was concerned with creating a new language to describe photography which was not based on the pictorial traditions of the past. Photography is not painting after all. This book was the exhibition catalogue for a show he organised at MOMA, where he was the director of the photography department. Many of the excellent photographs in that book are from unknown photographers. On one side, his quote just demonstrates to me that at each period in time people have had the same complaints as today. Mobile phones are destroying photography!

Moreover, there is no special reason that film photographers should not not suffer from the same equipment-malaise afflicting some digital photographers today. The image below is from a 1952 newspaper I saw in a recent show, where Cartier-Bresson reluctantly explains his philosophy in taking pictures (if you can read the captions they are particularly amusing to us today, especially about how to take pictures at night with very slow film, I think of all those people who complain that their highly sensitive digital cameras are not sensitive enough):

“Du bon usage d’un appareil (Using a camera correctly)”

Of course, he studiously refuses to talk about lenses and emulsions!

But is — this is the question — is there really, really a qualitative difference between digital and film? I would need to look at more recent books. After a visit to a show at the excellent “Musée European de la Photographie” I went downstairs to their well-stocked library, and asked them for a few books about photography and digital imagery. A very helpful librarian gave me a pile of books to read. I even left the library at mid-day, went out in the freezing cold streets on the last day of 2016, ate a sandwich, and came back again. It was kind of fun, it was like studying again as a student. I came across some interesting ideas, some of which I discuss in my article, What I learned shooting film for a year for 52 rolls.

So here’s the thing: in the end is seems the key difference between film and digital is the mutability of the digital image and how the content of that image is largely defined by software. You could say that the same is true for film, just substitute “chemicals” for “software”. But there is no guarantee that the digital image is real as it is detached from reality: the link to the underlying physical support is most definitely broken. Moreover, there is no reason either that digital imaging should resemble “photography” as idea of capturing only a single image a time is completely arbitrary. It is worth remembering the world’s most popular camera, the iPhone, is largely because it has the best software and not because it has necessarily the best lenses or detectors.

No doubt about physical reality here…

Then, of course, there are all the considerations of what the images actually look like, and how the processes of producing images and photographs are different in both cases. It seems to me now that those are secondary concerns, although they certainly influence how the image is created. Leica have now expended a lot of effort in producing a new digital rangefinder which has exactly the same dimensions as the film cameras which made them famous, but it seems to be missing the point. You can feel that there are earnest people at Leica HQ who understand film, and who sense that something has been lost. This is after all the company that brought us digital cameras which only take pictures in black and white or which have no displays to review images. And today although they have now perfectly replicated the action of taking a photograph with a film camera … it is still a digital camera, even if it is a bit smaller, or has no screen, or only takes pictures in monochrome. Amusingly, an internet search for one of the photographers promoting their new camera (Matt Stuart) reveals that he shoots 2-3 rolls of colour film for his personal photography each day, despite also having a previous-generation Leica digital rangefinder.

My artist friend Danny says that in his field the debate between digital and analogue ended years ago. It’s hard not argue with the statement that the most important thing is the content and composition of the image itself and not the support it was produced on. It is all too easy to lapse into a technical discussion, because after all we live in technological times. Despite this, the conclusion is that I will continue to shoot film. I would love to just make contact prints for a year and not scan anything at all, but that would mean a lot more time in the observatory dark room…

An expanded version of this article has been published on Leicaphilia.com.

Visiting Montjustin

Visiting Montjustin


Montjustin in winter

Each year in January, as part of my teaching duties at IAP, I travel with the students to the Observatoire de Haut-Provence (OHP). That is perhaps for another post. In 2016, I discovered that a certain famous photographer is buried in Montjustin, which is just a few minutes drive from OHP, so on this years’ trip I decided to make a visit.

Monjustin

Montjustin is a tiny hilltop village just off the main road between Forcalquier and Apt. Driving up the road I missed the turn-off, and had to double-back. You drive up a tiny narrow road, where there just enough space for one car. There are a few ancient houses crowded on the top of the hill. When I was there, the village was in the clutches of winter, the water was frozen in the wells and the trees were bare of leaves. I looked for the cemetery, but I could not find it, and finished giving up and going into the cafe in the town hall on the top of the hill. I said to the friendly person I found there, “So, I am going to ask the question that everyone who visits here asks”, and she replied “go ahead and ask it”!. So I did. The cemetery was just on the bottom of the hill, surrounded by tall cypresses. A beautiful location. Inside, a few plain stone graves. For one of them, I felt that I could only pictures using my 50mm lens, photographers will understand.

 

I returned later in the week, in sunshine, with a colleague, and we had a coffee on in the converted town-hall. There was some wonderful winter sunshine, too. Certainly I will return next year…

A few thoughts on “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind ” (Yuval Harari)

A few thoughts on “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind ” (Yuval Harari)

I recently discovered Yuval Harari’s book, “Sapiens”, which was first published in 2014. It is an ambitious book, attempting as it does to summarise the whole history of the human race in a few hundred pages. It’s obvious in this kind of enterprise there are going to be some oversimplifications and sweeping generalisations, and that’s certainly what happens. I also thought, starting the book, that his aim was simply to describe the history of the human animal, but his ambitions are much larger than that. His book is also a history of human society and civilisation. Harari has stated that he is strongly inspired by Jared Diamond, and Diamond’s influence is visible at least to the extent that both authors agree that no question, no matter how large, is not amenable to rational enquiry.

Harari attempts to explain how Homo Sapiens has become so successful and now completely dominates planet Earth. He mentions the “Dunbar number” which is the number of people a person can know and trust: it is around a hundred. Beyond that, there has to be some other way in which people can bind together into groups. Trust is a fundamental part of our societies (a point also made in Bruce Schnieder’s books). For Harari, this trust comes from a series of shared beliefs. His point is that they are just that, beliefs, with for the most part no basis in reality. For him, almost all of the constructs at the foundations of our society are shared beliefs. For Harari, liberal humanism is just as much as a religion as, say Christianity. He goes further. What drives us as a species? One answer is that we are driven by the shared belief systems of our society or simply the pursuit of happiness. Our consensual illusion. He suggests that a future study of history should examine in detail how happy people were in past times, but at the same time reminds that this is of course, a completely arbitrary and subjective measurement. He leans heavily on Buddhist philosophy as way out of this dead-end, in particular the notion that, well, you must become aware of your feelings in order to surpass them. Well.

Rationally, it is hard to disagree with this. However, the discussion does show the hole you can dig yourself into if you decide that Humans are intrinsically not very different from other species on the planet (apart from a few important cognitive innovations which Hariri explains very well) or that the search for knowledge or belief in “progress” are also partially delusional. It seems to me that this line of thinking has led to one of the predominant problems of our time: a lack of belief in human agency and the idea that there is nothing much worth saving in our culture. Until we can change that, I don’t see how we can decide where we, as a species, want to go.