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


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

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Aujourd’hui, caméra est morte

Another camera exploded this week. I should be more careful. 

To be more precise, a piece of Instax film exploded inside my camera. You've heard the expression "coming apart at the seams"? This is what the photo did. The insides squirted out the sidesides. Then somehow that led to the topside exploding. I'm not really sure what the chain of events was. All I know is I pushed the shutter button just like normal. But this time the camera top came shooting off followed by a photo with black gunk smeared on it. When I looked inside the camera, which was much easier now that the top had exploded, the rollers were covered in black gunk too. A little bit of that goes a long way. 

Oh well. I'm a dad. I'm used to dealing with explosions. I've cleaned shit smeared up a kid's back. I've been bruised by projectile vomit and I've cleaned spaghetti from behind the couch. But none of that stuff was as inaccessible as gunk inside a camera. It was really in there. And goopy. The only thing I could think to do was take another photo. It's my go-to move. 

The next one looked about like you might expect.

In this jpeg the gunk has dried, but at the time it was still wet. I had to blow on the photo for a few minutes, then wave it in the sun to dry before putting it in my backpack. That worked for the print, but inside the camera was still beyond the sun's reach. That gunk wasn't going to dry any time soon.

I decided to roll with it. Maybe I could turn this lemon into lemonade. It's not every day my photos are covered in black streaks. It created an aura of grit...and mystery. Maybe there were naked ladies from New Orleans under the black? Or scratch off lotto numbers? A scratch-n-sniff photo? The possibilities were endless. Best of all they were completely dependent on the viewer. I'd transcended post-structuralism without even trying. It was even easier than exploding a camera.

Here's how the next one came out.

Was the gunk dissipating? Was I using it up? I couldn't tell. But the photo had a certain charm. If I squinted and imagined myself in a museum it resembled one of those Gerhard Richter painted photographs. But uglier and by accident. 
Gerhardt Richter, Uebermalte Fotografien, – 02 MARCH ’05

No. Who was I kidding? My photo had no charm. The content fought the form. The punctum was battling the studium. And besides all that it was hard to make out what was under the black crud. I was no challenge to Richter. But he could walk away at any time. I was stuck with my exploded camera.

At this point most photographers would've come to a sensible conclusion. The camera was fucked. Pack it in. Time to repair or find another one. And I'm usually on board with that. Cameras have very little sentimental value to me. They're like shoes. You use them. They wear out. You find another pair. And right now this camera was like about as usable as a shoe without laces. But alas, I was in San Francisco. Did I mention that part? Repair or replacement was not an immediate option. The only way forward was through.

I thought my photos could use a little human touch. After the gunk had dried on my next photo I used my thumbnail to scratch away part of the black area. 

Aesthetically it had a ways to go. But as evidence it worked fine, because this was the photo which first showed me the problem went beyond surface gunk. Part of the interior emulsion was screwed up too due to the uneven rollers. There was a big white gap in the upper right. And some other smaller splotches lower down. But was this a lemon or lemonade? I needed more evidence. And to get high.

This is from a third floor fire escape. Lesson: black splooge plus undeveloped emulsion gaps doesn't necessarily equal success. But I knew that.

On my next photo the white spots seemed to be shrinking. Or maybe they were hidden.

The problem was I couldn't determine which parts of the image were intact without removing the gunk. And by that point it might be too late since there was no way to add it back. I'd gone past photography into sculpture. By the next morning the roller gunk had dried into a relief painting. 

I tried a photo. The black streak was gone! But it was replaced by dolphin lightning.

If I were a Chargers fan, this photo would seem like an act of God. I wasn't, but the photos still seemed like an improvement over yesterday's blackouts.

The lightning bolts were sometimes yellow, sometimes whitish, usually with a tinge of magenta. The key thing is they always jumped out of the ocean in the same general area of the photo. Repeatability is the heart of the scientific method. I could work with this. In fact it fit perfectly into my normal mode of operation in photography, which is to tweak the viewer. Confusion, artifice, etc. If I could combine those dolphins with the subject matter I'd be in business, and if I did it well maybe no one could tell? Maybe I wouldn't need a new camera after all. I'd just have to photograph white and gold dolphins from now on. 

Unfortunately there were no dolphins in downtown San Francisco. Just coffee shops, bums, and hipsters. Here's the hotel lobby where I was staying on Grant Ave.

Clouds are an ever-ready subject. 

Here are some spring Charger blossoms found in a gutter.

I thought my car pedals might look like dolphins but I was wrong.

After shooting this way for a day I started to realize I'd never find the right dolphins in real life. So I opened up the camera and started chipping away at the relief painting with my pocket knife. I know what you're thinking. How could I destroy the source of all those good times? Once I took that step the dolphin series would be gone forever. But the thing is, I just wanted my old camera back, with smooth rollers and no gunk.

If you've been shooting long enough to wear through a few cameras, you realize that jamming a pocket knife into your camera is no longer any big deal, certainly no more complicated than neutering a pet or clipping a chicken's wings. And unlike an animal, most cameras have a back that opens. 

I pulled open the film holder, then held the blade against the rollers while I pushed the shutter repeatedly. After about 20 spin cycles I'd removed most of the gunk. The camera didn't even put up a fight.

My next attempt looked like this.

Getting closer. The dolphin lightning was gone but the rollers weren't quite clean. I opened the camera again, repeated the pocket knife process, then tried another photo. 

That's when I saw Jesus.

The face was blurry yet identifiable. It was either the Messiah or the ZigZag rolling papers guy. Either way I knew I'd stumbled on something important. If I played it right this photo could be a gold mine. I'd heard about people driving for miles to see Jesus on a tortilla chip. How far would they drive to see Instax Jesus? And this was even more lucrative than a tortilla chip, because not only did I have a photo with accidental Jesus, I could make more whenever I felt like it. I had the magic rollers. 

I know what most people would do in a situation like this. Pump out more photos. Sell them on eBay. Retire to the French Riviera.

That's what most people would've done. But I pride myself on being a contrarian. I like to scratch below the black paint before making any decision. I realized that pumping out Jesus photos would flood the market. One Jesus photo is amazing. Five thousand Jesus photos? Not so unique any more. 

I had to nip this in the bud. I called my agent Bethany and explained the situation. "How are we going to handle this?" I asked. She said same way we always do, by forming a plan of action. A plano ng pagkilos, she called it. In April we will market a limited edition of twenty Jesus photos. Each photo will be made available through my gallery at an escalating price depending on the edition number. 1-5 will be $7,000 each, #6-10 $8,500 each, and so on. #20 will be $75,000. If you think that sounds like a lot of money, just consider this. It's the Messiah. And likely to appreciate in value.

That left just one key step, destroying the camera. Yes, I could've taken a pocket knife to the rollers instead, but it seemed too risky. They might've produced more faces. To protect my investment there was only one safe recourse, a fiery explosion. Luckily I had some gasoline handy. And a pack of Mentos. And a Sodastream pressurizer. 

And that's how my camera died today.