Large-format Still Life

A note on shooting still life with large format. This is something I haven’t done at all before, on any format, but somehow large format black and white seems to be its natural home – here I’ve been recently influenced very much by the beautiful work of John Blakemore for instance, and also by Paul Barden on flickr and the large format photography forum. While I don’t use an 8×10 for black and white as Paul does (though this is something I may seriously consider at some point) and nor do I use traditional darkroom print-making or alternative processes (still a digital half-breed in this respect!) the tonality and detail that you can achieve with large format is precisely what is required (I have taken the liberty of adding some digital selenium toning in photoshop).

 

Another thing here is that – while I’ve only lately come to think about this – the meditative aspect of using a large format camera – the care required to set up the composition on the ground glass and the metering – may become a natural extension of the meditative process of collecting and arraying the composition of the objects before you have even set up the camera. This aspect is something that I haven’t been able to think about until recently because the very idea of creating a scene to photograph had always seemed to me to be hostile to the idea of authenticity required to be a ‘proper’ or serious landscape photographer. I’ve no idea really why I thought this before because it’s obvious nonsense, and reveals a basic failure to appreciate that the photographic image can never itself be authentic, even though it can ‘animate’ the viewer (cf. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida).

 

If the viewer also happens to be the creator of the photograph, the final image can also serve as a reminder of the process that led up to the creation of the image with the camera, and this can be empowering and enriching in a huge variety of ways; I envisage a whole range of possible projects here, including the process of collecting a range of artefacts or natural objects to photograph to remind me of or to celebrate encounters or places, even in the absence of opportunities to photograph landscapes or scenic details in the usual way. This is important because if the photograph doesn’t mean anything to me then I’m very unlikely to bother to make it in the first place. This in itself would prevent any resulting images from becoming emotionless, precisely because of their artifice.

 

This process actually presents a more direct way for me to engage art-historically with traditions of photography, again in ways that I hadn’t quite appreciated until recently. The idea of collecting objects to photograph also has the potential to produce typologies of objects, which obviously slot into the history of 20th century photography via the well-known work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, founders of the influential ‘Düsseldorf School’, whose work is displayed accessibly in Tate Modern, London. On the other hand, the ironic or emotionally distanced work of the New Topographics school that the Bechers influenced is not in keeping with what I think I’d like for this image-making possibility, since the whole point for me will be to engender some kind of emotional response or connection rather than having the rationale driven by implicit critique of embedded aesthetic practice. Here I’d be more with Andreas Gursky (another influenced by the Bechers) –  ‘the pure joy of seeing’ (see https://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/hayward-gallery-art/andreas-gursky) – though his own images are of course far from straightforward in their interpretability or emotional claims on viewers.

 

In fact, the very idea of using a large-format camera to create black and white images of found objects collected over time is intended as an attempt – though not at all reactionary – to suggest alternative approaches to image-making than are more widely considered in today’s image-saturated culture, even as I am using those same channels of distribution (this blog; twitter; flickr; instagram) to circulate the results.

 

The idea of emotional connection is still problematic, and photography perhaps more than any art form is inherently aware of this. Its rhetoric of attraction, truth, and immediacy also carries with it the technology of difference, distance, framing, and artifice; there’s a problematic sense that, however much photographers and artists might want to separate out style and technique, with photography the two dissolve into one another in the nature of the medium.

 

Thanks to John Blakemore, I’m reminded of the relation between still life painting and religion, specifically via the concept of the vanitas. I am not remotely religious, and find – momentarily – problematic the idea that still lives are considered as a momento mori rather than a momento vivere, as it were. It is the case, of course, that the history of still lives is the history of the portrayal of loss, decay, mortality and death, rather than life: the pointlessness of earthly goods. One can hope to claim that the artistic process of producing work that preserves these scenes is somehow redemptive (yes, religious word!), but by the same token those images of mortality, and their very act of photographic preservation, bear ever onward their message of loss and absence. The photographed decay of nature reminds us of the world of nature in general, just as it might remind the photographer (me) of the specific encounters which brought the photograph into existence in the first place; those universalizing, as well as particularizing, reminders of nature can be uplifting especially if the photograph is a success and deemed beautiful or pleasing. But they do so only as the decaying objects remind us that they are always with us: reminding us of their realities in spite of the artificiality of the setup and of the photographic medium used to project it. Made secular, these images bear the tension between momento mori and momento vivere, encouragements to go on, to explore, to look to the future, while reminiscing wistfully or mournfully over, or contemplating sadly, the essence of past experience never fully to be recovered.

 

Below is the final image shot on 5×4 with Ilford Delta 100, followed by two compositional sketches shot on iphone. The dark image is fascinating and is the first setup I tried – though this was soon abandoned when I calculated an exposure time of over 5 hours taking into account reciprocity failure (I think: it was too dark for my Sekonic, so I was making calculations via a lightmeter app on my phone)) – the location was the dark garage of my parents’ with only a small distant window for natural light, after which I moved to a greenhouse. The flat light on the final image is a result of the changed lighting, but one day I will try what I’d call ‘the full Edward Weston’ and go for a really long exposure on large-format film.  I also perhaps prefer the perpendicular shooting angles of the phone shots, though I didn’t risk this with the large format setup given potential problems with shadows and the tripod.

 

Four Pears

Four Pears

4PearsNo3ViewfinderApp1000

FourPearsiPhone800

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Large format diaries #20

 

A list of possible errors

 

I thought it might be fun to compile a little list of all the things that can go wrong – and have! – shooting large format film. Rather than list them in categories, I thought I’d list them roughly in order of the mistakes I’ve made, perhaps to provide a more organic description of the development of skills. Some of these are specific to particular film stocks, but most of them are more generally applicable(!!)

 

After three… One, two three… doh!

 

  1. Misreading light meter. I did this with my very first sheet exposed – my Sekonic 758D meter only lists whole numbers rather than fractions or decimals for exposure times: the difference, in this instance, was the difference between ¼ second and 4 seconds. If the exposure time was 4 seconds, it would have read 4 with a small S above it. However, there was no S, so I drastically overexposed my sheet (having correctly, so I thought, added even more time for reciprocity failure!!). All was not lost in this case, however, since the film stock was B&W (Delta 100) so I rescued the shot quite successfully.

 

  1. Vignetting. If you are not careful with your movements, particularly on wide-angle lenses, but in fact in all cases(!), vignetting can occur: that is, the limits of the image circle of the lens intruding into the edges of the film sheet. This has happened to me at least a couple of times, mostly when I’m not concentrating on what I’m doing. Setting up the shot properly in the first place, with camera position and proper use of the tripod head (here I cannot stress enough how useful a geared head can be) can help to avoid this issue before it occurs.

This is vignetting proper: another similar instance can be caused when you use a Lee lens hood incorrectly. I have also done this on more than one occasion.

 

  1. Unsharp shots. These can result from a number of eventualities: tripod not properly grounded; loose tripod head; being clumsy enough to kick tripod leg between composing the shot and exposing a sheet; movement controls on camera not properly locked down. In practice, it is quite difficult to diagnose these after the fact, but a few things can help to alleviate problems here. Here’s what I’ve been doing recently:

Use spikes on your tripod feet. This seems a no-brainer and I can’t quite understand why I hadn’t been doing this until recently.

Have a little piece of tape stuck to the camera reminding you to ensure all controls are locked down before making an exposure.

Use a geared tripod head, where the majority or all of the controls are self-locking.

Avoid shooting longer exposures in strong winds.

 

  1. Forgetting to stop down after composing. I have done this just a couple of times, but it’s very annoying! Probably best to do it as soon as you’ve figured out the depth of field you need / trusted the ground glass, decided upon your exposure, and closed the lens.

 

  1. Forgetting to pull the dark slide. I reckon I’ve done this one a few times too. I caught myself doing this yesterday, which was fine, since the exposure would have been junked anyway(!!) You end up second-guessing yourself, too. I ended up making a note of the dark slide in question, and, just in case there’s an exposure in there, will use that sheet for a double or for a shot I’m not totally wild about.

 

  1. Double exposure (the opposite of 5!!). I’ve only ever done this once, because I use tapes on the film holders, with exposure notes for completed shots. It is possible, of course, to not notice your notes on the tape and shoot over a perfectly good sheet! Hopefully once is enough.

 

  1. Load your film back to front. This was an expensive error, at about £40-£50! I lost about 6 sheets this way – they all came out very dark red (‘red-scale’). Relatively luckily, the sheets were exposed principally to test a new lens I’d picked up, and there was just enough detail visible in the sheets to indicate that the lens was fine.

 

  1. Forgetting to add time for reciprocity failure: result is underexposure.

 

  1. Forgetting to add time for bellows extension: again, underexposure.

 

  1. Forgetting to add time for a polariser: again, underexposure.

 

  1. Forgetting to take off the lens cap: result, a perfectly exposed white sheet, with a little ring visible in the centre – if you check out those white Lee lens caps you’ll know what I’m talking about. I’ve only done this once, because I was rushing around and not concentrating. I went to go and fetch another film holder to expose a second sheet on a scene. It was raining lightly, so I put on a lens cap to protect it while I was away. Forgot to take it off again…

 

  1. Problems using Reciprocity Timer App #1:

Forgetting to reset iphone reciprocity timer app to delete bellows extension dialled in. Result: overexposure. This has happened twice, really annoyingly. A good reason to wean myself off using the app.

 

  1. Problems using Reciprocity Timer App #2:

On one occasion I decided that I should meter my scenes with black and white filters properly, by metering through the filter. Why I then went ahead and dialled in more time into the app for the filter is a mystery! Result: overexposure. In practice, it seems a good idea to meter through the filters directly, especially with a polariser when shooting slide film: getting those highlights right in running water is crucial.  Another reason not to cling to using the app.

 

  1. Not doing critical focus with loupe properly: likely to cause insufficient stopping-down, causing lack of sharpness where you wanted it. Trust the ground glass, and your loupe! Don’t be afraid to try to stop the lens down while you’re under the dark cloth, to see what’s going on with the focal plane depth of field.  This was something the workshop in Glencoe helped me with.

 

  1. Mistakes with grads: using grads when you shouldn’t (e.g. in the middle of a forest!!! Mistake x1); not using enough grad when you needed to (mistake x2 – though this one can be a matter of personal preference, so long as highlights aren’t totally blown…); using too much grad; incorrectly positioning the grads. All of these can ruin an exposure, especially with slide film.

 

  1. Metering errors: particularly problematic with slide film. Errors include: not sufficiently controlling highlights; incorrect choice of brightest highlight with detail (can effect grad selection, or choice of using grads at all, of course).  The sekonic I use is quite easy and very powerful, but it can trip you up now and again… see 1!

 

There’s also likely to be whole load of other errors which are common that I haven’t made yet(!) or which I’m not likely to make not because of my own competence but because my Linhof Technikardan is in general sturdy enough not to create these issues. These would include light leaks between the camera back and film holder when pulling the dark slide – good practice here is to pinch the two together with the left hand while pulling out / reinserting the darkslide with the right hand. However, this list of 16 is comprehensive enough for me! Hopefully I won’t be making too many more errors!!

Large format diaries #19

Large format Workshop in Glencoe

 

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Large Format Diaries #18

Large Format Diaries #17

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