Saturday, December 2, 2023

3600 Watt Pinhole Portraiture

Every time I go to a museum and look at portraits painted during almost any era, it seems the calm demeanor of subjects holding still while being drawn was something that would work great with pinhole. I even made a camera once specifically for portraiture, but only took a self-portrait with it. A current goal is to take more pictures of people and specifically posed portraits - not just grabbed candids. A few weeks ago I saw the exhibit Fashioned by Sargent at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and had a new fire lit under me.

At the events sponsored by Photo Opp, there is always some portraiture going on, both candid and formal studio. At the last Photo Opp open house (at which I had very slow film), I measured what the exposure would be with Lomography 800 with the two large soft light boxes they had set up. Thirty seconds. That sounds doable. Lomography just dropped the price of all of it's 120 films and I snapped up a bunch of the 800, which I was impressed with at the photo walk this fall and for the pre-pandemic Then and Now exhibit at the Oshkosh Public Museum.

With another open house of Photo Opp's building occuring, I thought I could take the opportunity and maybe provide a little entertainment for the attendees. I messaged Graham Watashka. He replied the studio lighting was now in the basement and was set up for someone's special project. Could I use strobes? He had two 1200 watt and two 600 watt devices, portable and battery powered. Hmmmm. I had heard of people using flash with pinhole but it was usually many flashes with tens of seconds between charges, or with the flash several inches from the subject. In the 80's with a lens, I once did several self-portraits with a flash held against either cheek. None of this sounded like an approach I wanted to take, but the idea was now stuck in my head. Would it work? I vaguely remembered there was a formula that yielded the distance the light needed to be from the subject. A few keystrokes later: The guide number of the flash divided by the f-stop equals the distance in feet for ISO 100 film. I didn't want a too wide angle view, but did want as fast a camera as possible. The 45mm, 67 degree wide, f160 Little Mutant fit the bill. The total guide number of Graham's lights is 360 divided by f160 equals 2.25 feet. ISO 100 to 400 is two stops so that doubles the distance to 4.5 feet (Inverse Square Law, ya know) with a little gravy thrown in for an extra stop for ISO 800. The math works!

A few issues remained. 

What I was interested in were the poses people held for long periods to be drawn by hand. Did I want instantaneous pictures? The shutter had to be opened and the flashes set off with a button on the charging box. That would take a few seconds so it would be sort of like a long exposure.

Another was that these were bare flash bulbs. I had always imagined doing this with a giant Vermeer window, maybe simulated by a couple umbrellas, not a tiny source like a flash. But I take pictures outside with the sun all the time. What's the difference?

The last was that I couldn't actually see how the lighting was going to look but isn't that kind of normal for pinhole? I could sort of previsualize what it would be like. Light travels in straight lines so there was some idea where shadows would fall. I eventually found out there were modeling lights, but just found them confusing with the room lights also on.

All this was intriguingly unknown and something I had never done but had always wanted to. Kind of a tall order for someone nearing three-quarters of a century. And without risking my life or spending a lot of money to find out.

Within ten minutes I messaged Graham back and said I'd like to try it.

The inspiration for this had always been Renaissance, Flemish and Tudor painters, but suddenly, with the direct flash, my thinking shifted to the turn of the 20th century, Picasso's Gertrude Stein and Van Gogh's Portrait of Dr. Gachet coming to mind.

In the intervening few days, I decided the comfy lounge in the basement would be more interesting than a plain back drop. When we got the first strobe set up and I saw how quickly it recharged, it seemed it would be more flexible, easier and safer to move just one light stand. Three pops with one 1200 would equal the same as all four units and would only take about six seconds to recharge and fire three times. There were also two desk lamps on that I thought might add some hair lights.

Being the instigator of all this, it is only appropriate to have a direct reflection of the flash exactly in one of Graham's eyeballs.

Board member Morgan Kirchenwitz struggled for minutes to hold a pose she could maintain. I got the math right, but I forgot to move the flash this time and it was about 6 feet away and pointed directly at the wall. She was just at the edge of the coverage of the strobe, resulting in a bit of an underexposed negative. I had bragged that I could probably get a decent image out of almost any negative, and that was necessary for this one but it captures the painterly quality I was hoping for. (Sorry, Steiglitz, but not sorry.) 

Char Brandis worked in my department while she was a student. She's been to almost all the Photo Opp events with her Minolta SLR. I had already been thinking about how I was going to do this photograph.

Amy James is the Board President of Photo Opp but I didn't know that until after she had agreed to let me do her portrait with my experimental set up. She has painted portraits and reassured me she understood the worry of whether a sitter will like what you've done. With her knit scarf, patterned skirt, dark coat and shiny necklace, I couldn't help bring up Sargent. We speculated how he would have posed her. 

Bard Media partner Jake Viannes, whom I'd never met before. He didn't have a favorite portrait painter to imagine but he said he liked Edward Hopper. Perfect for the direct flash. He seemed comfortable with my suggestion that he pose as though he were a Spanish royal being painted by Valasquez.

Brandi Grahl repeats her Mona Lisa smile. I had been hoping I could get somebody curled up in this chair for my square format camera. 

Char and her husband Matt have often been to these events together. Another picture that I had imagined was them gazing into each others' eyes.

Another new aquaintance Jeff Braatz and I conversed for some time about being theater photographers, me 40 years ago in a small college and he currently with a high school. Eventually it came up what was going on downstairs with the pinhole camera.

Photographic scientist and UW-Oshkosh chemistry grad, Almon Benton, who went right for the Kodak apron which serendipitously matches his hat.

From even farther away than me, Alex Simpson of Silvergraphics in Ripon. You can tell by the business name he's into a lot of analog processes. He's done tintypes at these events. Just before this I listened to an extended conversation with Almon about direct reversal images using color photographic paper in the camera. He told me while counting the flashes he was thinking that he had a 4800 watt unit so we could use just one flash and maybe bounce it off something if I'd like to try that. Hmmm. 

In previous outings with Photo Opp, several double exposures occured while interacting with other people and forgetting to wind the film. They get displayed on my blog if they're instructive about composition, optics or exposure. I really don't like it when this happens. Photo Opp used a few of these in their blog and some other materials after I had told them to use anything they liked, and reluctantly agreed when they chose the inadvertant doubles. Brandi had asked what my objection was to using those pictures. It's mostly because it's a random occurence and despite promoting serendipity as a virtue of pinhole, it doesn't seem something I can claim authorship of. I really would rather have the two pictures I intended to take. Can you see where I'm going with this?

With every subject there was some discussion of the myriad uncertainties in my method that night, and the small but non-zero probability that it would lead to unusable negatives - or grotesque distortions. This conversation was usually repeated immediately after the exposure while trying to move camera and light stand to let them get up from their pose. I kept catching myself a few minutes later remembering to wind the film, a couple times just before making the next picture. Well, it turns out I did forget to wind the film for the first exposure. Sorry, John and Dave. To add insult, I advanced an extra frame with out exposing after doubling Dave on top of John, which explains only 11 pictures in this blog. I hate when that happens too.

It is a little extraordinary how closely merged the two figures are, seated on different sides of the room. Both sets of hands are visible but otherwise it's a combination of the two figures and their less exposed backgrounds which are surprising low contrast compared to the doubled figures. You can just see a bit of John's lighter collar inside Dave's darker shirt.

I'm very happy how this worked out, although still a little flummoxed about it. Now that I've made the leap to asking people to sit, I hope to be able to continue now that I have confidence it will work. These were about the most cooperative subjects one could ask for. Thank you all. The flash was interesting and will probably try this again. I just realized the other 1200 watt strobe could have been pointed at the ceiling and gotten some fill without having to move it every time. I also want to try using some continuous, big light sources as originally planned. The sun through the stained glass windows of Photo Opp on a bright day also seems an interesting source of light to reflect off of some people. Would being in that majestic space affect how people posed compared to the cozy lounge?

Ironically, this weekend Michael Cooney invited me to model with one of my cameras for his Art of Photography class for a lesson on studio lighting. That was a very weird experience with what seemed like 10,000 frames exposed in about 10 minutes while I mugged for their lenses.

The Little Mutant has a hand-drilled .27mm pinhole 45mm from a 6x6 frame. After developing nine rolls in my original C-41 kit, I mixed a fresh kit for this roll of film.

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