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Observatoire de Haute-Provence: January 2017

Observatoire de Haute-Provence: January 2017

The Observatoire de Haute-Provence (OHP, as we call it to save words) is remote. To get there, you take the TGV to Aix-en-Provence, and then rent a car and drive north for around an hour. The nearest town is Manosque and the observatory is in the mountains. Each year I go there with two other astronomers to teach observational astronomy to a group of Masters-level students. The course is organised by Herve Dole who meticulously sorts everything out, helped out a lot of course by people at OHP and the Universities. We usually have two or three nights on the 120cm and 80cm telescopes, and usually it is clear for around two or two of those nights. There is a lot of work involved: for each group of students, there is a full scientific project, starting from planning the observations and finishing with a report and presentation. This year was particularly interesting: we successfully managed to observe an a transiting exoplanet, a planet which passes in front of its star and causes its light to dim.

The story of OHP is a long one. Observations started here at around the same time the IAP (Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris) was created a story which you can read about here. At the start, the OHP was, more or less, the “observing station” of the IAP, a place where the latest instruments could be tested out and where the still-new field of astrophysics could get the data it needed. I won’t go into the whole history of OHP here, but a succession of larger telescopes were built there, culminating with the mighty 193cm telescope in 1958. It was with this telescope that astronomers made the discovery of the first planet outside our solar system, 51 Peg, in 1995. The funny story here is that around the time I was studying for my Masters’ degree in Victoria, astronomers there were using an almost identical telescope at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory for the same scientific project (with different instruments). Alas, their control of systematic errors was not quite good enough; they missed out.

Calling 1985

The situation at OHP has evolved. The number of astronomers using the site has greatly decreased in the last few decades with the arrival of other astronomical observatories situated in locations like Hawaii and Chile. Investments in the site have declined, reflecting a policy of concentrating resources in larger telescopes further away. But there is a lot to be said for smaller telescopes with modern instrumentation nearby, as I saw when I visited the JPASS observatory in Spain in 2015. There they have constructed a new small modern telescope on a site like OHP but with modern state-of-the-art detectors. Despite spending a lot of my time working on larger projects, I think there is a lot to be said for keeping sites like OHP open providing a compelling niche can be found.

Today, there are only a few people around after the sun sets. Although there are many telescopes, only one or two are regularly used. Some have been converted to remote, robotic operation. In the past, a chef cooked legendary evening meals each night, but today we re-heat meals made earlier in the day in the microwave (which never get things quite hot enough.) Still, the observatory has decided that educating students in the techniques of observational astronomy is a priority, and each year many nights of telescope time are dedicated to student projects. There is accommodation on-site which is very comfortable. The course that I teach in is part of the Master 2 program for astronomy in the Paris region, and we have tried very hard to keep an empirical, practical approach to our course. You wouldn’t expect it, but fewer and fewer astronomers actually travel to telescopes these days, and I personally appreciate seeing in person the telescope and dectectors even if they are not at the forefront of technology.

This year is my second trip to OHP with film cameras. I wanted to capture something of the feeling of being there in the middle of winter. Each morning one could see wonderful things like this:

Here are a a few photographs I took around the observatory during the day.

And as night falls, time to observe, or eat, depending if your observations are finished or not.

As each year, we stayed a week, arriving on Saturday afternoon and leaving early on the following Saturday. It was kind of nice to be slightly abstracted of the concerns of everyday life. When I wasn’t working, I worked on my article for Emulsive. I learned things. I learned that there is such a thing as the “Qatari Exoplanet survey” and our students successfully confirmed one of their transiting exoplanets (and I actually did a fair amount of work aligning their hundreds of images for them). We ate galette, which is a long tradition in France and in Provence it’s even better. And I took a lot of photographs of trees and domes. And group photographs. The best ones are always the unplanned ones. Like this one, taken at sunset. Almost everyone is there, except Herve, but here it is anyway:

At sunset. Michel, Karim plus students. Herve is missing.

I am already looking forward to returning in 2018!

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…