Tuesday, April 23, 2013

On a camera


It obviously has a colourful history. You can tell just by looking at it. The Lens barrel has aluminum flaking out on the edges. The worker who worked at the Ansco plant back on the east coast obviously was lax with the sanding and the electroplating. I don't fault him. The camera was a simple and cheap product. Almost a throw away. The only thing comparable today to it would be one of those disposable cameras you can buy from Walmart, except they are a lot more high-tech.

On the inside, there is rust on the hinges, and the light proofing foam has all but rotten away. You can tell that the camera has seen some serious use. There is salt deposition and water damage on the innards. The family that owned it took it to the beach, probably in Oregon, or Washington. It took black and white photos of their family vacations.

It was there when the son of the family went abroad, for the Great War. It took a photo of the proud son, in a stiff military uniform, standing in front of the stars and stripes, proud to serve his country. Or was he making a stoic expression to hide his fear that he was leaving his home for some godforsaken trench in Europe, in Dunkirk or Somme, to fight for some abstract idea, and maybe never return, except as a telegram delivered by a brother officer to the family, informing them of how he served the country and made them proud, and died in military action in an European field, killed by gas, dulce decorum est, pro patria mori.

The camera took pictures of the young daughter, dressed in a flapper costume, with short hair, going to a dance at Pengilly's. She held on to the camera as she boarded the Interurban, excited for an evening out with her friends, chaperoned by her father and mother. They danced to Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin on record that night. Then as the sun started getting lower, they stood in front of a wall, and their father took a photo of all the girls with the Ansco Clipper.

The camera was there during the Depression. It was not used, because film was too expensive. It sat near the mantle, as the pater-familias worked all day in the farm, assisted by the only son, while the mother took in washing and worked hard to make ends meet.

It was there when Tojo bombed Pearl Harbor. It took another picture, of a son. He looked the same as his uncle who never came back from the Great War, or the Grand Aunt who had died from the Spanish flu. The newest photo was added to the mantle piece alongside photos of the Uncle, the Great Aunt, a photo of the family on the beach, and a photo of an Aunt standing in front of a wall, with her friends in Boise.

It took a photo of the son's triumphant return from the Pacific, with a uniform full of medals, in a second hand Oldsmobile Phaeton, which he had bought in California after the long voyage back from Bataan, for $500. His proud mother had taken the photo, and it was put on the mantle next to all those other photos. It took photos of his family as it grew. It was there when he got married, brandished by a proud father. It was there when a son come into the family. A proud Grandfather took a photo. All these photos went to the mantlepiece.

The grandson left for college. His father disapproved of his long hair, and his general lackadaisical attitude, but his son was going to college, and that was something to be proud of. A photo was taken in front of Sterry Hall. The first child in the family to go to college. His bell bottomed pants and hair flared in the wind, captured by the Ansco Clipper.

That was the last picture the camera took. There was no more film that would fit in the camera. Father decided that it was time to buy a new camera. So a newfangled Nikon was purchased. He grumbled about buying something Japanese, but it was cheap and took decent photos, so it didn't matter. The Ansco was put in a box with other nick knacks, and put up in the attic. It sat there until the proud veteran of the war died in the late 2000's. Finding no use for it, the family gave it to the Youth Ranch. It was put in a glass shelf in the back. Who would buy such a thing?

In October 2010, an Indian boy came to the thrift store to buy warm clothes for the coming winter. He wasn't prepared for the Idaho winter. He saw the Ansco Clipper in a shelf. He brought it, and put it in a shelf. It has seen no use for nearly 70 years. It just sits on the window still, a relic of days gone by.

History of Ansco
Ansco has had one of the most colourful history in the photography. Predating Kodak, It was called E. Anthony and Co. At the turn of the century, it was merged with Scoville Manufacturing, and became Anthony and Scoville Co. and shifted its base of operations from Chicago to New York. Involved in a trademark infringement case with Kodak, it suffered huge losses because of Kodak's market dominance, even though it won the case, the company merged with the German conglomerate AGFA to form AGFA-Ansco. AGFA-Ansco was renamed IG-Chemie, a subsidiary of IG-Farben, the German chemical giant.
Renamed General Aniline and Film in 1928, it continued producing film and cameras. It was the official film of Disneyland, and had Henry Fonda as its spokesperson, and offered Jodie Foster her first acting role. As of now, it is the largest Roofing Manufacturer in America, and has not produced any film or cameras for decades. It offers lifetime warranty on its laminated roofing shingles.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Why I go to the Darkroom


 The first thing you notice as you open the door is the smell. It smells like old urine, but not quite. Then another, a stronger smell hits your nose. You can feel it in your sinuses. But you get used to it by the time you turn on the red light. You see stained tile, and a spackled white wall. There is a center console and that is covered with the usual detritus that follows me around. There is a old pipe lying right in front of you, on top of a yellow box that says “DO NOT OPEN IN LIGHT”. There is a pipe fixture right next to it with so much salt deposition on it that it looks like it belongs in a coral reef. You turn to your left and you are in the Darkroom.
There are dark bottles marked with different coloured tape everywhere. Some are on the shelf, some on the floor, and some on top of a huge drawer. You open the drawer and it has no shelves inside it. It has wire strung up near the top, and there are long rolls of negatives hanging from it. Congratulations, you just destroyed a month of work. Those negatives were not supposed to be exposed to any light. Congratulations. You just witnessed on of the worst feelings you can ever have as a photographer in the darkroom.
I always think of traditional photography as blue collar work. You muck around in the dark, dealing with stuff that could kill you if you looked at it funny, and making stuff that brings you joy. Something like those yokels you see in town fairs making sculptures with entire tree sections using just chain saws. I always think of myself as a modern day Weegee. Running around campus smoking, with a huge camera, documenting all the messed up stuff that goes on. I see people doing drugs, making out, stealing, fighting, arguing, chatting about the strangest things. I take their pictures and go away. And then I go to my darkroom.
In complete darkness, with Yusef Lateef or Erik Satie playing in the background, I pull out negatives from their holders. While wearing latex gloves, I dunk them in a tray full of 1:1:200 Pyro-Galliol. Agitate them constantly for the first 30 seconds. Then agitate them intermittently for 5 seconds every 45 seconds for 6 minutes. Then into a stop bath containing 3% glacial acetic acid for 30 seconds. And into Sodium Hypo-Chloride, with constant agitation for 2.5 minutes. Wash in tap water for 1 minute. Finally, I dunk them in a tank of 1% Sodium Sulfite for 10 minutes, and to finish it off, wash everything in running water for half an hour.
It is relaxing being in such an environment. Everything is quiet, everything is dark. If you follow correct technique, there are no surprises. Everything turns out as you expect it. The only variable is you. Surrounded by all those chemicals, working in dark, while music is playing in the back, you think a lot. You can't afford to think about what you are doing, because it is mechanical. If you think about it, you will goof up. So you think a lot about other stuff. You think of the weather, of the dinner you are about to cook when you come back. You think about what happened at that one night when you had one drink too much. You think of what happened in class, when that one wise guy decided that he knew better than the professor. You think about home, you think of all the places you could call home. You think about people in your life. You think about people you know who died, people who you haven't seen in years, people you will see the next day at breakfast. And then the alarm rings, and you can turn on the light.
A lot of people ask me why I spend so much time in the darkroom, why I have my bed there. I think by now, you know why.

Monday, March 11, 2013

On Hipsters using Film

We can look at the various trends that have taken up the public’s imagination as a symptom of modern times. In this digital age, with almost every house in this country having some form of connectivity, there are unparalleled levels of connectivity. Ideas go “viral”, and videos and images become memes. But those are just the transient effects of the information age, which while contributing much to image of our generation, contribute nothing to the zeitgeist. Somewhat like the long hair and bell bottoms of the 70’s. Sure, they were highly visible, but have cars or the brand of cereal you eat in the morning been affected by it?I want to talk about a thing, trend, if you may that I think will.  
I was rereading Bruce Stirling’s Dead Media Manifesto recently. Written in 1995, when the internet was at the cusp of becoming what we know of it as today, I find this quote precient.
“Listen to the following, all you digital hipsters. This is Jaqueline Goddard speaking in January 1995. Jacqueline was born in 1911, and she was one of the 20th century's great icons of bohemian femininity. Man Ray photographed her in Paris in 1930,...
Jacqueline testifies: "After a day of work, the artists wanted to get away from their studios, and get away from what they were creating. They all met in the cafes to argue about this and that, to discuss their work, politics and philosophy.... We went to the bar of La Coupole. Bob, the barman, was a terrible nice chap... As there was no telephone in those days everybody used him to leave messages. At the Dome we also had a little place behind the door for messages. The telephone was the death of Montparnasse."
"The telephone was the death of Montparnasse." Mull that Surrealist testimony over a little while, all you cafe-society modemites. Jacqueline may not grok TCP/IP, but she has been there and done that. I haven't stopped thinking about that remark since I first read it. For whom does the telephone bell toll? It tolls for me and thee -- sooner or later.”
There is considerable dissatisfaction these days about “hipsters” taking really bad photographs using film cameras, because they want the “retro look”. I myself am guilty of that, but not for the retro look. As Stirling mentioned, as newer technologies come forward, older technologies died out. Well, film photography, with the advent of technology is dying out. Look no further than our college for the best example. The Darkroom, which is a substantial complex, with three rooms and multiple enlargers light tables and the other flotsam of the wet darkroom, lies abandoned. I am the only person on campus who uses it. A place bigger than the house i live in, is completely abandoned. Until five years ago, that place was buzzing with activity. What goes on with all the knowledge contained in those walls, in the developer stained tubs, and the glow in the dark timers? It disappears. This gradual disappearance of knowledge is what is disheartening. Of course, legitimately speaking, the knowledge never disappears, it just sits in the dark recesses of the internet, alongside knowledge about such things like telephone relay exchange hackery, and blacksmithing.
Which is why I am happy that these Hipsters have appropriated film. They are keeping the knowledge,and the experience of fumbling around in a dark room, getting slopped by chemicals, and smelling like urine from wet chemistry vital, and alive. I guess it is one form of validation for Reipl’s Law, which states that new, further developed types of media never replace the existing modes of media and their usage patterns. Instead, a convergence takes place in their field, leading to a different way and field of use for these older forms.