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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…

"Histoires courtes": photography and electronic detectors

"Histoires courtes": photography and electronic detectors

On Monday documentary filmmakers Jean-Francois Dars and Anne Papillaut published a short “film” that they made about my research and photography here.  Here is a direct link to the film.
It was wonderful working with them. It was a long process: we started in April when we recorded the soundtrack. I had carefully prepared a text. But it didn’t work at all! Faced with the microphone I couldn’t recite any of the words at all. I was completely stuck. So I just started talking about what I wanted to say in french, because it seemed easier to speak to them in French about these things (I speak in French with all of my french friends and colleagues, after all it is more than ten years that I am living here now). And that was the text that they used.

Taking the photographs 

Afterwards, during the summer Jean-Francois came to my office and took a few photographs and after thata we went into the darkroom where I developed a big picture of one of the Euclid CCDs. Jean-Francois suggested that we take some pictures at night, because I had talked about how I preferred taking pictures at night on film, so a few months later we spent a wonderful winter evening together (after a nice meal of course) when we walked around the centre of Paris and took pictures.

See the craters of the moon

Or rather, I took pictures and Jean-Francois took pictures of me taking pictures. I can’t say that I approached this with some small amount of trepidation, because Jean-Francois was a friend of Kertesz, and Kertesz took the first-ever photographs of Paris at night! However, in the end I was quite happy with the photographs I took and a selection of them are on my 52rolls pages. If you look carefully, you can see Jean-Francois taking pictures of me. It was so easy to interact with people and take these pictures, it was the most natural thing in the world. I just applied my Winogrand-inspired technique of smiling a lot, even when I wasn’t sure if anyone was looking at me or not. This really does work.

Losing the photons

The “histoires courtes” are very short, most I think are under three minutes. The text and discussions were edited to focus on the key difference between electronic detectors and photographic plates: the quantum efficiency of silver grains is a lot lower than electronic detectors. In the visible spectrum, the latest CCD cameras from e2v have a quantum efficiency in the visible bands of almost 100%. Only around 4% of photons falling on film get converted into silver grains. This difference of course had some interesting consequences: in the film era, people spent a lot of time and energy trying to increase the quantum efficiency of photographic plates, “sensitising” them by baking them in the oven and so forth. Eventually photoelectric detectors came along, but alas, they were not array detectors and so making images was impossible. The arrival of electronic array detectors was a revolution: a CCD camera suddenly transformed a 2 metre telescope to a 4 metre telescope. Now today with the very high efficiency of electronic detectors in the visible bands, the only way to increase the number of electrons is to increase the size of the primary mirror. In addition to the greatly increased sensitivity of electronic detectors offer much higher angular resolution, and in most cases the electronic detectors fully sample the instruments’ response function, so the amount of detail you can record is limited by the atmospheric conditions and not the detectors. So the advantages of electronic detectors are clear for astronomers. But for photographers?

And on film?

I already wrote about this over on Leicaphilia. To take a good picture on an average day in Paris, you need an detector sensitive to say ISO400, a lens that can do f8 and a shutter speed of 1/125s. Nothing more. Most digital cameras have been able to do this for at least a decade and a half. And if you want to print your masterwork at a reasonable size – 18×24 say – in most cases ~5 megapixels suffices. Nothing more. So, you might wonder, where does that leave the last decade-and-a-half of technological development? Well, not in the service of taking pictures…

"Virage analogique"

"Virage analogique"

Here I am again, after six months. It was interesting to read the post below once again last night. You see, a weird thing happened between here and there. A few days after I wrote this blog post, I went to a shop here in the 14th in Paris and bought a roll of HP5+, a black and white film produced by Ilford camera. I put it in inside an old camera I still had here in a box, and started to take pictures. I was curious to see how it would turn out.

Well, now on the first week of January, I have filled more than 50 rolls of film with images. As well as the Pentax, I tried an Olympus XA rangefinder, and then in June I bought a Leica M6. Mostly because I was frustrated by the lack of control on the Olympus – developing and scanning photographs is a lot of work and it’s frustrating when something doesn’t turn out right and it was the camera’s fault. Anyway, at least with the Leica if it doesn’t work out, it is always your fault, and you can improve and learn how to do it better next time. So it maybe it is a “virage analogique” but for me it is now a straight road, like the one below I took during a recent trip to Spain:

I’m reminded of the blog post I wrote a few years about the Amazon Kindle and paper books, and Victor Hugo’s Ceci tuera cela. Except in this case, it would be a film camera on the left and a digital camera on the right. But I think in this case it is worse, because film photography and digital photography are completely different. In the case of books, one would hope, the words are the same in both cases. But that is a reflection for another time. Anyway, I don’t want this blog to become devoted to photography (sighs of relief from the occasional one or two people still reading). I wrote my up my experience on a lengthy text which will appear on a certain photography-related site sometime soon. I have also committed myself to take at least one roll of film on the M6 with a 50mm lens per week. That experience you can follow over at 52rolls, and my posts will be here: http://52rolls.net/author/hjmcc/ . In the mean-time I will try to write at least one post per month over here. At least.