Sunday, January 15, 2017

Long Ago, When Film Was King

Photo #1

Photo Metro, Volume 17, Issue 152, page 46
I found a magazine called Photo Metro in a second-hand store in San Rafael, a town north of San Francisco. The cover indicated that it was Volume 17, Issue 152, and after some careful searching, found that the copyright year was 1998, in a month unknown. The magazine was devoted to the nuances of fine art film photography, and judging from the advertisements on the scanned page, film was still a major presence. The publisher was located at 17 Tehama Street in San Francisco, which Google Street View shows as the garage entrance to a multi-story office building at the edge of "media gulch", an area known for lithographic services, commercial photographers, and I suspect, some film production facilities. Now, I'm sure most of the offices support a variety of dot-comers, most of which probably have nothing to do with imaging.

The page also mentioned the Focus Gallery on Union Street, THE mecca for aspiring photographers, where the "best of the best" had their gallery showings. I was a frequent visitor to the Focus, not so much to stay current with the latest trends but to examine the work of some of the finest craftsmen and women in the world of wet-processed photography. After an afternoon surrounded by exquisite darkroom work, I would go home and try my best to reproduce, in my makeshift darkroom, the richness of the images I had just seen.

After waxing nostalgic for a few days, I remembered that a number of my mounted black and white photos were in my office, as I intended to scan and post them to my blog. After reviewing these photos, I realized that my current efforts were a "reboot" of the work I had done in the last century, which wasn't that long ago. Nearly all of the images were dictated by some class I was taking, but when I was off duty, I chose the persona of the "concerned young photographer" making images to right social injustice, and did indulge in street photography from time to time.

The Chinese Times, San Francisco Circa 1972. "Circa" makes my efforts sound so lofty, but in reality I don't remember exactly when I made these photos. It was for a public speaking class, and I had decided to produce a photo essay on communication.  These photos were mounted, printed, and re-photographed on transparency film to create an analog slide show, which I would narrate.

Photo #2
Photo #3
 Photo #4 
These four photographs were meant to show traditional typesetting with the added complication of inserting the mirror-imaged lead Chinese characters, right-side-up and in reverse order, in a composing stick, which is a small adjustable tray for holding enough characters for a short article. In Photo #3, you an see the typesetter holding a composing stick while he positions the appropriate character. In Photo #2, you can see two typesetters standing besides the trays, or cases, of the cast lead characters.

One thing that I miss in my digital work  is the deep,  rich blacks found in my wet-processed prints. At the time, my use of black and white film  was from economic necessity, plus the fact the nearly all of my photographic heroes were photojournalists, and were nearly forced to use black and white  because color films weren't sensitive enough for indoor and low-light work. Reliable automatic flash hadn't been introduced, and without a way to preview one's test shots, establishing proper exposure was a crap shoot, at best. For critical color work, one might be able to use a special Polaroid camera to provide an accurate preview of the results of your best-guess exposure, but that wasn't particularly practical on a limited budget. The built-in meter on my Pentax would just have to do.

In reviewing these early efforts, I realized that my exclusive use of digitally-rendered color imaging forced me to "over-light" my images. Highlight and mid-tone exposures could be addressed in a similar fashion, but when it came the under-exposed shadows, the colors were often muddy and indistinct. With black and white, I could manipulate the image until my shadows were totally black, with only the tiniest hit of detail. The shadows became a strong graphic element, providing a landing point for the viewer instinctively seeing the brightest part of the image (Photo #4).

Photo #5
I like to think of this last shot (Photo #5) as an illustration of the start of a typesetter's next job. Clearly, the "story" is already written out, properly aligned within the Chinese literary structure, waiting for the proper characters to be withdrawn from the appropriate compartments and positioned in the composing stick.

It was fortunate that I was still in my Natural Light phase, where I utilized only the existing light. The quality and intensity of light varied a great deal, and I remember exposing my rolls of Kodak Tri-X film at an ISO rating of 1600 and carefully processing each roll in Acufine film developer, the preferred "soup" of the day.

Considering the limitations of film, equipment, and my own expertise, I was fortunate that the medium allowed me great interpretive latitude in my intentions. For the most part, played the shots "where they lay", and used the simple techniques of dodging (lightening) and burning (darkening) regions of the photo to achieve the desired effect. In this shot, the dark shadow regions are acceptable, especially with the removal the influences of color.

Photo #6
Street Photography (Photo #6): These were more random shots made in the simple act of living in San Francisco. I used an Olympus 35 SP at the time, a camera very similar in layout to the Fuji X100S I often use. Funny how the ergonomics have gone full circle, perhaps as a nod to the designers of the Leica M series of cameras, who appear to have gotten it right so many years ago.

Believe it or not, there was a time when you could point a camera at child and photograph him or her without arousing suspicion. I had forgotten about this young child, carefully blowing his perfect bubbles in a San Francisco neighborhood. His mother probably didn't give me a second thought, since "cute kids" were always fair game for photographers in this simpler, more civilized time.

When I photograph a child for the Journal, I try to locate a parent or guardian before I get too involved. Actually, just pointing a camera at a child will quickly arouse some attention, so I just look around to find the adult who seems the most concerned. At that point, I'll introduce myself and the explain why I found their child so irresistible. I also add that my editor determines whether the photo is selected for publication, which allows me to be less specific about if, and when, the photo will run. I'll offer to send them a JPG only if they'll contact me via e-mail, which 95% of the time they don't bother to do.

East-West -San Francisco's Bilingual Newspaper (Photo #7): I don't remember how I got involved with East West. But this was my first published newspaper photo showing a Chinese cooking class in San Francisco's Chinatown.

Photo #7
To a great extent, this photo embodies the qualities I look for in a photo: Sharp focus, even illumination, and visual interest from front to back. Also, I try to have the subject involved in what's going on, which based on her downward gaze, she clearly is. It ran on the paper's front page, which is actually the back page when read with Western eyes. An honor all the same.

In some ways, this photo started my lifelong interest in flash photography. This image could not have been made had I relied on the ceiling lighting along. The soft light suggests florescent tubes, with only a slight fall-off in brightness from front to back. No flash automation was available at the time - I had to estimate the distance from the flash to the ceiling and back to the subject, calculate an exposure based on this distance, and add an exposure factor, usually two stops,to compensate for the light absorbed by the bounced surface (ceiling). Luckily, close enough was good enough, since I could usually depend on my enlarging technique to get the exposure where it needed to be.

New Schools Program, San Francisco State University: This twelve-unit class was designed to introduce a "select" group of students to the Integrated Classroom concept of education. Simply put, art, math, and language arts would all be integrated into the curriculum to infuse interest, participation, and relevance into the classroom. I documented the activities as my class project, a sneaky dodge on my part. I compiled an album of my best photos and presented it to my instructor in lieu of a term paper. When she retired from the University, I assume it was discarded, never to be seen again.

Photo #8
Life Masks (Photo #8): Life masks were all the rage at the time. Part art, part craft, and part trust exercise, as the cold, wet, strips of plaster netting layered on the subject's face felt as cold and dank as death itself.

I remember showing this print to some of my fellow students, and the response was very positive.
Many added that the sensation of being probed by multiple, unseen hands was a little creepy, probably because they could not see what was happening as the plaster was applied to their faces.

I could never have preserved the texture of the plaster if I relied on the limited experience I had with flash at the time.

Shadow Puppets (Photo #9): This was a highly manipulated shot because of the extremes in highlight and shadow.  I was pleased with the overall effect of the photo, particularly the expression of concentration of the student and the "cause and effect" of the puppet on the projection screen.
Photo #9
Photo #1
Sad Bear (Photo #1): The New Schools class was on a field trip to the San Francisco Learning Center, a resource collective for elementary school teachers. I swear, this is exactly how I found the bear, and the shaft of light was simply luck.

Thankful.  In so many ways, I've been most fortunate in having done my photographic apprenticeship with film and a limited budget. Film teaches you that every shot counts, since a film change at in inopportune moment can lead to missed shots. The development of film and the subsequent printing of images forces you to "get it right" the first time, since the time between the execution of the shot and production of the final photo makes it almost impossible to arrange for a second sitting or a reshoot. And finally, working with older flashes forced me to really think about light bursts that were so fast there was no way I could really anticipate the results. One had to be resourceful, since so much of the equipment was simply not affordable.

I still marvel at the incredible capabilities the modern digital camera possesses, and the freedom I have from the droll tasks of determining proper exposure or even establishing proper focus. The instant preview capability provides me with a base from which I can experiment freely and not be hampered by the temporal limitations imposed by film. I hope to continue experimenting, taking full advantage of the digital world, with the hope of recapturing some of the esthetic joys my black and white prints gave me so many years ago.