Sunday, March 20, 2022

Triple Double

I recently listened to an episode of the Lensless Podcast featuring Steve Gosling. Andrew Bartram was hosting by himself that week.

Both of them offer in-person workshops and are known as effective mentors for photographers. Both have extensive experience with pinhole and lensed photography. They delivered copious advice and opinions in their hour on the air. 

I haven't gone back and listened again, so this is dependent on my memory. That may be somewhat unfair. I wouldn't be a blogger without being somewhat snarky, but I'll try to minimize it.

One of the themes they spent some time on was that it was detrimental to creativity and enjoyment to go out photographing with cameras that gave you choices or with multiple cameras of different angles of view.

I am still building my confidence in loading my two stainless spiral developing reels and with stand development in caffenol. I need to mix a liter of caffenol because it requires a gram of Potassium Bromide and that's the smallest quantity I can measure on my kitchen scale. I'll have to develop two rolls to use it.

So to investigate the proposition put forth by Steve and Andrew, I loaded two cameras of different angles of view, both with rising and axial pinholes, with two different film stocks: the recent Objet d'Art at 45mm with 100, and the Weirdo at 30mm with T-Max 100. Will all this choice cause photo-anxiety?

Of course I loaded the cameras on the kitchen table, so I was immediately faced with produce on the tiered tray, with it's fetching checkerboard pattern and broad lighting from the nearby window, highlighting the textures and reflecting off the shiny tomatoes. With the wider camera I would have to place it millimeters away so the nearest vegetable would block the others. Any farther away and a lot of extraneous detail of the rest of the room would be in the frame. I'll use the 45 and since there's no vertical lines to keep parallel,  I'll use the pinhole on the axis. 

Sticking with the same combination, I raised the tripod for the upper tier featuring the 8X loupe I bought in grad school to look at 35mm contact prints. I used it for years to inspect pinholes until I got a microscope.

To me, the ghost pillow has been a continuing source of amusement and the tufted back of the love seat is featured so well by the light through the sheer curtains. My shoes always seem to be underneath it so it was the kind of scene of daily and familiar occurence that I'm attracted to, not to mention referencing footography. Using the 45, I would have to move back and include or move the coffee table and foot stools. I'll use the 30.

Steve related an anecdote from one of his workshops where a woman was framing a scene and he asked why she was taking that picture. When she replied "Because it's pretty," he questioned what she was trying to communicate. Prettyness wasn't enough (I'm very freely paraphrasing here), you have to intend to manipulate the response of the viewer somehow? Hmmm. What am I trying to communicate with this composition in the corner? I think I'm trying to communicate that you can make an arrangement of shapes and details on a two dimensional surface that will look interesting in a frame on your wall. I've always related to Abstract Expressionism. Again with my intention to feature the arrangement without overemphasizing a foreground object, I stayed with the 45. 

The sheer curtains in this room provide endless variety to the quality of light as the weather varies outside. It was snowing rather briskly on the other side of the windows which determined the character of the lighting but I don't think that's immediately obvious. It sounds pretentious to say the way the light made me feel was what I was trying to communicate. At one point they brought up the photographic history concept of Equivalence, which they ascribed to Minor White. Andrew characterized it as having your spirits lifted looking at a photograph of clouds on sunny summer day. I've always thought the idea was that the viewer would respond to the quality of the light although the scene was abstract enough that the actual components of the scene were irrelevant. It was Alfred Stieglitz' idea to do this with cloud patterns

During the depth of the pandemic, a highlight of our Friday evenings was The Frick Collection's YouTube series Cocktails with the Curator in which they paired an adult beverage with a work in the collection. We eventually discovered they announced the drink ahead of time and acquired a freshened collection of ingredients that ended up displayed on the dresser in the living room. Again to limit the scene to just the shiny bottles, the narrower angle 45mm was the obvious choice.

Not atypical for Wisconsin in March, we have had a repeated cycle of a warm spring day followed by a snow storm in below zero temperatures. One of the secrets to human powered snow removal is to occasionally pause to accompany the headphones with the electric snow shovel, here playing to the opening riff of Money for Nothin'. I needed to reach the shutter so I chose the 30mm.

Back inside I again went in close for the light on this varigated pothos using the 45mm.

I seemed to be choosing the narrower angle at home and not using the rising pinhole at all. I set off on my bike to see if my choices were as simple outside.  This giant power line tower sitting in the middle of an empty lot near the river has always given me the impression of some kind of ancient monument. Steve gave the example of a rising pinhole as something that inexplicably complicates pinhole. It's a very tall tower that I can't really get that far away from, so the wider angle of view using the rising front to keep the verticals parallel seemed obvious.

The elevator shaft is the first thing that goes up in a new construction project. As with the power tower, the isolated structure in the middle of a wide empty space seems to me like a modern monument. From the riverside trail, the fencing covered with construction company branding obscures most of the tower. To get the view I had to move away out on to the boat docks. From this distance, I needed the narrower angle, and to keep from communicating that it might be falling over backwards, chose the rising pinhole.

Usually I don't like to take multiple views of a subject, but this isolated structure will only be here for a short time. I was worrying that I wasn't using the 30mm camera enough. I'm not sure that's the kind of anxiety Steve and Andrew were concerned about. There were some gaps in the fence coverings. A composition of the angular tower against trees and construction chaos seemed interesting. To avoid tilting up and getting distracting converging verticals, I used the rising pinhole.

Waiting to cross Jackson Street, I noticed this great oak with it's shadows decorating the shiny glass and sharp edges of the Chamber of Commerce. With the 30mm the tree seemed too far away from the windows lessening the impact of the shadows and included the whole side of the building and some street behind it so the longer camera was called for. As long as it was available to keep the verticals parallel, I used the rising front to include more of the tree and exclude the sidewalk.

I switched back to the 30mm to exagerate the sharpness of this corner of the mall, and because I couldn't get far enough away to use the 45. Steve expressed the reservation that full sunlight was not the best situation for pinhole because the edges were too sharp and the contrast too harsh. What? No shadows? No dramatic modeling of objects? I can't fathom why it makes any difference between a lens and a pinhole in this case. It's the same light and the same film. I think what may be unspoken here is that the details enhanced by their shadows emphasize the relative softness of the pinhole. That may be a reflection of the assumption that sharper is always better. There was also a lot said in veneration of Zero Image cameras to the point that Steve said he hasn't been using pinhole lately because something went wrong with the pinhole in his Zero 2000 (What can go wrong with a pinhole?), and due to the political instability and pandemic he couldn't get a new one from Hong Kong. When Andrew suggested he could get a pinhole from Reality So Subtle, Steve said it wasn't the same. This also might be behind the assumption by both of them that longer distances to the pinhole weren't really great for pinhole because Lord Rayleigh's equations show optimal diffraction with smaller pinholes at lower f-ratios for shorter cameras. First of all, non-optimal pinholes can be used to great effect, and second, some of the sharpest pinhole images I've ever done are at 60mm. (With hand drilled pinholes by the way). Incidentally, I decided against several compositions because even with the 45mm, when I approached close to them, the relative relationships of the elements changed, most often by the nearest objects obscuring things behind them.


Moving farther down the riverfront, I encountered  the corner of Becket's outdoor seating area with these dark windows with the mullions just barely visible in the shadows, crowned by the City Center sign on top the air handling equipment. The 30mm would give me a stripe across the middle with lots of sky at the top and cement at the bottom without much of interest in the extra width of the building. That calls for the 45mm. The verticals are parallel but there's a lot of blank foreground here and the tower is cut off at the top,  I remember deliberating whether to use the rising or axial pinhole and moving the camera several times to achieve the composition I wanted. Maybe I opened the axial pinhole when I intended to use the rising one. Could be that's the kind of complication Steve and Andrew were talking about. Not a source of anxiety in decision making, but just another thing to screw up.

I still had just enough time for another try at the "Ice" challenge for the Fox Valley Photographers Meet-up Group.  A last remnant of the ice on the river was stuck behind one of the docks. Looks pretty dangerous to try to get closer to it and the verticals didn't seem to be an issue so it's the 45 with the axial pinhole.

Another abstraction of light and shadow, also with axial pinhole on the 45.

The day had begun in heavy fog and even after the sun came out an occasional cloud would appear on the ground.  The contrast between the sun shining through the parking ramp with the misty opposite shore of the river seemed interesting. I originally had intended to use the 45mm. Unfortunately, I caught the shutter and opened it on the larger camera when removing it from my pocket a couple times, which didn't happen with the 30mm. This happened on the last frame, so I only had the wider camera left, with which I used the axial pinhole.

Back out on the River Trail, I was quite taken by the foggy atmosphere with the last bits of ice floating on the water. Converging verticals not really an issue here, so again the axial pinhole, maybe tilted up a little to get the horizon from the exact middle of the composition..

The fog started to dissipate as I moved toward the Main Street bridge, but I thought the atmospheric perpective still gave great depth. I now have two very similar pictures from the same camera that I can't decide which is better. That's the kind of anxiety that bothers me which has nothing to do with the options I had available to take the photograph.

It was getting late but I wanted to finish the film before I went home. Steve and Andrew never mentioned taking too much film with you when you went out to take photographs as a cause of stress. As I went under this trellis separating the River Walk from the parking structure, it seemed that it and it's shadows divided the frame in an attractive way.

The only thing I found complicated was having two film stocks with significantly different reciprocity failure profiles in cameras with different f ratios. I had to switch between them on Pinhole Assist. I remember wishing I had put the T-Max in the longer camera while waiting for the interior exposures.

Despite expecting his participants to be articulate about their communication, Steve repeatedly expressed that understanding the technical details of photography took second place to what your intent was. He mentioned that he never knew how f ratios were derived, despite using them to calculate exposures for decades. I seem constantly to encounter the idea that to introduce people to pinhole, you have to make it as easy as possible. I just watched Justin Quinnel's video on making a solargraph camera and he continually notes how precision and detail isn't worth it (although occasionally he implied this was to trick people into understanding the process). I guess I'm really bored with this simplistic depiction of pinhole. I'm reminded of Richard Feynman's response to the criticism that all his physics removed the mystery of nature. His reply was that digging into the details (more paraphrasing here) revealed how fucking insane nature really was.

Well, Steve and Andrew, I'm not sure I learned anything from the podcast, but thanks for the inspiration.

1 comment:

  1. Nick, you’re a photographer after my own heart, not to mention a gentleman and a scholar. As Gertrude Stein once said a pinhole is a pinhole is a pinhole. My ems pinholes are as good or better than a Zero Image pinhole if sharpness is what you’re after. Keep on keepin’ on. . . .