Saturday, March 24, 2018

San Bernardino National Forest Trip

  Last weekend, Jozlynn and I decided to take Gilli out to the mountains of San Bernardino National Forest, located slightly northeast of Los Angeles.  It's a really beautiful area and there was definitely a need for a short getaway before I go off on a cross-country journey this coming Monday. 

  We left Saturday evening and by the time we reached the forest it was night.  Not wanting to drive too much on a windy mountain road at night, I quickly found a place to park and it wasn't until Sunday morning that we get to Lake Arrowhead, our first destination.  As idyllic as it seemed in photos, when we got there the lake appeared to be encumbered by housing and businesses with not a direction in which the lens could be pointed where nature would appear to be preserved in it's original state.  Nonetheless, there was snow there from the storms, which passed just the day before, and Gilli really enjoyed it since she doesn't get to be in the snow often. 

  On the way down I saw a picturesque little cliff and a nice place to pull over, so I decided this would be a good place to make the first plate.  As you can see in the above image, lighting was erratic due to various layers of after-storm clouds passing over the sun at different speeds.  When I came out to the camera with the plate ready to shoot of course a thick cloud was crawling it's way across the sun...  I could have made a plate with just longer exposure, but I really wanted harder light, so I waited...  and waited...  Here I am waiting as seen by Jozlynn. 

  While I waited my collodion decided to dry out quite a bit along the two thinner edges and so the final plate turned out to have rather intriguing pattern of marks at top and left sides, and I think they worked out fairly well with the rest of the composition.

  Our next destination, Bonita Falls, required us to go back down to the city in order to access a different part of the mountains.   Friday rain and high winds downed quite a number of rocks from the cliff sides along the highway.  One of those rocks, of a larger variety, decided to land on a side of tight right curve, and was apparently about 2-3 inches farther into the road than I estimated.   My rear right tire grazed it, but didn't pop. However it caught the rim, a 24.5in machined steel rim, and bent it up with the ease with which only nature can destroy manmade articles.  Air, initially in the tire at 100psi, escaped quickly and loudly in a span of under 2 seconds, and I new we were spending the night in the city, as driving a 26.000 pound vehicle with only 3 tires in the back is not a good idea.   Here's the view I was confronted with when examining the damage left by my camouflaged enemy, the rock. 

  I am starting to notice a pattern.  During the 6 years I've traveled with Gilli, 3 out of 4 mishaps, mechanical or otherwise, occurred on Sunday, making same-day repairs impossible...   We had to find the nearest hotel and hunker down for the evening.  Steve Watkins, the Fort Worth lad I blessed with the Durst 8x10 enlarger just a little while ago (read about that trip HERE), helped me by shooting me over info of a mobile mechanic in the area and by 8:30 next morning I was on the phone, waking up the mechanic and trying to explain that Photo Palace Bus needs his help. By 9:30 he was on location and with a sizable sledge hammer proceeded to bang on the rim for about an hour, every once in a while pausing to catch his breath, in order to undo the damage done by a rock in a fraction of a second.  Here he is taking one of the swings at it. 

  A new tire had to be put on since the wall of the old one was pretty badly damaged, but by noon we were back on the road, hading once again for Diana Falls.  
  In theory we were rather close, but our mistake was trusting google maps app - this was the second time it sent us in such unexplainably convoluted ways to a destination which was normally accessed by a straight road.  I'm not going to go into details of this detour, but I'll just say that some of the turns and streets I had to guide Gilli through could not be described in any other way than 'hairy'. 
  Even after crawling out the maze of tiny streets and asked a local for directions, we still missed the turnoff and ended up taking the road all the way to the end, where it turns into gravel and leads to a patch of rural camping sites and a shooting range.  After turning around once more I thought it was time to stop and make a plate or two.   There's a part of a canyon where yucca plants are abundant and a lot of them have dried up shoots, which extend 10ft+ into the air like nature's surreal parodies of light posts. Here are a couple of plates I made at that stop. 

  By then we were done exploring aimlessly and went straight to the ranger station, which we passed on the way, to ask for exact directions.   There we were glad to find out that not only Bonita Falls existed and weren't too far from us, but that at the closest inhabited location to them there was a nice RV campground.  Making it there in under 5min, we booked a spot, set up camp and I set out to make the following plate in nearby creek before I lost the light.  

  Right as the sun was starting to dip below mountain top rims we went for a hike to reach Bonita Falls.  It's an easy 20min walk up a boulder-studded wide dry wash and it would have been absolutely beautiful if it was not for layers and layers of graffiti covering all rocks along the trail...  I don't know why people have to do this, but it seems very disrespectful to both nature and other humans wanting to enjoy a limited pallet of green, brown and blue that is offered by an untouched forest. Instead, screaming bright sculls and unrecognizable characters assaulted our vision around every bend...
  Bonita Falls though is still a place worth visiting.  If you can train your brain to ignore the copious amounts of modern cliff paintings, concentration of which increases as you enter the basin of the falls, it's a rather magnificent sight.  The best part about it is that the water falls along an almost perfectly vertical cliff, which can not be climbed and defaced, so looking up one is presented with quite a stunning view.   Here's Jozlynn enjoying the said sight. 

  Before we left I decided to take a quick sip of the water and was glad I did.  That water has just melted off the snow just a thousand feet or so above, and it was the cleanest, most pure water I have had a pleasure to drink in a long time.   I'll definitely have to come back there with a fully portable dark box and make some tintypes. 
  In the morning, before heading back to San Diego, I wanted to picture some of the trees that occupied the wash by out camp.  New morning light was good and so here is the result of my photographic efforts. 

  The second plate above, the one with a lonely rock in the left bottom corner, was made with a Burke and James Orbitar 4x5 Wide Angle camera that I was lucky enough to come across during the  Northern California trip of 2017. If you would like to read the story of how I came into possession of this rather uncommon piece of photographic history, you can read the blog entry HERE.   Here's yet another photo of this odd little camera, which is capable of producing some seriously high quality images. 

  After lunch we headed back on the road, back to San Diego trying to beat LA and SD traffic.  Seeing how we were passing by Lake Elsinore we decided to swing by and check it out.  Once again, the lake itself was highly uninspiring, but just past it the road heads into the mountains and rises very quickly over the span of just two serpentine turns.  After the second turn there's a place to pull over with a view of the city of Lake Elsinore and the grid of suburbia appeared too perfect not to photograph.  I chose my Tele-Fujinon 400m lens and selected this crop.

  I call that composition 'American Suburbia, As The Eagle And Wild Goose See It'.  If you catch the reference in that title, then you are true photo nerd and that's great.

  The rest of the road was pleasantly uneventful and Gilli was placed in her holding spot until next time.
  These past week I have been busier than I have been in a long time - gathering supplies and trying not to forget to wrap up a number of things large and small, before a 3-week cross-country trip mentioned above.  At this point, there's less than 48hr left until I leave and things seems to be falling into place, even though some of them have the trajectory that looks like it will put their finalization awfully close to Go Time...  Hoping to have time while on the road to write at east 2-3 updates, so the next blog entry doesn't end up being yet another mini novel like some of the ones from summers of 2012 and 2013...


Friday, January 26, 2018

Texas Trip and Radio Tintype

  For about 8 years there was a giant enlarger taking up a lot of real estate in my darkroom. It was an 8x10 Durst Laborator model L-184. They are made in Italy and are the Ferrari of enlargers, but in all the years I’ve had it I only made prints on it once so I could see how it worked.  It worked wonderfully by the way.  A month or so ago I decided to let it go to someone who’s been lusting after it for a while – Steve Watkins in Fort Worth, TX.  As part of the arrangement I was to deliver the 350-pound beast, which made it a perfect opportunity for a photo road trip.  A workshop for three people was also arranged, to be hosted by Lone Star Darkroom in Dallas.  Lone Start darkroom offers rental space for people to print their own images, custom printing, classes and more - check them out if you're in FWD area. 

  From San Diego to Fort Worth and back is a long drive and with only a week to do it in and .  Here’s an action shot of the enlarger as it was entangled in the web of long-haul delivery and ready for the journey.

  On the way there, a friend of mine offered to stay the night with his family in Tucson and, in order to get there at a decent time for visitors, I didn’t stop to make plates.  Head of the household I stayed in though, Tio, is really worth mentioning.  He is 93 years old and all of his life resided in Tucson area. He’s sharp as a tack and is a living repository of local history, which should really be recorded in hours of interviews, but I didn’t have time for it.  In the morning, I went to Mission San Xavier Del Bac – a functioning catholic church built in late 18th century.

  Driving on eastward, I couldn’t help stopping when I saw the boulder-studded hills of Texas Canyon, near the town on Dragoon.  Just by taking the exit and parking within 100ft I got the following plates, so it’s definitely a spot to come back to.

  Still having a long road ahead, I drove on and on…  Between El Paso, which passed sometime in the night, and Fort Worth there’s pretty much nothing.  I’d like to explore than nothingness in more detail, but I had to push on and only stopped late next morning, when I saw an inconspicuous exit by a small town of Westbrook, Texas.  Right at the entrance to town I was greeted by the following scenes.

  After that I went straight to Fort Worth to finally meet Steve in person.  After some years of online correspondence, he definitely lived up to expectations and more.  He works in IT, fixing problems for larger companies that I only pretended to understand when he went into any detail, but loves vintage cameras and photography and is an excellent large format photographer. His family were fantastic hosts as well and there were always bagels waiting on the counter. I also got to meet Steve’s friend Pete, a great character and long-time photographer as well with many fascinating stories to tell.  With Pete’s help we wrestled the enlarger into Steve’s darkroom and set it up  It actually fit better than any of us imagined and so here is a shot of it in a place where it’s hoping to get more use than it has seen in at least 25 years.

  Saturday morning, Pete took me to an abandoned incinerator to make some plates.  Steve’s son and his girlfriend also came along. The incinerator was burning waste from 20+ years before closing in mid 1980s and by now it lay thoroughly abandoned and layered with graffiti and is a great subject.  Pete, by the way, possesses a very special gift of which Steve informed me on prior occasions – Pete is basically a human equivalent of a light meter.  Below you will see a plate with a shaft of light coming from an opening in the ceiling.  When making it I had to resort to using a spot meter and, to test Pete’s ability, asked him for readings in various spots long that wall by the ladder.  Without ever having worked with collodion, but knowing that I’m thinking of ISO 0.5, Pete called out exposures within half a stop of a Seconic L-508.  

  As a side note.  To get to the incinerator we had to put my box with all the chemicals on a dolly, and roll it down a dirt road, lift over some railroad tracks and through a well-established hole in the fence.  Here’s an action shot I took while rolling it all back and with freshly-shot plates drying on top.  It was during this return trip that my tank with fixer apparently became opened and when we returned to the car I found a puddle at the bottom of the box.  From this point on I had to use rapid fixer instead of my usual potassium cyanide, which made for a lot longer washing times, but didn’t seem to affect tone or brightness of the plates at all.

  Saturday evening Steve took me to Cabella’s – a Texas-style sprawling store dedicated
hunting and other such outdoor activities.   It is a sight to behold.  Here’s one quick picture. Yes, those are all real taxidermy, this but a 1/20th of what was there, if that…

  On Sunday, the workshop at Lone Star Darkroom went off without a hitch.  Incredibly, none of the students had trouble with pouring collodion or developer and so plates were nice and clean.  The only factor that really messed with us were the fast-moving thick clouds that varied UV in the air considerably.  Still, the plates were all a lot better than what I did at my first workshop.
  Sunday evenings on KTCU-88.7, a Fort Worth radio station, there’s a show called Superfluous Sundays.  That show, which is a lively mix of excellent music and sharp commentary segments, happens to be narrated by Steve, Pete and the sound man Tom. That evening I was invited to be a guest there and thought to myself, how funny would it be to make a plate live while on air?  Steve agreed that radio seemed like a perfectly logical communication medium for the art of photography and thus it was set – a tintype will be made.  I dragged in some Photogenic lights, which I brought in case there was rain during the workshop, and set my dark box right on the table in front of Tom’s sound board.  I must say, I’ve never felt more under pressure not to spill anything… 

  From my understanding radio studios are usually compact and this one was no surprise in that regard.  Positioning lights not to be in the shot and camera so it doesn’t fall onto Tom’s board was a great puzzle.  Nailing the focus though was the really fun part – I used a 90mm Nikkor-SW, the widest lens I had with me.  It happens to be f4.5 and that is fast enough for the amount of flash power I had with me. I wanted Tom to trigger the shutter and lights with a cable, and I also wanted that cable in focus along with the faces of all three hosts.  In the end, I think it worked out pretty well all around for the slight exception of Pete, seen peeking from behind my dark box, who came out a little underexposed and about six inches out of focal plane.  Seeing how absurd the concept is, I doubt it’s been done before, thus I do believe this to be the first tintype ever to be made while live on the radio.

  I'm hoping to get the recording from the wonderful folks at KTCU and if that happens I'll update this post by inserting it here. 

  Monday morning it was time to headed back west toward California. For some reason, I wanted to make some plates in El Paso.  That city, long with Rio Grande by it, hold a special place in American history and folklore. When I got there, I was greeted by the reality that much of the US bank of Rio Grande, which there separates Mexico from US, was walled off in the manner that our current president wishes to see the entire border be – rather high solid mesh fence, photography through or over which was impossible.

  Driving back and forth along this border I came upon an abandoned historic site – Fort Bliss officers housing buildings that sat right on the riverbank. Sometime in the past it served as private housing for ordinary citizens, but it looks like it’s been a while since that phase ended and now the buildings are vacant with an air of importance still lingering around them.

  As you can see, the first plate above has a very ugly blueish mark on top and right edges.  The second one has a similar, but smaller mark in top right corner.  That is there because my collodion was getting to be too thick – after so many plates have been poured back and forth, ether and alcohol have evaporated enough to make it more jelly-like than it should be.  On the second plate above I adjusted my pouring technique, but even that didn’t get rid of the mark completely, so I spent the next hour or so hunting down some 95% Everclear.  I had about 90ml of collodion left and added about 20-25ml of alcohol to it. That brought back correct consistency and from then on plates started to look a lot better.
  I don’t remember how far I drove after El Paso and into New Mexico, but there I chose a random exit and found this right by it.

  Farther out west I noticed this abandoned hotel and just before the sun set made this plate.

  Next day I stopped at the Painted Rock site, just west of the town of Gila Bend.  The site has some great petroglyphs and is a lot more known than the site I went to a few weeks before (detailed in the New Years Desert Trip post below).  One of the interesting things there is that settlers started to leave their own marks long before the words like graffiti and vandalism were a part of daily vocabulary, and so there’s rather well-done signatures with dates like 1809, 1873 and so on.  I tried my very best to make a plate of the 1873 date, but to no avail.  I think my box needs a little attention in the light-proofing area – it’s perfectly fine when I’m in the shade, but if I’m set up at just the wrong angle in full sun I think it’s letting in a little light.  Due to the way that parking lot is configured and the way the wind was blowing I could not re-setup the box in any shade and so I have no plates to show you despite dashing 200ft or so back and forth between the rock and bark box three times.  Instead of a plate here’s a quick snapshot of the mound where most of the glyphs are found with some tourists, of which there were plenty, around.   There’s also a shot that a photographer by the name of Michael Rausch, who happened to have been there, snapped as I was scurrying from the box to the scene during one of my feeble attempts at securing a plate...

  Frustrated I drove and drove until I noticed the shrubs by the highway sway a lot less from the wind and then stopped by the small outcrop of mountains just east of Yuma.  I again didn’t venture too far off the exit – being parked within a stone’s throw from the road I was able to make the following compositions.

  The last plate above is what I thought to have been my very last plate left on the trip.   I was very happy that it came out as well as it did (and in real life it’s a lot better than on your screen).  However, Steve wrote and reminded me that I still had a glass plate with me and so right before sunset I pulled over again and found this composition on the eastern outskirts of Yuma.  It’s a ¼ plate and is the only ambrotype (actually on green glass) I made on the trip, all the rest were tintypes.

   Being back in San Diego for a while I can now concentrate a bit on putting the final finishing touches on the studio and catching up on other fronts, but of course I can’t wait to hit the road again and when I do there will be another post about it, you better believe it.


Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Los Angeles Tintype Trip

  Last weekend my girlfriend and I made a quick little bus pilgrimage to Los Angeles and thought it's deserving of a quick writeup. 

  The journey was prompted by my earlier experience - in the spring of 2016 I was invited to make tintype set and character portrait plates for an independent film production -  
  It was a great experience and here are just two of over 100 plates I shot there. 

  Last weekend at a private gallery in Culver City the movie was premiered and there were some really nice displays set up with props from the movie and most of my plates, which I haven't seen in nearly two years. 

  We were actually invited to the opening in order to make tintype portraits of attendees.  It was a fun time (with me running back and forth between the gallery and Gilli's darkroom and Jozlynn being busy washing and keeping the plates straight).   I made 27 plates and here are a couple of those - the lovable monster Penge was a hit for posing with. 

  After that we spent the night in town and next day visited Getty Museum since Jozlynn has never been there.  There were some interesting exhibits, of which I'm sorry, but I don't have any pictures.  Not knowing if museums parking structure would accommodate 10ft tall and 35ft long Gilli, we actually parked on the street and walked up.  It was an interesting experience, since it made it feel a lot like a trek to the mountain to see some wizard of art.  Since there was a long line waiting for the electric trolley that takes people from parking area to actual museum grounds, we walked that part as well.  On the way back we were pretty tired, so we took the trolley back.  From its windows we briefly glimpsed Gilli as she patiently awaited our return.  Can you spot her in this photo?

  Los Angeles (and the surrounding dozens of smaller cities) comprise an impressive and chaotic sprawl of urban jungle that stretches seemingly infinitely when you're in it.   In fact, I bet there's a large percentage of residents who, after being born within the bustle and growing up knowing only the city, never set foot outside of that environment - after all, everything a modern human can want as far as civilization can be found in overabundance within the confines of the city.  However, surround this micro-universe is a beautiful mountainous area where San Bernardino and Angeles Nation Forests have been set aside as preserves.  It's amazing how small the number of visitors is to those scenic destinations considering that just below the hills, within 10-15 mile drive, there lives well over ten million people.  It wasn't totally empty up there, but still, this was a polar opposite of being stuck in traffic on the 405 freeway and it felt great.  We found a scenic overlook to stop for the night and in the morning I shot some plates there as well as at another location nearby.  I'm really starting to enjoy making panoramic compositions with multiple plates, so I shot one of those as well. 

  During the night before above plates were made a noteworthy story occurred. I thought I would try to make a night-time plate of Los Angeles since we had quite a view.  The lights were relatively bright, and the ever-present smog which hangs above LA was illuminated fairly well, so I thought I had a chance at capturing it in collodion.  It was about 65°F and 20% humidity, so I knew I couldn't go too long with the exposure or the plate would dry out.  First, because framing would have been perfect, I chose my trusty Tele-Fujinon 400mm f8 lens and tried a 15min exposure wide open.  Well, I got the lights of the city, but they were rather dim and appeared to be floating, because none of the foreground mountain outline or the fog recorded.  Then I decided to try a Voigtlander Petzval which I had with me, at f3.2 it's 2.5 stops faster than the Fujinon, so maybe with it I would have some trace of areal glow above showing.  I coated a 4x5 plate, dipped it into silver, and went to switch the lens.  After focusing I realized that on a 4x5 the image would be much too small because instead of the perfect framing that 400mm lens offered I was not shooting with a 175mm, so the next image would be much better tried in a smaller 1/6th plate size.  Skipping ahead I can tell you that even the 1/6th plate with Voigtlander didn't turn out - the lights were perfect, but again there was no trace of glowing atmosphere, however it was what happened before I exposed that last plate and went to bed that I think is more exciting. 
  Not wanting to simply waste that already coated and sensitized 4x5 I decided to make my first-ever collodion chemigram.   Chemigrams are made by combining various chemistry in a seemingly random fashion upon a light sensitive surface and seeing how things will turn out.  To make them really sing visually one would need to experiment a bit more extensively and be mindful of which chemistry produced which effects combined in particular order.   This being my first try I grabbed 4 things immediately within reach in the Gilli's darkroom and sprinkled and splashed them liberally on the surface of a plate still wet with silver nitrate.  Different chemicals made quite varied splotches and it was fun to watch them grow and mature.  After a while I poured on developer and in time washed that off.  After fixing this is what I was left with.  I'm definitely going to experiment further with chemistry and also with ways to control where each effect appears. 

  We drove back to San Diego that afternoon and were blessed with there being no traffic due to it being a holiday.  When back by the darkroom Jozlynn decided to cook up the rest of the food we had with us on the trip.  She made steaks with Brussel sprouts and mushrooms a side of potatoes.  I strongly believe that this is the best looking and tasting meal so far cooked aboard The Photo Palace Bus and so here is the plate just before being consumed by a hungry and tired me.

  More adventures to come!